by Nathan Cornelius
I recently had the opportunity to hear French composer Raphaël Cendo’s Registre des lumières performed live at Citè de la Musique in Paris. In his work, Cendo aims for what he calls “saturation,” that is, overloading the sonic environment so that unforeseen qualities emerge in it, like overloading a microphone with a signal so strong that it generates distortion or feedback. This process can take many forms, such as dense unsynchronized textures, radical extended techniques, or the buildup of contrasting timbres (tone colors). Although I am not yet a fan of all of Cendo’s music, Registre des lumières left a deep impression on me, radically reshaping my conception of musical timbre.
This piece particularly explores timbral saturation, stretching listeners’ ability to perceive many diverse sound qualities at once. At any given moment, one’s attention might rapidly be shifting from the violinists playing col legno, to the pianist hammering on the strings with felt beaters, to the trombonist playing multiphonics with a double reed, to the choir stage-whispering into their microphones.
In this context, Cendo achieves a radical reversal of the qualities of “normal” and “unusual” timbres, so that a simple piano note or plucked cello string seems a fresh and almost alien sound. I find a parallel here to certain works by composers such as Penderecki and Rochberg, where the prevailing atonal harmonies are suddenly interrupted by pure tonal triads, which seem to break in from another world. Now that our ears have been violently awoken from their well-worn habits of hearing, we can hear Penderecki’s traditional chords, or Cendo’s traditional timbres, for what they really are—and what they really were all along.