Listening Notes #002: Éliane Radigue

Brief, incomplete and biased thoughts on musicians whose discographies have been occupying a lot of my listening time. Not meant to be authoritative, except for when it is. Prefatory remarks here.

When I was younger, I had a recurring dream. Walking through some landscape, I would come across a manhole (the landscapes would vary, but there was always a manhole). I would pull up the lid, and find myself gazing on a cosmic scene, not unlike the Horsehead Nebula. I would then drop through the opening and drift among the stars. I was reminded of this dream after coming across Éliane Radigue’s compositions. This time, the manhole was a casual Facebook post by an acquaintance who, it must be said, has excellent taste in music. But the sense of vast, unfolding space is exactly as I remember in my dreams.

The piece in question was ‘Transamorem-Transmortem’, an hour-long excursion into some of the most minimally glacial ambient I’ve yet heard. Although it was released in 2011, it was in fact first composed (executed?) in 1973 on an ARP synthesizer, most likely an early version of the first model, the 2600. Aside from its slow pace, the distinguishing mark of this piece is the rather high-pitched tone that accompanies the otherwise airy, mid-frequency drone. I’m sure that listeners will have widely varying (and perhaps visceral) reactions to this high tone, but upon second and third listenings I’ve warmed to it considerably, as it traps my attention in a way that more conventional ambient does not. It’s difficult to describe, but the high tone pushes my attention further downward into the rest of the sound, and it also occludes everyday noise, so that when the piece ends I feel like I suddenly burst into awareness of what has been going on around me all along.

‘Transamorem-Transmortem’ is not even Radigue’s earliest piece. Aside from an incredibly rare set of four brief, untitled compositions (‘Σ = a = b = a + b’) this would seem to be a compilation entitled ‘Feedback Works, 1969–1970’, released in 2012. While she had yet to grow into her iconic style, the intimations were there. For example, there is a hint of the high pitch that defines ‘Transamorem-Transmortem’ in ‘Ursal (April 1969)’, although its referent seems more shortwave radio than the purity of an unencumbered sine tone. The other pieces of the compilation reflect a similar, low-intensity turbulence that she would proceed to distill out as her ethos developed.

‘Feedback Works’ is also an important historical document. If we’re to go by Wikipedia, these first ventures were conducted ‘in a studio she shared with Laurie Spiegel on a Buchla synthesizer installed by Morton Subotnick at NYU.’ It’s another clue in what I believe is a fascinating history of women composers of electronic music. Spiegel, who began composing works on Bell Labs’ equipment that would eventually comprise 1980's ‘The Expanding Universe’, is a seminal figure in East Coast electronic composition, especially known for her use of algorithms as part of the compositional process. Around the same time that ‘Feedback Works’ was coming into existence, Suzanne Ciani was using another Buchla, this time on the West Coast, to create her first LP, ‘Voices Of Packaged Souls’. Of course, prior to these American explorations, British women like Delia Darbyshire and Daphne Oram had already amassed a groundbreaking body of work (of course, Pauline Oliveiros, Wendy Carlos and Laurie Anderson belong in this company, but they are much better known). To weave all these threads together would be a worthy exercise, but one that’s outside of the purview of this blog. However, interested parties can consult this list, as well as Tara Rodgers’s ‘Pink Noise’, which has an interview with Radigue.

Returning to Radigue’s works: it’s remarkable that, by the time we get to ‘Vice-Versa, Etc (1970) Mix II’, which is the last piece on ‘Feedback Works’, it seems like the glass-like nature of her baseline minimal style is fully formed. She would go on to elaborate that style, but first I feel like I should discuss what this music is not.

That is, a casual listen to her main oeuvre may not be initially rewarding. It’s as if you’d put Morton Feldman in front of a modular synthesizer and a jar full of Quaaludes. And it’s tempting to lump it in with more recent, utilitarian ambient, such as ‘Starship Sleeping Quarters’ and its ilk, which has no discernible arc but is sonic wallpaper in the purest sense.

What’s notable about Radigue’s work is the fact that her compositions do develop over time. You just have to slow yourself down enough in order to grasp what is, in fact, an intricate dance of perception. The closest analogy I can come up with is Agnes Martin’s minimalist painting — particularly the more subtle ones — where a rhythm pulses across the canvas in a stately and deliberate fashion. I thought also about comparing Radigue to Ad Reinhardt’s limitless black paintings, but Radigue’s compositions, like Martin’s, are characterized by light, or at least a certain lightness. (I would pair Reinhardt with the suitably-named Deathprod.)

This isn’t to say that Radigue’s compositions are solely an Easter-egg hunt for tiny variations and developments. Consider what occurs at the 37'30" mark of ‘Kyema (Intermediate States)’, the first of three works gathered under the name ‘Trilogie De La Mort’, where the drone drops out and the the composition basically resets to an occasionally chiming bell. Crucially, the bell is dull and dampened, not shiny or brassy. After about five minutes, a completely new drone gradually coalesces, and we’re hooked. This unobtrusive marking of time, versus the timelessness of a persistent tone, hints at her devotion to Tibetan Buddhism, an exploration that began in the early 1970s and continues to this day.

Speaking of Buddhism, ‘Songs Of Milarepa’ is really the only clunker that I have come across. While it contains Radigue’s trademark delicate touch, the piece is pretty effectively annihilated by a vocal overlay of a recitation, in Tibetan, of what I’m assuming is the text of selected ‘Songs Of Milarepa’. There is virtually no blending between the music and the voice, and the latter is recorded in a very dry, and, relative to the music, extremely loud manner. Even worse, there is a concurrent English recitation, in a wretched half-sing-song twang, that calls to mind the most dispiriting Northern California hippy earnestness. Perhaps this composition has some didactic value, but from the point of musicality, well, let’s just say that it has only further eroded my interest in the use of words in music.

Adnos I-III

Prior to this mis-step, Radigue issued another long-form masterpiece, ‘Adnos I-III’, recorded in the early 1980s but only issued in 20002. (Perhaps, like a fine whisky, these compositions benefit from extended cellaring?) A listener provides on the Discogs page as good a description as any on the allure of Adnos II:

Part II is the high point of minimalist classicism in my opinion — unsettling high and low pitches that oscillate wildly begin the piece that leads to a clicking ostinato that shifts in and out of the stereo field, to a final, awesome coda where deeper drones resonate against one another, creating shifting and ephemeral patterns (a favourite device of Madame Radigue) that finally convalesce [sic] into a stronger deep bass drone that slowly evaporates. Has to be heard, really; as a few words as this do not do it justice.

In the last fifteen or so years, though, Radigue has dedicated herself to composing for physical instruments, and the results have been mature and compelling. ‘Naldjorlak I II III’ is a series of explorations of cello and basset horn, including solo and ensemble work. It feels as if Radigue is challenging the players — and herself — to recreate and deepen the textures that previously were only attainable within the confines of circuitry. It must be said that the attention to detail is extraordinary, as this one excerpt demonstrates.

Continuing into more recent works, ‘Occam Ocean’ sounds as if an orchestra was tuning up very, very slowly, or John Luther Adams had written ‘Become Ocean’ while trapped in ice. The piece is also sprinkled with the kinds of microsounds that evoke a crackling wood fire, or a creaky hardwood floor, but again, these sounds are spaced out and take great care to be discreet, even apologetic about their appearance.

So what options are available to the DJ for mixing this sort of stuff? The care with which these pieces are constructed make the incursion of any other music fraught with the risk of destroying a delicate balance. And it goes without saying that these sorts of compositions were not created with the intention of having anything else sounding alongside, above or beneath. Dispensing with such puritanical sentiments, there are a few possible strategies that I see.

The first is playing Radigue’s work against itself. Much of its immersive quality derives from how, as I quote above, “drones resonate against one another, creating shifting and ephemeral patterns”. Especially evident in ‘Adnos I’, this dance of positive and negative interference reminds one of how sounding Tibetan bowls together produces the same kind of ‘beating’. Such a sonic moiré pattern can be enhanced by doubling up a single piece against itself. Even more adventurous would be the prospect of key-shifting or time-stretching pieces around one another. Nevertheless, these are risky propositions, as extremely careful EQing or filtering will likely be necessary to avoid the frequency spectrum equivalent of a ten-car pileup. Fortunately, Radigue’s standard composition length of one-hour allows for plenty of room for exploration, and gracious retreat.

The other approach to take is an orthogonal one: take something that is radically different but nevertheless complementary. You might call it the Reeses Peanut Butter Cup strategy. For example, Giuseppe Ielasi’s ‘15’ from 2010’s ‘15tapes’ has a dry, punctured quality that stands in dynamic contrast to Radigue’s gently beating substrates, another good example being 2005's ‘L’Île Re-Sonante’. You don’t even have to ‘be a DJ’ to try this — just load up each piece in a different browser and press play on both. When percussive minimalism collides with tonal minimalism — these are two great tastes that may go together as well as chocolate and peanut butter.

Next up: Jan Jelinek graduates from breakfast cereal, finds his soulmate and regresses to the 1950s.