What would music sound like deep underground in the caves beneath Derbyshire’s picturesque Peak District? That’s what composer Shiva Feshareki wondered when she dreamt up a project that would spotlight new compositions from “deep listening” legend Éliane Radigue and contemporary producer Lee Gamble and push them beneath the surface. Tom Howells unearths the story behind one of the year’s most intriguing projects.
Paris: a sweltering day in late June. I’m sitting in Éliane Radigue’s compact Montparnasse apartment, attempting to grill the composer on her early experiences of the musical avant garde. She’s not having any of it; at 85, she’s reluctant to dwell on the past. It’s too distant and too frequently written about. I relent. The chance to dig deep into the formative experiences of a true musical doyenne, not least one that worked closely with both Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, doesn’t present itself often. But alas, there’ll be no concrète goss for me.
No matter. Radigue’s biography is fascinating, but it’s not why I’m in Paris. The subject at hand is a project dreamt up by turntablist and composer Shiva Feshareki, which will see one of Radigue’s newest compositions – a double bass and violin duet dubbed ‘Occam River XV’ – performed deep underground, in the Peak District’s Great Masson Cavern.
The project’s genesis was pretty straightforward. Attending a performance of another of Radigue’s Occam pieces last February, Feshareki had an epiphany of sorts: that this profound, subtle and spiritual music, so reliant on deep and mindful listening, should be heard in an environment with similarly resonant acoustics – a cave. A reverent trip to Paris saw Radigue offer up a new work to the project, and Feshareki began researching locations, eventually settling on Great Masson. On September 17, over a year since the project began, musical pilgrims will get to experience the work of a true pioneer in hitherto unheard contexts. There will also, says Feshareki, be excellent Bakewell tarts for sale.
More intriguing still, ‘Occam River XV’ will be bookended by two new acoustic pieces by Lee Gamble. A producer and DJ operating on the abstract margins of techno, jungle, ambient and fractal computer music (for labels like PAN, Entr’acte, his own UIQ imprint and Hyperdub), Gamble has ventured outside of electronics for the first time here, a move facilitated by Feshareki’s desire to pay tribute to Radigue’s wholesale shift from electronic to acoustic music in the early 00s. It all promises to be extremely interesting.
The program is quite an undertaking, but Feshareki is no stranger to staging musical events of historical significance. Last July, she and composer James Bulley performed Daphne Oram’s then ‘lost’ masterpiece, ‘Still Point’. Written in 1949, it was the first known work to truly combine orchestral and electronic elements. Feshareki and Bulley’s inaugural performance was history made in real time.
In itself, Radigue’s ‘Occam River’ XV doesn’t have quite the same significance, but what it represents in her practice does. It’s the latest in a much wider series of Occam works. The first, ‘Occam I’, was written in 2011 for the harpist Rhodri Davies; there are now 22 of them. Collectively, Occam is Radigue’s twilight opus, the result of an unprecedented flurry of activity and the ultimate realization of a practice spanning the best part of 70 years.
A little context: Radigue is one of the most important names in 20th century composition, an electronic pioneer and a hugely influential figure in the convergent canons of minimalism and drone. She discovered musique concrète in the ‘50s, which blew her classical sonic purview wide open. She worked at Pierre Schaeffer’s Studio d’Essai, and was later an assistant to Pierre Henry.
In the late 1960s and early ‘70s she created a host of startling works by arduously manipulating feedback. Soon after this, while on residency at NYU, she began experimenting with a Buchla synthesizer installed there by Morton Subotnick. Intrigued by the potential of the synth, she shifted her attention to the modular ARP 2500. The resulting oeuvre, composed comprehensively on the ARP was, and still is, utterly startling.
Radigue’s music is relatively easy to describe but hard to truly quantify. She’s often pegged as a grand dame of drone, a label that she considers inaccurate. A drone, she explains, is like a building block: a single sonic element that wavers but never changes. And glacial, almost imperceptible change is at the very heart of her music. Radigue’s work merely “deceives you into thinking it’s static,” wrote Golden Retriever’s Matt Carlson in a 2014 piece for Self-Titled.
Her compositions – extremely long, extremely quiet, utterly brimming with life – are minimalism at its very finest and most literal. It is work that demands patience and attention: tectonically modulating suites that are both haunting and transcendent and crushingly beautiful all at once. She has many masterpieces, though Trilogie de la Morte, Adnos I-III, Jetsun Mila (all influenced, in some way, by her holistic conversion to Buddhism) and her final electronic work, 2000’s L’Île Re-Sonante, are particularly spellbinding.
“I have been making the same music all my life, or looking for the same music all my life.” Éliane Radigue
At the turn of the millennium, she was asked by noise artist Kaspar Toeplitz to write a composition for electric bass. Until this point, Radigue had pursued an almost hermetic practice, composing alone and always on her ARP 2500. The process of collaboration was an unprecedented influx of energy. “It was such a great pleasure, sharing and doing something together,” she explains, “that after that I didn’t want to go back to the very ascetic way I was working. Here, alone. I never had any assistant but my cats, one after the other.”
Thrilled by the creative potential of collaboration, Radigue worked with the American cellist Charles Curtis on the first of her Naldjorlak series – a cello solo – in 2004. The second piece was for dual basset horns, played by Bruno Martinez and Carol Robinson; the third for all three. The creation of Naldjorlak, she explains, saw the first true realization of the music she had been looking for over the past half century. Her electronic pieces never completely satisfied. These first acoustic ones did. “I have been making the same music all my life, or looking for the same music all my life,” she says. “But now the instrumentalist does it for me.”
Her works almost all begin with a simple image. “Even with the wild sounds of feedback, I always had some story in mind,” she explains. “It’s not making an illustration of that, it’s more an evocation of a state of mind.” Such is the case with the Occam series, the roots of which stretch back to the 1970s and a trip to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. There, she saw a display of all the known wavelengths in the universe, a concept that gave her “a kind of vertigo”. This was resigned to memory for nearly two decades, and revisited in the guise of “the image nearest the possibility of this perception: the ocean,” she says. “We can see the greatest wave to the smallest on the beach.”
Since ‘Occam I’, in 2011, she’s written Occam Rivers, which are duets; Deltas for trios and quartets; and Ocean works for a full orchestra. She tends to work with a musician first on a solo piece – a sort of initiation, before incorporating them into the larger ensembles. This teaches the intuition that’s central to her way of working. The piece commissioned by Feshareki, ‘Occam River XV’, is for the violinist Angharad Davies and double bassist Dominic Lash. Both have solo Occam works – Lash’s ‘Occam XVII’ was the piece that first inspired Feshareki to go caving.
Radigue doesn’t use written scores and the compositional process works as follows. First an image of waves or water is settled on with the collaborator/s. In Davies’ and Lash’s cases, those places were tidal estuaries; hers the Welsh River Dovey near Aberystwyth, his the Severn Bore. From there, it’s all open to intuition. The players play and Radigue sculpts, suggesting changes and pointing out what not’s working for her.
Whether composing with her ARP or with an orchestra, Radigue’s goal remains the same: “Ideally, after a few minutes, the listener should completely forget the fundamental and just be taken by the flowing of all of the play together… this quality of the immaterial.” Her music never rises above mezzo forte in volume (“And much more mezzo than forte!” she stresses). Modulations are near imperceptible. “The building structures of all my work are very simple. Fade in, fade out, cross fade. As simple as that.” She’s reluctant to make it more academic than this.
Despite the rigid consistency in both approach and form, Radigue never makes the same piece twice. “We never bathe two times in the same river,” she explains, poetically. Her way of working is more a set of guiding principles than of rules, anyway: a practice so meticulously honed that it just is. “It is quite inflexible, but then it doesn’t feel inflexible at all,” says Lash, in a group Skype call with Davies. “It’s more like if you play football you don’t have three teams – it’s just a thing.”
A process as idiosyncratic as this, I suggest, must present challenges to the player. Davies is classically trained (Lash’s background is more improvisational), and while she’s used to working with delicate or unpredictable sounds, maintaining control in the way Radigue demands can, she admits, be tricky. “The biggest challenge for me is to allow the piece to play itself and not to interfere in it in any way or try to manipulate the sound if it’s not quite working the way it should,” she says.
Once written, Radigue infers, the piece is entrusted to the performer. If they want, they can continue to play it. Charles Curtis, she says, has performed ‘Ndjorlak’ around 30 times. Conversely, “if they want, it will just disappear like water.” The process then begins anew.
This notion of gifting her music, as well as the limited scope for travel her age presents, means that Radigue is fairly nonplussed about the actual location in which it’s played – even one as outré as Great Masson, a series of tunnels and caverns reached by cable car. It’s quite the contrast to her electronic days, where she would fastidiously set up speakers around concert halls to best transmit her enveloping tones. For Feshareki, the idea that Radigue’s music should be performed somewhere as acoustically interesting as a cave was revelatory. Radigue seems quietly intrigued at best. She’s happy to get on with composing.
This is not the case for Lee Gamble. I make another house call, this time to north London’s Wood Green. Again, a little context. Gamble is best known for deep dives into the outer reaches of jungle, techno and digitally synthesized sound sculpture, but also cites the Fluxus art movement and composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis and Schaeffer as influences. Despite this, the pieces he’s written for Feshareki aren’t homage to Radigue. Rather, he explains, they’re a response to the cave itself. Gamble has long incorporated his interest in science and philosophy into his music; in this case, he’s added geology to the sonic landscape. Both of his Great Masson pieces have the working title of Karstics: karst being the geological name for a landscape built of soluble rock such as limestone, naturally given to cave systems (landscapes like the Peak District). He was psyched by the potential for observing deep time and living history the subterranean space presented. Noting the ‘literal residue’ of stalagmites and stalactites, the slow emergence of new natural forms became central to his vision for the compositions.
“I always liked the idea of kicking in the back door somehow. They wouldn’t let me in the front one – so I get in the back.” Lee Gamble
“I wanted to work with the space acoustically, but I also wanted to develop this way of producing works that kind of evolve themselves,” he explains, pulling out the rudimentary score he’s created for the first piece. It’s been written for two trumpets and a tuba, played by soloists from the London Contemporary Orchestra (when we meet, he’s yet to begin work on the second, which is for strings). Conventional it is not. Gamble is quick to admit that the has no formal musical training and is also swift to bemoan both the social and economic barriers that keep artists like him – a Brummie junglist – and your average orchestral musician apart, as well as the restrictions that formalized musical languages can instill in a player. Thus, initial dialogues on the piece, he explains, were exchanged in “adjectives, in metaphor, in fantasy language”.
The score has staves, but these are layered with straight horizontal lines – recalling electronic sine tones – which diverge organically, like cloud formations expanding high and low. These, he explains, are bifurcations: a term denoting the splitting of a main into two parts, which also has evolutionary significance. He drew these onto the staves, “not really giving a shit what notes they actually meant,” effectively creating a graphic score not a million miles away from Radigue’s figurative spoken ones. It was down to the players to help configure these shapes into music.
Where ‘Occam XV’ is removed from the context of the cave, Gamble is encouraging the players to use the space as a resonating chamber – to play into its depths and riff off the frequencies that bounce back. The cave becomes a fourth player in the piece: a geological feedback system, adding improvised harmonics. “Archaeoacoustic is the term,” he explains. “Meaning the acoustic of a space that is archaeological rather than manmade for sound.”
The musicians, he explains, were initially flummoxed by the plan. But the LCO is progressive, and they were receptive to his method. If anything, Gamble’s pieces present a way of redirecting cloistered, academic classical music through exhilarating new channels. Though the Karstics pieces aren’t of a dance music lexicon, they’re inescapably connected to that world.
Gamble agrees, with a caveat. “I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” he says. “Morton Feldman worked with pattern systems and Xenakis worked with deep mathematics. I would never expect to reinvent the entire modern classical canon in two three-hour sessions. But for me it’s a change – a way of dragging it over that high fence of the university. I think the LCO seem really keen on that and that’s amazing.”
How, I wonder, might this shape his music in the future? Gamble isn’t a stranger to experimentation, but his excitement at ploughing furrows outside of straight electronics is palpable and the cave project is a fine catalyst for embracing more meditative sounds. The very act of going underground has laid a path for unprecedented cross-pollination into – perhaps even iconoclasm of – the rarefied zones of classical music. “These things that come up and seem like challenges, I’m always thinking: ‘Right, how the fuck do we get this in there?” he says of the opportunity presented by the project. “I always liked the idea of kicking in the back door somehow. They wouldn’t let me in the front one – so I get in the back.”
By heading into the bedrock of the Peak District, Feshareki’s program should present a fascinating juxtaposition of practices, convincingly bringing different strains of the avant garde ever closer together. However it ends up sounding, it’s a pretty thrilling prospect. As above, so below.
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