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Horatiu Radulescu - Playing the unplayable

Roger Heaton



Sound Plasma - music of the future sign - Darmstadt 1972

A decade later – Darmstadt 1982

The score of The Inner Time

Playing the unplayable


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Despite his prolific output, together with his receiving numerous performances and commissions, particularly in Germany and France from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, the music of Horatiu Radulescu (b. Bucharest 1942, d. Paris 2008) is much less well known than that of the French Itinéraire group - Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, Michaël Lévinas, Hugues Dufourt and others – with whom he is often, mistakenly, associated. It was Dufourt who coined the term La Musique Spectrale in a short article in 1979[1], in which he discussed the technique while, perhaps strangely, omitting to mention any composers by name or any of the activities of the Ensemble l’Itinéraire, which was formed in 1973. Controversially, Radulescu has stated on many occasions that it was he who originated spectral composition earlier in 1969, although he does acknowledge Stockhausen’s Stimmung from the previous year as an influence.

Before defecting to the West, to Paris in 1969, Radulescu had already been working on ideas related to the harmonic spectrum and was planning a piece, Credo op. 10 for nine cellos, on which he subsequently based his claim to have created the first composition to use spectral techniques. Credo is constructed entirely from the upper partials of a low C fundamental up to the forty-fifth harmonic. In this piece, Radulescu uses particular extended instrumental techniques for strings to animate the music, for example very fast flautando either sul tasto or ponticello. These kinds of techniques, which result in much higher partials of a fundamental, were ones that he then transferred to other instruments and, in modified form, are the central techniques used in the solo clarinet piece The Inner Time discussed here.

Sound Plasma - music of the future sign - Darmstadt 1972
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In the early 1970s, Radulescu attended and spoke at Messiaen’s composition classes, which were also attended by the younger Grisey. He also lectured at the Darmstadt Summer Courses in 1972. His thoughts on his work at this time resulted in two texts, the more important of which is Sound Plasma – music of the future sign, a short pamphlet completed in 1973 and published by Edition Modern in Munich in 1975. Sound Plasma is a theoretical text, a work that is simultaneously a piece of prose/poetry and a musical composition. The theoretical text is overlaid with what Radulescu calls ‘stardust poetry’. It is very much of its time in concept and design, hand-written by Radulescu himself in white on purple paper. In his 1972 Darmstadt lecture[2], Radulescu elucidated the theory presented in Sound Plasma, doing so despite many interruptions from composers in the room, which became more frequent and heated as the lecture progressed. His view of post-serialist music was very much at odds with the Darmstadt aesthetic at this time. In the opening of Sound Plasma, he writes:

The sound in itself is an endless ocean of vibrations…for millennia we made music treating the sound from its outside, i.e. combining sounds more or less into monody, homophony, polyphony and heterophony. This historically exhausted DISCONTINUANCE [his capitals] which consisted in the use of sounds as points and lines, of mode steps (scales), of rhythm, of modal and tonal gravity centres, etc., succeeded in entering the sound cosmos through Webern.[3]

Radulescu believed that Webern represented the end of the old music, the pinnacle, and not the beginning of something new; he cited the works of Xenakis, early Ligeti - particularly Atmospheres of 1961 - and Stockhausen’s Stimmung as examples of ‘Special State Music’, opening the door to the future. For him, both serial and post-serial music belonged to the past, constituting what he disparagingly called ‘action, pantomime music…[a] historically exhausted discontinuance’, constructed with the familiar, traditional building blocks of music; by contrast, he saw the ‘Continuance’ emerging from ‘special state music’ as forming the core of his new spectral or ‘plasmatic’ music[4].

Figure 1: Page 5 from Sound Plasma

In Sound Plasma, Radulescu explores the possibility of sound’s autonomy, working with sound situations created by the different treatments of fundamentals, the spectra produced by these treatments and the isolation of individual spectra and harmonics. The music results ‘naturally’ from the initial organisation of sound sources, its interest lying in the interaction of the harmonics, difference tones, sub-tones and so on. The texture created by this interaction is the ‘sound plasma’ – gliding and trembling microtonal narrow frequency bands which form a kind of spectrum pulse. This may be produced naturally or by interventions such as the human voice, combined with/delivered through instruments, electronic and natural sounds and multiphonic sounds. There can be instrumental control but also a great deal of instability, which he actively encourages. Dynamics can follow a similarly unstable pattern, and timbre is a result of simultaneous and often conflicting spectra.

To help us navigate this sound space, Radulescu provides a ‘sound compass’ (at the top of the page in figure 1 and in my drawing in figure 2) whose axes join opposites that represent a definition of the space in which the sound occurs. N, Noise (North), means ‘unclearness, wave unperiodicity, irregularity, opaque spectrum, confusion between fundamentals and harmonics […]’.[5] S, Sound (South), is its opposite: clarity and regularity. W, Width (West), represents ‘wide atmospheres of agglomerate and dense sound plasma’ and E, Element (East), stands for a ‘narrow band of rarefied sound plasma’[6] The interaction of these cardinal points gives rise to the macro pulse of the sound plasma, which, in turn, gives the music its density in time, that is, its form. Figure 2 shows the extreme limits of the sound space and the distribution of traditional music and natural sounds in the space as Radulescu sees it.

Figure 2: Cardinal points of the sound compass

According to Radulescu, the vibrations that are perpetually present in the environment are channelled to our senses through five ‘global sound sources’[7]: human (vocal sounds, breath), concrete human (language, articulation), natural (birdsong, wind, rain), instrument/object (cello, pebble, wood), and electronic. These five sources co-exist and can interact within the ‘plasma’. The sound could, for example, be natural but also be mediated or contained in some or all of the other four: the micro fuses to create a macro which, in a sense, is a ‘composition’. An example of one of Radulescu’s ‘compositions’, one of the earliest and probably most frequently performed, is Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets (1974) for seven woodwinds of the same type – it has been most often played by seven flautists. It comprises 96 pitches, including microtones, each with four symbols showing the treatment to be applied: multiphonics, multiphonic trills or tremolos, fluttertongue and singing in unison with the pitch through the instrument. Players begin at different positions in the series of 96 pitches and with different treatments, so that each pitch is treated both by the player (micro plasma) and by the natural interaction of sound between the other six players (macro plasma). The sounds are intended to bear as little resemblance as possible to those of the instrument when it is played in a conventional way. As Radulescu says in a further passage from his 1972 Darmstadt lecture:

…you touch some instance of unrecognisable source and parameter of sound. This is very important to arrive at a new state of the sound where source and sound…are not so clear are more complex are not hand-made…are more natural. Therefore I called the future of the music as only, as technique, plasma or plasmatically played. There, instead of notes on systems…of scales of all these materials, you will get a new idea of micro structure and macro structure. …childishly and very poetically I define a bit this theory as enter the sound and play there and from there, to play very near the other and/or the same infinite long sound and/or noises. It is very general instead of this tired discontinuums in space and time of traditional music - we have to apply to…very great continuums and therefore we chose…narrow frequency bands. …All the music of today and of all centuries you are a bit annoyed by something very old, this is the action, the appearance and disappearance, the attack and stop, all is pantomime with sound, contrast and so on. All this will be forgotten, maybe, sometime, to go closer to the nature for example to imagine the changing colour of clouds so discretely that you can’t say what moment it was violet or what moment it was red or grey…[8].

A decade later – Darmstadt 1982
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In 1982, the first year Friedrich Hommel was director of the Darmstadt Summer Course, there was a focus on the Itinéraire group with performances and lectures by Grisey, Murail, Dufourt and Lévinas. Radulescu was also invited to give a lecture and there were numerous performances of his works during the two weeks. He spoke again in the 1982 lecture about aspects of the original theory from Sound Plasma, but his treatment of it was more expanded and extensive. He emphasised two aspects of his work that are significant for the performer: ‘I have not recognised the score if it is well played…’, and, ‘It is very difficult to recognise, if it is well played, who is playing and what is playing’[9].

The score of The Inner Time
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Op 42 as a whole consists of two works that are inversely related – The Outer Time whose macro-structure is a pitch/register ‘mountain’, moving from low to high to low, and The Inner Time, a ‘valley’, whose pitch/register ranges from high to low to high. Radulescu made many versions of both of these works for different instrumental combinations: a version of The Inner Time, the seventh, was one of the last pieces he completed in December 2007. In all its versions, The Inner Time is an homage to Alexander Calder, the American sculptor best known for his ‘mobiles’, and to mobile form more generally, as is clear from the following example (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Mobiles - page 30 from the score of The Inner Time

The Inner Time lasts twenty-eight minutes and uses only multiphonics, harmonics and what Radulescu calls ‘yellow tremoli’; these are colour trills or a kind of bisbigliando, following exact rhythmic patterns by pulsing and trilling on one note. On woodwind instruments, multiphonics are produced when notes, usually lower fundamentals, are split apart, either by specific fingerings, embouchure manipulation or a combination of the two. The harmonics within these conglomerate sounds can be explored individually but also built, rebuilt and layered on top of each other. With individual multiphonics, these pitch modifications can be controlled relatively exactly. What Radulescu asks for in this piece is a thick texture of multiple multiphonics, sounding and reacting simultaneously, each ‘mobile’ beginning with a single line expanding to a rich texture represented by the ‘mobile’ shape and then returning to a single pitch. The ‘mobiles’, or modules as he calls them, are long and thin in the opening and final sections of the work (see Figures 4 and 5). The first module is fifty-five seconds long – the vertical dotted lines correspond to seconds and the numbers on the vertical axes are the pitches expressed as frequencies. The modules in Figure 3 last for between four and seven seconds and cover a wide pitch range from the tenth to thirty-second harmonic. The pitch material is a selection of partials of a low G fundamental: partials six to eleven and then every odd partial from the thirteenth up to the eighty-third. Figure 6 gives the resulting forty-two pitches as numbers and frequencies, with written pitch transposed for clarinet in B flat; Figure 7 shows the same but noted on the stave (both are in Radulescu’s own hand).

Figure 4: score, page 1

Figure 5: score, page 2

Figure 6: 42 frequency ‘orbits’

Figure 7: 42 frequency orbits notated on the stave

There are seven versions of The Inner Time Op. 42/2. The original piece for solo clarinet (composed for the author after working together at the 1982 Darmstadt Ferienkurse) was first performed in London at the Purcell Room on April 28 1983. As with the many versions of The Outer Time Op. 42/1, from which The Inner Time was developed, all use either the same score or a modified version in more traditional notation; what changes is the way in which they are negotiated by the player - or players, when further instruments are added. In the 1984 Darmstadt performance, for example, the solo version had five clarinet players added who picked out individual partials from the solo score, sustaining them for each of the modules and following the overall pitch descent and ascent of the entire piece. Radulescu also devised versions of both pieces where there is no central solo part and multiple instruments take a few lines each, rather than players attempting to realise each module in full. There is, for example, a version of The Outer Time for twenty-three flutes and he made a version of the clarinet piece for a group of seven clarinettists led by Armand Angster called Inner Time II (1993). In both of these versions, the partials are notated as pitches on the stave for ease of reading.

Playing the unplayable
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It is clear that the piece is technically impossible to play exactly as notated. As a solo piece, some of the sections may be partially realised as notated - for example, those at the beginning and end which have fewer lines. The fast, central modules can also be quite closely approximated with single, unstable multiphonics. Otherwise, though, the challenge to the performer is that of ‘playing the unplayable’.

The oboist Christopher Redgate, discussing his newly-designed oboe[10], writes about new sounds and extended techniques where ‘the technical demands can be extreme, sometimes approaching the unplayable [although here he is talking about traditionally-notated pieces, Ferneyhough for example] and the resulting works have influenced performance practice, expanding the potential of the instrument, and redefining and developing new technical realms’[11]. Redgate talks about players ‘finding solutions’[12]; this is something we have been doing for quite a long time at least since the eighteenth century. In 1995,[13] I expressed the view that nothing was new then, with regard to extended techniques, that had not been present over the previous thirty years or so, and nothing has changed in the intervening years to the present day apart from, perhaps, the influence of digital technology. What has changed is that players have developed technically across all musical styles but particularly in the area of contemporary art music, redefining the boundaries of the playable.

By way of example, in the clarinet repertory Peter Maxwell Davies’ Hymnos (1967) was considered at the edge of possibility, with its high E flat in the final bars that is, in theory, off the range; but this is now performed by quite a few players including postgraduate conservatoire students. Other examples of ‘impossibility’ are a number of pieces by Vinko Globokar from the 1970s for clarinet, bass and contrabass clarinets, as well as trombone pieces which he wrote for himself to play. These are unplayable only in the sense that Globokar asks for the performer to do a number of things simultaneously: Voix Instrumentalisée (1973) for bass clarinet without the mouthpiece requires vocalising together with pitched notes and glissandi (using a trombone embouchure), percussive effects with fingers, playing on the in-breath, circular breathing and so on - a combination of which, unlike the notational demands of, say, Ferneyhough, is sometimes quite literally physically impossible to produce. It is the tension and drama in the act of trying that is as much part of the musical intention as any kind of accuracy. The idea of the unplayable and the unpredictable is also largely the problem with microtonal writing, particularly for wind and brass instruments that are not designed to play microtones - hence Redgate’s recent microtonal oboe. However, the creation of special instruments to address the problem is also not new, with the first quarter-tone clarinet appearing in 1900.

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The aim in much of this music is a performance that Ferneyhough has called an honourable or ‘intelligent failure’, ‘the knife-edge quality of the possibility of not achieving something’.[14] Ferneyhough’s concept of success/failure is in relation to the composer/performer duality of traditionally-notated music. But again, unlike Ferneyhough, Globokar is an improviser so, rather than the faithful execution of a score, the element of chance, setting up a precise situation but one where the outcome may be as yet unknown or unexpected, is, for him, at the heart of the music. There are many other examples of this, of course, across art music since the Second World War (Luigi Nono’s late music or Sciarrino for example), and it is here that Radulescu’s music should be placed in terms of performance practice. There is the composer’s awareness of over-stepping the limits of the humanly realizable, but there is always a clear vision of a musical ideal. What is different in Radulescu is that, despite the obvious difficulty in performing these pieces, they are not about virtuosity in the traditional sense because they do not engage with fully-notated scores, nor do they demand great technical dexterity or speed. Radulescu’s music is not, to use his terminology, part of the ‘pantomime’ of post-serialist modernism, it is also not improvisation; it is perhaps best described as a prescriptive, action notation which requires the performer to ‘do their best’.

Finally, as a complement to this exposition in the form of a performance of The Inner Time introduced by the author, please see: Roger Heaton discusses and performs Radulescu’s piece for solo clarinet “The Inner Time” - YouTube.

  1. Hugues Dufourt Musique spectrale, (Paris: Société Nationale de Radiodiffusion, Radio France/Société internationale de musique contemporaine, SIMC, 1979) III, pp. 30–2. See also Hugues Dufourt, La musique spectrale. Une révolution épistémologique, (Paris: Éditions Delatour, 2014). ↩︎

  2. A recording, Kompositionsstudio: Horatiu Radulescu (July 1972), is held in the archive of the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt. The online catalogue is available from ↩︎

  3. Horatiu Radulescu Sound Plasma - Music of the Future Sign or My High D opus 19 (Munich: Edition Modern, 1975) p. 3. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., p. 3. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., p. 5. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., p. 6. ↩︎

  7. Ibid., p. 7. ↩︎

  8. This transcription gives a flavour of Radulescu’s vocabulary and spoken style. His thesis caused some upset – as the audience became more heated and vocal, Radulescu became calmer and quieter. ↩︎

  9. Kompositionsstudio: Horatiu Radulescu (July 1982). Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt ↩︎

  10. Christopher Redgate ‘Composition changing instruments changing composition’ in Clarke, E., and M. Doffman (eds.), Distributed Creativity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) pp.141-152. ↩︎

  11. Redgate (2017) p. 142. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., p. 143. ↩︎

  13. Roger Heaton in C. Lawson (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp. 163-183. ↩︎

  14. Boros, J., and R. Toop (eds.), Brian Ferneyhough: Collected Writings (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1998) pp. 269-270. ↩︎