Éliane Radigue: Naldjorlak

Éliane Radigue is drawn to the sound you cannot control. The French composer’s early pieces worked with electronic feedback; more recently, her Occam Ocean series has featured drone-like acoustic vibrations. In all her compositions, she observes how long-held tones waver and evolve, inviting us to tune into nearly imperceptible changes. Naldjorlak, composed with cellist Charles Curtis in 2005, was her first piece to be written for an acoustic instrument. Here, Radigue explores the cello’s wolf tone, a volatile note that’s very close to the resonant frequency of the instrument’s wooden body. A new release presents two versions of Naldjorlak—one recorded in Paris in 2006, and another in Los Angeles in 2020. In bringing these recordings together, the album presents the composition as a living, breathing document, illustrating how Radigue’s music embraces time’s unpredictability in both structure and performance.

The composition of Naldjorlak was a closely collaborative effort. In an essay that accompanies the album, Curtis recalls spending time with Radigue in Paris, where the two developed a routine of music making together. Like much of Radigue’s work, the piece isn’t notated; instead, it’s fluid, growing from a set of parameters that anticipate and respond to an unforeseeable future. To play the piece, Curtis tunes his cello to its wolf tone and pulls his bow across different parts of the instrument, giving every pitch a hazy shroud. The wolf tone occurs naturally in the cello, but like electronic feedback at an amplified performance, it’s typically considered ugly or flawed. “Tuning to the wolf tone inverts the conventional function of tuning, which is to link an individual instrument to a social norm—concert pitch,” Curtis writes. “The search for self-sameness reveals a unit of distance we would not have discovered without having attempted to bridge it.”

While the motion of each note is unpredictable, the piece moves in broad sections that explore different patterns and textures. At first, a distant grumble grows into a full, beating resonance; later, trilling hums and shrieks burst out of the instrument’s highest reaches. These phrases emerge from quiet pauses and crescendo into swarms, but their movement is so delicate that a drastic shift may go unnoticed until it’s already gone. Peer closer and those shifts establish a sense of presence: guideposts that point the way through the wavery drones.

Though each of the album’s featured recordings present this general structure, the two performances take on different moods and act as companions to one another. The 2006 recording feels eerie and dark, woven from low, faraway rumbles and chilly hums. It occupies a nervous headspace, building an anxiety that’s never quite released. The 2020 recording feels like an answer to that tension—it sounds more assured and resolute, the cello’s wolf tone taking a richer, more resonant stance. It also feels more patient: Curtis’ bowings sigh like exhales. By the end, his cello whistles and floats with breezy ease, marking a departure from the 2006 recording, in which the ending evokes the howl from which the wolf tone takes its name.

When Radigue was creating her early feedback pieces, she often wondered how to control the sound, or if it could be controlled at all. With Naldjorlak, Curtis and Radigue yield to the cello’s wolf tone, a note with an inherent instability that many players would seek to avoid or correct. Instead of working around the wolf tone, Naldjorlak celebrates it—the music pays close attention to its every aspect, placing it front and center yet allowing it to roam. In a 2009 essay titled “The Mysterious Power of the Infinitesimal,” Radigue wrote: “This long journey through uncertain lands also enabled me to simply recognize what was already there, buried, hidden.” Naldjorlak serves as a reminder that if we listen closely enough, any sound can be music—and music, like all things, is changed in the current of time.