Éliane Radigue & Frédéric Blondy, "Occam XXV"
This is the debut album for Claire M. Singer's Organ Reframed imprint, which will now enable home listeners to experience a bit of her singular music festival of the same name. While the festival itself has been going on since 2016, I can understand why Singer did not make the leap into releasing albums until now, as I imagine it is quite a challenge to translate the site-specific acoustic pleasures of Union Chapel's famed hydraulic organ onto a CD. Also, solo organ albums have only recently begun to come into vogue (and I suspect Singer's efforts played a key role in that). Thankfully, the stars seem to now be in proper alignment for such an endeavor, as artists like Kali Malone, Lawrence English, and Sarah Davachi have spent the last few years turning adventurous ears organ-ward and the reigning queen of minimalism (Radigue) is currently in the prime of her "acoustic instrumentation" era. Unsurprisingly, composing for organ has not resulted in a newly bombastic and maximalist Radigue, as she remains unswervingly devoted to Occam's guiding principle of "simple is always better." In fact, this album is probably a strong contender for one of Radigue's most minimal compositions to date. That may test the patience of some casual Radigue listerers, but those attuned to her slow-burning drone majesty will find much to love, as she is in peak form here.
This is not the first album in Radigue's "Occam Ocean" series that I have heard, but this is the first time that I learned about the origin of its curious title. Naturally, the "Occam" part is a reference to William of Ockham's timeless razor (the law of economy), but I did not know that the "ocean" bit was because Radigue is drawing much of her inspiration from water and waves these days. That makes sense and knowing that reveals further depth to this series. Also, given Radigue's history with Buddhism and its focus on mindfulness and the interconnectedness of all things, this series can be viewed as a sort of an artistic culmination of the themes and philosophies that have shaped her life as a whole. In more concrete terms, Radigue's recent work is driven by the "transcendent beauty" that she finds in the "micro beats, pulsations, harmonics, and subharmonics" that result when sound waves interact. Another central belief of Radigue's is that written music is an abstraction and that it is the performer that ultimately breathes life into it She also notes that "no two performers, playing the same instrument, have the same relationship with that instrument," so it was a significant choice that return collaborator/ONCEIM director Blondy was chosen to perform the piece.
Speaking of Blondy, I am quite curious about how technically demanding this piece was to play. My guess is "very," as it could easily be mistaken for a single sustained and droning chord with casual listening, but closer listening reveals that it is endlessly evolving and constantly creating subtle new sonic phenomena despite it being damn near imperceptible to tell when new notes are being added. In fact, the entire mood of the piece sneakily undergoes at least two dramatic transformations over the course of its 44 minutes, slowly moving from a stark, almost futuristic-sounding introduction of shuddering bass throbs towards a surprisingly hallucinatory finale of blearily celestial-sounding drones and insectoid whine. In between those two poles, there are passages that call to mind a surveillance beam slowly sweeping across a desolate wasteland or a gorgeous slow-motion sunrise and it never feels anything less than totally organic and seamless. And, of course, the piece's unhurried, meditative journey continually reveals additional subtle layers of harmonic complexity with deep listening. Given the near-geologic timescale and the ultra-minimal nature of this piece, it probably is not the ideal introductory Radigue album for the curious, but those already attuned to her work will likely be spellbound by the exacting and patient virtuosity on display (I certainly was). Occam XXV sets the bar intimidatingly high for whoever gets tagged for Organ Reframed's second release.
Samples can be found here.