Eliane Radigue ~ An Appreciation on the Occasion of Her 78th Birthday

I have reposted a piece on Eliane Radigue written 5 years ago, as the site where it was archived no longer exists – my thanks to Paul Anthony Banks for retrieving this from the aether.

Composer Eliane Radigue will be 78 on January 24th, 2010. In August 2009, Important Records released two of her seminal works, the tape-based Vice-Versa from 1970 [reviewed elsewhere here], and her first composition following several years of intensive training in Tibetan Buddhist meditation and philosophy, the 1978 Triptych. These two releases serve as an occasion to reappraise the extraordinary sound world of Radigue, who has enjoyed something of a revival of interest in her work the past seven years or so.

Triptych, in particular, offers a taste of the improbably meticulous and subtle form of meditation-in-sound that Radigue has continued developing in the 32 years since its creation. Assessed as a stand-alone work, which it was never intended to be, Triptych may lack a little heft, wearing a thinner skin, without the harmonic richness, timbral complexity and fully realized emotional resonance of her mature work. Yet Triptych, upon repeated, close listens, reveals itself as a template for many facets of her later, staggering realizations for the ARP 2500 synthesizer and looped tapes.

Triptych was commissioned for the Ballet Theatre de Nancy, intended only for live performance, and received its modest US premiere two years later on a community-based radio broadcast in Berkeley. In that broadcast, in an interview with composer Charles Amirkhanian, an early advocate of her work, Radigue was asked, “How many of your pieces have been recorded and released?” Radigue, having regaled Amirkhanian for an hour with the narrative of her fifteen year journey from total obscurity to the limited interest of primarily a few peers and New Music departments in US colleges, chuckles and says, “none.” Triptych disappeared following that airing, and Radigue’s work would not enjoy a proper release until 1983.

Since that time Radigue saw two new works released in the 1980’s, three new works released in the 1990’s, and nine releases, both new and older works, in the decade 2000-2009. Some remain in print, many do not. Important Records has contributed two recordings that, joined with the last decade’s incremental trickle of works new and old released on a variety of small imprints, goes towards making her essential body of work available. Triptych is a fulcrum in Radigue’s progress as a composer; it is her first work offered as a response to her Tibetan lama’s injunction that she return to composing after a three year hiatus, and it contains, as stated earlier, the seeds that will be fully cooked in subsequent long-form works such as Adnos II and III, and the peerless masterwork of drone, the Trilogie de la Mort. It also follows a transition from works for tape to the instrument she was convinced for several decades was the only one to serve her aspirations, the analog synthesizer. Radigue now says the 2000 composition L’lle Re-sonate is “probably my last piece of electronic music.” Following the 2009 release of Naldjorlak I for cellist Charles Curtis, Radigue is expected to add Naldjorlak II and III for clarinetists Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez.

Radigue’s music is frequently described in terms that may make it sound like equal parts ether and airy space-bliss, a fair characterization of many of the current drone artists Radigue has influenced. In fact, she creates her sounds in a labor-intensive process of imperceptibly measured sonic increments, moving her hands between knobs, patches, potentiometers and a stop-watch, paradoxically creating the sensation of luxuriant drones outside of time with precision and a famous perfectionism. She has tried and rejected the digital way. She believes the labor required of the ARP 2500 results in elements of her sound that cannot be created otherwise. Describing composing with the ARP, Radigue could be talking about human symbiosis: “It is a very emotional relationship. You probably need this relationship so as to make it work properly. I was in New York where I was considering all the different possibilities available. Then I came across this instrument, which I found absolutely amazing. The only slight problem I had was that it was conceived to be connected to a keyboard, and for various reasons I didn’t want any. For instance, when I was disheartened, it would have been extremely tempting to allow myself to choose the easy way in using a keyboard.”

The result is her compositions embody a corporeal and at times distressingly human sound, replete with accidents, odd pulses and ghost-tones that somehow appear and disassemble so gradually you are uncertain they occurred. In an interview, Radigue says she chooses to compose with the synthesizer, as it allows her “access within the flesh of the sound.” The corporeal is made explicit in the 1996 work Biogenesis, in which she threads together the in utero heartbeat of her unborn granddaughter [recorded with a microphone-stethoscope] and subtle strings of synthesizer. The corporeality of death is realized in the powerful threnody of the Trilogie, her meditative response to the deaths of her son Yves Arman, and her guru, Pao Rinpoche. Earthy stuff among the bliss.
New releases every several years on small labels with limited distribution serve as small ballast to the general lack of recognition that continues into Radigue’s sixth decade of composing. To cite one recent example, consider Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century; probably the most popular, best-selling and positively reviewed survey of twentieth century classical music published in the past twenty years. Ross dispatches with classical minimalism in about seven pages, with nary a reference to Radigue. This extends her experience of critical indifference into a new century, despite Radigue saying it is in the US she has found kindred spirits and simpatico listeners.

That mutual affinity between a limited but awestruck listening base and Radigue started in 1970, when she came to New York because “there were no synthesizers in Paris.” It should be added there was also no support from her mentors. A student of electro-acoustic composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in the 1950’s, Radigue has recounted their dismissal of her ideas. Attributing her acceptance to an apprenticeship with Schaeffer to her being young, enthusiastic and beautiful, Radigue seems, in interviews, without rancor about those days. In fact, she continues to express gratitude and admiration for that wood-shedding, despite “some spectacular rows.” Whatever else is true, Radigue was forming her own intuitive approaches to composition and instrumentation, which led to an inevitable departure from their orbit. Some twenty years later, Schaeffer fled a performance of the extraordinary Adnos II after a few minutes into the piece. And like a shaming parent, Pierre Henry would say to her, “You were the most gifted assistant I ever had, and looked what you ended up doing!”

So she found an affinity in the US within the burgeoning minimalist scene, with LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. In the early 70’s Radigue enjoyed some opportunities for residencies in Iowa [where she recalls the sole audience member for a premiere piece was the Dean of the University music department], and California. The pivotal event that would change the course of her life and aesthetic, repeated in every account of her visit to the US, is a juicy story. It recalls a favorite anecdote of mine concerning John Cage, about whom there is an embarrassment of riches in anecdotes actual and apocryphal. In 1946, Cage met Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician visiting the US to learn more about Western music, which she felt was creeping into Indian music in an adverse way. Agreeing to tutor each other about their respective musical traditions, Sarabhai offered Cage an axiom he repeated many times in subsequent years, citing its impact on his intentions as a composer: “The purpose of music is to quiet and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”

Similarly, Radigue had an encounter in 1974 with several audience members at Mills College, who approached her following a performance of Adnos I. They told her they were students of a Tibetan lama in Paris, and they offered a comment about her work that, as the Buddhists say, “stopped her mind.” One of them said, “You do realize that it’s not you creating your music?” What followed, upon Radigue’s return to Paris, was a total immersion in her guru’s teachings, a concomitant suspension of her work with the ARP 2500 synthesizer, and, a few years later, a return to the ARP and to composition. Deeply engaged with her Buddhist practice, Radigue suggested to her guru she could sell the synthesizer, as any earnest renunciate in that realm might offer to do. He met that suggestion with one of his own. The first fruit of her guru urging her to return to composing “as an offering” was Triptych.

I think it quite possible that the anodyne for the ridicule and general opprobrium Radigue suffered until her US visit was the immediate and whole-hearted affinity she found in Tibetan Buddhism. An honest listener would be hard-pressed to articulate any extra-musical differences between Adnos I and Adnos II, though their creation is separated by six years and, most significantly, are pre-Buddhist and post-Buddhist works. In other words, Radigue was intuitively working with an approach to form, time and methodology that her embrace of Buddhism enriched, not created. “Buddhism came to me through my music,” she says, not, forgive the pun, vice-versa. Those audience acolytes who responded to what they heard in Adnos I by inviting her to study with their teacher simply brought her home-to Paris, and to an enriched and more highly developed sound world.
And what remains to be said about that sound world that exists completely apart from words? “I am working with the perception of time,” Radigue says. The much remarked-upon imperceptible changes in a piece’s unfolding are the result of Radigue’s meditation practice, her analysis, through Buddhist philosophy, of the illusion of stasis. There is her playful manipulation of the appearance of things being unchanging, substantive, “real.” Radigue said, “Things that always fascinated me in classical music are when the ear experiments with uncertainty […] when analyzing my work, musically speaking, these moments when it is absolutely impossible to give the ear a real tonal or modal reference can be found in most of it.”

Should that read as a little too “spiritual,” consider the findings of a paper published applying a mathematical operation [Fast Fourier Transform] to her work. The paper was published by a fan of Radigue who analyzed her composition L’île resonante using Fast Fourier Transform software [Raven Lite] developed at Cornell University for the spectral analysis of bird song. The purpose was to show, using intensely colorful spectrograms, the dynamic, continual flux and change occurring in Radigue’s unfolding drones, where the ear hears stasis and monotony. The graphs are pretty pictures of amplitude, frequencies, stuff like that. They show what is almost indiscernible to the ear. In the 55-minute piece under analysis, the author of the study reports, for example, that “by the end of the fourth section, at around 34:00, a new element has become discernible, if not recognizable. Radigue deftly transforms the filtered noise of the section four into what sounds like overtone-rich, guttural Tibetan chants. The enigmatic sound builds, swells, and becomes dense but its source is never identifiable. The sound could be a processed tape loop of Tibetan monks but it could also be purely synthesized (emphasis mine).”

This is an apt description of the initial experience of Radigue’s sonic universe – discernible, if not recognizable – the skillful illusions embedded in the deep striations of her drones. The spectral analysis also reveals how the changes in time that cannot be heard as they occur are nevertheless underway, dramatic change and flux in fact pervading the work, easily discernible [startling so] if you fast forward at any point. Yet play her work for a less than fully attentive listener, and they will ask you, without irony, how can you tolerate music with so little change, dynamics, harmony or form? So Radigue’s music requires you listen differently than you are accustomed to, meet her work with your own, the difficult work of one-pointed attention. In her 1998 interview with Ian Nagoski, Radigue said, “What I wanted to do – I don’t know if I succeeded – was to work with sounds which were continuously moving from their insides.” The quality Michel Chion called, in reference to Radigue’s drones, “infinitely discrete.” What Tibetan Buddhists refer to [regarding all phenomena] as the “rainbow body,” meaning that if you are seeing things as they really exist, they own an appearance of substantiality, but are also completely illusory, like the rainbow.
But, please, listen for yourself. Radigue’s music is extraordinarily moving, at times harrowing, endlessly yielding new layers of sound, and, yes, drone fans, indeed blissful.

• For the discussion of her years with Schaeffer and Henry, and her Buddhist practice, see her 1998 interview with Ian Nagoski, Yeti #8.
• For an overview of her development as a composer, see Dan Warburton’s excellent profile in the October 2005 issue of The Wire.
• Several of the quotes pertaining to Radigue’s ideas about composition can be found in the French online ‘zine Prism Escape 4.
• The discussion of the spectral analysis of Radigue’s drones can be found in composer Charles Johnson’s paper, Empty Music: Eliane Radigue’s L’île re-sonante, published on his web site, Cirrusoxide.com.
• Further discussion of Buddhism, from a personal interview with Maggi Payne, November 2007.
• The 1980 radio interview with Charles Amirkhanian can be heard at http://www.archive.org.
Originally published in Junk Media,
January 28, 2010

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