In Search Of The Wolf Tone

Éliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak (Shiiin) might surprise a few listeners, but not the most clued-up ones. Violoncellist Charles Curtis, who spent many days at the composer’s apartment in Paris to work on this, explains that the primary feature of the piece is tuning the cello in a way “which seeks to consolidate, as nearly as possible, all of the resonating parts of the instrument”. All stringed instruments, more or less, can be put in this extreme condition via the “wolf tone”, a particular note that generates an uneven kind of quivering where the wooden and metallic components seem to disintegrate until they’re reduced to little shreds.

As opposed to the intensely pulsating analogue synthetic purr of masterpieces such as Trilogie de la Mort, this is perhaps the purest, rawest acoustic expression of the French artist’s vision. Curtis, an enormously sensitive player specializing in early minimalism (La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier being but two among the contemporary composers he habitually tackles), doesn’t let the cello shift from a range that’s possibly not wider than a semitone. Apparently frail yet sturdy tones are elicited by his arco in an upper partial-tinged Franciscan ritual for the ears. And when the wolf tone gets caught, the certainties about Radigue’s intentions are shaken together with the instrument’s molecules. I’d be curious to hear an interpretation of this composition by Jöelle Léandre on the double bass. My room would probably crumble.

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