‘Wild Ocean’: an interview with Horatiu Radulescu
First published in Contemporary Music Review, 22 nos. 1-2, 2003: 105-122.

In 1979 Olivier Messiaen called Radulescu ‘one of the most original young musicians of our time,’ and the succeeding years have only confirmed his judgement. Born in Bucharest on January 7th 1942, Radulescu left his native Romania in 1969 for Paris, where he began to explore harmonic spectra as musical material and gradually evolved the principles of a new compositional technique in a series of works beginning in 1969 with Credo for nine celli. Based on the idea of audibly projecting the activity and energy of the various partials of a complex sound, the spectral techniques developed by Radulescu (and the somewhat different ‘instrumental synthesis’ approach, also based on spectra, pursued by Grisey, Murail and others from the mid-1970s onward) have taken root, and now seem among the most important exits from the serialist stranglehold on contemporary music. Radulescu regards his spectral techniques as ‘a conceptual reply (two thousand years later) to Pythagoras, and a realization of the intuitions of both Hindu and Byzantine music, which were the closest to natural resonance’.  He has developed these techniques significantly in the decades since.

This text is based on an interview with Radulescu recorded in Freiburg, Germany, on two frosty days in early April 1996. Although some of my questions now strike me as naive I have resisted the temptation to ‘improve’ them, as they may not be too dissimilar to the questions of others coming relatively new, as I was then, to his music. In presenting the interview material here I have chosen to preserve the unique flavour of Radulescu’s spoken English as transcribed from my tapes. This is not from a belief in verbatim transcript for its own sake, but from a wish to convey something of the multilingual nature of his thought. Radulescu is fluent in French, German, Italian and English, besides his mother tongue, Romanian: he speaks a particularly articulate form of lingua franca English, that attractive foreign cousin that is the language in which most of the affairs of new music in continental Europe today are conducted. The interview is greatly shortened but otherwise only lightly edited. To it I have added a secondary text made up for the most part from statements by Radulescu himself and by various performers, musicologists and critics who have written about his music. This supplementary material offers glosses on, or more precise information about, some of the issues that arise in the interview. The resulting biphony – between informal and formal voices – is intended to stimulate further discussion of Radulescu’s fascinating oeuvre.

BG  Do you like to answer technical questions about your music?

HR  It’s good to tell and not very good to tell [laughs], because they can’t compose as you, the others, this is the problem. I like to explain, very much, as sometimes Stockhausen did very well. I said earlier that Ligeti liked very much my fourth string quartet with the Ardittis: there was a nice lecture by a German guy from Freiburg, Hartmut Möller, and Ligeti was there, and he said it’s too savant, I don’t understand what it means exactly in the spectral. I like the music very much but I don’t understand the scientific approach. Because he likes clustering with microtonal intervals and so on, but he never knew exactly the spectral technique, I think. The single one who maybe knows a bit more about this is James Tenney. No? I think he’s the most strict.

BG  He’s certainly been very concerned to theorise in a formal way about the whole issue of tuning and harmonic perception.

HR  But with James Tenney I find his music is sometimes too theoretical, it’s like a theorem, like a demonstration of a theorem in mathematics. It’s not totally music, you understand? It’s like a very beautiful theorem. No? Like Critical Band. But is this music, or only the beautiful demonstration of a theorem? Which is nice, also! It’s very clean, very serious and very poetical also, to be very pure like that. But if it has the power of an artistic work, of an oeuvre, you know, I’m not quite sure. Not always. Some of the pieces, yes. I prefer to have the theory and the theorems and everything and then to forget them, and to make a fantastic, devilish music. And in this sense I feel more healthy, and more like a composer than a speculative mind.

    * Radulescu’s works are built from sound situations created by different treatments of fundamentals, the spectra produced by these treatments, and the isolation of individual spectra. The music results ‘naturally’ from the initial organisation of sound sources and formal structures, its interest lying in the interaction of the resulting harmonics, difference tones, subtones, rhythmic beats, and so on. The texture thus produced is called the ‘sound plasma’. (Roger Heaton)

Because there are two big traditions, one more speculative, one more creative, you see? And I think that the composer should be an actual creator. If you are more speculative you are more scientific. But I appreciate Tenney a lot. Also I appreciate Alvin Lucier. I think they are the best in America, these two. No? Alvin Lucier created a lot of spectrality with his piece on a wire.

BG  Music on a Long Thin Wire.

HR  Yes. It’s creating spectra, revealing spectra from nothing, because if you compose like that – with frequency components of spectra and emancipating them up to nearly actual instruments – you have mixtures of nearly orchestras, creating from themselves these generative functions. You excite your brain with these in order to listen to other functions which are not present, but which respond to the rule of ring modulation. You see? It’s nature. Therefore it’s very healthy and very non-dissonant.

    * NATURE and ART in their highest degree of purity merge. Therefore the sound plasma as music of the sign FUTURE should reach an abstract nature, created by us, which conceals – as nature does – both cause and effect, and thus surpasses its original condition (‘handmade’) by becoming a complex phenomenon. (Radulescu, Sound Plasma)

BG  Although your own music is very radical in its technical aspects, and its sound is very new, nonetheless the great love you obviously have for the whole tradition of Western music always comes through in your work. That is different than some of the American composers you’ve mentioned, who sometimes seem more ambivalent in their attitude toward European tradition. I was struck, for example, by the dedication of your Das Andere, ‘to Patrick Szersnovicz for his Brahmsian soul.’

HR  For me the most important is to be very close to, for example, Josquin Des Pres, because you have the feeling of a fresco; you forget the technique and you get into a special atmosphere, a special state of sound which is much more – as in the sense of Xenakis – a metropole of small elements into a big mass. Clouds of polyphonies, and so on. Or by Tallis also, no? It’s very beautiful. You have to work in this sense today with new means. To create a big fresco, a Leonardo in sound. Why not? But of today. Maybe more crazy, like nature is. Like the ocean. What we see today – it’s sometimes more crazy. From the plane, when you see the whole ocean and whole clouds. Leonardo only imagined this. In this sense you have more freedom also.

    * Clouds change colour, form and sky position mostly imperceptibly. Gaining and losing stars in the late evening and before dawn, we cannot determine a precise instant for it, and we enjoy a ‘trembling time’ feeling. (Radulescu, Sound Plasma)

I have to say not only do I adore the Western tradition but also I think that spectrality is a global way of including also the Byzantine and Indian music. They felt in their subconscious the direction of it, this tendency toward spectrality, because they were impressed by the sound, its resonance under vaults, or by the sympathetic strings on the instruments. This spectral language, I think, integrates the whole tendency of Byzantine and Indian music, because if you analyse the old Indian music and the Byzantine you feel that they are melodically very spectral, or very proto-spectral. I think it’s the tendency of many cultures of the world to be as close to the sound as possible, to the secret deep structure of sound, which is spectrality. No? But I don’t like to call the music ‘spectral music,’ I like to call this technique of composition the spectral technique of composition. The music should have no étiquette. Just music. Because it is enough to be called only music. So when they call it ‘spectral music’ or ‘stochastic music’ or ‘serial music,’ that’s their problem. I don’t like this type of étiquette.

I think many cultures were close to this, even the Japanese – I’m very fond of some Japanese temple music and so on – and also Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese music and Balinese. Also African music. But we should not integrate them in music as a gadget, in the way that was in vogue even in the ’60s by Stockhausen and other people. They just brought them to our vitrine, no? ‘Oh look how nice, I know also a bit of Bali.’ It’s not good. I think with this very global language of the spectrum, you can be somehow close to some tendencies in those musics… but this orient/occident opposition, or selling-gadget, I felt was not very nice. Not very elegant. It’s like importing/exporting. It’s not fantastic.

BG  Airport ethnic.

HR  As we are today: being in India now, or being in the States now, or being in, I don’t know where, in Japan and then in Chile. Somehow. But we stay in the same plane. You see a bit of the Fiji Islands.

BG  Do you see, then, the spectral technique of composition as a natural evolution from the ongoing history of music?

HR  Yes. I try to be very logical in its functionality. From the Byzantine modes, from tonal music, from serial music, I don’t throw away anything from the tradition.

    * Masked behind sometimes rowdy declarations and almost creating a new language by placing in the same melting pot English, German, Latin, Italian, French and Rumanian for the titles of his pieces, Radulescu converses across time with Pythagoras (Pythagoras’ dreamings, 1972), Mircea Eliade (Taaroa, 1968-69), Shakespeare (the quartet Infinite to be Cannot be Infinite, Infinite anti-be Could be Infinite, 1976-87), and Lao Tzu (Piano Sonata No.2, ‘Being and non-being create each other,’ 1990-91, and Piano Sonata No.4, ‘Like a well… older than God,’ 1993). (Franck Mallet)

And because of it, like Schoenberg said, you climb up the spectrum, even further… with Wagner and Scriabin and so on, no? From Machaut and Josquin and Monteverdi, you’re climbing further up the spectrum.

BG  I’m interested to know what music you knew and felt closest to back in Romania.

HR  Oh, we studied very seriously, with Stefan Niculescu I studied analysis, and Webern a lot. I finished my exams with some scores by Webern and Stravinsky, the last period – In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. We analysed very deeply Bach and Schütz and Monteverdi and Gesualdo and so on. And a lot of Webern.

BG  Do you agree that Webern’s music is dependent on the tempered scale, on tempered tuning? Because it seems to me he’s the first great composer whose musical thinking is completely tied to twelve-note equal temperament.

HR  Yes, yes, but he’s, let’s say, at the edges of the 16th, 15th, 17th harmonic, you see, with the semitones. So the most tensed possible relation. And using the isomorphy of the other tones, but in the most advanced language which he used.

    * The overtone series must be regarded as, practically speaking, infinite. Ever subtler differentiations can be imagined, and from this point of view there’s nothing against attempts at quarter-tone music and the like; the only question is whether the present time is yet ripe for them. But the path is wholly valid, laid down by the nature of sound. (Webern, lectures in Vienna, 1933)

Webern was also very economical, fantastic economy, with the rows sometimes being nearly the same form in reverse, or inverse, and so on. He used from all the possibilities a very narrow amount.

BG  Do I take it, then, that you don’t see the Boulez-Stockhausen way with serialism as being the only legitimate continuation of Webern? Do you feel it’s a distortion of Webern, of the beauty of his music?

HR  Yes, sometimes it’s a very big hypertrophia of Webern in a bad sense, like a cancer on an organism. A beautiful organism, of the stellar beauty of Webern. He’s the most advanced from the three Viennese. Let’s say the purest. Also in Schoenberg and in Berg you have pages very related to this. But Berg is more a return to Romanticism, no? It’s very Romantic, very rich polyphonically, very beautiful. In the Six Pieces by Schoenberg I found also very many things. Schoenberg was a fantastic composer. And his Verklärte Nacht is forty-five years earlier than Metamorphosen by Strauss, thus very in advance of its time. And the ‘Farben’ is fantastically new; he’s nearly ‘plasmatic’ in the ‘Farben’. Harry Halbreich told me, ‘Schoenberg is your grandfather, and Scelsi your father!’ It’s true. And maybe an uncle is Ligeti.

    * Fighting against what he calls a ‘discontinuous and manufactured music’ and the ‘acrobatics of the post-war period and its post-serial waste products,’ the composer is ‘partisan,’ on the contrary, to music based on ‘energy operating within a sound that is as continuous as possible’ – in the lineage of Giacinto Scelsi and György Ligeti.  (Franck Mallet)

BG  Do you feel a kinship with Varèse, with his interest in timbre?

HR  Also. Varèse is a very fauvistic way of playing with the sound source directly. Nearly each sound is so powerful and intense, also like a star. But maybe the most pure was Webern.

I think the generation of Boulez and Stockhausen is a lost generation, in between big trends of the Kunst. They change all the time their skirts, their jacket, they do not believe in one way. Boulez is believing so much in the serial scale of twelve that the whole history of music for Boulez was only on millimetric paper, whereas the spectra are on logarithmic paper; the distances between the sounds are measured on logarithmic paper. This is my invitation for everybody, to agree to the natural model. Which is logarithmic. And I think that some Indians and some Byzantine, they were very close to this, intuitively. Even if they do it in another way, they divide the octave in seventy-two or sixty-eight and they take twenty-two or eighteen.

BG  When did you first get interested in Byzantine music?

HR  Oh, we have been a bit Byzantine always in Romania, but it’s more from our traditional religion. The Byzantine monks notate it with special signs. And they use microtonal alteration of pitches, very scientifically, with a totally other type of approach. And then, the melodic way of treatment, the very beautiful and rich melismatic technique of the Byzantine is very impressive. When I travelled to Athens I heard incredible Byzantine chants, totally old, in the churches; in Romania it comes back into existence now. But in Greece you still have a great tradition. It’s very beautiful how the monks, you know, very ascetically enjoy the sound. And that could be very religious and very mystical. But I think always they get very near to the resonance of the cranium, and of the space.

    * Radulescu’s mystical approach to composition is, perhaps, a throwback to the sixties… But whatever its origins, his work offers an alternative to the regression and conservatism of the neoromantics, the often impenetrable complexities of the post-integral serialists, and the mindlessness of much minimalism – a refreshingly different music which is both ‘musical’ and new.  (Roger Heaton)

I did myself a composition with more-or-less improvised monks’ technique in some Romanesque churches in France, and I called it Aulnay Mass. It’s like a monk singing, but he has forgotten from which religion he is. And in some churches I got nearly five layers of voices at the same time, nearly, because of the big echo. It’s very enjoyable. So that was a nice experience, near Royan, in Talmont Romanesque church. I did then another version with three, with five, I did secretly a recording, a fantastic recording, where I nearly fell into a trance of sound, the microphones were nearly on the bones.

    * The music we are composing is, above all, the music of a special state of the soul, and no longer a music of action.  (Radulescu, Musique de mes univers)

And I have a version written up to seventeen monks singing at the same time on a low A, but with many vowels and consonants, using a cloudy technique of vowels with overtones, but avoiding nasal sound. The consonants change like mutes on the trombone – there is a chain of nearly twelve consonants which you can smoothly vary.

BG  You had already been developing the spectral technique from the late 1960s.

HR  Yes, yes, from ’69. I think I was the first one.

    * …one of the most fascinating and original contributors to new European music. He was the founding figure in the Parisian ‘spectral music’ movement, which extrapolated all kinds of new harmonic possibilities from the upper reaches of the overtone series, and he has always been its most radical and intransigent exponent. (Richard Toop)

I asked James Tenney when he started and he said in ’72. I said, ‘I started in ’69!’ [laughs]. Maybe Stockhausen had an intuition with Stimmung, but Stimmung was still very serial, because he took just different intervals, seven different harmonics: the fundamental is only for the singers, on tape; then 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9; it gives the fifth, the fourth, the major third, the tritone, and a slightly larger major third. In my opinion it’s a pity that it represents just the chord of the dominant ninth, for a work of one hour and twenty minutes. What is precious in Stimmung is the micro-spectrality of each of the six pitches sung, this spectrality being achieved by various vowels on the same frequency plateau. This I use intensively myself and call it the ‘emanation of the immanence’. In my Credo for nine celli from ’69 I used the first forty-five harmonics. Nobody did it like that, I think, before.

BG  And yet Stimmung always seems to me something of an exception in Stockhausen’s output.

HR  Yes, and he was afraid of this, he said, ‘Oh, I’m at the limits of music’. No, it was a gate to the future. And also Sternklang, after Stimmung. But he’s from another generation. He can’t compose otherwise than in a type of manufacture of the serialism, you see. He’s very obsessed by axes, is very Bartókian. He was much greater in Gruppen and Carré, no? Or Momente. Then he was a bit retro-modal, in the Indianerlieder for example.

BG  How did you become interested in the subject of tuning in general? Was it from your studies of violin when you were young?

HR  Hmm, no, I had a Bösendorfer at home and sometimes I used it also as a sound icon, so called, bowing the strings with threads. It’s my idea, the sound icon: to go with a little bow, a V, like a ray, into a field of strings. It means you have just one hair from the whole hair of the bow, threading it all around one string. Each string can be tuned differently. It’s maybe the richest instrument timbrally. And if you have a Bösendorfer you can get a miraculous resonance, and you are able to change all types of minute details of the sound, such as ponticelli, tastiere and so on, you have a lot of points along the strings.

    * The sound icon: a grand piano lying vertically on its side, with the strings played by bowing. The instrument is presented in a new light; 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.’ Because I played violin myself, I was obsessed with the idea of reversing the proportion of the roles between bows and strings. The problem was solved by reducing the bow to a single hair – in most instances, a very fine thread (diameter 1/10 mm). By describing a ‘V’ around the piano string, this rosined thread brings the string into vibration and causes all other open strings of the piano to resonate in sympathetic vibration resulting in a fabulous resonance… the tuning of the strings (scordatura) of the sound icon is specific to each score and strictly corresponds to the intervals determined by the spectral components (i.e. harmonic scales of logarithmic and thus unequal intervals). (Radulescu)

BG   Did you invent the sound icon in Paris?

HR  No, in Romania, but in Paris later I called it the sound icon because it resembled the Byzantine icons, and also because it was on a si spectrum, a B natural (si in French or Italian), and I said s, i, oh, sound icon! You see? It was A Doini, for seventeen musicians with sound icons.  In Romania a shepherd plays with his flute a doina; A Doini is a verb which is more or less invented. It exists, however. A Doini is the infinitive, like to doina, to long with sound, as the shepherd does when he plays the doina for his love who is in the valley. And I introduced this instrument with this piece, where you have a compact spectrum between the 8th and the 24th harmonics, therefore a scale of seventeen different elements.  Seventeen people are playing, each one on just one pitch, but with a lot of processes, Freud/Jung processes [laughs]. And also there are some false grandfathers of this spectrum, false fundamentals, very low. Instead of B natural there are Bb, A and C as false fundamentals, like big mammoths, projecting their own implicit spectra. The explicit spectrum of B natural is played more or less continuously, but those ‘thunder’ spectra, random spectra based on the false grandfathers, are sometimes also present. We built spider webs of nylon threads of different thicknesses in between the pianos, because there are several sound icons, you can use as many as you like, even seventeen sound icons, big grand pianos vertically placed. You transport them without the lid, and you can see only the bronze and the strings. And sometimes you perform with rosined fingers on some of the threads, exciting more than one piano at the same time. You get a tremendous thunder sound on the low strings and an ‘aura’ on the fine threads of the high-register strings.

BG  But you didn’t actually make this instrument public while you were still in Romania?

HR  No, in Romania I was only a student. No, I did this mostly at home. Maybe since ’64, ’65, something like that.

BG   I’m wondering where these sorts of experimental concepts grew from – both the sound icon and the spectral technique itself – because presumably in Romania in the ’60s you didn’t have access to the most recent contemporary music from the West.

HR  No. With the spectral tuning in Romania: before I left I phoned Stefan Niculescu, one of my masters, and I said, ‘I have a fantastic idea, I will awake a spectrum of C on nine celli, up to the 45th harmonic, like seeing a fresco from nine different distances at the same time’. It means the first cello is playing nine types of music, alpha, beta and so on; the second cello plays the same fresco but from a nearer distance, so he has more time to look into the material, but he lost one type of music; and so on, the third will come nearer to this fresco, until the ninth cello is totally in the matter of sound, losing all the other eight ‘musics’ and being involved only in one. And so you get different distances at the same time – it could be related to the technique of painting on glass, you know… the old icons; because I had the idea also in painting, to paint on different strata of glass. I did myself a bit of painting with coloured China ink, but I gave this idea to an actual painter, not like me, in Paris, and told him, ‘Why you don’t paint with three, four, five, nine glasses at the same time to get this type of special vision, like nine strata of stained glass?’

This was the composition of Credo. And on this I phoned Niculescu, my master, and I told him, “Oh, I have a fantastic idea.” And then I left, next day I left Romania in ’69. So the composition wasn’t totally ready but the idea came already in Romania. It was, let’s say, in the air, maybe, an intuition. Because I was inspired also by the brass instruments, how they built everything from the low fundamentals. I had a sketch for a large orchestra piece starting on a very low B flat. I didn’t know anything about Stimmung, but B flat is very good for the brass instruments. So for my Wild Incantesimo I wanted to build everything on an enormous spectrum. In Credo I used nine celli; Wild Incantesimo is for nine orchestras, with mostly invented instruments. In Romania, you express happiness by saying you are in the ninth heaven.

BG  Earlier you mentioned Schoenberg, who invoked the harmonic series as a way of providing a rationale for his use of dissonance. Does the idea of consonance and dissonance, and especially their opposition, have any meaning for you as a composer?

HR  There are tensions… dissonance and consonance are forces, maybe. If you get into the idea of self-generative functions they abolish the notion of dissonance, more or less. They have a degree of relationship, you know, of belonging to a specific ‘spectral family’; far away functions, and closer ones.

BG  Do you agree with the point that Partch and Tenney and others make, that it is crucially important, the higher you go up the spectrum, to have precise tuning – that you need to have the intervals further up the harmonic series very accurately in tune, otherwise their meaning is lost?

HR  It is true, because there are more and more functions. It means the tuning should be very precise all over. The intervals are more minute the higher you get on a spectrum, and if you are not precise you will lose much. For example, if you need a special sum and difference between functions, if you use the 51st harmonic, and you are too low, you will fall into 50, and 50 is the double octave of the 25, so you lost a lot of functionality. This is the problem. You have to be strict in order to achieve something. For example, I have 51; 51 is the sum of 26 and 25. 26 is the double of 13, and so on. But if you tune the 51 too low you will get 50, the double of the 25 already, so it will be like an octave in Webern’s music, you understand? It will lose the sense of a new function.

BG  Very interesting. So this word ‘function’ I now understand…

HR  Functions, like dominant, subdominant, Phrygian second, and so on…

BG  Yes, you mean ‘function’ in more or less the conventional sense.

HR  Yes. It’s a good sense to have. Because we use ‘function’ in all languages. We don’t analyse enough this aspect, but I think music is done only by this force of attraction between the spectral elements. It’s a family of self-generating functions, a genealogy of pitch. And they are, let’s say, as filtered regions of spectra, preferential situations of spectra. And if the music is very good and well done, it reflects very profound harmonic laws, in the true sense of harmony, universal harmony laws. I’m sure it’s like that. Composers from all ages were close to these resonance laws.

I now discovered that in my Das Andere for viola I used for example the 7th harmonic on the first string, and on the second string I used the 7th up to the 13th, a melody, irregular melody, to be more or less improvised by the player against the 7th harmonic on the first string.

from Radulescu, Das AndereFig.1: Radulescu, Das Andere op.49 (1983), page 14.

©1984 Lucero Print, Versailles/Montreux

    * This music sets out to create a state of trance close to that of a spiritual séance, through which one can evoke the presence of one’s ‘alter ego’ or ‘higher self.’ The very descent into the subconscious register facilitates the arrival of this psychoacoustic phantom with the instrument’s continual spectral enrichment in its bass region. Two definite beings (alpha and sigma) experience their dialectic through the seven sections of the piece:

    * arpeggiamenti – ‘glimmers’ of an obsessional voice (spectral bowing, out of phase), highlighting the chords resulting from ring modulations;

    * Byzantine-spectrum biphony, using natural string harmonics up to the 20th, with sforzandi creating much lower difference tones. (Radulescu)

But all these harmonics are very consonant together. Why? Because the 7th harmonics on the second and first string, they make a perfect fifth, a pure fifth like Pythagoras’s; that is, these open strings are like the 2nd and 3rd harmonic of D (the octave lower than the second string). It means all the harmonics I calculate on the second string are multiplied by 2 and on the first by 3. It means my 7th harmonic on the first is not 7, it’s 21; and all the others on the second string are 14 to 26. Therefore they sound very well together, because the 21 belongs to the octave of 14 to 26. You see? And they give a lot of difference tones if they are played on the violin, it’s incredible. If you have 21 with 22 you get in difference 1. If you have 21 with 26 you will have in difference 5. It’s fantastic, the major third in the low register. Now I’m working with somebody, and we listened exactly on the cello, the sum and difference tones, especially the differences. It’s fantastic.

    * …with Radulescu we discover the physical division of the strings into their partials. In Das Andere, Radulescu uses these natural harmonics, up to the 20th harmonic; the piece begins with them. But he also uses other special techniques designed to ‘confuse’ the strings by giving them contradictory signals with the bow or the left hand in very quick succession or even simultaneously at times, and this results in a breaking down of the sound into unpredictable ‘subparticles,’ rather like a nuclear particle accelerator! (Garth Knox)

BG  Would you give some further examples of spectral functions in your music?

HR  For example, a very beautiful chord with which I started the fourth string quartet with the Ardittis, consists of the 21st and 22nd harmonics, giving in sum the 43rd, and in difference the 1st. It’s a type of C (the fundamental) with three types of F. It’s very new music. It means you have three aspects of the same step, the F, against the C. In Hindemith, Bartók, Enescu and so on, you have the minor and major at the same time; or in Webern you have two types of fourths, no? But now you have three types of the same function with the other function. If the 21, which is a low F, meets 22 (F half-sharp), it gives in sum a higher F, one octave plus one-sixteenth of a tone higher. In other words, 21 and 22, in the same octave, give 43 in the octave above. And 1 is the low C of the cello, the open string. How do you play the 21 with the first violin? I play the seventh harmonic on the G (which is like the third harmonic of the cello’s lowest C). Very easy. Irvine [Arditti] did the 7th harmonic on the G perfectly. What I did with 22, is a double of 11; viola on its fourth string plays the 11. The viola’s fourth string is already the octave of the cello C string. You see? It’s fantastic. And only the second violin has to finger for the 43, with a bit of nail fingering, on the first string, an F a little higher, a sixteenth of a tone higher, and to play on it the perfect fourth artificial harmonic, to get two octaves higher, to get the F+. It’s the single pitch which is a little bit, maybe not totally secure. If you have a bit of wind, or a bit of, I don’t know, varying temperature, you will get this slightly altered. For this F, the nail fingering is meant like a new capo tasto. These three functions of the F against the C, I think, represent new means in the language of music.

BG  Could you tell me something about the scordatura used in your fourth quartet? I was trying last night to figure out the rather beautiful chart you reproduced in the programme booklet for the Arditti Quartet’s performance at IRCAM.

Radulescu, scordatura for String Quartet no.4

Fig.2: Spectral scordatura of the eight pre-recorded string quartets in Radulescu, String Quartet no.4 ‘Infinite To Be cannot be Infinite, Infinite Anti-Be could be Infinite’ op.33 (1976-87). ©1987 Lucero Print, Versailles/Montreux

HR  There are nine quartets, the live one placed in the middle of the public and the other eight around them, pre-recorded. The central quartet is tuned to 431 Hz in perfect fifths. The others are tuned spectrally, to simulate an imaginary viola da gamba of 128 strings.

    * The idea of this opus initially came in the Loire Valley near the Clos Luce where Leonardo spent his last years: a central string quartet (score alpha) surrounded by the audience which is surrounded by the enormous circle of an imaginary ‘viola da gamba’ with 128 strings (score beta – eight other string quartets live or pre-recorded). That imaginary 128-string instrument uses a ‘spectral scordatura’ of 128 different, unique pitches corresponding to components of a C spectrum (C = 1 Hz) in between the 36th and the 641st harmonic… The 49 minute composition realizes a polyphony/heterophony of two interwoven macro-forms: alpha – 89 micro-music events of pulsating spectral ‘orbits’ which modulate from and within 27 different spectra – like a voyage in between 27 different ‘solar systems’; beta – 137 sound-mobiles which evolve on the 128 components of that unique spectrum of C – a ‘terrestrial,’ dense sound-life… The macro-form of music alpha depicts a global-register shape of mountain and valley, i.e. uphill, downhill followed by downhill, uphill. It starts with a micro-music of 64”, irregularly and constantly accelerating until arriving at the last micro-music of 4”. Meanwhile, the music beta appears and disappears – like tides of a wild ocean – in the middle and extreme high and low registers. (Radulescu)

I used a scordatura of 128 strings all differently tuned from a spectrum starting from 36 Hz going up to 641 Hz. It means it’s easy arithmetically; if you take the fundamental as 1 Hz then all the other numbers are Hz –  your spectrum is easy to calculate. And I started with a nice octave, from the 36th harmonic (a multiple of the 9th). The cello is retuned down to a D (a tone lower than the open E of the double bass). So the first octave is a very modal octave of the C spectrum – D, the E a bit lower, F a quarter sharp, G, G three-quarter-sharp minus (the 13th harmonic); then the 14th, the B flat a bit flat; and the 15th, the German H with a little minus; and finally you get the C, the 16th harmonic. It means: 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. These are the lowest strings of the eight pre-recorded celli. It’s very beautiful.

BG  The example you gave a moment ago from the start of the fourth quartet, where you have three different Fs above a low C, implies that somehow the notion of pitch class is still meaningful for you despite the heightened precision of tuning. You still think in terms of the pitch class F, with different shadings.

HR  First we have a function of a subdominant or fourth, a little bit lower than the subdominant, but in a sense more as a subdominant (the 21st harmonic). Second, we have a neutral fourth, which is the 11th (or 22nd) harmonic; and third, a higher fourth, which is the 43rd harmonic. There are three types of function, rather like the subdominant, the tritone and something in between subdominant and tritone. The diabolus in musica was such a difficult interval because it was very near the 11th harmonic, but not exactly that pitch.

BG  This is a very exciting idea, because it means the idea of pitch class is then being exploded into many different… I don’t know what the word would be, different colours or different shades or different meanings.

HR  But they are now functions. Maybe this is more difficult for us to judge because we are not used to them. They are like tritone and fourth before, but now there are three types of F with the C. They have to be strictly in their registral position, this distribution, following the principle of ring modulation. If you group them into one octave and make a little modus on a little synthesizer it would be stupid, because they should stay at the distance they are.

BG  To preserve the spectral logic.

HR  Yes. For example, if I take another characteristic chord I use, the 16 and 21 giving 5: you have the E a bit lower of the viola as 5, the so-called (in German) ‘little E,’ a pure E (against a C); then you have the C of the soprano as 16, and the F on the top line of the treble clef as the 21 (it’s a bit lower). If you put them into one octave it’s rubbish. But like that, at these distances, it’s unique. I can even play it on the piano, it sounds not at all dissonant, because the elements (5, 16, 21) generate themselves. Even being a little bit false on the tempered piano, still they sound so healthy. And if you give this chord to some brass instruments who can produce exactly the F on a G fundamental, as the 7th harmonic or the 14th, and the C is played on a C fundamental, and E on the tuba as the 5th harmonic of a C fundamental, you get totally precise tuning. And it sounds completely accurate. They generate themselves. If 5 meets 16 it gives in sum 21; 21 and 16 gives in difference 5. You might also consider the virtual existence of the 11th harmonic, which will be generated by 16 and 5. This whole self-generative process is a deep structure of beauty. I have a whole piece made only on these two chords, from one chord to the other.

BG  What is the piece?

HR  It’s a very conceptual piece I did, Sereno, just moving from one chord to the other. It means from 5, 11, 16 to 5, 16, 21. [Laughs.] Just this. Like a horizontal sand watch, you see, for these two chords. I have some pieces like that, where improvisation is very important. Also my Clepsydra uses this macroform of a horizontal sand watch with the transmutation of a G spectrum into a C spectrum via a common function, D, which is the third harmonic in one spectrum and the ninth in the other.

BG  I notice similar sum and difference principles in your recent piano sonatas. The opening of the second sonata is built on the spectrum of a low B flat, the bottom B flat of the piano: the four-note chord that occurs in the first three measures could be analysed as 10 and 11 (D and E) giving in sum 21 (E flat) and in difference 1 (B flat); in the fourth measure the fundamental has changed to C, with 5 and 16 (E and C) giving in sum 21 (F). (See figure 3.) It seems surprising, given your obsession with spectral scordatura and with microtonal pitch systems, that much of your most beautiful recent music is for the piano.

Radulescu, Second Piano Sonata (opening)

Fig.3: Radulescu, Second Piano Sonata ‘being and non-being create each other’ op.82 (1991), opening. ©1991 Lucero Print, Versailles/Montreux

HR  But I would say these sonatas simulate, with the equal-tempered scale of the piano, very new harmonic, heterophonic, polyphonic and monodic structures created by the self-generative spectral functions. For me they retain the splendour and the wild purity of these pitch materials.

    * In more recent works he has incorporated themes from folk music, but without abandoning either his structural rigour and inventiveness or his mystical conceptions… [this sonata] is linked through numerous elements to the Piano Concerto op.90, which seeks to gain entry to the world of the magical, the ‘inner Universe,’ through the tension between ring-modulated spectral functions and the folk melodies of our ancestors. (Hartmut Möller)

BG  Do you have any interest now in writing theoretical papers, or do you feel you’ve done that and have said what you wanted to say?

HR  I think it’s better writing explanation to the pieces, it’s more practical. It’s nice to write theory. Sometimes it pushes you. It pulls the theory to the practice and vice versa.

BG  Could I ask you about your little book, which I was reading this morning, Sound Plasma: Music of the Future Sign. This is now over twenty years old. How do you feel today about the text and the ideas in it?

HR  Oh, it’s still good. It’s both a prose composition and a theory text. The text was written more or less in ’69-’70 and then improved in ’73, and published in ’75 by Edition Modern in Munich.

BG  The idea of the ‘sound plasma’ – do you still think in those terms in more recent pieces?

HR  In a way yes, because it’s a very vivid matter of sound.

    * For Radulescu, the notion of ‘sound plasma’ also implies an almost neo-Boethian distinction between ‘planetary’ and ‘cosmic’ music. It is this aspect – in many respects akin to Stockhausen’s outlook – that most clearly distinguishes Radulescu’s music from the ‘instrumental synthesis’ (also spectrally based) pursued by composers like Grisey and Murail from the 1970s onwards. While the latter composers’ work is in some respects scientific and clinical, expounding clear acoustic processes, Radulescu’s aims are essentially spiritual and magical, drawing not only on Catholicism but also on Daoism (in particular, Laozi’s Daode jing).  (Richard Toop)

It means if you use from the sound spectrum some cells and you change them into fundamentals and you play on them with very rich, or enriched, techniques, you make a very timbral and dynamic, very vivid sound. You create a sound plasma. Like here (see Figure 4), this is the global space of the sound, and these are the global sound sources; I wanted sometimes to have all of them used or just one, simulating the other ones, enriching itself. So my aim was at that time to conceal the cause and the effect. As a matter of fact, you have three types of global sound sources: the ‘inside’ source, singing or reciting and so on; the ‘tangent’ source, which is the instrument, electronic, digital sound; and the ‘outside’ source, out of yourself, it means natural phenomena and so on. And this was an aim, at that time, to make everything fluctuate and thus reach a new state in a subconscious way. But later I further developed my spectral approach, by using very precise orbits of pitch, corresponding to spectrum components, like planets in a solar system.

Fig.4: a page from Radulescu, Sound Plasma – Music of the Future Sign.

©1969/72 by Horatiu Radulescu, Paris; ©1975 by Edition Modern, Munich.

BG  What do you mean by ‘orbits’?

HR  The components of a spectrum are very precise in pitch, like plateaux of frequencies. On them we can create a new microspectrality. I call this process ‘the emanation of the immanence.’ Sometimes this process is very complex and you can confuse the roles of fundamental and spectrum components. But you can emancipate a cell of a spectrum into a new fundamental. Sound Plasma was a theoretical text with poetry all over. It’s between science and poetry. And later I wrote another text, in French, which is a bit more advanced, in 1985.

BG  ‘Musique De Mes Univers.’

HR  It gets into each score a little bit, like what I would like to have some day in a big volume, much more developed for each score. I think it’s the best idea, to treat each score, each little window on my universe, like it is.

BG  Whereas this Sound Plasma text is more general, more theoretical.

HR  But it was a very early text. I used it in Flood for the Eternal’s Origins from Paris in 1970, also a very conceptual score.

    * In 1969-70, with opus 11 Flood for the Eternal’s Origins, we concluded that it was necessary to ‘enter into’ the sound, to rediscover the ocean of vibrations that Pythagoras scrutinised two thousand years ago. (Radulescu)

We performed it in Darmstadt in ’72. It was the first time I conceived a score using  ‘global sound sources’: you see, I/O, instrument or object played, it means for example violoncello or tam-tam; H, the human source, a vocal source, singing, whistling; E, an electronic source; and N, natural phenomena.

BG  Were you already interested in Zen Buddhism by this time? Because things like the idea of concealing cause and effect that you speak of in certain earlier scores (for example in Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets) sounds a bit Zen.

    * Seven flutes move along a ‘square well’ of ninety-six sounds – an ‘infinite’ melody enclosed in a circle and made from inharmonic pitches (quartertones)…  Four types of playing technique (‘vie-timbre’) activate the microspectrality of each sound: 1. yellow tremolo (‘morse’ signals of different fingerings on the same pitch), 2. stable multiphonics, 3. unstable multiphonics, overblowing producing ‘spectral thermometers,’ 4. fluttertonguing a note and singing in unison simultaneously. (Radulescu)

HR  God doesn’t say exactly from which type of molecules he makes the beautiful colours of a cloud. I feel we should do the same: conceal cause and effect, in order to obtain a fantastic phenomenon, which would be as beautiful as possible. It’s like an invasion of beauty. I think it’s a type of joy, of special joy. It can be a mystic joy. The first movement of my Piano Concerto The Quest I called ‘The Gate,’ like the gateway to the universe.

    * The listener is transported in a universe out of time, made of interrogation, mystery and contemplation – until reaching the light. (Luca Sabbatini)

It can be the inner universe or the outer universe, it’s like being on… in French you say sur le seuil de l’univers, you know, just on the threshold of the universe. We don’t know which one. It’s your own inside, or the whole universe. It’s like getting a bit of the power of God, you see, for yourself. It’s like a mystical experience. But in a very poetical way, not at all in a guru sense. It’s more, let’s say, authentic poetry. I’m very impressed by Lao-Tzu, very much, by the Taoist eighty-one poems. But if you read Lao-Tzu, ‘being and non-being create each other,’ it’s nearly modern physics, matter and anti-matter, you see. It’s a fantastic intuition he had.

The post-serial composers liked mostly ugliness and destroyed things after the War. And I hated it, because I have no complex of the War. I was born in ’42, so I couldn’t judge everything through the War. And I was more optimistic than Boulez and others. It’s normal. I am from another generation, I try to create beauty. Why not? They were afraid of the term beauty, it was… like in Fascism, it was an interdiction of using beauty as term. Everything had to be, you know, Kaput, zerbrechen, broken, like a big amount of rubbish and anguished things. Why not believe again in beauty? Beauty as harmony, the single way to save the society from all the wars that are still keeping on. So if you believe in beauty and you propose it as a magnet, attracting human beings to other aims than wars, you give some hope.

    * Coming from and going towards THE ETERNAL (the outer time) the music CREATES into the time A MAGIC STATE OF THE SOUL. This is its single aim and reason to exist. (Radulescu, Sound Plasma)


Heaton, Roger (1983) “Horatiu Radulescu, Sound Plasma”. Contact, 26(1), 23–24.

Knox, Garth (2002) Spectral Viola, liner notes. Edition Zeitklang EZ-10012.

Mallet, Franck (1996) “Pythagoras’s Dreamings”, trans. Mary Dibbern, liner notes to Radulescu, Sensual Sky/Iubiri (Ades 204482, 1996).

Möller, Hartmut (1997) Liner notes to the recording by Ortwin Stürmer of Radulescu’s Fourth Piano Sonata “Like a well . . . older than God”. Ars Musici AM 1148-2.

Radulescu, Horatiu (1975) Sound Plasma – Music of the Future Sign. Munich: Edition Modern.

Radulescu, Horatiu (1985) “Musique de mes univers”, Silences 1, 50–57.

Radulescu, Horatiu (1990) Clepsydra and Astray, liner notes. Edition RZ, RZ 1007.

Radulescu, Horatiu (1993) Programme note to Capricorn’s Nostalgic Crickets II, in liner notes to Horatiu Radulescu. Adda 581298.

Radulescu, Horatiu (1994) Programme note to Das Andere from the programme booklet for In Tune? 3, Third Festival of Microtonal Music (artistic director James Wood), London, 11–12 March.

Radulescu, Horatiu (2001) Programme note for String Quartet no.4, op. 33, from the booklet of the Arditti Quartet recording. Edition RZ, RZ 4002, 2001.

Sabbatini, Luca (1998) Review of the CD recording (CPO 999 589-2) of Radulescu’s The Quest op. 90. Le Temps, 7 November.

Toop, Richard (1999) “Horatiu Radulescu, The Quest: Piano Concerto Op. 90”, available online:


Toop, Richard (2001) “Radulescu, Horatiu”. In New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edn, vol. 20, ed. Stanley Sadie, pp. 746–747. London: Macmillan.

Webern, Anton (ed.) and Reich, Willi (1975) The Path to the New Music, trans. Leo Black. London: Universal Edition.

© 2003 Bob Gilmore

~ by horatiuradulescu on November 1, 2008. Posted in Interviews Leave a Reply