A composer whose work i return to more often than most – and find the experience completely different every time i do – is Éliane Radigue. Today is the grande dame’s 88th birthday – joyeux anniversaire! – so, as i did a few years ago, i’m going to devote another long weekend to her music, focusing on the ever-expanding series of works bearing the name Occam. If there’s one thing that could be said to typify Radigue’s Occam series it’s liminality, the creation of a music that is located at a critical point between tension and resolution, movement and rest. One of the most fascinating aspects of this is the way it thereby sounds both endless, broadening our listening horizons to a limitless scope, and infinitesimal, making us focus on the most minute shifts and changes in its quasi-stasis, a classic example of a steady state.
Occam River XV dates from 2017, the product of a collaboration between Radigue, violinist Angharad Davies and double bassist Dominic Lash. That liminality i spoke of is apparent even from the work’s tentative opening moments. A solitary D hangs in the space for nearly a full minute, but not for one second does that note sit still. It wavers and trembles, gently surges and recedes, starting to sound more and more like an electronic tone that’s being tweaked and filtered, in the process altering its timbre and hinting at varying quantities of overtones. Yet it’s still essentially just a D. Whether or not the note is stable depends on your perception, but i’ll suggest the only answer is both, stable and unstable simultaneously.
In the eight minutes that follow, further pitches are added, and while for a time it’s fun to go pitch spotting, soon these notes coalesce into – well, actually a not very coalescent sonic object but one that continues the liminality by somehow managing to convey a kind of equilibrium. It almost seems obtuse to use a word like ‘harmony’ in this context due to the way the violin and double bass sound so far apart from each other. It’s a polarised music, comprising two elements occupying distinct regions from which they never depart. And here’s another liminal aspect: polarised in this way, are the instruments connected or simply behaving similarly in the same environment? That’s why i say ‘harmony’ seems like the wrong word; for while the juddery major third goings-on in the bass and the perfect fourth oscillations in the violin seem connected – or, at least, related – at the same time it’s not unlike looking at one of those stereo photographs where you have to relax your eyes in just the right way for the two frames to pop together into a single three-dimensional image. Sometimes i hear Davies and Nash as two separate entities side by side; and then suddenly – usually without me actively ‘doing’ anything to make this happen – they’re united, twin facets of a single musical body resonating in such a way that its convoluted notes and their ever-changing nature and emphases magically fuse into what is now unequivocally harmony.
This first performance of Éliane Radigue’s Occam River XV took place in September 2017 at the Great Masson Cavern at the Heights of Abraham, performed by Angharad Davies and Dominic Lash.