9 March, 2009Issue 8.7EuropeMusicThe Arts

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The Sound Iconoclast

Mena Mark Hanna

Sometime during the 6th century BC, the Greek mathematician and mystic Pythagoras purportedly discovered that musical noradulescutes could translate into mathematical equations. As in many suspect tales of discovery, Pythagoras’s breakthrough was said to be a matter of serendipity. While passing a blacksmith’s shop, Pythagoras supposedly heard anvils of different weights striking consonant and dissonant intervals. He discovered that the difference in sounds transpired because the anvils were “simple ratios of each other, one was half the size of the first, another was two-thirds the size, and so on”. Not only is this the basis of what became known as the Music of the Spheres—the ancient belief in a universe ordered by the same numerical proportions that Pythagoras discovered to govern music—but it is also the foundation of Pythagorean tuning, a setting of the scale whereby intervals of the perfect 4th and perfect 5th remain pure, untempered.

The tuning of the scale became a hotly debated issue, as musicians invented new instruments and discovered new combinations of timbre. But by the late Baroque era (from 1735 on), as keyboard instruments had come to dominate the musical world, nearly all instruments were tuned to “equal temperament”. As such, the figure of Pythagoras, intrinsically tied to the debate of temperament, fell into oblivion for most musicians, barring the more mathematically inclined. It was not until the 20th century that a renewed curiosity arose amongst composers and music theorists about systems of temperament, Pythagoras and the musical-mystical connections within the guiding forces of nature.

A varied group of French composers, collectively labeled as Spectralists, have carried that interest forward into the 21st century. Spectralists investigate the musical attributes of the “harmonic overtone spectrum”, a series of tones that exists in nature and derives from the mathematical proportions originally classified by Pythagoras. The music of the Spectralists explores time, colour, timbre and the spatial awareness of sound. It normally involves an analysis of the overtone spectrum through a computer-based algorithm known as fast Fourier Transform. Through FFT analysis, as it is called, sound—broken into the parameters of time, frequency and amplitude—can literally be visualised. Spectral composers use these images to gain insight into the birth, lifetime and death of a particular sound.

Among the Spectralists, the éminence grise was Gérard Grisey, a composer of astonishing imagination and vision who died in 1998. On the periphery of this group are many composers still alive and active: Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and droves of younger composers who fashion themselves in a similar manner. The most outstanding of these, before his untimely death this past September in Paris, was the Romanian-French composer, Horațiu Rădulescu.

By the time of his death, Rădulescu had grown into a fantastically famous anti-hero of the avant-garde music scene in Paris, shunning the musical mainstream of the European Continent and denouncing the works of other composers at contemporary music festivals. But he was no outsider: Rădulescu had a nearly perfect musical pedigree. He attended courses at Darmstadt taught by music giants John Cage, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. He studied with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne and worked in Paris with Olivier Messiaen, who called him “one of the most original young musicians of our time”.

Born in Bucharest in 1942, Rădulescu left for Paris in 1969 and decided to settle there upon hearing the French première of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, one of the first works of Spectralism. He gained French citizenship in 1974 and began his rise to prominence through the premières of several notable and controversial early compositions (fountains of my sky, 1973; Wild Incantesimo for nine orchestras, 1978). With these pieces, Rădulescu began colouring the techniques of spectral composition with the mystical philosophies of Pythagoras and Lao-Tzu by experimenting with large combinations of instruments. Through music, he wanted to summon ideas of a primordial time. He wrote: “It was necessary to ‘enter into’ the sound, to rediscover the ocean of vibrations that Pythagoras has [sic] scrutinized two thousand years ago.”

Rădulescu’s Fourth String Quartet (1976-87)—fraught with the unwieldy subtitle “infinite to be cannot be infinite, infinite anti-be could be infinite”—is a piece that places the listener in the centre of this primal and ancient sound world. Scored for nine quartets, eight of which are pre-recorded and electronically processed, Radulescu called the ensemble a “128-stringed viola da gamba”. The 50-minute piece is certainly a daunting listening experience, with whirling high notes whizzing about as each of the 36 instruments’ strings are tuned exactly to their corresponding frequencies in the harmonic overtone series. It wields a vertiginous yet enthralling effect, nearly inducing a feeling of overwhelming anxiety in the listener.

A similarly dizzying work of powerful creativity is Rădulescu’s Intimate Rituals XI (2003), scored for viola, and his most curious invention, the “sound icon”: a grand piano that stands sideways and is bowed or struck with gold coins (gold, since it is a particularly soft metal, resonates very well). The effect is mesmerising. The sound-icon sounds something like a massive amplified sitar, and the viola hovers over it, gawking through a treacherous terrain of uneven rhythms derived from the Fibonacci sequence. Das Andere (1983) an 18-minute piece for viola sola, cello solo, violin solo or double bass solo tuned in perfect fifths follows a serpentine trajectory of soaring and shrieking string harmonics. It feels uneven and exhausting but the music is incredible, a spectral tour-de-force (you can find the viola version performed by Vincent Royer here). These pieces and others like it, notably Byzantine Prayer (1988) scored for 40 flautists, sound unlike anything ever composed before.

Perhaps this is because Rădulescu believed that one could experience music—physically and spiritually—by surrounding himself in it and feeling the vibrations of it. He said: “The music we are composing is, above all, the music of a special state of the soul, and not the music of action.” In effect, the sound-icon presents the traditional instrument, the grand piano, “in a new light; it resembles a religious object—a Byzantine icon”.

One can read Rădulescu’s music as a reaction to the ultra-modernist music of the 1950s and 1960s, when composers like Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt sought to serialise every parameter of music in a strict, tautly organised manner. Their music was composed purely for the interest of the composer, purposefully inaccessible. An example of this is Babbitt’s now infamous article titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” (1958) in which the role of the scholarly composer is not a public one, but instead akin to that of a physicist or a high mathematician working within the confines of the academy.

Rădulescu, conversely, sought to reinvigorate music with ritual. He meant for it to be consumed by the listener and the performer. His later works, the piano concerto The Quest (1996) and the Lao-Tzu Sonatas (1991-99) for piano, have a far more accessible idiom than his early works, but they still display his concern with the physical matter of sound, which Rădulescu referred to as “sound plasma”. These massive pieces, which incorporate his transcriptions of Romanian folk song into huge monochords, have made him especially popular amongst the listening public. In Darmstadt, Rădulescu claimed that he was “pursued in the streets by fans”, and the recording of The Quest by pianist Ortwin Stürmer and conductor Lothar Zagrosek have now sold tens of thousands of copies, a monumental feat for someone who originally had been considered a marginal figure.

Since his death, Rădulescu’s legacy has grown larger. A handful of musicians saw him as a kind of modern day mystical Pythagoras, a composer of “passionate, hallucinatory music, and of vital importance in the history of spectral music”. He has attracted a zealous commitment from several of new music’s most preeminent names. The Arditti Quartet, violists Vincent Royer and Gérard Caussé, pianist Ian Pace and flautist Pierre-Yves Artaud have been fervent champions of his music—music that is not only strangely beautiful and intoxicating, but also a testimony to his uncompromising creative spirit, which constantly tested the limitations of performance, physicality and sound. A year before he died, in an interview with a Parisian journalist, Rădulescu admitted: “I’m writing for the future, I’m writing for posterity.”

Mena Mark Hanna is a composer, conductor and chant scholar, pursuing his DPhil in Music Composition at Merton College, Oxford.

Photograph of Horațiu Rădulescu © Guy Vivien, analogartsensemble.net