PRINT May 2022


Éliane Radigue in her studio, Paris, 1971. Photo: Yves Arman. © Fondation A.R.M.A.N. 

“I ONLY HAVE ONE TRICK,” Éliane Radigue told me a few years ago. “It is the cross-fade!” She pulled her fingers apart as if stretching taffy and laughed. She was sitting on the couch in her apartment on rue Liancourt in Paris. Athena, con una Espada (Athena, as a Sword), a bronze sculpture by the late artist Arman, to whom Radigue was married from the 1950s until the late ’60s, stood by the wall. For decades, Athena shared the premises with an ARP 2500 synthesizer and a pair of huge Altec Voice of the Theatre speakers. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, though, they were packed away. What Radigue did before she divested herself of this equipment is exactly what she does now: listen. Her work in the twentieth century was electronic, made first with microphone feedback and then later with the ARP synthesizer, which she nicknamed Jules. However she produced her long tones, they would be recorded to reel-to-reel tapes and then slowly cross-faded together. The result is a large body of work with no fixed scores. I have now described Éliane Radigue’s oeuvre with about the same accuracy as “multiunit office space” describes the Empire State Building. What lives in that slowness is a world.

Now, at ninety, rather than building pieces by herself with electronic equipment, Radigue is creating new work in close collaboration with musicians. If you are new to Radigue, it is prudent to forget about compositions and direct your attention to the time you are feeling rather than the music you expect to hear. Sit with her recordings and you will sense her presence beside you, listening for the soft collision of waves and the dance of partials.

A partial, in layman’s terms, is one of the constituent parts of a pitch and is determined by the fundamental. Did you hit A on the piano? That’s the fundamental, and the partials are the overtones and harmonics—two different names for similar phenomena—produced by that fundamental, which is itself a partial. Partials are just parts! For example, if the fundamental is vibrating at sixty hertz, the second partial and first harmonic are both vibrating at 120 hertz. Depending on how the note is made, the partials will be more or less audible. Harmonics and overtones are often described as “ringing” or “iridescent.” Radigue’s music is concerned with all those partials rising above the fundamental, inverting the classical approach, where you write down all those fundamental pitches on staff paper and then, you know, play them.

Éliane Radigue on her ARP 2500 synthesizer, Paris, 2009. Photo: Erwan Frotin/Art + Commerce.

“She doesn’t really care what pitch it is,” the cellist Charles Curtis, her friend and collaborator, told me. “She’s not looking for nice pitch relationships or intervals. She starts with all those ringing properties and chooses the fundamental tones based on that. I think that’s how her listening is wired. It’s a unique way to listen to sound, and it may be the biggest factor in the music that she makes.”

The cross-fading of two waveforms that are similar but not identical produces something called beating, which manifests as a kind of fluttering or aural flickering. Partials and beating is where you will find the action with Radigue. But find is a complicated verb, because the partials are actually, by definition, elsewhere. There is a third aspect equal in importance to the partials and the beating, and that is space itself. Owing to acoustical facts of standing waves and interference patterns and reflections, harmonics and overtones go elsewhere, propagating into corners and floating up. Many of her collaborators tell stories of setting up a playback concert (the term for diffusing one of her works on tape) and watching Radigue demand that speakers be situated facedown or clustered together in a corner. Early on, she told me, “I don’t like when a sound comes from somewhere,” and I absolutely didn’t understand. Now maybe I do.

Frédéric Blondy performing Éliane Radigue’s 2018 Occam XXV at Organ Reframed, Union Chapel, London, October 13, 2018.

Radigue began her journey sixty years ago with magnetic tape and field recordings. It would be decades before the academy would recognize her or her machines. Now, having stuck to her vision, she has refined the character of her pieces and deepened their execution by using the instruments of the classical canon. Her collaborative pieces are called the “Occam” series. The latest of these, Occam XXV, was conceived and performed in 2018 with organist Frédéric Blondy. Recorded at a church in London, it began as all the “Occam” works do, with a conversation. Radigue sits with the musician, and they choose a specific image—in this case of water—which is never shared with the public, and listen to what the instrument is doing that day in that space. Blondy and Radigue sat and listened to the various tones of the organ, an instrument she hadn’t worked with before. Her music uses long and sustained tones, which are easy for a synthesizer to produce but challenging for a human with muscles. The pipe organ relieves the physical strain of creating a sustained tone but presents other problems. The movements of Radigue’s pieces often begin with near silence and ramp up over minutes, not seconds. Radigue said this style developed as a “technical necessity” of working with microphone feedback. “When I started with electronic sounds,” she told Kate Molleson, “before I had access to a synthesizer with feedback effect, I just respected the behavior of moving very slow, not going too near or far to the loudspeaker because that would make it blow up.” It is crucial to remember that the fade is just as important as the combination of the cross. Organs that use electrical stops don’t have many options for fading in or out, as the stops are electrical switches with only on and off positions: full wind and sound or no wind and no sound. Fortunately, this “Occam” piece was created and recorded at Union Chapel in London, where the organ has mechanical stops. These let air enter the tubes gradually, and before the tubes are at full air pressure, they produce a low blowing sound that eventually turns into a note. The pipe organ, it turns out, is very Radiguey. What Blondy ended up making for Occam XXV is massive and glacial and gorgeous, a true Radigue piece that moves at Radigue’s tempo.

The recording begins with a vibration more easily felt than heard, like air full of lead settling over a table. Over the course of forty-five minutes, Blondy opens up a thrumming clutch of tones that build gradually, fundamentals slowly picking up harmonics and gently shrouding themselves in overtones. It is patient and exhibits an organic liveliness. What dissolves, even if you give the music your most obedient attention, is time itself. There are no themes that return or structures that mirror each other in Radigue’s music. Everything moves forward, imperceptibly and without clues. Whether or not melody and harmony are present is made moot, quickly. Historically, it would be valid to situate her work in the genealogy of minimalism and drone music, but metaphorically, the image that feels apt to me is that of a gardener. When I am listening to something like the magnificent three-part work Adnos, 1974–80, or seeing the “Occam” works played live, I feel Radigue’s presence. The audible becomes tangible, and we are surrounded by a canopy of greening sounds with Radigue seated at the center. We listen through her listening, moving at her pace and noting what she chooses to hear. What Radigue has made is not just a catalogue of sound but a way of interacting with the world and being available to it. Listening to her work yields not yet more text but a new way of listening.

Éliane Radigue, Nice, France, ca. 1950s. Photo: Yves Arman. © Fondation A.R.M.A.N. 

RADIGUE WAS BORN in Paris in 1932 to middle-class merchants. Her early musical education was both casual and intense. After several years of taking piano lessons from a Madame Roger, Éliane was pulled out of instruction by her mother. The preteen Radigue went to “play” at her friend’s house only to go upstairs and continue studying with Madame Roger. She went on like this for another five years.

In her late teens, Radigue ended up on vacation in Nice with friends and met Arman (born Armand Pierre Fernandez), then a rising art star in the Nouveau Réalisme cohort. She started a family with him. They lived near the Nice airport, and the drone of propeller planes got into her head. “I heard this sound and then began to hear it everywhere,” she told me. “I was able to hear it when nothing was happening. It became my own.”

In 1955, Radigue attended a concert in Paris and was impressed by one of the participants, Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer had become the most visible exponent of musique concrète, the acknowledgment of sound recording as its own musical practice. For Schaeffer and his few like-minded peers, music could and should be freed from instruments and pitch and notated scores. Any sound you put on tape could be the building block of a composition. Schaeffer’s early work Étude aux chemin de fer (1948) used recordings of locomotives; it was notable enough to be played on national radio. After the two got acquainted, Schaeffer offered Radigue the chance to be his unpaid assistant, and she accepted. Like the other assistants in the Studio D’Essai, where Schaeffer worked, Radigue was a young woman. “I think they liked us because we smelled nice,” she said. To her, the dismissive men in her professional time line are “machos,” and she rarely complains about them. The demands of raising three children and commuting from Nice to Paris were difficult, and Radigue eventually quit. To support his wife’s new solo endeavors, Arman bought her a small portable Stellavox tape recorder, which she used to record sounds of water for Elemental I, 1968, one of her first pieces and the only one that could be feasibly classified as musique concrète.

Éliane Radigue installing for a performance of Chry-ptus, 1971, New York Cultural Center, New York, April 6, 1971. Photo: Yves Arman. © Fondation A.R.M.A.N. 

Eventually, Radigue started working with Schaeffer’s protégé and friend, Pierre Henry. For one of his pieces, Radigue had to help edit several recordings of bells. The beginning of the sound, where the bell is struck, is where the “attack” can be found, and the following sustained tone represents a moment of “decay.” These two states are attributes of the analog-synthesizer controls Radigue would come to know so well.

“Henry just wanted the beginning of the sound, the sharp hitting,” Radigue said. “I liked the rest of the sound, that long degradation of a tone.” Henry gave Radigue two state-of-the-art Tolana tape decks to work with at home. Radigue would leave Henry’s employ following an episode of his explosive anger, but she kept the Tolanas as a sort of amends gift. In the ’60s, she began to make pieces using microphone feedback and other tones.

In 1963, Arman and Radigue brought their family to New York as a result of Arman’s contract with gallerist Sydney Janis. The five of them lived on the Upper West Side; the kids went to French high school. The sojourn in the States lasted only four years, but Radigue returned to New York often, meeting a range of artists including Phill Niblock, James Tenney, and Philip Glass. (She and Arman divorced in 1967.) When she brought the ARP 2500 synthesizer home to Paris in 1971, her mature body of work began to take shape.

In the ’70s, she traveled to New York and California for academic residencies and concerts at places like the Kitchen and Mills College. After seeing her presentation at the Kitchen in March of 1973, Tom Johnson wrote in the Village Voice that although much music of the era was “still oriented toward speed, loudness, virtuosity, and maximum input, Éliane Radigue’s music is the antithesis of all that.” He also noted that “some of the sounds seem to ooze out of the side wall, and others seem to emanate from specific points near the ceiling.”

Éliane Radigue’s 1970 score for 7th Birth, 1971.

The synthesizer itself was enough of an anomaly that it earned Radigue her only student, the musician and performance artist Laetitia Sonami. “In the ’70s, the only people in Paris with synthesizers were Éliane and Jean-Michel Jarre,” Sonami told me. “So I went to her knowing nothing about her music, and she accepted me.” Radigue would go out shopping and leave Sonami with the ARP. When she returned, the two would have dinner and talk about “philosophy, Egypt, anything but music,” Sonami said. “I think the world comes out of her through the music, not into her because of music.”

Radigue’s interest in Buddhism, kindled years earlier, increased during the ’70s. Eventually, Radigue stopped making music so she could study further. She blended the two practices with Songs of Milarepa, which was also, very oddly, her very first commercial release, brought into the world in 1983 by Mimi Johnson’s Lovely Music. Radigue had been a regular in the downtown loft scene for years by this point and had presented several concerts at Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. “Éliane proposed it to me and asked Bob”—composer Robert Ashley—“to provide the English voice,” Johnson told me. “We both gave her an enthusiastic yes.” The resulting album is a combination of Radigue’s ARP humming and the words of eleventh-century priest and poet Milarepa, recited by Ashley in English and Lama Kunga Rinpoche in Tibetan. It is immensely soothing and disorienting, and it introduced me to Radigue’s work in 1998 when Lovely created a longer and more complete CD version (filed in the “Yoga” section of a Barnes & Noble in Westport, Connecticut). Ashley I knew—and fans would do well to find this, as it is perhaps his most blissed-out Sprechstimme ever—but the unholy holiness of the synthesizer work was unlike anything else in my experience. It has the aspect and tone of natural phenomena like wind and maybe the sound of water flowing through the body. How slowly it all moves is what will throw any new listener. It is music that doesn’t seem to be asking anyone for anything, not even the attention it deserves and so richly rewards. It is just there. As many times as I listen to my favorite of the tracks on Songs of Milarepa, “Mila’s Song in the Rain,” it never loses its whimsical violence, like a volcano doubling as a heat lamp. A bass tone rises into a light howl as Lama Kunga Rinpoche speaks steadily in Tibetan, followed by Ashley’s voice.

Charles Curtis performing Éliane Radigue’s 2005 Naldjorlak I at Documenta 14, Athens Concert Hall, June 20, 2017. Photo: Stathis Mamalakis.

Radigue’s interest in Buddhism became a practice, and in 1988 she returned to a trilogy inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, begun in the ’70s. She completed the first part, Kyema, in December 1988. Her son Yves Arman died in a car crash the following February. The remaining two movements were completed by 1991, and Trilogie de la mort, now imbued with a personal resonance, was eventually put out on Niblock’s XI Recordings. Many of the musicians and artists I spoke to in the course of writing this piece cited Trilogie as the recording that turned them on to Radigue. Even more often, however, those I interviewed mentioned another trilogy: Adnos.

Early in the new millennium Jeff Hunt, of the label Table of the Elements, approached Radigue, and they decided to put out this three-and-a-half-hour work originally recorded in the ’70s. “I can’t think of a comparable work,” Hunt told me. “In terms of tone, content, and ambition, it invites the listener and requires focus. It is both full of detail and drawn out. It is not background music but foreground music. It’s thoughtful in the most charitable way, and there is a great deal of compassion within it.”

Julia Eckhardt performing Éliane Radigue’s 2012 Occam IV at the Sanatorium of Sound festival, Sokołowsko, Poland, August 18, 2017.

Around 2001, Radigue felt burned out on the possibilities of the ARP. She met Curtis in 2003, and they developed a piece called Naldjorlak, an hour-long continuous piece for solo cello that debuted in 2005. Radigue attended almost every performance of this marathon piece and kept discussing it with Curtis, a process that blurred the line between player and composer. Naldjorlak eventually became a three-part suite for Curtis, along with basset-horn players Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez, and this expanded version debuted in 2009. In 2011, armed with this new experience, Radigue began the “Occam” series, a body of work designed for live musicians. These pieces have developed in conversation with each player and have no scores. Violist Julia Eckhardt, who made Occam IV with Radigue, told artist Aura Satz that “the score is in me now, in myself. She has really completely passed it on to me. It’s not really important that she remembers precisely this score, because these possible scores are inscribed in the waves of the world.”

This became radically clear at New York’s Pace Gallery in December 2019, when four musicians performed an “Occam” piece. With Curtis on cello, Rhodri Davies on harp, Robin Hayward on tuba, and Dafne Vicente-Sandoval on bassoon, Radigue’s profound connection to the waves that exist in light and sound and matter was unmistakable. Curtis’s “Occam” makes use of a physical phenomenon on the cello known as “the wolf,” a kind of howling that most players think of as a mistake. “The wolf is a sonority that’s native to the instrument,” Curtis told me, “but one which you can’t just automatically turn on like a button—you have to go looking for it. Part of the piece is searching for it, trying to find it.” The wolf is a sympathetic vibration between the string and cello body that creates a tone that initially sustains and then breaks into percussive strokes, like an irregular drum roll. The wolf can fill a space without being played loud, a resonance not unlike a feedback tone. It is perfect for Radigue, who has made it her mission to find the events that exist below and above music and were there before any composer was born. These dancing waves have always been there. Radigue’s music is a slow and steady invitation to sit still and listen, fully, to what they are and what they become.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer who lives in the East Village. He recently completed Earlier, a memoir.