The People are the Matter of the Music

Silvia Tarozzi

OCCAM II for violin

I first met Silvia Tarozzi during a very jet-lagged first rehearsal of a new sextet piece by Éliane. Her warmth instantly drew me to her. The timeline for the premiere of the new piece was short, perhaps three or four days, and all of us were dealing not only with the exacting demands of our own OCCAM solos, but also how to make meaningful timbral combinations from the very special orchestration Éliane had conceived for OCCAM Hexa III: double bass, viola, violin, bass clarinet, bassoon, and trumpet.

Silvia is a very important part of the OCCAM ecosystem. She was only the second person to work with Éliane and was also the first person to transmit her piece to another player: Irvine Arditti. This is an incredibly relevant event in a composition that is structured like OCCAM Ocean; it’s the first experiment in the compositional system’s possibility of living, developing, and changing.

But, with all these pragmatic and programmatic reasons for her inclusion here, her best traits remain her warm and welcoming spirit. On Christmas, I received an email from her with responses to the line editing of our discussion, along with a very special video of her first documented solo trumpet improvisation: a friendly gift that ended with an all-too-familiar buzzing of lips and shaking of her head.

Silvia is good at telling a story, and my prompts and questions, ultimately, felt like they got in the way. I excised them here, with her knowledge and approval, in order to present the conversation as a one-sided narrative. Everything below comes from our conversation on December 3, 2020 during which we talked about her experiences with Éliane, collaborations with other composers such as Pascale Criton and Philip Corner, and the importance of transmission in OCCAM.

"Like I had lived a very special experience"

The first music I heard of Éliane Radigue was acoustic work—the three movements of Naldjorlak—I discovered the electronic music afterward. There was a beautiful concert in 2009 in Paris in the auditorium of the Louvre Museum. I was very impressed by this, by the size of the pieces and the accurate listening it required by both the performers and the audience. It made me feel like I had lived a very special experience, not just a concert. So, I started to be curious about Éliane: her work, her approach. 

At that time, I was just getting to know my husband, Massimo Simonini. He organizes the AngelicA Festival [Internazionale di Musica] here in Bologna. When I saw this performance, I called him to tell him that I had seen something very, very special and asked if he knew this composer. He told me he knew the name, but not so much the music. But when I told him that Charles Curtis was playing in it, he said, “Ah! Charles is a friend of mine. So please tell him to send me something about this project.” So basically, I was helping a little to bring Naldjorlak to Bologna. 

I couldn’t be there when the concert was played but Massimo—knowing my work and my interests—suggested to Éliane that perhaps we could work together. She agreed. This was September 2010. I called her, but I was pregnant at the time. So, when we first met, it was a time of friendly welcome; getting to know each other as women more than musicians. She told me, “I would be pleased to work together, but you have to live your experience as a mother now. When you are ready, we will start.” For her, you know, motherhood is very important. She has a big family—many grandchildren and great-grandchildren—besides her career and individual path as an artist. She is very involved and proud of it. It is not separate from being a musician. In fact, I don’t think she splits many aspects of her life. She gets very deep in everything she does: motherhood, music, Buddhism. 

I called her again in January 2011, just to wish her Happy Birthday. She was supposed to be at the beginning of a long period of work with Rhodri Davies [on OCCAM I for harp]. But, when I called her, basically, they were almost finished. So, instead of having to wait, she was ready to work with me on OCCAM II for violin. So, I took one or two months more and then went to Paris. We started working and I think, like everybody else, began by just checking to see if it was possible to work together musically, to really collaborate.

"It's always a different story"

I think that no two collaborations are the same. Each one is specific, because when you work closely with someone you don’t just rely only on your experience as a performer to interpret the intention of the composer, but you meet the person and their way of approaching music. So, it’s always a different story. For example, I collaborate with Philip Corner. I think of him as a composer in a “classical” sense. He likes to send pieces and to work with people he already knows and likes, like me or Deborah Walker (individually and as a duo). He sends his compositions and, when he hears us playing his music or something different, I think it gives him more specific ideas for us, so he suggests other pieces which are more focused on who we are and the way we play. For sure, Philip is interested in giving very clear directions through his scores while, at the same time, engaging the creativity of the interpreter. But we never worked together to create a composition. Rather, we shared ideas on how to perform it when we played or recorded together. 

Then, there is my work with Pascale Criton. That is a completely different story. We worked in the freedom of finding the music together. It felt like a sort of open space for exploration of processes, where we could welcome the music we found together without being focused on the result. She has a very original and identifiable musical language, but she didn’t have any set attitude about aesthetics in our collaboration, so we could go far from
our norms. 

With Éliane, it was yet another story, because she is looking for something very precise. So, the way of collaborating with her is more about figuring out how to create something that is still me, and coherent with my way of playing, but precisely focused on what she wants to hear. It’s very disciplined.

"A sort of WHAHHHHH" – Technical aspects on violin

Personally, what I needed to explore and develop to play her music was included in classical technique for violin; not anything especially experimental. It’s an aspect of the instrument’s virtuosity that involves playing very careful long tones that allow you to nuance every moment, to have the bow change be very smooth at a very quiet dynamic for a very long time; the duration that you have to manage is particular. It is not usual at all, not for me anyway. But the kind of technique is absolutely classic. 

Éliane and I spoke at the beginning of our work about Baroque music, because this was a part of my musical experience; I have played a lot of it. We talked about the tuning, for example, and the bow technique. We spoke about louré: a French term for a way of bowing that is flat, but with a sort of wave; an organic wave, a sort of whahhhhh. We were trying to find a common language through the musical language of classical music. She probably needed that shared language as much as me to understand each other.

I think she based her ideas about my instrument on her experience as a listener of classical music while trying to bring something different out of me, or to find a space where we could work on a different kind of compositional process. For example, she named the strings, not with the name of the pitches, but with numbers. So fourth, third, second, first string. I think she needed to conceive the instrument as its essential meaning and feature: you have this resonating body with four strings activated by a bow, and you work with it, listen to what it produces, and create music with that.

"A beautiful but demanding process"

In 2019, the Sacrum Profanum Festival asked Éliane if she would work with [violinist and founder of the Arditti Quartet] Irvine Arditti. She wanted to do it, of course, but she didn’t feel strong enough to work on a new solo piece; that is a beautiful but demanding process. So, she proposed that Angharad [Davies] or I—because we’re the two violinists of the cycle—would work with him to see if we could transmit an existing piece instead. 

Éliane was really hoping that one of us would accept the proposal, not only because Irvine is a great interpreter and a beautiful musician, but because we, as musicians, are basically her scores. Since I’ve known her, she has always maintained that we are the only ones able to convey her compositions to other interpreters. She can’t continue to work with new soloists, so those of us that have worked with her until now are the people that will keep the memory of how to play this music. It’s a big responsibility. I think she was really hoping to witness a few transmissions of her music just to see if it would be possible to eventually leave something for others: some directions or indications. 

It is difficult for people not involved to appreciate the process of composition-through-transmission in Éliane’s music. When I propose this music for a festival, for example, I have to be very careful about how I speak about it. It’s very easy to misunderstand and think that OCCAM is something very New Age-y, or that it is basically an improvisation. And so, that was also my concern in the beginning when I started to work with Irvine. I had to try to describe Éliane’s process of transmitting the pieces while introducing him to a music that he still didn’t know. 

I admit it wasn’t easy to decide to do it. I felt there was so much of me in the genesis of OCCAM II, and I didn’t want to lose that. You know, there is no doubt that Éliane’s music is hers but, at the same time, the performer is the one who gives form and content to the composer’s vision in such a personal way. When a piece “passes” to another interpreter, the composer’s authorship remains but the interpreter’s creative contribution disappears. However, doing it made me more aware about what this music is, what can be really transmitted, and how. We can’t transmit the result of the music, nor the structure, because that—as Éliane repeats over and over—is the result of the meeting between us and our instrument, of the way we approach our instrument. The sound is specific to our unity with our instrument. That unity is what makes the musical result of the piece. We can’t just transmit pitches or dynamics or shapes to other people, because it will not make sense for them, for us, for Éliane. 

"A copy really can't exist"

The only way to work on this music is in person, through an oral sharing. The time Irvine and I had available to work together was very short, because he was supposed to play the premiere in September, and we were already at the end of May. We don’t live in the same country. The time spent together is a fundamental part of the compositional process, and Éliane’s soloists all know that it can take months with her. I started with the idea of showing him how I play OCCAM II and, of course, to speak about Éliane’s music and the process of working on it with her. But just before I met with him, I understood that what I was proposing was not correct. 

I had gone to Berlin to record some music by Marc Sabat. He had a very nice instrument I could use, so I didn’t bring my violin. To remind myself of the piece, I tried to play OCCAM II on his violin—it wasn’t the same piece! It was still me playing but, with a different instrument, it totally changed. I thought, “Oh, my God! Imagine someone else playing his own instrument. It will be a totally different piece!” At that point I wasn’t sure what I could do, so I went back to my very first exchanges with Éliane and decided to share the image that guides OCCAM II—a specific vision about water that Éliane and I had agreed upon since the beginning—with Irvine. That image is the score, so it’s all we have to share. Apart from that, I really had to try to listen to him as Éliane listened to me, and to help him, as much as possible, to build and develop his own realization of the piece—different from mine. So, it doesn’t exist as a copy. A copy really can’t exist. 

We decided to name Irvine’s version OCCAM IIB for violin. It still has the frame that is OCCAM II but it’s Irvine’s piece. His first realisation is already pretty different and will become more different as he plays it more times. It was fantastic to me because I felt proud to be able to make the connection between Éliane and Irvine and, in one sense, I have overcome my protectionism! 

"She is Éliane. I am me."

Éliane was very happy about the transmission. I’m sure that she would continue to bring new people in if she had the energy, because she continues to be asked by beautiful musicians to work together. I know it’s hard for her to say no. The chamber pieces are easier to build, but the solo pieces take a much longer process to be prepared. 

And it is too bad more people will not have that experience. Making music with Éliane has made me more confident about my creativity. Her example helped me to feel more free to explore my visions, no matter the technical boundaries, lack of academic knowledge, or aesthetic prejudices. I felt free to go away from a classical approach without needing to deny my classical training, staying sensitive to it and appreciating the history of the music. Recently, I released an album of experimental songs, Mi specchio e rifletto, which has a stylistic opening to many different musical genres. If Éliane wasn’t a direct inspiration for the music, she has been for the musician! Meeting her is very inspiring.

I hope, for her music, that we will be able to transmit it carefully, and I recognize that it’s not an easy job. All the time I was doing it I was thinking, “OK, how would she talk about it? What would she focus on? What kind of direction would she take?” Of course, it’s not the same. She is Éliane. I am me. And, as we have rehearsed different pieces, she constantly surprises me; you think you can imagine what she will say after listening to a rehearsal, but she’s often focusing on aspects of the music that you, as a performer, probably didn’t mind. You were more focused on other aspects, and you can lose the vision that she has. Sometimes I need to listen to the recording of the rehearsal to understand exactly what she meant. 

The next generation of musicians interested in playing her music for acoustic instruments could also rely on the released recordings of it as a reference, but they can only use them as examples and not as models to copy. Furthermore, the listening mediated by the recording is only partially faithful to this music which is made of pure acoustic sound. So, for the people approaching her music without meeting her, it will be essential to listen to it performed live, to experience the sound in an acoustic space, and to learn by the people who worked with her because the people playing the music, they are the matter of the pieces.

© Massimo Simonini
© Massimo Simonini

The People are the Matter of the Music