Performed by Decibel New Music Ensemble @ Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, 2016–03–23
The question of the “nature” of sound is a French question. Since Pierre Schaeffer first posited his ruminations on musique concrète, l’objet sonore and écoute réduite after World War II, France has been the home of the most articulate attempts to answer that question, and music composed under the doctrine of Schaeffer was largely directed towards that end.
Éliane Radigue was a protégé of Schaeffer’s, but her interests diverged from his rigid ideology, towards a kind of monastic electronic music, ascetic soundscapes of incredible discipline, a product of her Buddhist convictions. From an oeuvre spanning decades, she established a reputation as an outsider of electronic music. She spent years working on single pieces, and some of them are the most moving synthesised tones ever put to tape (for example, her Trilogie de la mort).
It must have been a surprise for many when she declared she would never write an electronic piece again, instead focusing exclusively on acoustic instruments. Her transition to acoustic instrumentation invites us to consider electronic music from a new perspective, and in doing so, she upheaves all preconceptions about the possibilities of both acoustic chamber music and electroacoustic music.
OCCAM OCEAN HEXA II was commissioned by Perth’s Decibel New Music Ensemble, and was a collaboration between Radigue and Carol Robinson, the latter a composer and Radigue acolyte who spent two weeks workshopping the piece with the ensemble in place of Radigue, whom in her advanced age could not travel to Australia. There is no notation for the piece, only intimate and reflexive collaboration between Robinson and each performer. This kind of composition by way of sensitive engagement with each performer is important to Radigue, so much so that she specifies that if any other ensemble wants to learn HEXA II, they must recruit Decibel to teach them in person.
The five performers sat in a tight group, centre stage. It began like most Radigue pieces: slowly emerging from silence, as cellist Tristan Parr bowed the cello’s tailpiece softly, joined by the bowed marimba of Stuart James. Every performer had an intense yet deceptively calm concentration, a technique undoubtedly honed by Robinson. As the piece emerged and all the performers began their long and patient sounds, the performers exchanged eye contact frequently — at times there were duets, synchronisations, following each others’ trajectories and dynamics. The intimacy was palpable. The long notes they played largely formed tonal chords, with slight undulations brought about by unusual fingerings or the wolf tones of the stringed instruments.
Radigue treats acoustic instruments with all the same methodical rigour and economy as her compositions for her synthesiser. What Radigue reveals in her acoustic works is that electronic music isn’t so much about materials, but rather about epistemology, the relationships between sound and the body. HEXA II is still electronic music, despite there being no electronic instruments. As violist Aaron Wyatt and Parr played raspy drones with a light bow pressure, I listened to it like I could hear every partial, like a gathering of sine tones. As these tones were periodically fortified by Vickery’s clarinet, Hope’s flute, and the barely-audible percussion, all these partials reinforced, collided and seemed to expand the possibility of sound’s voyage through space. The result was a sound field of profound and mesmerising complexity unlike any chamber music I’d heard before.
The headspace that the Radigue/Robinson work put me in worked in favour of the next work, the world premiere of Lionel Marchetti’s Une série de reflets (2014). Marchetti is a confidant of Radigue’s, often supervising the diffusion of her electronic works. It’s immediately obvious that Marchetti’s compositional aesthetic is cut from the cloth that Radigue weaved — performers are situated around the space, seated next to a loudspeaker, and are asked to perform as if from “inside” the speakers’ sound through accurate imitation, blurring the boundaries of the acoustic and the electronic.
Reflets proceeded with more urgency, like HEXA II on fast-forward. Similarly, the piece also invited being listened to like a gathering of partials, yet tones collided with more aggression and chaos, such that listening with the same attention to micro-details of the Radigue/Robinson became too demanding. When James’ prepared piano enters, it required that I listen to it as if it were more traditional acoustic chamber music. This wasn’t a bad thing, even if it was a jarring transition, because Marchetti effectively exposes the rituals of performing in and with sound.
The final piece, Marchetti’s Première étude (les ombres) also used imitation as a central formality, but with varying degrees of faithfulness. Ombres used simple electronic motifs, which he calls “shadows,” which the musicians must imitate. The shadow metaphor is a confusing one because the electronic parts always preceded the acoustic imitations, but it does signify an interconnectedness between performer and loudspeaker which was just as strong in this work as in Reflets. Out of each speaker was emitted a jumpy synthesiser loop, a fragment not unlike the call of a reed warbler or a magpie. The performers first used ocarinas in their imitations, then eventually moved on to their main instruments. At first, the raw and unprocessed synthesised sound seemed kitschy, but a brilliant contrapuntal texture emerged as all performers joined in, playing their respective “shadows.” By the end, viola and cello were beaming ethereal drones over the shifting, rotating ocarina loops. The performers had difficulty controlling their ocarina’s pitch and loudness, so their imitations always failed in different ways, which seemed to imbue a sense of humanity back into a soundscape of inhuman and jagged motifs.
It is very interesting how Marchetti makes all his electronic tracks for his concert works — what he calls partitions concrète — available as standalone pieces on his BandCamp page. Listening to them after the concert, I enjoyed the nuances and details, and the immense spaciousness in the way they were mixed. Since both pieces are so mediated by recorded sound, I found it difficult to appreciate the details of the acoustic sounds themselves, or the instrumentalists’ “fidelity” to the partitions concrète. The electronic sound is necessarily obscured to an extent by the instrumentalists, but the boomy acoustic of the traditional concert hall space doesn’t ensure enough clarity for these electronic sound projections to actually project their immaculate details.
A well-rehearsed trope of early electronic music history is the postwar rivalry between the Germans under Karlkheinz Stockhausen and the French under Schaeffer, the elektronische Musik and the musique concrète. Where the Germans rallied around a pristine mathematical approach to sounds free of Romantic or historical markers, Schaeffer’s collaborators were ultimately approaching sounds on the basis of their affective qualities. That epoch continues here.