On the music of Horatiu Radulescu

By · Title Image A page of Radulescu’s score to “Sensual Sky” · Date 10/12/2017

The rarely performed music of Horatiu Radulescu, the iconoclastic Romanian composer and self-described founder of spectralism, will be at the center of an ambitious upcoming three-day festival at Acker Stadt Palast in Berlin on October 19-21. Organized by Iranian composer and conductor Arash Yazdani and his Ensemble for New Music Tallinn (ENMT) in honor of Radulescu’s 75th birth year, this two-part festival (the first part took place in Tallinn earlier this month) titled Sound-Plasma—Festival of Microtonal Music features performances by violist Vincent Royer, glissando flutist Erik Drescher, cellist Juho Laitinen, clarinetist Samuel Ekkehardt Dunscombe, and flutist Rebecca Lane and includes new works by Marc Sabat, Klaus Lang, Asia Ahmetjanova, Ernstalbrecht Stieble, Dror Feiler, Yazdani, and, full disclosure, me.

Horatiu Radulescu, “Before The Universe Was Born”; Asasello Quartett

Sound plasma, the evocative term to which this festival owes its name, was an idea coined by Radulescu in 1973 as part of a text-based hybrid prose concept score titled “Sound Plasma—Music of the Future Sign or My D High Opus 19 ∞.” The work loosely explores different phenomenological, spiritual, and quasi-scientific ideas on what Radulescu calls “the endless ocean of vibrations” that is sound. The concepts touched upon in this text-score formed the bedrock of Radulescu’s compositional thought in the early 1970s, and can serve as a rough guide to his overall musical thinking throughout the rest of his life. For Radulescu, sound plasma was the coexistence and synthesis of “abstract sound sources” (instrumental sounds, human sounds, nature sounds, and electronic sounds) with “concrete sound sources” (semantic language). The ideas of synthesizing sound sources played a big part in early works like “Flood for the Eternal’s Origins” (1972) for global sound sources, and his “ko ‘tro—Mioritic Space” (1972) for 11 speakers, string orchestra, electronics and natural sounds.

Horatiu Radulescu
Horatiu Radulescu

Inseparable from Radulescu’s unwavering and visionary musical ideas was his notoriously unapologetic and larger-than-life personality—something that often caused friction between him and other composers, performers, and concert organizers. But his lifelong friends, collaborators, and biggest supporters describe Radulescu’s uncompromising exterior as a loveable eccentricity balanced by his big heart and ceaseless love for life. By all accounts, Radulescu approached life with such a single-minded and voracious appetite for innovative and fulfilling musical creation that it permeated all aspects of his character.

At the Sound-Plasma Festival Berlin audiences will have the rare opportunity to hear Radulescu’s character and musical ideas come to life in performances of his “Dizzy Divinity” for solo flute, “Inner Time IV (b)” for eight Bb clarinets (one live and seven pre-recorded), “Immersed in the Wonder” for bass flute and cello, “Das Andere” for solo viola, and “Sensual Sky” for large ensemble. Each of these works was written and premiered in close collaboration with specific performers, many of whom were part of Radulescu’s own European Lucero Ensemble. The ensemble has long been disbanded, and its performers only brought together once since Radulescu’s death nearly a decade ago. Many of its members are less active now both as performers and in championing Radulescu’s works.

Belgium-based violist Vincent Royer is one notable exception. Royer, who became a member of the European Lucero Ensemble in 1991, also worked closely with the composer to record an album of viola works in 2006. He remains one of the few active performers with both firsthand knowledge of the composer’s idiosyncratic writing for strings, and a passion for sharing it with others. He has coached younger ensembles like the JACK Quartet in performing Radulescu’s distinctive extended techniques, taking over a role that Radulescu would himself have needed to fill.

A page from “Do Emerge Ultimate Silence” 
A page from “Do Emerge Ultimate Silence” 

Taking a closer look at “Das Andere,” its score posted on YouTube alongside Royer’s recorded performance, one can see firsthand Radulescu’s enigmatic notational practice. While visually impressive, this score will likely raise eyebrows amongst most classically trained musicians. Radulescu wanted to break free of the strictures of standard Western notation to explore uncharted sonic territory unattainable on the traditional five-line staff. The result is music that is sonically uncanny—like something from another planet. The sonorities that emerge from the spectrally detuned strings and the piercing double stopped harmonics in the uppermost regions of the viola’s range are intangibly “other.” Artificially perceived (but not actually acoustically present) combination tones emerge out of these gestures, creating otherworldly psychoacoustic melodies in the ears and mind of the listener.

To generate these unearthly sounds, Radulescu invented alternative modes of notation developed in coordination with trusted performers like Royer. What’s more, during his lifetime, Radulescu often made personal coaching a prerequisite to performance. This provided him an opportunity to clear up any notational confusion or inconsistencies while ensuring that performers fully grasped his uncanny sonic imagination. Today, only these close collaborators have the knowledge and experience to recognize and accurately interpret many of these beautiful scores. But sadly, for a number of these players, memories are beginning to fade.

Horatiu Radulescu, “Das Andere”; Vicent Royer (Viola) 

Notational vagaries are only the tip of the iceberg when considering the obstacles to performing Radulescu’s music. As a self-published composer with no concrete plan for his archive after his death, Radulescu’s scores have remained largely inaccessible since 2008. Radulescu’s immediate family took over publishing responsibilities with good intentions, but became quickly overwhelmed by the task at hand. Many of Radulescu’s works were hand-written and not properly digitized. Pieces like “Inner Time” have more than six different versions, each with its own specific instrumentation or electronic component, and none of which were clearly cataloged prior to his death. Recordings could offer more clues, but most of his works were never released on disc. And for those that were, many are now out of circulation. Luckily YouTube, as with many other composers’ works, has become a default repository for bootlegged recordings. But this can’t make up for live performances, especially with a body of work that so often plays with psychoacoustic phenomena—perceived sonic effects that are often less effective in recordings. As if this wasn’t enough, Radulescu’s publishing company, Lucero Print, along with its website and online hub for all-things Radulescu, www.radulescu.com, a site previously maintained by the late Irish musicologist and close friend to Radulescu, Bob Gilmore, recently disappeared, returning only a disheartening error: “This Domain Has Expired.”

The only way to keep Radulescu’s radical music alive is to continue the uphill climb of performing his works in consultation with those who, like Vincent Royer, worked with Radulescu directly. It’s an admirable feat for Arash Yazdani and his Sound-Plasma Festival to showcase so much by a composer whose works are unavailable for purchase or hire. But the sort of acrobatics needed to perform this already time-intensive and technically virtuosic music creates enormous hurdles for those young and ambitious performers interested in recreating Radulescu’s uncanny sound world for audiences. I hope that the sheer weight of this music will be enough to attract those willing to take on the challenge of interpreting this music before it vanishes from concert halls completely. ¶

William Dougherty

... is a composer and scholar. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1988, and currently resides there. His works have been performed by leading American and European ensembles. He has published...