Friday, May 15, 2009

Eliane Radigue & Charles Curtis - Naldjorlak (Shiiin, 2008)

"When Charles asked me to do a piece for him I felt very intimidated. Knowing what I had to demand from such a wonderful cellist. Somehow very little, and meantime so much. Nothing which could testify to his tremendous virtuosity, yet something demanding a very special care and control over the sounds.

We had a first meeting over the "spirit" of Naldjorlak, which would define its structure. Then we checked and selected the sounds which will fit within it. No special fancy theoretical process. Rather something naive or primitive, such as the discovery of the mystery of the sounds' expressive power. As if we were digging into the depth of the essential nature of the cello, down to its roots.

The score became the whole body of the instrument. According to the "personality" of a particular cello, the basic pitch would be a function of its best threshold of resonance under certain special techniques. As going to its intimacy.

The result is a kind of wild and frail, versatile and volatile world of sounds. Taming them with the huge control that Charles provides all over the piece. The aim being to follow the natural flowing of overtones and to respond to the games of the harmonics all the way up to the threshold of their disappearance beyond the limits of human hearing. Thank you, Charles, for understanding so directly, so quickly, so clearly in spite of the awkwardness of my English. Thank you, Charles, for giving so much of "You", and for giving life to "Naldjorlak".

Eliane Radigue

The tuning that I developed for Naldjorlak expresses a general congruency of all of the potential resonating elements of the cello. The tailpiece, endpin, and tailpiece wire I have tuned nearly to the essential frequency of the cello's resonating cavity, for these purposes defined as the frequency of the so-called wolf tone. The wolf tone itself is to some degree tuneable, it slides up and down a bit in response to greater and lesser overall string tension. If one of the cello strings is tuned exactly to unison with the wolf tone, the wolf tone evades that frequency and settles nearby. This may be due to sympathetic resonances cancelling the strong beating frequency of the wolf tone. I tune the cello in a kind of consensus tuning, getting everything near, but not too near, to the wolf tone, then adjusting the other elements accordingly. Every adjustment of a single element causes changes in the other elements, but over time it is possible to get everything in a very close range, within a small semitone at any rate.

This congruency of frequencies makes for a surprising degree of responsiveness. Potentially any bowed action will excite all resonating elements simultaneously. The cello behaves somewhat like a bell, resonating in a complex but unified fashion.


I presented Eliane with a range of sounds and techniques - both recorded and in person - when I visited her in Paris in May of 2005. She made her selections quickly, which she called "my shopping". I had a strong sense of what she would choose, since I have been interested in her sounds and her music for some time.

The diffusion of sound is to my mind one of her central concerns. A sound's primary source is only a very small part of its phenomenal reality. Overtones, combination tones, resonance, sympathetic resonance are all part of the infinite array of resultant, or secondary, frequencies, which ultimately define sound as we experience it. Eliane's music achieves an extraordinary degree of precision and clarity in this range of sound experience. The sounds and techniques I presented to her I had prepared based on their qualities of diffuseness. I concentrated on sounds which revealed secondary components at least as prominent as their fundamentals. My congruent tuning of the cello enhances this relationship further.

The diffusion of sound is a sort of melting. Matter, the material source, the physical, undergoes metamorphosis through vibration into image, then echo, and finally silence, and after-image. In one sense sound is exactly that, the transformation of motion into image. But through art, sound can be made to heighten our experience of the later stages of this transformation. The physical is vividly re-experienced in its transformed, melted, state. The melted state, in contrast to the material state, is not confined to one location, it is all around, and, as image and after-image, in some sense permanent. It is the the condition of the physical which is not separate, but continuous with us, and which remains within us. There is the notion of melting in love.


I returned to Paris this last September for ten days in order to finish our work on Naldjorlak. I had just completed the performances and recording of La Monte Young's Trio for Strings in New York, and had barely enough time before Falll Quarter began in San Diego for this mission. I stayed in a tiny hotel in the Rue Daguerre just a block and a half from Eliane's apartment. The work on Trio for Strings had been depleting, and I was experiencing extreme jet lag; the sudden change of environment, the moist and breezy autumn weather after the heat of New York, and my exhaustion made for a kind of dream-like atmosphere, in which I tended to fall asleep at nearly any time

My hotel room was not great for hanging out in, so I would be up at 4am and in the various cafés around Denfert-Rochereau, drinking tea and observing life around me. As of 9 or so I would let myself into Eliane's apartment with the keys she had given me, and start warming up on the cello. She would at this hour be involved in her morning practice, and so without words we would be doing our individual practices, I on scales and slow, methodical readings of Bach suites, she in the adjacent room. After a while she would emerge and we would eat some food, I would retune the cello for Naldjorlak, and we would begin working. Later I would rest on her sofa or take a bath, eventually we would have dinner, and I would return to my hotel room. For the duration of my visit this was the content of our days.

Eliane described the week later as being a sort of retreat. I would have to agree, though I didn't think of it that way as it was happening. It was a simple and natural kind of coexistence that we enjoyed, informal yet clearly structured, and focused completely around a shared object of reflection, the piece that we were making.


The second section of the piece, Eliane says, evokes the activity of the mind, expressed through breath, speech or song. Thoughts come and go, sometimes distracting, sometimes like brief dreams. We observe them, not getting too involved. The mind is restless, searching, considering. To me this section conveys the rhythm of sleep, sometimes calm and sometimes restive. But the music does not only evoke this condition, it appeals to it, in fact engages or initiates that very activity of the mind.

Working with Eliane is learning to hear as she hears. The discipline which she brings to her involvement with sound is legendary. She is persistent, exacting, alert, and full of self doubt. To interpret her work is to take on these attributes. In her apartment she is in a world of her own, surrounded by curiosities, habits, memories, plants, audio equipment, art objects. She passes in and out of the kitchen through a curtain of hanging philodendron; her sphinx-like cat observes silently. In her world, sound is never altogether the same and never altogether different, as she likes to say, quoting Verlaine. To interpret her music is to enter a world not quite like any other, yet still our own, lived world; and to act in it, consciously and responsibly.

Charles Curtis"




  1. Rad post. Peter and Matt recommended checking out Elaine Radigue but I had a hard time finding her stuff. You should post some of her solo stuff!

  2. I will, she's one of my favorites. Check back in the next few weeks!

    Chug a 40 with my lady for me!

  3. Awfully late to be commenting...but maybe someone will read this after finding it in a search (like I did).

    One of Radigue's best compositions, Jetsun Mila, is available as a 2-CD set from the label Lovely Music. You can order direct from them, or via

    Would also strongly recommend the three-disc set Trilogie de la Mort, on the XII label. Not easy to find, but I'm fairly certain it's in print. Try Forced Exposure.

    If all else fails, try Metamkine. The site is oriented toward Francophones, but I was able to navigate it without too much trouble (which is how I got my copy of Naldjorlak; same source as for Radigue's other recording on the shiiin label, l'île re-sonante).