You would think, by now, i’d be getting the hang of this piece. Éliane Radigue‘s Occam Delta XV, conceived for the Bozzini Quartet, has crossed my path on a couple of occasions, first at its UK première in Huddersfield in 2018, a performance that i subsequently explored in more depth, and again in January this year at the Dark Music Days in Iceland. i was struck by how different the two accounts of the work had seemed from each other, and that experience has been compounded by a new recording the Bozzini’s have released, featuring two further performances, made on successive days in November 2021.
The first observation to make is that the Huddersfield version, at around 20 minutes’ duration, is nearly half as long as the two recorded performances (37:25 and 36:31 respectively; i didn’t time the Iceland performance but i’m sure it was about the same length). i don’t know the reason for such an extensive change in duration, but considering some of its siblings in Radigue’s output, it may have something to do with optional aspects in terms of how long to remain in one episode before moving on to the next. All the same, an almost doubling in length is surprising.
i used the phrase “unstable stability” to describe the piece before, and as with so much of Radigue’s music, that seems to be an appropriate way to regard its inherent musical behaviour. But of course, the key thing with both of those words is that they constantly undermine each other. What this does not result in is ‘balance’ (i’ve just checked and am relieved to see i’ve never used that word when exploring Radigue’s music); on the contrary, while there’s the semblance of an equilbrium, Occam Delta XV occupies a gentle but permanent tension, like a piece of elastic constantly being gently stretched and released. i don’t hear that as ‘balance’, but as flux, friction, discreet energy, with the abiding sense throughout that, though where we are right now might be somewhere we stay for a while, the music is always looking ahead, ever caught in the midst of a gradual process from infinity to infinity.
From a listening perspective, an outcome of this is that it throws a lot of attention on the here and now, what’s happening in the music moment by moment. For music so glacially slow that might seem counterintuitive, yet it’s that sense of its infinitude that makes the question of a longer-term listening perspective (something i’ve spent years trying to cultivate) seem rather moot. It’s not that such a longer-term perspective is impossible, or meaningless, rather that what Radigue so often seems to be striving for in these works is that persistent state of semi-static movement, where lingering on what’s taking place right now is just as significant as what was happening five, 10 or 20 minutes ago.
In these two performances of Occam Delta XV that liminal stasis is beautifully realised, the Bozzinis keeping things in a tantalising state of sounding resolved, unresolved and in the process of resolving all at the same time. The work’s fluid harmonic state passes between contrasting states of simple and complex, purity and dirtiness; oblique notes suggest themselves as passing notes but don’t so much resolve as become grafted onto the chordal core. Even after this has happened, and that core has been delicately recoloured, it still doesn’t sound like a resolved action; again, everything points on, to the necessity for something more.
Especially nice is the way the Bozzinis control the texture as it ventures into more fragile territory. In the first track (‘2021-11-09’), at around the midpoint there’s a curious impression of rumble, and the harmony seems to be pulling in all directions such that the music sounds like it could just come apart at the seams. It ends up registrally polarised but somehow a perfect fifth fundamental rematerialises, whereupon the upper notes become dancing harmonics of the lower. In the second track (‘2021-11-10’), the fragility sounds more marked, which is appropriate considering how the opening minutes of this performance exhibit a greater sense of flux, as if made of concentric chords rotating at different rates, a mesmerising effect. The fundamental returns in the same way, and the closing minutes of both performances are, depending on your perspective, either an extended coda, gently tilting like soft fabric wafting in a breeze, or simply the current stage in an ongoing process without beginning or end.
Éliane Radigue’s working method is one of the most unusual among all composers today. Born in Paris in 1932, she spent her early career making music with tape loops feeding back on themselves, and later with the ARP 2500 synthesiser. But beginning in the late 1990s she began a series of extraordinary works for acoustic instrumentalists.
Much in the same way as she manipulated feedback on tape machines, this time live instrumentalists would be given a small, verbal instruction as impulse (typically a descriptive image), and asked to dwell on it. No notation is made by the composer, though players might make their own notes as memory aids. While attending to the play of high harmonics, musicians’ typically long and sustained pitches interact with utmost subtlety and delicacy (as can be heard in this recording by Quatuor Bozzini).
Radigue’s music is both intense and tranquil, enveloping us but also playing in the foreground. Her Occam series, all constructed in this way through verbal exchange with musicians, has grown to more than 60 works for different instrumental combinations.
Isabelle Bozzini, Stéphanie Bozzini, Alissa Cheung, and Clemens Merkel perform two 37’ realizations of their delta from Éliane Radigue’s Occam Ocean across consecutive dates on Occam Delta XV.
If it were only the numbered series of releases from shiiin, that each Occam recording introduces something special could be considered a conscious aspect of presentation but as this characteristic continues through independent presentations too it might illuminate the naturalistic diversity inherent to a system whose foundation begins with the foundation of life. Recordings have seemed to so far systematically introduced occam, river, delta, and ocean forms, traced one performer through them, provoked comparison of behaviors in instrumentation with all strings or all winds. Always each showcases the relationship of the performer to their instrument and the limit of each. This delta feels special in that while other ensembles — Zinc & Copper, Decibel, Onceim — are anchored by a chevalier with an occam Quatuor Bozzini stands without as a kind of unit unto itself. This is also the first presentation to provide two recordings together, across consecutive nights and, though it’s ambiguous, I assume the same place.
And it is the first delta to sound deltaic to me. The quartet begins closer to unison than it ends, with the gradual recognition that bowing cadences seem to have drifted towards their instruments’ natural frequencies, twin violins in relative ecstatic excitation over low and slow cello, having got there by a meandering way that felt in the moment to be suspended, slow bowings’ strokes carving bank and bar in epochal time, a rise in volume splaying harmonics like the channel widens at the space it splits, the intuition and the information of never stepping in the same river twice. In between always a world of harmonics like life under a microscope, teeming. A few provide markers across evenings as fossils would. A kind of high-tension tanpura buzz. A dancing satyr fluting. The differences are subtle but tangible, felt more than known and ineffable. Perhaps the satyr’s bolder on the first night and the tanpura on the second. But it lights the imagination to wonder the minute physical parameters that would change the sound, the pressure and the temperature of the room one night or another, beyond the infinite variations in the performers’ hands.