Thursday, 23 June 2011

Eliane Radigue: Trilogie de la Mort at St Stephen's Walbrook

Eliane Radigue has recently been honoured with a two week festival of her music under the banner Triptych (the title of a 1978 piece not actually included in the programme). Recent compositions for acoustic instruments, including a world premiere of the solo harp piece Occam 1 performed by Rhodri Davies, and collaborative efforts with laptop group The Lappetites (Kaffe Matthews, Antye Greie and Ryoko Ahama) were performed beneath the imposing spire of Hawksmoor’s Spitalfields church. The bulk of Radigue’s music, stretching from the late 60s up until the early years of the 21st century has been electronic in nature, however. Dense, slowly shifting drone pieces painstakingly constructed from accreted tones and frequencies, mainly emanating from her beloved ARP 2500 synthesiser. Radigue ditched the keyboard which came with this instrument and worked directly with the waveforms produced by the machine, adjusting and filtering them from the sound board. She worked with sound rather than harmony or melody as the basis for musical development. Her pieces, by their very nature, take their own time. The listener has to enter into the fundamental grain and texture of the sound, and allow her or himself to be carried along by its tidal ebb and flow. Like the late works of Morton Feldman, the necessity for extended concentration, or even for simply setting aside sufficient time to experience the music as a whole (because there’s little point in just sampling it) runs counter to the prevailing culture of instant access, attention-diverting ephemera and the bombardment of the senses with overloading stimuli.

The electronic works were played in the church of St Stephen’s Walbrook, situated in one of the roads radiating from the busy hub arranged around the focal point of the Bank of England. It was one of the City churches designed and built by Christopher Wren after the fire of London, and its interior has long been considered a masterpiece of baroque architecture. We went to the first three concerts in the series in which the separate sections of the Trilogie de la Mort (composed between 1988 and 1993) were played on successive nights. This triptych (an appropriate descriptive term for such sacred music) reflects Radigue’s immersion in Tibetan Buddhism. This religious faith could be said to have grown out of the music rather than vice versa; sound showing the path to enlightenment (or perhaps being the path in itself, the fundamental vibration). Looking around the church before the first night’s performance, I noticed a memorial plaque set on one of the pillars for one Johannes Lilburn. The inscription read Ciyis et Grocer Loninensis, Qui ex Isabella, Uxore. My knowledge of Latin is microscopic, but I understand that uxore means wife. Above the inscription is a small memento mori carving, a skeletal death leading a young woman in a danse macabre. It acts as an appropriate motif for this trilogy, which has moments of great darkness but also reaches transcendent and luminous heights. The seats in the church are set in a circle around the space beneath Wren’s overarching dome (a model for St Paul’s grander example, constructed shortly thereafter), the point to which the geometry of the building leads. Placed in the middle of this circle is the marble mass of Henry Moore’s smoothly rounded altar. Its shallow, hollowed-out declivities look like the thumbprints of some mighty, moulding hand for which this huge chunk of marble is as malleable as clay. It provides a good object of contemplation for the duration of the music, the church’s architecture offering many more. Having said which, I spent almost the entirety of the first night’s performance with eyes closed.

The first piece of the trilogy is entitled Kyema, and subtitled Intermediate States. It draws from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, representing the six states which it outlines: Kyene (birth), Milam (dream), Samtem (contemplation, meditation), Chikai (death), Chonye (clear light) and Sippai (crossing and return). I can’t pretend to have distinguished these states in my listening experience. But as with the polyphonic choral music of the Renaissance, it’s not necessary to have an extensive grounding in the particular religious faith which inspired the music. As we were approaching the church, we passed gathered TV cameras pointed at immaculately attired men and women entering Mansion House, situated adjacent. I later discovered that this was the evening that Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were giving major speeches on the state of and prospects for the economy. I like to think that the soundwaves of Kyema somehow passed through the stones joining the buildings and made a subconscious sonic impact, introducing a more fundamental sense of reality to the occasion, creating a nagging sense that such financial concerns were mere transient phantoms.

Kyema is a dark piece, beginning with throbbing bass pulsations whose waveforms interact to form expanding and contracting ‘beats’, which create a driving, insistent sense of forward motion. The listener is carried along with this motion, as if drawn through some immaterial void by a heavy, irresistible gravitic force. Higher pitches splinter off to hint at hovering overtone phrases (fellow spirits on the journey?) In the middle of the piece, a swarm of sound gradually builds up, with hints of a swelling chorus of voices and traces of orchestral music heard as if from a distance; a memory or presentiment of the material world. It sounds like it might be a loop of Ravel’s Bolero, which would be an appropriate choice, symbolic of the repetitive round of rebirth. The actual material world provided its own occasional extraneous intrusions throughout this and consequent concerts, with the explosive tumble and smash of a bottle bank being emptied, the dopplered shift of sirens passing, and the repetitive sampled voice mechanically warning ‘this vehicle is reversing’ all adding their distinctive sounds. In the context of Kyema, with its distanced intimations of the world left behind (and approached once more) these seemed strangely appropriate. Such everpresent urban noise brought to mind Steve Reich’s City Life, with its samples of car alarms and aggressive, hectoring voices deliberately incorporated into the composition.

The swarm of sound expands and gains in mass. It’s not so much that it gets louder, more that it increases in density. This reaches a state where it begins to seem threatening in an almost bodily sense. It’s as if it could overwhelm and subsume your being in a forceful and destructive rather than blissfully transcendent manner. It reminds me of a sequence from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Syndromes and A Century, which is also informed by a Buddhist sensibility. The camera, having roamed through a depopulated hospital basement, slowly approaches the mouth of an extractor fan at the end of a snaking tube, which, as we are drawn nearer, comes more and more to resemble a sucking gaping maw. It appears as the dark entrance to a devouring void, emitting a low, throbbing thrum of menacing noise. Just as the swarm of sound reaches a frightening crescendo, it begins to subside once more, as if we are travelling away from a powerful locus which has almost drawn us in. Once the noise has diminished entirely, we are left with the underlying tones of the drone, the base sound, the eternal ground. The piece begins to build up again as singular, spaced out molecules of sound are dropped into this ground. Their tone resembles that of a marimba. It’s rather akin to the beginning of the second section of Steve Reich’s Drumming, but much more stretched out. It’s a woody, organic sound, and its slow, regular drip reminded me of the drum steadily marking out the years in Arvo Part’s Sarah Was 90 Years Old until the miraculous annunciation of an ‘impossible’ birth. Here, too, the growth of sound from such simple, singular beginnings suggests rebirth, the ‘cross and return’ of the final Sippai section.

The piece fades away incrementally and the audience was left sitting in silence at the end, straining to hear sounds which has ceased being broadcast through the speakers some moments before, but which perhaps continued to resonate around the dome, either of the church or the individual’s skull. I believe it was the man behind the mixing desk who initiated the applause. He was probably the only one who could know for sure that it was all over. Eliane herself emerged to acknowledge the audience’s warm appreciation, and circled around to make sure that everyone received her thanks. She also dragged out the reluctant sound man to receive his due, and as she was retreating, playfully peeked out (from the perspective of where we were sitting) from behind Moore’s altar and gave a final cheerful wave. The composer of the intensely serious piece we’d just heard, she exuded a delightfully informal and approachable air, entirely at odds with the aloof formality of the classical world.

Eliane Radigue at home with her ARP
The next evening’s concert, the second part of the Trilogie, was Kailasha, which is described in the accompanying programme notes as depicting ‘an imaginary journey around the most sacred of the Himalayan mountains – Mount Kailasha – considered as a path to other spheres of existence’. I hadn’t read this before listening to the performance, but as the overtones began to spark off and ascend as if drifting on slowly spiralling updrafts, I found my gaze drawn upward to the dome, where it ended up focussed on a plaster relief of a rose within a rectangular border. This piece is far more pacific that Kyema. It begins with slow swells of deep sound, as opposed to Kyema’s insisting, pulsating throb. There is no great variance in pitch; as the wavelength remains fairly static, so does the frequency. There is a steady progression skyward, however, and the singing harmonics and overtones breathe of a rarefied air, pure and clear, in which the spirit can effortlessly soar. The fellow who introduced the concerts told us that the nature of the sounds in this piece were such that our perception of them would alter as we made slight changes to the direction of our hearing, moving our heads from side to side. This was indeed the case , and this spatial element to the sound approximated to the sense of travelling around a central object. The Moore altar perhaps stood in for a scaled down analogue of Mount Kailasha in this instance. This is music of heavenly calm and sublime order – the music of the spheres. It really surprised me to read in an interview with Radigue published in the October 2005 issue of The Wire magazine that she experienced it in an entirely antithetical way. She felt it was ‘heavy, brutal and very difficult’, and ‘not something I can listen to for long’. I could certainly understand if it was Kyema she was talking about, which does indeed have that heavy and brutal feeling. Nevertheless, Eliane was once more in attendance to hear the piece.

Focus for contemplation - Wren's dome
She wasn’t there for the final part of the Trilogie, unfortunately, having caught a slight cold and no doubt considered it unwise to venture out into the teeming rain. Koume, as the third piece is called, seems to blend elements of its two predecessors. The drones are drawn out and calm, but like Kyema, they have a central section in which sound accumulates and builds up a considerable mass. The sound of horns, is introduced and they appear to multiply, expanding and gradually filling the space. There is no sense of menace on this occasion however. The sound resembles that of the long alpine horns of Tibetan ritual. The joyfully cacophonous noise which they make reminded me of the ecstatic free jazz communions of John Coltrane’s Ascension, Sun Ra’s The Magic City, or ensemble passages from Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders LPs. The connection between free jazz and Tibetan sacred music has indeed been explicitly made in recordings by trumpeter Jim Dvorak with his group the Bardo State Orchestra. Indeed, he collaborated with monks from a Tibetan monastery on the 1995 LP Wheels Within Wheels.

Earlier in the piece, during the drone section, a scratch of static had sounded. I feared this might be an indication that the speakers were beginning to give up the ghost. But this static ‘scratch’ was reintroduced and repeated during the ‘horn’ section, and seemed to act as an aural tear in the sonic fabric, allowing a swelling chorus of low chanting voices to come through and make their contribution to the multiform melismatic blare. This really was the sound of thousands of monks chanting on a mountaintop which John Lennon had envisaged as the backing for Tomorrow Never Knows (originally known as The Void). Ian Macdonald is very good on the misapprehension of Tibetan Buddhism and The Book of the Dead in particular at the time in his analysis of the song in Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties. Eventually, this sound too dies away, leaving us with the humming, slowly shifting drone once more. This plays out until the end, elements being subtracted and filtered out until we are left with just one pure tone. Again, late 60s and early 70s rock, with its mystical inclinations, springs to mind. Pete Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse project left a driftwood scatter of songs which washed up on various Who LPs. One of them was Pure and Easy, which attempted to articulate the notion, central to Lifehouse, of the ‘one note’. As the first verse puts it, ‘there once was a note, pure and easy/Playing so free, like a breath rippling by./The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me/Forever we blend and forever we die’. Where Lennon and Townshend were ultimately unable wholly to realise their visions, which they had tentatively intuited and instinctively worked towards (Townshend sometimes incorporating an ARP synthesiser into his explorations), Radigue’s more intensive and focussed (although no less intuitive and improvisatory) approach gave such nebulous concepts apprehensible form. She managed to make the ineffable audible.

And in the form of the sonic bed installations which are also part of the Triptych festival, physically tangible, too. There are two such beds available for the weary sonic explorer to rest the bones on, both of them created by Kaffe Matthews, Radigue’s collaborator in the Lappetites laptop quartet. One is a little off the beaten track in Brentford, and plays the 1973 piece Transamorem – Transmortem. The one which we experienced was installed in the Rich Mix Gallery in Shoreditch (just across the road from the Shoreditch High Street Overground station). The bed is housed in an elevated wooden box-like stucture reached by two steps. Once you have climbed up and laid down, you hear the music wafting around you through speakers spaced around your prone form. You can also feel it moving through speakers embedded beneath. The Rich Mix bed was playing Radigue’s early tape loop and feedback piece Omnht from 1970. Waves of low bass tones periodically pulsed beneath, rising from the foot of the bed to its head and sending vibrations up the spine and through the fingers (I’d layed my hands flat on the bed’s surface). It was a strangely addictive experience; luckily no-one else turned up whilst we were there, or I might have been reluctant to make way. The installation was unfortunately situated in an open basement beneath an arts centre café, so, as with the concerts, extraneous sounds did intrude. In this case, Radigue’s washes of sound were mixed in with coffee machine clutter and amplified crisp packet rustle. But it didn’t really matter. We both came out refreshed from our sonic bath. It’s an idea which deserves a permanent home, perhaps an ensuite room attached to the Civic Recovery Centre (another contemplative sonic environment) proposed by Brian Eno and included as part of the 2000 Sonic Boom sound art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. It’s just the sort of thing which Sound and Music, the organisation behind the Radigue festival, might come up with. Sadly, it’s Arts Council grant has just been significantly cut. It looks like we’ll have to make the most of these imaginative and exploratory events whilst we may. The festival continues at St Stephen’s until the 25th June, when it all ends with the shimmeringly beautiful L’Ile Re-Sonante.

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