naldjorlak, nom composé qui emprunte à la langue tibétaine la double notion spirituelle d’union et de respect, est le titre qu’a choisi éliane radigue – sculptrice sonore française inspirée dont la réputation dans le domaine de la musique « minimaliste » électroacoustique n’est plus à faire – pour sa première œuvre conçue pour un instrument aux sonorités naturelles tel que le violoncelle. une œuvre en trois parties enchaînées dont le profond esprit de continuité tient en haleine l’auditeur d’un bout à l’autre de l’interprétation.
ce n’est un paradoxe seulement en apparence qu’une créatrice rompue à l’écoute précise et quasi analytique des ondes électroniques puisse se révéler plus apte que d’autres à mettre en valeur les richesses sonores les plus insoupçonnées d’un instrument qui compte parmi les plus employés dans la musique classique occidentale. il ne faut pas chercher ailleurs la raison pour laquelle on retrouvera dans naldjorlak – tout aussi frémissant et envoûtant mais d’une autre manière – l’univers poétique si particulier dont la compositrice a le secret.
fidèle aux conceptions d’éliane radigue pour l’ensemble de ses œuvres, naldjorlak ne répond nullement aux critères de l’intonation juste à laquelle sera préférée, tout au contraire, une notion d’accord instable. le concept qui assure la réussite expressive de cette œuvre réside essentiellement dans la façon dont charles curtis a accordé les quatre cordes de son violoncelle à la résonance fondamentale de l’instrument lui-même. un « son » instable, générateur de battements, dont les variations internes de hauteur n’évoluent cependant que dans des limites très restreintes de l’ordre de deux à trois commas. un « son » que charles curtis assimile au hurlement du loup.
naldjorlak est un voyage dans le temps et dans l’espace à l’intérieur même des résonances de tous les éléments qui constituent le violoncelle. séries d’oscillations de plus ou moins large amplitude, apparitions d’harmoniques et d’interactions sonores complexes, creux et remontées de vagues en cycles…
tout un éventail d’associations inédites de fréquences va peu à peu s’épanouir dans les sons longuement étirés et mis en mouvements ondulatoires sous l’archet subtil et avisé de charles curtis. jusqu’à ce que cet archet délaisse les cordes au profit de la longue ébène triangulaire du cordier, puis de la pique en métal dont, d’une façon plus ténue mais encore audible, le son s’enrichira à son tour des résonances fondamentales de tout le corps du violoncelle… jusqu’à ce qu’enfin, des deux fils métalliques qui retiennent le cordier sur l’éclisse à l’extrémité inférieure de l’instrument, il fasse naître deux fréquences suraiguës jouant entre elles de façon quasi tintinnabulante pour une sublime coda.
naldjorlak is structured around a tuning of the cello which seeks to consolidate, as nearly as possible, all of the resonating parts of the instrument. the reference for the tuning is found in the instrument itself: the so-called wolf tone. this refers to a particular note which stands out from all others as a jagged or excessively-resonant frequency; most string instruments have one such note. it results from a piling-up of wood and string frequencies relative to tautness, and is generally considered a blemish on an instrument's sound. for naldjorlak i proposed focusing on the wolf tone because of its instability and extraordinary spectral complexity.
when tuning the entire cello to the wolf tone, the wolf frequency moves. one can never tune exactly to it, and the result is a tuning that spans a narrow range of frequencies, something like a small semitone. this small semitone became the foreground pitch material of the naldjorlak, and can be followed through every section of the piece. three of the four strings are tuned as closely as possible to the wolf tone, and a fourth string is tuned to a string tension which will cause the tailpiece to also resonate at the pitch of the wolf tone. the endpin is likewise tuned to the same pitch, by the length to which it is drawn out. every adjustment of a single element causes changes in the other elements, but over time it is possible to reach a consensus tuning, which could be expressed as unison-plus-small-semitone.
the result of this unified tuning is a kind of subtle voicing of all specific bowed actions, through the corpus of the cello, to all the other, un-bowed, resonating elements. a remarkable degree of sympathetic resonance is present at all times, and is occasionally articulated through lightly brushing or resting the fingers on the un-bowed strings. the cello behaves somewhat like a bell, or like a tamboura, resonating in a complex but unified fashion.
the diffusion of sound is to my mind one of éliane radigue's great subjects. a sound's primary source is only a very small part of its phenomenal reality. overtones, combination tones, resonance, sympathetic resonance, all make up the infinite array of resultant, or secondary, phenomena, which ultimately define sound as we experience it. radigue's music achieves an extraordinary degree of clarity in this range of sound experience.
i presented éliane 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 her "shopping". the sounds and techniques i proposed i prepared based on their qualities of diffuseness. i concentrated on sounds which reveal secondary components at least as prominent as their fundamentals; my unified tuning of the cello enhances this relationship further.
the diffusion of sound is a sort of melting. matter, the material, physical source (the string, for example), metamorphoses 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 ordered so as 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, is in some sense permanent. it is 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 in september 2005 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 éliane'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 either fall asleep or wake up 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 éliane'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 doze off, 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.
our work was detailed and exacting. we discussed at length the ordering of the techniques and sound-states, and the ways in which the characteristic instabilities of a sound-state would shape its own gradual transformation. i practiced extremely quiet transitions and ways of connecting the sections through fingerings and string adjacencies. we discovered a very logical sequence that follows the geography of the cello, seemingly working down to the root of its sound. éliane would take breaks to brood and agonize over the progress of the piece, while i waited before continuing to search.
éliane described this time 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.
tuning to the wolf tone inverts the conventional function of tuning, which is to link an individual instrument to a social norm - concert pitch, what in german is called kammerton. instead, the cello is tuned to a value found within itself. from an outwardly directed act, tuning is turned inward, seeking an audible structure of interiority. the resting point is not exactly unison, but rather the gap of a semitone. the cello, tuned with extraordinary effort, yields a specific differential that appears irreducible. the search for self-sameness reveals a unit of distance we would not have discovered without having attempted to bridge it. we cannot bridge it, because it is inside. the object sought is contained in the subject; tuning to it is the painstaking calibration of the difference that is the self.
the second section of the piece, éliane 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 restless. but the music does not only evoke this condition, it appeals directly to it, in fact engages or initiates that very activity of the mind.
working with éliane is learning to hear as she hears. the discipline which she brings to her involvement with sound is legendary. she is persistent, critical, 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 says, paraphrasing 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.