Some Sort of Truth

Carol Robinson

OCCAM III for birbynė
OCCAM XVI for bass clarinet

My friendship and collaboration with Carol Robinson is a perfect example of how the influence of OCCAM isn’t limited to its performance. I was shepherded through the awkwardness and broadcasting innocence of my first meeting with Éliane by Carol, who translated when necessary but mostly worked as the lubricating personality between a shy interviewer and the interviewee he happened to idolize.

It was also Carol who, upon finding out that I played trumpet, took the first steps toward a friendship. We met for coffee in New York while she was taking part in performances of the Merce Cunningham dance company. She casually told me Éliane had been interested in working with a trumpet player and suggested I write. I did and received the news, unofficially, that Éliane would be willing to try a piece with me at my second meeting with Carol: standing outside Instants Chavires on a cold winter night in between sets by The Ex. 

Since then, Carol has been a valuable source of practical wisdom and straight-shooting opinions. We toured OCCAM in the US in October of 2014, and spending three weeks on the road with Carol—performing our duo and solos—was like an immersive course in the history and practice of this music. Her deep involvement with Éliane is one example of her commitment to the composers she works with, not unlike her collaborations with Giacinto Scelsi and Tom Johnson or her performances of the music of Morton Feldman. 

Carol is thoughtful, exacting, rigorous, poetic, and demanding in her own compositions, her improvising, and her work on the music of others. As is evident from this conversation, recorded online on November 13, 2020, she is confident, empathetic, and an underappreciated force in this music.

NW Let’s start with how you met Éliane.

CR I met her the first time at Tom Johnson’s. She was one of the other dinner guests and seemed to be a very nice woman. I had heard bits of her music, but I really didn’t know it very well. Near the end of a production at the CCMIX studio in Paris, the engineer mentioned that he was excited to be working soon with Éliane Radigue. He had me listen to what I think was Biogenesis. I found it amazing. There weren’t many recordings at that point, so it was hard to find out more about her.

The next time was at a party organized by Phill Niblock. I sat next to her in the restaurant and was able to speak to her more in depth. I gave her my recent Morton Feldman recording [Late Works with Clarinet, Mode 2003], simply as a gift, because I thought she might like it. I told her that I’d love to get together sometime and discuss her experience as a woman composer in France. People were just beginning to bring up the issue, and I thought, being an unusual woman, she must have interesting things to say about the subject. We planned to have tea, but she called the day before and said that she had a bad cold but hoped we could meet some another time.

In fact, the next time she called me was after finishing the first Naldjorlak with Charles Curtis. She invited me over and was all excited, telling me about how she’d worked with Charles and was wondering if it were possible to do something similar for the clarinet—Charles had the idea of her working with his friend Anthony Burr to make a clarinet piece, but she decided to talk to me first because of something she heard in my Feldman recording. I said, well, that’s a wonderful idea, but it is difficult to play continuous sounds on the clarinet over an extended period and suggested that it might be a good idea to have two clarinetists. I invited her to my studio, where I played all my different instruments for her. We both decided that the basset horn was the most suitable due to its rich and fairly low sound. It turned out to be the perfect instrument for reasons of endurance and also worked beautifully with the cello. The next question was, who could possibly be the other basset hornist? I thought of my various colleagues and ended up asking Bruno Martinez, a fine musician who plays bass clarinet with the Paris Opera Orchestra.

That was how the adventure began, with Bruno and I exploring how the two of us—and our two basset horns—could become a single instrument. The process of exchanging perfectly overlapping sounds between the two of us was more or less technical, but in Éliane’s presence we were coming into contact with something beautiful and moving. Why then, when we rehearsed without her, did we feel that the music was less interesting? That was the first mystery. It took us a really long time to master playing inside each other’s sound, finding the necessary trust and attunement. That was back in 2007 as we gradually began to understand the subtleties of what was right for this particular music. We were obliged to play the same model of basset horn, or the partials and multiphonics weren’t the same, and we couldn’t fuse our sounds. Éliane refers to a musician being a combination of the person and their instrument, their unity. In our case, it was a quadruple unity.

NW Was that the beginning of the combinatory aspect of her music? I remember hearing Naldjorlak for the first time and it felt so radical and rigorous; that here was one piece for solo cello, here is another piece for two basset horns (playing as one), and then you put the two movements together to make something completely different. And, of course, that kind of construction plays a large part in OCCAM Ocean. Did you get a feeling that the idea of the pieces being combined in that way was already in her mind?

CR She originally didn’t have plans beyond Naldjorlak. Even for that piece she didn’t know quite how it would work out, and we didn’t either. For instance, she didn’t propose the notes we played. We suggested starting with the basset horn’s lowest note, our C, and she liked it because of the timbre. No one was saying, “that might sound good with the cello, or that would fit nicely into the structure.” She didn’t work in that way. She sought some sort of truth from us and our two instruments in each of the movements.

When we finally did meet with Charles to begin the trio, we went through all sorts of exploration. Initially, we tried to play precisely in tune. Charles tuned to his wolf tone, which tended to be low. Bruno and I would try to bring the basset horns down, even resorting to putting paper tubes in the bells to lower the pitch. But, bringing the basset horns down to the wolf would unfortunately change our timbre. Other times, Charles would try to tune the cello up to us, sometimes to the point of breaking strings. Finally, after having played the piece several times, we said, let’s just play where the instruments are on any given day, with the basset horns perfectly in tune and interacting with the cello wherever it was tuning-wise. The music started to sound much better but, to reach that state of trusting the rightness of what we were doing, we needed to go through a long process of discovery.

That said, in the second movement of the trio [in the third part of Naldjorlak], the string harmonics and basset horn multiphonics are very carefully tuned, with Bruno and I creating a continuous partial over changing lower chords. I’m not contradicting myself completely, however, because once again, we had to travel the path of letting the instruments be themselves in order to reach those floating fragile harmonics.

We felt we knew what we were doing at the time; it seemed clear. In retrospect, we may have simply been moving forward as good musicians. Working in a way that gradually heightened our awareness and openness to each other’s sounds, lead to an exceptional sort of interdependence.

NW I remember giving a talk with you at UC Berkeley on the radical newness of Éliane’s music that got under one person’s skin, causing him to storm out of the classroom yelling “La Monte Young!” I get the comparison I think he was trying to make on a surface level: someone hears a long pitch, and it’s easy to compare the two musics if you’re not paying attention, but I think the point we were trying to make at Berkeley was that its uniqueness was more a product of how the musicians are involved in its making. Éliane is there, and she’s creating the piece but, for example, in the making of Naldjorlak so much of the research was done between you and Bruno; then she was able to mold in a certain way or give you something back. It’s a cyclical, rather than hierarchical, process.

I think of my experience doing my solo piece. I would bring it back to Éliane, after working on it alone, and all of my technical work got undone because, as that input changed her view a bit, it would affect how she thought of the composition. It could be a very frustrating experience, but it ended up getting me deeper and deeper into the piece’s structure and sound. At this point, I don’t have to think of the technicality of micro-movements of my lip to get things to start this way or that. I’m just entering into the sound. I came to realize that the process of working together with her on the sound is more important than the immediate result, because the goal is to make sure the music keeps growing. There is something opening in the practice and performance of OCCAM that allows me to concentrate on the human, or the natural, over the technical.

CR I remember the premiere of Naldjorlak. It was in Bordeaux after a hugely violent storm. The wind was so strong, it blew the windows in my hotel room open! It was just amazing. All the trains were stopped because of downed trees. The whole city shut down, but the organizers said, we are not sure who will be able to come, but we will open the museum for your performance. I don’t know what my colleagues were feeling after such incredible violence, but I used the mental image of far-away hills in Italy to help me resonate and open myself. Bruno or Charles prepared themselves in their own ways. We didn’t talk about those things—at least not at that point—or share an inner process that was part of mastering the music’s technical demands. For me, the two aspects went hand-in-hand until somewhere down the road you realize that you’re doing things that you couldn’t have done before because you wouldn’t have ever imagined doing them. There is no struggling with—or forcing of—the instrument; it cooperates. Playing can sometimes be too conscious; for this music, it needs to become unconscious, or super conscious. That helps explain why visualizing that distant vista of Italian hillsides helped me be open and calm in a way necessary for making the harmonics and upper partials sound, and actually ring in my forehead and through the other cranial bones. The image somehow brought a neutral perspective that freed the vibrations.

Bruno and I had to learn to trust each other completely, taking absolute care of the sound we were sharing, never letting it—or the energy it contained—falter or stop. This sharing created an incredible musical bond. We had to be keenly aware and supportive of each other, all the while following the progression of the piece. It wasn’t always harmonious, smooth, or easy, but in the end, something very special happened between us and we became, as we like to say, rather than blood brothers/sisters, breath brothers/sisters.

NW What I know of your time with Giacinto Scelsi, and even working with Tom Johnson, I get a feeling that you prefer a discursive working relationship. I know you ask a lot of questions about each piece you work on, and you bring the confidence of that research to the music; you’re not just a machine for the page. Did working with Éliane open you up to that kind of thinking or was it just kind of a continuance of your philosophy?

CR I would say it was an affirmation.

As a young and curious musician, I wanted to play everything. I was open-minded and willing to do whatever was necessary, in terms of hard work, to get the music off the page. But there came a time when I no longer wanted to play just anything. If the music didn’t transcend in some way, it didn’t really interest me. This may sound arrogant, but I was looking for communication on a different plane.

When I worked with Giacinto in the 80s, that was clearly what was going on. Rather than playing whatever came along, it seemed more important to contribute in some meaningful way; to concentrate on an expressiveness that I, for some reason, had access to. Decisions have to be made at some point.

I don’t talk about it much, but I went through a very difficult period due to having a severe case of Bell’s palsy. I couldn’t play at all for months and months. After going through something so devastating—not being sure whether you’ll ever be able to play again properly—you really do pay attention to what you are going to play. With the means that I had, which were quite limited for a long time, I couldn’t spend my time doing things I didn’t totally believe in. It meant that perhaps, career-wise, I did less, but I was totally convinced by what I did do. Of course, of all the difficult music to play with a damaged embouchure, I can’t think of any more challenging than Éliane Radigue’s. But there you go.

NW It seems as if everybody playing this music has made that decision to one degree or another. I don’t necessarily want to attribute that to Éliane’s music, but it’s funny that all these people somehow find their way to it, or it finds their way to them.

CR Éliane says that I am the only person she asked to play her music. We somehow found our way to each other, just like Giacinto and I found our way to each other—a blessing in both cases. Of course, you don’t necessarily even talk to somebody if, on some very subtle level, there’s no channel for communication. You must sense that there is something to be shared. As I grew older, when meeting a person—and having that intuition—I wouldn’t just hope that our paths would somehow cross again: I would make an appointment to spend time with the person and see what was there. Sometimes there’s nothing, but you never know. I think about how crucial a chance meeting with certain people can be. You talked to so-and-so when you were sixteen, and that led to this and that led to that. Let’s say that you’re responding to some sort of call, and that perhaps, some things are meant to be. Your whole life pivots on some sort of openness to a meeting or an exchange.

NW OCCAM represents that idea in microcosm. It confirms that people are meant to share their experiences. For example, when we first begin working on OCCAM River III for trumpet and birbyne˙, we found, by chance, that our solos were based on the same pitch. I’m sure you’ve had experiences where it takes much more effort to try and figure out how you can come together, but that’s all part of a worthwhile process.

I would really be interested in hearing you talk about how you met Giacinto Scelsi. I don’t know many people who had a working relationship with someone like that.

CR Joëlle Léandre was the first step. She heard about Giacinto when she was working in Buffalo. She contacted him and he said, “come and see me.” So off she went to Rome. At that point, there were basically no recordings of his music. He was fairly unknown except to a very small group of people. Joëlle was deeply moved by their meeting and spoke about him with our mutual friend Sharon Kanach. Sharon says she remembers listening to a recording of music unlike anything she had ever heard and realizing that she had pushed her fingernails deep into her palm to the point of bleeding because it was so intense. She too went off to Rome to meet Giacinto and brought back scores—copies of the original scores that she then gave me. He had written several pieces for clarinet in the fifties. Like I said, I was a young girl interested in playing everything, but his music really hit me, really made sense to me.

As he approached the end of his life, he seemed to be looking for performers, as if in some way he was calling out to them. One of the pieces Sharon gave me was the Tre Pezzi for E-flat clarinet. A woman named Nan Stern had a gallery in the seventh arrondissement where she hosted concerts. I did a concert there, and I played Tre Pezzi and some odd little piece I wrote with references to a song by [Edith] Piaf. Sharon recorded the concert and gave the tape to Giacinto. He invited me to Rome.

As an aside, and since we can’t ask Giacinto, it would be interesting—if it’s not too indiscreet—to ask Éliane what she heard in the Feldman recording I gave her that prompted her to ask me to play Naldjorlak. In Giacinto’s case, was it because he had rarely heard his clarinet music played, or was it something specific to my playing? Even as a child, people always commented on my “beautiful” sound, but what is a beautiful sound beyond an incredible sensitivity to the components of the vibrations that comprise it? Young musicians may not know exactly what they are doing, but they resonate with their instrument, and the instrument resonates with them, imparting it with emotional expression. A beautiful sound comes from an innate understanding of how to make the combined partials ring, regardless of understanding exactly what a partial is. Was that what Giacinto was hearing? Is that why he invited me to work with him in Rome after hearing my completely naïve version of his three E-flat clarinet pieces? I don’t know, but to be honest, and not falsely humble, I already had an inkling that I was accessing something that did not seem to concern most people but did matter greatly to these dear friends.

Anyway, off I went. I knocked on his door, and there he was, a small man with amazing blue eyes. He stared at me for the longest time before inviting me in. I would go to Rome every couple of months and spend time with him, sitting on the terrace, talking, sometimes doing yoga or meditating, and of course playing his music for hours on end.

It was fundamentally different from the work with Éliane because there were scores to guide me, to guide our interaction. It is similar, however, in that a force-field of sorts was being activated. In Giacinto’s solo clarinet music, there are many notes and often rapid tempi: multiple emphatic notes generate a pitched resonance in the performance space. I sometimes call this spatial counterpoint. The surrounding area is transformed, as if a particular sound has always been present, in waiting. It is amplified for a time and then it recedes. Giacinto always said that it was a cosmic connection, as if beckoning to some unfathomably remote power. The cosmic world changes when that energy connects. Éliane’s music activates something similar in slower motion. She never enunciates such things, her music being thoroughly subtle, but there are parallels.

I have found that some people have a hard time playing Giacinto’s music in the way he taught me. He always focused on the direction of a phrase’s energy. Though his scores are notated traditionally, the music is not at all vertical; the rhythm being influenced by the impetus within each note. When trying to play this way with other musicians, I occasionally found that I was trying to lead them in a direction that made them physically uncomfortable. Some would actually begin to feel ill.

Giacinto’s music is concerned with swell, flow, and connection. Éliane’s music, though less dangerous, is somehow similar. Her myriad tiny beatings also reflect the sound’s internal impetus. Both musics influence a given space, making it resound. In his, the same notes may be repeated, as if struck again and again until they constitute a subconscious sonic memory even when the note is no longer actually being played. The vibration lingers. In hers, partials can suddenly start to ring in some strange way, regardless of whether they are actually being played, and create their own spatial orientation. Without becoming overly metaphysical, there are actual physical phenomena generated in both musics that performers must give themselves over to. Years of experience with this music leads to enhanced sensitivity and trust, to the extent that something is being produced that is not actually being played but, rather, facilitated in some way.

NW Scelsi’s music was still involved in that translation of the sound in his head onto paper in order to be retranslated; it wasn’t transmission in a narrative or religious sense. Was he trying, though, to translate a metaphysical experience onto the page?

CR That wasn’t being done consciously. Often, he would enter into a trance state while playing the piano or ondiola. The resulting music was recorded and then transcribed by different copyists. Later, Giacinto would correct the copies, but his work method was contrary to that of many contemporary composers. His priority was the energy flowing through him and how to communicate it. I completely understand that it was impossible for him to be in that heightened state and simultaneously do something as mundane as write on paper. Both Éliane and Giacinto had very personal means of bringing their music into existence.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from Frances-Marie Uitti, herself an extraordinary Scelsi performer, and one of his closest collaborators. After hearing me play, she said, “I have the impression that I’m hearing the ondiola tapes. It’s just uncanny.”

NW When you said some people didn’t like his method of working and wondered about the input of the different copyists, I recognize it as being some of the same critiques I hear in terms of the role of the performer in Éliane’s work.

CR Giacinto always said he was merely a postman delivering the music that was given to him. Éliane is, likewise, not overly possessive of her music. She does what is needed to bring the music to life, and making it together with all of us fills her with joy. Most important for her is that the music exists right now. There are similarities: both composers had a certain liberty that comes from being somewhat ostracized; Giacinto due to his social origins, and Éliane because she was a woman. They both singlehandedly pursued their musical vision; she at home with her ARP synthesizer, and he at home with his ondiola and piano. Both worked with recording and tape. Financial independence also gave them both creative freedom; Éliane due to support from her former husband, and Giacinto thanks to his family’s holdings. Neither was obliged to play professional/political games, resulting in a certain purity in their respective oeuvres.

I think that in both cases, they trust their performers. They needed us to put their thoughts and feelings into sound.

NW You’re a composer as well. Do you feel like you have the same opportunities that they have? How has your work with either of them affected the way that you think?

CR Being an instrumentalist, I approach my fellow instrumentalists with utmost respect, while at the same time being very demanding. I want them to enter into the sort of musical communion that is normal for me, but not necessarily normal for everybody. Not everyone wants to go to that place, but those who do and can, are the musicians I prefer to work with. The music of both Giacinto and Éliane is extremely radical, providing an inspiration to be daring, though my own work is much more eclectic than theirs.

It’s impossible to separate one’s own life experience and way of approaching sound from what they ask of other people. It all comes together. When working with scores, there is always the dilemma of how to make an idea clear on paper so musicians can enter my world without having had to live my life. This is a fundamental aspect of communicating a specific form of musical energy; how the energy becomes integrated physically and psychologically, a comprehensive memory aided by a score or lasting realization.

Éliane does this through an image, a period of exploration, and quite simply through her presence.

With Giacinto, there was also the question of his presence, but there were scores as a base of communication. Most of the music I played with him had been written 30 years earlier, whereas with Éliane, we are living the moment of creation together.

What I return to in Éliane’s music is its radicality. Here she is, this charming, not so young, lady, who is making really extreme and—though quiet—very powerful music. She asks us to join in. When I have a piece of hers coming up, I know that I’m going to have to go through a period of intense preparation to be able to resonate in that particular way with my instrument. Even if it comes more easily after so many years, being in that state always requires an effort. I think all of us who go through the process of making this music with her know how important it is, otherwise why would we subject ourselves to the arduous physical challenge of playing it?

As an example, I play her music on three different instruments. Each one has different fingerings, different multiphonic possibilities, different timbres. What I understand with one instrument is transposed to the others, enriching my experience and, at the same time, making it more complex. After playing Éliane’s music on his double bass, Louis-Michel Marion plans to do a viola da gamba piece with her. He will be the second person to play her music on more than one instrument. I’m curious to see how he will transfer his physical experience of playing the double bass to playing the gamba. What will change? With the second instrument, will he go further or faster?

NW It’s a special sort of satisfaction that comes from that tension of rigorous work and the discovery it brings.

CR There is something else that I would like to mention regarding this particular physical/conscious state needed for Éliane’s music, at least in my case. She proposes themes or images to each musician who relate to them personally or not, but I tend to find them useful because the visual aspect facilitates an open neutrality beneficial to the music.

I don’t always concentrate on the visual aspect while I’m performing, but it’s definitely part of my preparation. The duet I play with saxophonist Bertrand Gauguet [OCCAM River XXII for alto saxophone and bass clarinet] doesn’t have a theme. There is no image to connect to, but the piece is very clear. On her suggestion, Éliane and I co-signed that duet. On the other hand, for the trio with Rhodri Davies and Julia Eckhardt [OCCAM Delta II for harp, viola, and bass clarinet], there are very definite colors—such as brilliant blue glacial water—and locations. No one knows exactly what the other person visualizes, but the images do help organize the progression of musical events, even subtly influencing our mutual understanding.

After the Naldjorlak experience with the basset horn, my first OCCAM was for birbyne˙ [OCCAM III for birbyne˙]. Éliane and I spent a lot of time together one summer exploring the instrument in terms of possible multiphonics and other extended techniques. (It was easier to go through this somewhat tedious process with her than by myself.) The theme was related to a tiny river in the Pyrenees. Our visual image was very poetic, but as I would learn, had little to do with reality. A friend and I went to the Pyrenees and investigated the river from one end to the other and discovered something completely different. The onsite visit shifted my understanding of the piece. It wasn’t a radical change in the structure of the music, but more an adjustment in how I played it. The piece became a reference to a relentless self-renewing cycle more than just the theme/image.

NW There are some people that develop a deep relationship with a certain composer, but that relationship doesn’t change their philosophy of how or why they are making music. I don’t think anybody involved in this project has been unchanged by playing OCCAM.

CR What’s interesting is that she’s not out to convert anybody. She’s not a cult figure, though some people would like her to be. She is simply sharing music with us. She’s our friend, and I think that exchange is very special. Perhaps it could be considered simply as communion. She’s touched, and we’re touched as well. We’re all receiving and giving back. I think most of the performers would agree that something in them has been slightly modified, improved, in a physical as well as spiritual sense, which is pretty marvelous.

© Igor Juget
© Igor Juget