Liner notes for the CPO CD Lao Tzu Sonatas:
Horatiu Radulescu: Trois Sonates d’après Lao tzu opus 82, 86 et 92  (1991 – 1999)

Ortwin Stürmer, piano

The three sonatas on this disc are the first solo piano works composed by Horatiu Radulescu for over twenty years – since his first Piano Sonata, “Cradle to Abysses,” op.5, written in Bucharest in 1968. Shortly after completing that early sonata Radulescu had a vision of a radically new kind of music, the technical underpinnings of which would utterly transform his compositional language and which – a third of a century later – can be seen as one of the crucial innovations in late twentieth-century music. This approach he calls the “spectral technique of composition.”

The first work composed in this new manner, Credo for nine celli op.10 (conceived in Bucharest and completed after his move to Paris in 1969), uses the first 45 natural harmonics of the cello’s low C as musical material; upon these components of the sound spectrum Radulescu builds 4170 micro-music events and 585 “rhythm implosions,” penetrating inside the cello timbre to reinforce and animate the rich inner life of each sound. Credo led Radulescu to conceive of the material of music not as abstract notes to be permuted on the page, but as living matter, as “sound plasma.” He felt, as he wrote in his article “Musique de mes univers” in 1985, that to move forward from the excessively self-referential complexity of much postwar European music “it was necessary to ‘enter into’ the sound, to rediscover the ocean of vibrations that Pythagoras scrutinised two thousand years ago.”* His spectral technique is both new and, simultaneously, reaffirms an ancient value overlooked in the rationalism of much late twentieth-century music: the spirituality of sound.

This spectral approach calls for an evolution in our thinking about pitch, and necessitates a much richer palette of pitches than a single equal-tempered piano can easily provide: Radulescu’s music is conceived always in the complex, unequal intervallic relationships that characterise the harmonic series. For some years, therefore, works for solo piano were absent from Radulescu’s substantial output. In the 1970s and ’80s he composed for a dizzying diversity of ensembles, often radical in conception – for seven identical woodwinds in Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets (1972-80); for nine orchestras in Wild Incantesimo (1978); for 34 children’s voices with 34 spectrally tuned monochords in Do Emerge Ultimate Silence (1974-84); for nine string quartets, one placed in the centre and eight around the audience (like “an imaginary viola da gamba with 128 strings”) in the Fourth String Quartet “Infinite To Be cannot be Infinite, Infinite Anti-Be could be Infinite” (1976-87). The earliest versions of Outer Time (1980) were for 23 flutes or 42 Thai gongs; and Byzantine Prayer (1988), composed as a requiem for Radulescu’s friend Giacinto Scelsi, calls for 40 flautists playing 72 flutes. The incredible sound worlds of these pieces are much more than simply “microtonal”: like a sculptor, one has the sense of Radulescu moulding and shaping his “sound plasma” into vibrant life.

The radicalism of these early works has not diminished in the succeeding decades. But the comprehensive love that Radulescu feels for the great traditions of Western music meant that he could not simply dispense with so central a constituent of that tradition as the modern grand piano. Rather, he ventured through several stages of “reinventing” the piano so that it too could form a viable part of the new sound worlds of his imagination. The first such reinvention was the most bold: to lay the piano on its side, and play on the spectrally retuned strings directly with fine, rosined threads that are woven through the field of strings in V shapes. “The instrument is presented in a new light,” Radulescu wrote; “it now resembles a religious object – a Byzantine icon. At a time when religion was only possible in Romania through music, I called this instrument the Sound Icon.” Works like A Doini (1974) for seventeen players with sound icons, or Clepsydra (1983) for sixteen, are compelling examples of the composer’s quest for the “emanation of the immanence,” the actualisation of the music immanent in each vibrating body. The next stage of reinvention was to have the piano retuned spectrally, so that intervals corresponding to the natural harmonics could be heard free from the distortions of temperament: this procedure was used in 1990 in Outer Time (for two grand pianos spectrally tuned; a second version followed in 2001) and in 1992-95 in Animae Morte Carent for oboe d’amore and (partly) spectrally tuned piano.

In fact the most direct step back to the “normal” piano came about through a superb piece for a different sort of keyboard: the organ work Christe Eleison op.69, written in 1986 for the organ of the Speyer Dom in Germany. In this piece Radulescu found he could effect a meeting between his spectral techniques and the tempered scale, thereby preparing the ground for a personal reconciliation with the piano. When a commission came in 1991 from the Ministry of Arts and Sciences in Baden-Württemberg to write a work for the Freiburg pianist Ortwin Stürmer, he responded with a new sonata, fully twenty-three years after the first; three further sonatas and a colossal Piano Concerto The Quest op.90 (recorded on CPO 999 589-2) have followed in the years since. (The third and fourth sonatas were also responses to commissions from the same source: all three sonatas and the Piano Concerto were premiered by Ortwin Stürmer.) It is a testament to Radulescu’s integrity that these piano works involve no compromise or “softening” of his language; the very new harmonic, heterophonic, polyphonic and monodic structures of the sonatas continue the line of musical development he has pursued since the late 1960s.

The second, third and fourth sonatas (as well as the recently completed fifth) are all inspired by the Tao te Ching of the Chinese philosopher Lao tzu (6th-5th century BC). Phrases from the Tao are appended to the works as overall subtitles and sometimes also as headings of individual movements. Typically for Radulescu, however, such poetic inspiration is always set alongside rigorous structural designs that exemplify spectral archetypes.

The thirteen minutes of the Second Sonata, “being and non-being create each other” op.82 (premiered by Ortwin Stürmer at the University in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany in 1991), are divided into the unequal proportions 8mn, 3mn and 2mn. The first movement, “Immanence,” opens with a powerful sonority built from spectral functions of a low Bb, answered by simulations of the 5th, 16th and 21st partials of a C spectrum and then by a transposition of the opening chord a semitone higher, to a B fundamental. The wide spacing of this opening material gives a sense of immensity and a strength of utterance typical of the composer. A second theme is an invented folk-like melody played quietly in the right hand as though a spectral emanation from the pedal notes played strongly by the left. Other thematic ideas are used as transitions and developmental material. The second movement, “Byzantine Bells,” sets a melody built from an unusual six-note mode spanning a perfect fifth (B C D E F F# – a mixture of Locrian and Phrygian) against a sudden fortissimo bell-chord on a C fundamental (an echo of the first movement). The right pedal is held down throughout the movement, giving the sense of music travelling to the listener across a great distance. The finale, “Joy,” is in an “aksak” macro-metre of fifteen beats divided as 2+2+2+3+3+3. Into this ostinato structure are set fragments from early compositions of Radulescu – some of them written 45 years previously – which here are heard afresh in the new spectral language of his mature self.

Although begun only a year later, the Third Sonata “you will endure forever” op.86 was not completed until 1999. The score is inscribed “to Ortwin Stürmer, in friendship”; Stürmer premiered the work that year at the Festival International de Piano de la Roque d’Anthéron. The Sonata is a hommage to the Australian pianist Roger Woodward. The work has five movements in a symmetrical pattern: the outer two movements are the longest and most varied in terms of material; the second and fourth are both prolongations of a single mood, respectively tragic and joyous; and the middle movement, the shortest, radiates a melancholy beauty that leads Radulescu to describe it as the “nucleus” of the whole work. The first movement, “If you stay in the center,” sets two types of material in a sonata pattern: the first derives from spectral functions centered on the note D, and is dramatic, even devilish; in contrast, the second theme is a serene Byzantine hymn of the XIIIth century (later in the movement we hear also a passionate hymn from the IXth century), which Radulescu presents quietly in a complex though translucent heterophony based on the principle of diffraction (the melody superimposed upon itself in unison, but at different speeds simultaneously). In this ecstatic music, religion and scientific precision converge in a sonorous architecture of considerable complexity. The second movement, in sudden and compelling contrast, is funeral music of immense tragedy: Radulescu invokes Lao tzu’s “And embrace death with your whole heart” in remembering the martyrs of the world. At the beginning an obsessively reiterated low Eb underscores spectral resonance above it; after some minutes the low note seems to unlock the resonance of a high Ab, which suddenly joins the texture. The low pulsating note at one point shifts unexpectedly downwards to a Bb and finally to the bottom A of the piano, as though at the very threshold of the audible.

In contrast the third movement, “Doïna,” returns to melodic music of great beauty. The melody, below high spectral “chirpings”, is an authentic folk melody – a “cântec lung” from Maramures in the north of Romania, played by a young shepherd on a tilinca, a pipe without finger holes – in what Radulescu regards as a proto-spectral mode (harmonics 8, 9, 10, 11, 12; the eleventh harmonic, impossible to play on the equal-tempered piano, is here simulated by the use of the perfect fourth and the augmented fourth simultaneously – the fused sonority of the two notes, here F and F#, invoking the otherwise-unrealisable eleventh harmonic). The placing of ancient elements into an authentically modern context, as exemplified in this movement, is typical of Radulescu. The fourth movement, “Dance of the Eternal,” consists of twenty-five variations on a whirling eight-measure phrase built on a spectral chord that Radulescu likens to a “Brancusi infinite column” of sound, ending with a subtle surprise of a second, different such “column.” The final movement, “You will endure forever,” is music of tremendous energy: it presents its materials obsessively, as though to emphasise a sense of endurance and longevity. Two single pitches, a low C and a high F, compete for tonal supremacy; both are reiterated in diffracted canon patterns (here the canons are purely rhythmic). The sound-world created by such intensely concentrated material often suggests gongs or, at times, echoes of Radulescu’s Sound Icon music. This material is cut through by a large spectral chord (on a D spectrum) that leaps across the keyboard as though, says Radulescu, it were a kind of “cosmic Scriabin.” As the movement progresses, new elements appear: a G, neighbour to the reiterated F, and, later, ever-more numerous accumulations of pitches clustering around these two; and two further ideas which Radulescu (whimsically, but not altogether fancifully) names “telluric Modest Musorgsky” and “divine Igor Stravinsky.” The sonata as a whole, he says, is music that invokes the “happiness, beatitude and dizziness of Eternity.”

The exquisite Fourth Sonata “like a well… older than God” op.92 was completed in 1993, and premiered by its dedicatee Ortwin Stürmer in Waldkirch that same year. The temporal macro-form of its four movements corresponds to a number pattern analogous to “ring elements” (self-generative functions) in the harmonic spectrum: the movements have “ideal” timings of 7, 4, 1 and 3 minutes respectively. The attention Radulescu gives to such proportions is not in any sense contrary to the mystic inspiration suggested by the title; rather, both facets are united for him as an intrinsic part of the luminosity for which he searches. The Fourth Sonata has been described by Roger Woodward as “a miracle of beauty,” and no more perfect integration can be found of what might be thought of as the poetry and the science of Radulescu’s music.

The first movement, “Trumpets of the eternal,” is a play of two main motifs with a subsidiary one in a novel sonata form. The arresting opening motif uses elements from two spectra a major ninth apart: the descending four notes in the right hand, F# Eb, Db, C (from a spectrum on F#) resonate brilliantly against the four ascending in the left, E, G, Ab, Bb (from a spectrum on E). In the composer’s words: “This sonorous brass-like play further unifies the 8 elements into a spectrum of E, but an “arch” melody of the suddenly discrete bass voice, on an F-spectrum, will operate a modulation of the previous 8 elements, during their resonance – “astral transmutation”, into a global F spectrum of all the 12 unique chromatic elements.” This technique of mixing spectra, characteristic of Radulescu, here generates a sound world that evokes the splendour of trumpets sounding from different sides of a wide, reverberant space (like that of San Marco in Venice). The second theme of the movement, in a slightly slower tempo, is a “colind” – a carol from Transylvania notated by Bartók around 1911. It is presented as a diffracted canon – first in two, then in three and then four tempi simultaneously, as though the melody was being heard echoing around a valley. A third motif, a dramatic chain of notes spanning the keyboard from very low to very high (which Radulescu likens to “acoustic lightning”), is constructed of his characteristic auto-generative pitch patterns – chains of simulated harmonics 5, 16 and 21, linked by pivot tones. (These sorts of interval relationships Radulescu regards as being branches of the “family tree of frequencies,” a concept essential to almost all the music he has composed.) The second movement, “The sacred sound, the Second” is a spacious and resonant sound-world built on the simulated partials of a single pitch, B of 247 Hz (a semitone below middle C), going as high as the seventeenth partial. Radulescu here works with extremes of dynamics: several shades of very loud and very soft. The long resonances of these sounds (single notes or groupings of notes) create a sonic equivalent of the mobiles of Alexander Calder, with movement around a still point (the B fundamental). The third movement, “music… older than music,” is a compositional gem, lasting exactly one minute and perfectly symmetrical around its centre point: thirty seconds of music are followed by thirty seconds of resonance. The music is a progressive crescendo of two superimposed “colinde” – Romanian carols – out of phase with each other both rhythmically and harmonically (their fundamentals are a minor ninth apart). This creates the sensation of music (or, as the composer suggests, the resonance of an enormous gong) approaching from a distance and invading the listener; at its climax the “music” stops and the “non played music” – the resonance – remains, immense and eloquent in what it does not say. The finale, “Abyss,” uses an unpredictable meter of eleven beats with constantly changing groupings, and integrates music from earlier in the sonata to bring the work “in a frenzy of activity to its summit: the Light.”

*/ see also Radulescu’s writings:
Sound Plasma – Music of the Future Sign, Paris 1973/ Munich, Edition Modern 1975
and “Brain and Sound Resonance: The World of Self-Generative Functions as a Basis of the Spectral Language of Music,” in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 999 ISBN 1-57331-452-8, December 2003, pages 322-363.

© Bob Gilmore, 2004
~ by horatiuradulescu on November 2, 2008