Naldjorlak I

Photo by Jennifer Burris Staton, 2016.

Photo by Jennifer Burris Staton, 2016.

Chinati Foundation
John Chamberlain Building

A diminutive of the Tibetan word referring to the motion of all life toward unity, the title Naldjorlak was coined by composer Éliane Radigue to recall the intimate or personal embedded in this movement towards oneness. In 2005, following five decades of working through a unique form of electronic composition focused on the nuances of a sustained individual pitch, Radigue created an acoustic piece for, and in many senses with, the cellist Charles Curtis. In her 2006 text, pour Charles, she writes: “The score became the whole body of the instrument. 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."

Created in close collaboration with Curtis, this composition without a written score marks a decisive turning point for Éliane Radigue. At the age of 72, following more than four decades of creating work with electronic media, especially the ARP synthesizer, Radigue began to collaborate with individual musicians: a shift that has opened up a decade of new work for traditional instruments like the cello, basset horn, harp, bassoon, and viola.

Writing about the work's creation, a collaboration that took place over an extended period of working and thinking together, Curtis described the process as “learning to hear as she [Radigue] hears.” Such melding of composer with performer explains, in part, the work’s title: a diminutive of the Tibetan word referring to the motion of all life toward unity, this coined term is an attempt to express the intimate or personal embedded in this movement towards oneness. 

But how does Radigue hear? A seemingly impossible task given the complex interiority of listening; as Curtis explains, “hearing is not just the physiological processing of sound waves, it is an infinitely complex layering of emotional and cultural responses, memories, habits, preferences, and so on. And even the physiological aspect of it will necessarily differ… William Blake is said to have claimed, of the visionary states that he was privy to, that ‘I saw, not with, but through my eyes…’ Something of this applies to Radigue. A visionary in sound, she hears through her ears to the infinity that is sound, far beyond what human ears admit. And her music offers us a glimpse of that.”

This solo performance thus enacts a movement towards what is always foregrounded as impossible (hearing as another person hears, the complete union between sound and listener). Such impossibility is embedded in the work itself via its use of the so-called “wolf tone.” Curtis tunes his instruments strings, tailpiece, endpin, and tailpiece wire to this “essential frequency of the cello’s resonating cavity”—an inherently unstable referent that changes over time and in response to the physical environment, the room and place in which we find ourselves. Given the intense variability of its anchor, the composition shifts with every performance.

This intrinsic disjuncture at the heart of the work—an uncomfortable placement—is echoed by the inscription of Radigue’s music into a space dedicated to John Chamberlain’s sculptures. Yet perhaps such incongruity is where the work belongs, just as its resting point is the similarly discomfiting “wolf tone.” Radigue was married to New Realist sculptor Arman, a fellow spirit to Chamberlain, for ten years and her apartment in Paris where this work was created is filled with Arman’s similarly imposing art. I will leave you with this image of her home, in Curtis’ words, as we sit amongst a landscape of wrecked cars and spray-painted metal:

“The apartment, in effect a single space with extensions off the living room for sleeping on one side and eating on the other, was additionally full (though not cluttered) with numerous plants (a very tall ficus, a curtain of climbing philodendron), a small upright piano with a Plexiglas keyboard cover, a number of small artifacts from ancient cultures, books, a black cat with a skeptical and scrutinizing facial expression, and above all, a dazzling collection of artworks, most of them by her ex-husband Arman… Arman’s works are brash, irreverent, over-sized, and exaggerated, funny but also aggressive, qualities which are pretty much opposite to Radigue’s personality and work; but in her apartment, nestled into the calm copiousness of the plants, audio equipment, comfortable sofas, and whatnot else, their aggression is cancelled out, domesticated one might say, and they harmonize, perhaps a bit uncomfortably, within an overall atmosphere that is completely a reflection of Radigue herself.”

This choreographed composition without written score presents sound as both fluid and spatial, responding to a precise tuning of the cello’s own resonance to the “wolf tone”—an unstable referent that changes over time and in response to environment. The work, once created, is written anew each time it is performed, following the resonant qualities of both instrument and performance site. At the Chamberlain Building in Marfa, such qualities included the creaking sounds of the wooden roof in response to the near-constant wind and the occasional passing of freight trains across the train tracks adjacent.

Jake Curreri

Innovator. Learner. Designer. Programmer. Engineer.