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Composer Portraits: Raphael Cendo

Raphaël Cendo is one of the principal exponents of what he calls “saturation,” driving at an excess in every dimension of musical performance: density, gesture, instrumental practice. Saturated music will often be raw and raucous, perhaps suggesting electronic distortion, and yet Cendo’s scores are finely and exactingly detailed, requiring what is, even by current standards post-Lachenmann, a wide range of special techniques. A great deal of control is required, from the composer and from the musicians, to achieve an effect of uncontrol. This is a highly cultivated wildness. “Saturation,” Cendo writes, “becomes a quest for animality as a rejection of domestication, as a desire to form new territories.”

Born in Nice in 1975, Cendo gained a piano diploma from the École Normale de Musique before going on to study composition at the Paris Conservatoire (2000-03). He counts Allain Gaussin, Brian Ferneyhough, Fausto Romitelli, and Philippe Manoury as his most important teachers. He began to develop the notion of saturation in two compositions soon after his conservatory training: Rage in the Heaven City (2004), his first orchestral piece, dedicated to the memory of Romitelli, and Masse-Métal (2005), which he wrote for the Ensemble InterContemporain. A learning spell at IRCAM resulted in the earliest piece on this evening’s program, Décombres (2006), and he has returned to work on other pieces. He held a scholarship at the Villa Médicis in Rome between 2009 and 2011, during which time he completed his first string quartet, In Vivo. More recent compositions, besides those to be heard tonight, include Denkklänge for large orchestra (2016), composed for a première last year at French radio’s Festival Présences, and a third string quartet, Delocazione (2017), incorporating four voices. He lives in Berlin.


Substance for string quartet
Composed in 2013. This is the U.S. premiere. Cendo has written three string quartets so far, all of them for the Quatuor Tana of Belgium, who gave the first performance of Substance, the second of the three, at the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris in 2013. The composer has said of the piece, which plays for around ten minutes:

“My first string quartet, In Vivo, concluded with the horrendous destruction of the sound material in a tense and inevitable acceleration – a catastrophic ending that continued to reverberate after the last gesture of the first violin, an ultimate and necessary flight into silence.

“My second string quartet is something of an abstract sequel: Substance seeks extremes on the other side of the saturated material of In Vivo, choosing pianissimo instrumental gestures and almost inaudible timbres. These are produced by the use of a ‘guiro bow’, which the Quatuor Tana has specially designed for the occasion and which allows a far-reaching granulation of the sound.” (The stick has regular notches, so that it can be used like the similarly notched Latin American percussion instrument that is scraped with a rod.)

“The composition starts in an atmosphere of a charred daybreak and displays a multitude of unknown elements: itinerant creatures exposed to sudden currents, as a distant memory of a world that has irrevocably disappeared.

“With its five uninterrupted parts, each a different, hallucinated landscape, Substance mixes sounds and colors in a continuous spiral movement that takes over the sound space little by little, right up to the last breath.”

Direct Action for two pianos and two percussionists
Composed in 2015.

This work was composed for Yarn/Wire, who gave the first performance at the 2015 Lincoln Center Festival. The title associates the piece with two earlier scores by the composer, Action Painting for fifteen players (2004-5) and Action Directe for bass clarinet and thirteen players (2007), the implication for all three perhaps being that the work cannot be separated from the action that brings it into being, that this action is fully present in the work, as it is, say, in one of Jackson Pollock’s canvases. For this particular piece, Cendo adds an epigraph from Maurice Blanchot: “I call disaster that which does not have the ultimate as its limit,” i.e. that which, to complete the quotation, “bears away the ultimate in the disaster.”

Action imposes itself in many ways: through sheer volume, big crescendos, mighty glissandos through wide registers, and through playing techniques – for the pianists as much as the percussion players – that express themselves vividly in the resulting sound. The pianists are asked to work directly on the strings with their fingers and also with various sticks and hammers, CD cases, dumbbell weights, and so on. Normal pitched notes, played via the keyboard, are rarer in their parts than in those for the percussionists performing on marimba and vibraphone – though the sounds made by these instruments are altered by placing aluminum foil under the keys. Other percussion instruments in action include large metal sheets, a tam tam, wooden tables or drums, glass bottles, and bowl gongs. “The piece is based primarily on timbre,” Cendo remarks to his players at the head of the score. “Try to find the quality of the timbres with as much Miller Theatre at Columbia University precision and musicality as for traditional techniques applied to four keyboards.”

The precision and the musicality are certainly demanded on one level by the teamwork involved, for though each musician is straining at the leash pretty much throughout the twenty-minute performance, they are doing so together, in mutual adjustment and cooperation. We thus have the paradox of a disaster that is agreed upon, determined. But a disaster taking place in dialogue is hardly the less a disaster for that.

Yet nor is the overtly catastrophic this music’s only mode. Between phases of tremendous energy and tension come episodes of uneasy calm and mystery, all the uneasier and more mysterious for our awareness that the music’s power is not yet slaked – indeed, that the potential is rising all the time, to a passage that can be succeeded only by exhaustion.

Décombres for contrabass clarinet and electronics
Composed in 2006.

This nine-minute piece, its title meaning “debris,” came about during Cendo’s year of study at IRCAM and was devised specifically for Alain Billard, bass clarinetist of the Ensemble InterContemporain.

“In Décombres,” the composer writes, “the sound space is raw and primary, as if the ear were being stretched toward a complex source made up of different electronic sounds. The systematic destruction of sound sources (by distortion, by saturation…) affects both the instrument and the electronics.

“The writing for contrabass clarinet achieves complex saturated sounds by having the musician constantly use the voice in playing. The timbre is the result of a disproportionate energy crossing all the instrument’s registers.

“Clusters of electronic sounds are treated according to different granulation techniques, so as to form only blocks of sounds that are scattered, tense, and damaged. “In these spurtings of sound there remains a close relationship between the instrumentalist and the electronics. In constant imitation, these two poles push to the extreme their different materials to the point of destruction, of vertigo.”

Graphein for nine instruments
Composed in 2013-14.

Graphein, its title meaning “to write” in Ancient Greek, was composed for a Cendo portrait concert given by the ensemble Dal Niente in Chicago in May 2014. Scored for soloists on flutes, clarinets, saxophones, horn, harp, piano, percussion, violin, cello, and double bass, it plays for close on twenty minutes.

In many ways it represents a summation of the works on tonight’s program, bringing together techniques used in Décombres (vocalizing into wind instruments, those used through most of the piece lying in low registers: bass flute, bass clarinet, tenor sax), Direct Action (inside-piano sonorities and an alliance of piano and percussion sounds) and Substance (an abundance of effects, but no special bow on this occasion). At the same time, it is a piece all itself. The opening is characteristically tumultuous, and scored almost continuously for the full ensemble. Around a third of the way through, however, the music starts to become less erratic as well as quieter, giving attention to gestures that are much more straightforwardly beautiful than is usual in Cendo’s work: sounds produced by the woodwind players on recorder mouthpieces, a short, slow passage in unison for the four wind players, delicate punctuations from piano and percussion.

Perhaps the title is significant here. Cendo’s more saturated music – decidedly exemplified in the initial portion of this work – rather draws attention away from the writing of the music to its projection in performance. In the gentler moments that come to dominate this piece – and in its magical farewell from a crotale resting on a timpanum – we may, while still being drawn into the action, sense much more the hand of the composer.

A saturated solution, we remember from the chemistry lab, is one in which no more of the substance can be dissolved. In such a solution, left to evaporate, crystals will form.

—Notes by Paul Griffiths