The Infinite Becoming

Catherine Lamb

OCCAM XII for viola

Comparison is a dangerous trap, especially when applied to something as abstract and individual as composition. In skimming the surface of Catherine Lamb’s music—and I mean the very surface—one might be lulled into a sense of knowing; a feeling that it is simply an extension of artists who have come before her, especially Éliane Radigue. Of course this is ridiculous and, as in the example of Éliane and La Monte Young spoken of elsewhere in this issue, all it takes is the slightest amount of attention and care to see that the differences in approach to sound and structure are entirely different.

But, for all that, there are less musically obvious connections. To me, Catherine and Éliane share many personal traits: confidence, curiosity, and the ability to completely throw themselves into what fascinates them musically and in general. I wasn’t at all surprised to realize that Catherine’s first introduction to Éliane unlocked something that, while being “revolutionary,” was already resonating inside.

The year 2005 was a big turning point for me. I was in my early 20s and meeting many incredible people in and around Los Angeles and through CalArts that became significant friends and mentors alike. Éliane just so happened to visit as part of an electronic music festival at REDCAT called CEAIT [Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology]. I didn’t meet her personally, and I wasn’t so aware of what was happening in the electronic world at that point (nor did I realize she was probably in California to work with Charles on Naldjorlak) but, through hearing her music, I began to get interested. In the years following, her electronic music became revolutionary for me. She is one of the most important artists of our time. And, on a personal level, I resonated deeply with what she was doing. And when I listen to her electronic music from, say, the 1970s, I am still in awe with how contemporary it sounds 50 years later.

Around 2010/11, I met Laetitia Sonami who had a very close relationship with her. She strongly suggested that I meet with Éliane, who was in a new phase of acoustic work that involved being with people and intuiting this resonation. Laetitia helped set up a meeting at Éliane’s home in Paris (along with a grant from Richard Teitelbaum). I wasn’t entirely certain what this would mean, only that I was going to meet someone whose work was very important to me. I had no idea I would be working on a piece in the OCCAM series at that point!

The term “revolutionary” is one—like “iconoclast” or “visionary”—that needs defending. Without a critical reasoning that digs deep below the surface, these terms run the risk of hyperbole. Knowing enough about Catherine, I guessed that the word “revolutionary” was chosen carefully and that she had a full accounting for her reasoning. I was correct, luckily, because it not only steered our discussion into deeper appreciations for Éliane’s work but introduced Catherine’s specific use of the word “classical” to refer to an artist’s idealism about the world and the work they do in it.

I’m going to avoid talking about the romantic aspects of her character as being relevant to her revolutionary nature: the picture of her as a beautiful, isolated woman inspired by her Buddhist practice in a country that did not take notice of her until later in her career—composing at a time that did not favor subtlety or femininity. That has all been written about enough and is not what makes her work revolutionary to me personally. That’s only the surface layer. It’s not about the character but the work itself—what it asks of the listener both from the composer’s perspective and the standpoint of the passive listener.

Her electronic work never compromises, never gives in to any notion of “the audience,” but rather challenges the listener to take on a more active and charged role. She never gives in to the impulse of impressing us in the traditional sense. She doesn’t need to convince us of her compositional abilities, or of anything surface-layer-virtuosic at all. I’ve been listening back through her electronic work starting in the 70s and this is consistently true. Her work challenges the listener to find joy in elemental interaction, to listen into the infinite nature of it, into the complexity of the microscopic, into the layers. She challenges our perception of structure by focusing the attention towards an immeasurable cross-fade. Her work is generous, because it questions our notions of time, complexity, and perception. It is rarely easy music; I can still discover beauty when I return to it, and the form is clear, impressionable, complete. I can’t think of work that more greatly concentrates its energy around the notion of transitional states—the infinite becoming.

By the time of the OCCAM series, however, it’s possible that her classical1 language and form had been so established that the beauty had already been defined for the listeners. Because of this it feels less revolutionary to me. However, we can also celebrate the beauty after it’s been transformed! There’s a time for revolutionary and a time to simply enjoy and to share with others.

Catherine and I met very briefly at a two-night presentation of OCCAM in Paris. I have a feeling it is around the time she was working on OCCAM XII for viola, and I was finishing OCCAM X for trumpet. From my point of view, it felt like two people that were undertaking a process that they knew to be objectively the same but subjectively different. We spoke about composing a little, and her history at CalArts, in an attempt to find some common ground without speaking about the obvious thing that connected us: our difficult and transformative work with Éliane.

I arrived in Paris in the winter of 2012/13 and, after a bit of confusion as to why I was there, I committed to delving into a solo piece with her and, in so doing, released myself into her world. She wasn’t so interested in mine, so I had to humble myself and accept that hers was already rich enough; that I was there to be a passive entity. I had never worked with anyone quite like that before. I had interpreted the work of friends but other than the works that I have most immediately or easily identified with, I wouldn’t say that interpretation is my strongest suit (laziness in other words). I am in great awe of true interpreters, as I believe this to be a very important and creative kind of working; not something to be considered secondary to the composer but something in line with, involving a great deal of care and commitment.

With that said, working on OCCAM felt very different. The materials and the image I brought to her were particularly my own—elements that were part of my own being—and she drew those elements into her own world and gave me a structure, form, and manner in which to move through heightened transitional states. So, it felt very personal to me, but I would never call it my piece. It is hers.

To be honest, working with her and being in that role initiated a new phase for me, or a new confrontation of how to focus my energies (as in life commitments). Well, it’s difficult to know where the phase began exactly because I also transitioned to Berlin shortly after meeting her and then, a year or two later, had my son. So, I had to become more concentrated within my own creative output, but I think that somehow her presence helped me to define that for myself.

At this point, I have to directly reference our interview for this issue. I have learned over the years that forcing a perspective on an interview subject never offers up the magical response you were expecting. If you think someone’s work is coming from a Marxist perspective, you find out they often quote Keynes. But every once in a while, there is a question I’m just dying to ask. In this case, I was very interested in hearing Catherine talk about her experience working with Éliane—as a composer as well as a violist. I had a feeling that there may have been tension between two artists that are so sure of the sound in their head and how best to get to it but, ultimately, I just wanted to find out how closely she related her own methods to those of Éliane.

I actually related her working method more closely to my experience of trying to understand the classical Dhrupad form and manner in which to move and articulate. Dhrupad is an aural tradition with structural and formal elements defined before the piece begins. Éliane had already defined her own structure before we worked on a new piece, and I understood this to relate to all of the OCCAM pieces and perhaps beyond. But, what made the process interesting were the little elements within that defined each composition as singular from another within the classical structure she had set. One understands the principles on a deep level but, from moment to moment, must follow where the sound leads them, which is the life force; a balancing act between staying true to the classical language (what she had defined) and one’s own individual, pure musicianship in that concentrated space and time. To me this is the same as being a dhrupadi. If I were a true dhrupadi, I would say that I was simply performing a composition by Radigue in raag Cascade. The dhrupadi, in all cases, is composer-like, with the form and code already present.

I think in some ways [Éliane] could relate to this concept, but her perspective was so specific that it remained more associative from my own point of view as someone trying to understand her process. Thinking back on it, and remembering her descriptions regarding the ideal nature of the OCCAM series, what she wanted is clearer to me now. I think in her ideal aspirations with the series it is absolutely congruent with my experience with Dhrupad.

To be honest, there were definitely some difficult moments. However, my great respect for her as an artist 50 years my senior were enough to humble me. I would simply say that sometimes we would disagree on how to achieve something but, in the end, when I followed my own intuition (through understanding and respecting her classical language/idealism), she was happier with the results. For instance, she had a lot to say about how to fundamentally tune my instrument to obtain certain enlivened harmonicities, and those who know me well understand that this is a big part of what I do and meditate about on a daily basis. However, anytime we are together on a human-to-human level, we can learn something from one another, even on a subject we feel we ourselves are an “expert.” If we simply try to perceive something from a slightly different phase of existence, this can break us out of our own habits and make us more empathetic to others.

So this is what I tried to do. What I learned from working on OCCAM confirmed a connection to Z.M. Dagar’s approach to tuning the tanpura, where the two unison strings in the middle should be ever so slightly off from one another—or just out of phase—to help generate/initiate the shower of spectra. Also, similar to a dhrupadi approach—in which explaining the tuning of a raag through ratios is not enough, because one needs to allow for the flexibility and the chaos of the day—she was very clear about not wanting it to be about rational intonation. However, I did tune my strings in simple ratios which she liked very much. So it’s all interconnected and a dance, how to work together, being to being—to never lose oneself, but to be open at the same time. The results from this dance can be very rewarding.

Like all of us that engage with OCCAM, we come to it with different experiences and skills. We bring what we’ve learned into the building of our pieces with Éliane and, in turn, what we learn from working on that music brings new light to what came before it, ultimately moving on into our own work with the previous and current knowledge. I asked Catherine if she’d talk about some of the important predecessors to her work with Éliane, specifically what she learned from California-based composer Michael Pisaro and Indian filmmaker Mani Kaul.

I think the most lasting and impressive aspect of that experience is a reflection on—and questioning of—the way we work together as composer to performer and notation to music. This is something that Mani Kaul (a mentor of mine who studied with Z.M. Dagar) would criticize me for during our sessions. He would ask me; how can one truly get to the music when one is reading it off of a paper? He argued that it should be internalized and truly part of the interpreter’s reality. Or even more radical, that the interpreter is the composer, the same.

In a different way, Michael Pisaro would stress that the poetry of the instructions should set the tone of the piece, and that whatever information is on the page itself should be able to be internalized rather than constantly read.

For Éliane, she considered each human (interpreter) to be a kind of character, and she would take great notice of how certain characters were affected by one another when placed together. For instance, at some point I was working on two separate duo configurations with her. What she would comment on first were the energies that occurred between us, before the actual sound would happen. She thought that the duo that worked the best was the one where the two of us easily resonated together as beings, where we connected in the simplest way (“the simplest solution is almost always the best”).

In my own work, I am still trying to navigate and balance all of those things, and sometimes I get closer to that ideal place than others. To me, it’s a large topic to address, these conundrums: how to be both precise and open; to be an initiator and passive at the same time; to write a score for the interpreter, who can then internalize it totally, and—perhaps most importantly—how to work together, human-to-human, in the most clear, honest, and empathetic of ways. These are the things that I am striving for and, certainly, Éliane has helped me to understand these things more vividly.

In the end, there are comparisons to be made, and I think that Catherine unknowingly set them out at the end of her answer. Both composers work on the edge of dialectics between precision and openness. They seek to guide while also being open to guidance, and they both seek to find ways of making music out of the human relationship in all of its complex beauty, warmth, difficulty, and communicative possibilities.

© Sokolowsko festival
© Sokolowsko festival

1 I refer to the term classical in relation to how Agnes Martin defines it in her “The Untroubled Mind” text—

Classicists are people that look out with their back to the world

It represents something that isn’t possible in the world

More perfection than is possible in the world

I also refer to it in regards to any art practice that continues within an established idealist structure, whether it is directly inherited or specifically created by the artist during their lifetime. In Éliane’s case, I argue that she defined her own classical reality that she continues to exist within.—Catherine Lamb

The Infinite Becoming