Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate
“Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”
—better known as Occam’s razor
•John Punch (1639)
A practice of partnership is imbedded in the history of making music. People singing a song to an audience is a collaboration on multiple levels: the giving act of the singers and the receiving act from the listeners are imperative to the specific communion of music. It is a reciprocal kind of participation, with each giving something and obtaining something; a necessary multiplication of ideas and a collaboration in which each human input is seen as part of the artistic output.
Whether due to the constraints of tradition or efficacy, however, the majority of composer/performer relationships are hierarchical, not communal. In contemporary concert music—late-20th-century to the present—there are a few examples of collaborations in which both parties may be said to be necessary (Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, John Cage and David Tudor, Luigi Nono’s Freiburg ensemble), and these kinds of relationships are proving to be more important in the early parts of this century.
Within this context, Éliane Radigue’s massive compositional project OCCAM Ocean is radical in that it finds a way back to the organic method of collaboration in music. The French composer, who just celebrated her 89th birthday, has built a framework of performers-as-compositional-material that, over the course of the last decade, presents a paradigmatic shift in the way composer and performer work together. OCCAM is not a composition; it is an ecosystem, a complex of musical ideas, forms, and images. And, more importantly from the point of view of this issue of Sound American, OCCAM is a tool for building collaborative relationships between more than twenty unique musicians from different backgrounds.
Éliane built her over-arching composition out of a small set of performers who have developed the abilities—aesthetic and physical—to enter her unique sound world. She relies on those she calls the chevaliers d’Occam to propagate this idea; they work with her—and with each other—to achieve expression of the music she hears. It is a rigorous and intimate process, in which each performer takes on an unusual amount of responsibility for the growth of the whole composition out of the limited set of human materials necessary for its evolution.
Éliane Radigue was born in 1932 in Paris. After learning piano as a child with a neighbor—Madame Roger—she moved to Nice, where she studied twelve-tone composition, harmony, harp, and choral singing. It was here that she met a young decorative arts student named Arman, whom she married. The couple had three children.
As a young woman, Éliane was already developing a unique relationship to sound:
When my children were small, in the early 1950s, I listened to the radio in the morning while I looked after them. There were six flights per day passing where we lived in Nice at that time, one of which was an evening long-haul to Saigon, today Ho Chi Minh City. It was still the time of the propeller planes and they produced extremely interesting sounds. I managed to differentiate them. That’s also how I heard the first jet planes. It interested me a bit like a game. Inside this mass of sound, I was able to sing songs to myself. I sailed inside. You can sail with the ear in a mass of sound and tell yourself many stories, musical stories, at least.1
Through a morning radio program, she discovered musique concréte through a broadcast of Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer. It was an epiphany; she was not alone: “I realized that my way of listening to the planes had a similarity with this music.”2 During a trip to Paris to see family, she met Schaeffer by chance and secured an invitation to Studio d’Essai where he was working. She became a fixture at the studio doing odd jobs, at first, for another musique concréte pioneer, Pierre Henry. She cut-and-spliced tape for Henry and met visitors such as Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez. Later, she took Schaeffer’s training course with fellow students Luc Ferrari and François-Bernard Mâche. As her children became more involved in school in Nice, these trips to Paris—and the Studio d’Essai—became less frequent. She attempted to continue her work with tape at a similar studio in Nice, but the response of its director to Schaeffer’s introductory letter was polite, chauvinistic, and negative.
In the early 1960s, Éliane traveled with her husband and children to New York, where she made her first contact with the American avant-garde through a friendship with composer James Tenney. Arman’s career as an artist began to take off at this time and, as Éliane puts it, “playing the master-artist’s wife was not at all my thing.”3 The couple split, and she remained in Paris with the children while he moved to New York. They remained friends until his passing in 2005.
Éliane quickly moved away from the cutting-and-splicing constructions of musique concréte toward her own musical voice, which initially explored long-duration loops and different methods of achieving feedback. She called these first works “sound propositions” or “sound proposals,” and they represent her first works that dealt with the slow transformation of a single sound. The ideas of endless music, feedback, and spatial/object experience were evident in a burst of activity between 1969–1970. Pieces like Usral, Σ=a=b=a+b, and Omnht worked specifically with objects-in-themselves (specially-made 45 rpm records for manipulation by the audience in Σ=a=b=a+b for example) and objects-in-space (using special wooden panels in an architectural space to resonate the sound of Omnht).
In 1970, at the urging of minimalist composer Steve Reich, Éliane returned to New York to work at NYU. The American avant-garde was recognizing the radicality of her work—Tenney, Philip Glass, Reich, Philip Corner, Cage, David Tudor, and others were fans already in the 1960s—but, more importantly, her trip marked the first opportunity she had to explore the world of the synthesizer. Éliane used a Buchla synth at the NYU lab—run at the time by Morton Subotnick—to create Chry-Ptus, her first work to move away from feedback and toward modular synthesis. Upon returning to Paris, she purchased an ARP-2500, which she chose for its “superb filters, low-pass, high-pass, etc., topped off by the resonance factor. Unlike with feedback all this can be better controlled by dials and is no longer submitted to chance.”4 This instrument was her primary way of creating compositions for the next thirty years. On it, she produced early works like Ψ 847, Biogenesis, and Transamorem-Transmortem, all of which were initially intended for live presentation only, but have since been released by different labels for home listening.
In 1974, Éliane encountered a setback in her practice after discovering that she was partially deaf. This problem had existed, undiagnosed, for years, and she thought she would have to step back from presenting music.5 A study of Buddhism, which also began during this period, had an effect on the changes to her composition and—although there are some works that directly reference her Buddhism, chief among them her incredible Songs of Milarepa—her music is not intended by her to be used in meditation.
Recorded releases of large works like Adnos I-III, Trilogie de la Mort, and the aforementioned Songs of Milarepa make up a subset of Éliane’s unique vibratory sound world output that most listeners outside of her small circle fell in love with, and they sustained many fans until the early 21st century, when older works were made available for home listening (Transamorem-Transmortem,Vice-Versa, Biogenesis, and others). This period of work is central to an appreciation of Éliane Radigue’s oeuvre. And yet, it is a period that is already well-known in musical circles.6 To that end, it is in the reader’s best interest to find these recordings, if they haven’t already, and follow that, very satisfying, narrative on their own while this timeline skips ahead a couple decades to the subject at hand: OCCAM Ocean.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Éliane began a series of collaborative experiments away from the ARP-2500, first with electric bassist Kasper Toeplitz and then with Lappetites, an electronic group made up of Kaffe Matthews, Antye Greie, and Ryoko Akama. The result was Elemental II, a work that was played by both sets of musicians and marked the beginning of a new working method. Éliane explains the shift from her singular synth compositions to the collaborative compositions like this: “All the pieces I made alone were subjected to at least four or five different types of listening before being delivered. There wasn’t a need for this with the musicians. Together, we would feel immediately if there was something that worked less well. I don’t say anything in this collective work. I listen and occasionally make a little comment. I don’t do anything anymore!” [laughs]7
Her modesty aside, these first experiments with collaboration ultimately led to a profound modulation, not only in the way that Éliane worked but, arguably, in how a growing number of composers and performers are approaching creative relationships today. Inspired by what became possible when working with Toeplitz and Lappetites, Éliane agreed to meet with Charles Curtis—an iconoclastic figure in contemporary music with a reputation of collaboration with composers such as La Monte Young—resulting in Éliane’s first piece for a purely acoustic instrument: Naldjorlak. The solo piece, over the course of an hour, explores the possibilities of a cello tuned to its wolf note. It is an incredible proof-of-concept: that the vibrational sound world created by Éliane, alone on the ARP, could be translated to a discursive process between human beings and mapped onto the more chaotic physics of an acoustic instrument. The idea of it being merely a proof-of-concept, however, downplays this first Naldjorlak’s power as a piece of music.
Perhaps inspired by her earlier trilogies, Naldjorlak grew from its initial solo cello version (now referred to as Naldjorlak I) to an evening-length, three-part masterwork. Naldjorlak II was written for Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns; a work in which they were asked to create inhumanly long tones by dove-tailing their fades in and out. Naldjorlak III, the conclusion of the evening-length work, then combines I and II into something wholly different. The process of learning Naldjorlak, and its formal construction make it essential to the conversation ofOCCAM Ocean, as it contains two of the latter’s definitive features in microcosm: oral transmission of individual, internalized music between composer and performer and the combinatory and collaborative possibilities of those performers in different formations.
OCCAM Ocean has an architecture grounded upon roughly 25 separate solo pieces (OCCAM). Each of these pieces is the product of a first-hand collaboration between Éliane and the performer. Of course, no two experiences can be the same due to the different instruments, temperaments, and musical language/experience of each musician, but one process that is fundamental to the creation of an OCCAM is how it is communicated and internalized, a process most often referred to as oral transmission.8
“Oral transmission” is problematic, as it is a term with other histories, and the use of it negates the collaborative spirit ofOCCAM. The general process by which a performer works with Éliane is slightly different and follows its own set of rules and traditions.9 Initially, the performer and Éliane meet at her apartment in Paris to see if there is musical and personal chemistry between them. The performer may present sounds or techniques that they think will be of interest to Éliane, who listens, asks questions about reproducibility and ease, and perhaps asks if the performer can modify a sound; Éliane is often looking as much for human qualities as musical. At the end of this session, both composer and performer have a good idea of whether an OCCAM is possible.
If a solo work is possible, the performer is told more about Éliane’s concept of the music that makes up OCCAM Ocean. Éliane’s own words on the piece are the most illustrative, even though the discussion between her and the performer would, necessarily, be more casual:
It all began with an image seen so long ago at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, the image of a long chart showing known wavelengths. It was clear that in addition to the wavelength from the earth to the sun, there were long waves stretching between other planets, solar systems and galaxies. Closer to us on this earth, there is the ocean that brings us closer to a more accessible contemplation. Beyond its own cycle, it also gathers the rivers, waterfalls, springs, fountains that nourish it. For that reason there are, in the Occam pieces, all the themes associated with water, necessarily. It is the element that moves through them, the image of life, life in its fluidness, like the flow of blood. What I ask of the musicians is highly demanding, the virtuosity of absolute control of the instrument, an extreme, subtle and delicate kind of virtuosity. Regardless of what is being used, the essential goal is to produce and bring out the partials, the overtones, the harmonics and sub harmonics, these vibrations in the air, not only those of the string or the breath, but the intangible contents of sound. An instrument vibrating beyond the fundamental(s) generates an extraordinary richness that turns into fascination. This calls for extreme simplicity, i.e. sounds maintained between piano and mezzo forte dynamic levels, beyond which the fundamental again becomes predominant. Hence the famous law from Occam’s Razor, never overdo anything, concentrate instead on breath control, or a gentle stroke, that caress of a key or a string that is sufficient to develop and enrich this infinite universe.10
Water-based imagery runs throughout OCCAM and is a central part of these first meetings, during which a decision is made as to what river will be the solo’s central image. This is an important step in the making of the piece, and can be a very intimate part of the collaboration—many of the performers choose never to reveal “their” river, while others talk freely about it and, in some instances, even make it the site of a pilgrimage. There are conversations throughout this issue that will begin to give the reader a broad understanding of how different performers conceptualize the river image and how it relates to the overall form of the composition.
All of the work on the piece takes place, with very few exceptions, at Éliane’s apartment. She has chosen some of the sounds presented at that first meeting, and then works with the performer to understand the limits of each technique, and where the moments of magic occur at the boundaries of each sound. Always at the front of Éliane’s mind is the comfort and health of the performer of these—in many cases physically extreme—extended techniques, an understanding of where and how silences may come into play between sounds, and the progression of the sounds from one to another. The piece should always move forward, never moving back, never cycling—like a river.
After these first meetings, the development of the OCCAM is similar to any other new work. The performer takes time to familiarize themselves with the techniques, the form, and the overall arc of the piece, before meeting again with Éliane to resume the dialogue about what should change and what should remain. Unlike with a scored work, both composer and performer are working from memory, and much of the conversation is about the open possibilities of performance and how the piece should develop over the course of years of presentation. This is a very important point to be made, as it is one of the things that makes this series of pieces different from works of the late 20th century that may employ chance or modular forms—a comparison often made to the combination of solos into larger pieces in OCCAM Ocean. In OCCAM, constant development of the materials that make up the piece is the goal, not a side effect of random alignments. Although the materials and form are set out between composer and performer, it is the latter’s job to negotiate how the performance of the piece grows from night to night, and how it evolves over years of performance. There is no endgame; no perfect performance, technically or otherwise.
At some point in the development process, Éliane pronounces the piece “finished.” In her mind, the piece now belongs to the performer; they carry the responsibility of nurturing the solo and being rigorously, gently, careful that it continues to grow from the point of its initial collaborative creation. Ownership of the piece implies this responsibility to evolve the music, but it also impresses upon the performer the necessity of making sure it is given every opportunity to be heard in an acoustic situation that is best suited for it, and preparing for the possibility to be the next point of the piece’s transmission to another.
Although only one OCCAM has, so far, been transmitted by someone besides Éliane (OCCAM II from Silvia Tarozzi to Irvine Arditti), the understanding is that a solo may be passed on from one musician to another through a process similar to the one involved in its creation. This ensures the organic growth of the music long after Éliane and the initial performers are gone. In theory, OCCAM Ocean could continue to grow and develop for generations.11
This brings the conversation to the second definitive feature of OCCAM: the use of these solo works to build out an ecosystem through expanding circles of collaboration. Individual pieces have been combined to form duos (Rivers), trios (Deltas), quintets (Hexas), and septets (Heptas). Orchestra pieces, of which there is only one complete so far, are called Oceans. On the surface, this, again, may look like a relatively standard late-20th-century approach to combinatory forms, similar to Earle Brown or Anthony Braxton. The difference is subtle, but essential. While these earlier modular forms may rely on the overlaying of different musical material in performance, regardless of who the performer may be, OCCAM proposes collaborative relationships between the musicians that hold the responsibility for their specific piece or pieces, spawning new works that are unique to that combination of players. Each duo, trio, etc. is then expected to be memorized, developed, and evolved in the same way as the original.
Each of these larger pieces must be created at the same level of immediacy—and within the same aesthetic—as its original OCCAMs. In the pursuit of this, every parameter of the individual solos are open to adjustment: pitch, duration, timbre, form, dynamics are all part of a negotiation between the performers and Éliane with the goal of creating something distinct. Like the solos, once the piece is considered “finished” by Éliane, the players continue working together to allow for controlled change, an evolution, to occur as the River, Delta, Hexa, etc. is rehearsed, performed, and, hopefully, transmitted to new performers who, in turn, develop it out from its initial conception.
This is what is revelatory in Éliane Radigue’s OCCAM Ocean: its recasting of the act of musical reproduction, not as tradition, but as evolution. The composition unfolds more like the growth of a folk music than the construction of a canon; judged by the human moments involved in making it, rather than the concrete masterwork. In Éliane’s conception, the music is about the relationship between a performer and their instrument—and the sound it creates—but the concept is expansive. It includes the relationship between Éliane and the performer, between the performers collaborating on larger works, between generations of performers, and, ultimately, the relationship of this music with time as some performances fade with the people who directly experienced them, and other versions—necessarily changed through the work of the performer—take their place. Each person is necessary and the music moves always forward. Never back.
1 Julia Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces (Brussels: Umland Editions, 2019), 64.
2 Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 64.
3 Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 73.
4 Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 110.
5 She was talked out of this through the direct intervention of Robert Ashley and Charlemagne Palestine. For an interesting conversation about how this may affect how she hears and conceives of her music, see Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 134–35.
6 The music from Milarepa and Trilogie especially have influenced multiple generations of composers working in and out of electronics and, as such, have already been submitted to critical examination. To do a deep exegesis of this era would be to restate information that is present online and in a handful of published and forthcoming writings.
7 Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 148.
8 Charles Curtis makes a case for other terminology for the process later in this issue but, since most references to the interaction between Éliane and a performer use oral transmission as a description, SA will use it throughout.
9 The following comes directly from the author’s experience and, as stated above, should not be taken as more than a rough outline of the process, which is not dogmatic or perfunctory. For a more personal recounting of the author’s experience, see “Fading Out” at the end of this issue.
10 From the liner notes of OCCAM Ocean I (shiin, 2017).
11 There are moments of collaboration and combination that happen without Éliane’s presence: for example, OCCAM Hexa II, which was made as a collaboration between Carol Robinson and the Australian group Decibel. Éliane is considered a collaborator in a piece like this, but it is still a rare occurrence.