Few artists working today can claim to have been as innovative as Éliane Radigue. Born in 1932, she became engaged in the vibrant Parisian avant-garde that was so eminent during the 50s, working under Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, founders of musique concrète. As her sound developed, she specialised in the use of feedback and drones, moving gradually away from the chaotic stylings of Schaeffer and Henry. Almost all of her work in creating these drones has been written for a piece of analogue obscurity; the ARP 2500 synthesiser, a huge piece of hardware that is capable of bellowing rumbles of enormous depth.
In the 1970s, she shared a studio with Laurie Spiegel at New York University to expand her sound. Her focus on reductionism began to align her more closely to the minimalist tradition that was encircling NYC at the time. After 1975 she began to incorporate the practice of meditation and Tibetan Buddhism into her work, which are now completely inseparable from her music. For a few years, she put her music on hold, choosing instead to retreat and study Buddhism. After returning from her studies, she continued to write several masterworks infused by her newly found Buddhist influence, including Trilogie de la Mort, a rumination on death, life and rebirth in the Tibetan tradition.
Sonically, her work is startlingly bare. Often reduced to just one or two notes, there is a pivotal shift in how one is expected to listen to her music. Harmonic and rhythmic features are simply auxiliary, the focus instead on textural subtleties, and the overarching structure that can often last up to three hours. Since 2000, Radigue has focused on writing for acoustic instruments, and playing in groups. One of which is The Lappetites, an improvisational group held with Antye Greie-Ripatti — also known as AGF. Following a discussion of Radigue’s work with AGF, we spoke about the idea of arranging a conversation with Radigue. “She doesn’t use computers” she explained, “so write a letter first to explain your intentions.” Within a week we received a hand-written reply:
Thank you very much for your kind letter. A lot of interesting questions – but too much to answer by mail. I don’t know if you have sometime an opportunity to come in Paris, in which case I’ll be happy to meet you and talk about it. You can call me about it: xxxxxxxxxxx. Never in the morning – if you hear the answering machine, leave a message – unless I’ll never call back numbers. I don’t know – see you one day – maybe. With my very best,
Two months later, we were in Radigue’s apartment in central Paris, as she pours us glasses of lemonade. “So”, she says, “what do you want to know?”…
We wanted to learn more about how you feel about your music and life at this point in time. How have you seen your attitudes towards music change, and how has culture responded to it since you first started writing?
There is much too much to answer about that in one go. And for all of these questions, there are so many directions I could go in that I have never explored. A lot of the questions you asked in your letter about society are not really my concern, or if they are, they are secondary to my main investment: music. One of the genuine answers about what you ask is that music is the only language which allows things that you cannot say with words or with anything else. So I will insist that we talk about music in the sense of something spiritual or ‘unponderable’ - something that has no materiality, something which is a kind of feeling, knowing or searching, a kind of spirituality that has no basis in reason. We are now in the part of Europe where rationality is much more explored than spirituality but the spiritual aspect of ourselves is there, whether through art or in front of the stars at night. It seems to me that only music somehow — or perhaps religion, but again this is too rational — is the only art in which the fullness of the three dimensions of time (past, present, future) are immediately there. Silence is part of music, and part of time; as soon as you hear something in music, it was already there in some sense before, and leads to where it is after. This brings a kind of fullness of consciousness because at that moment we are not anymore in any relative aspect of duration - duration becomes secondary. It is secondary even if we pay no attention it, there are some times where we are waiting for very long [looks around impatiently] “one minute past and I’m already bored…” So I’m not interested in the political or historical aspect of my music. Of course, it is included there by nature. Even if I just wave to you now; ‘hello!’ the act itself is already political; to welcome you. But this is something that we are just so acquainted with all the time anyway, and I never ask myself questions about it. Music for me is a way to think things that I cannot say - so maybe I have said everything, unless you have another question? [laughs]
It’s interesting that you mention time, is it true that you sometimes work on a piece of music for two or three years?
Yes because sometimes it is necessary for pieces that last 70-80 minutes. I was often working alone except for my cat, who is a very nice assistant (he gives me a look so that I know when to stop) [laughs]. I always work for such a long time on pieces with several sections and afterwards I have to go through the long mixing process et cetera. This is why I record things to tape because it was impossible to do in a live session. The first step was the concept of the piece, which is always the most important for me. I couldn’t write a song if I did not already have something in mind. So for a piece like Adnos I-III, when I had something already of the track, I just put that aside for maybe three months and came back to them and made a selection with a different way of listening for each. Only after about one year, did I have the constitution of the way I would articulate all these songs together. This is why it can take so long.
Can you tell us a little bit about your move from working individually to groups, for example with the The Lappetites?
That was brand new for me, working with other people. I didn’t give a precise direction when we were working together, I just gave what I will call the spirit of the piece. In Elemental II I insisted on going very far with the theme of universal humanity. This notion of the elements, of the solidity that sets our skeleton, the fluidity of water that brings life and that is in our blood and the air in the wind and heat… and we just spoke about that, and so we decided it was easier if each of them would be one of these elements. What interests me in working with these wonderful musicians is this connection, the freedom to bring your own feeling. The last time AGF came I suggested we work with our voice but without electronics, but that was not her thing. So I said ‘OK next time come with your microphone’. I was very sorry because she came from so far, I hope that she is not discouraged and does come back with her microphone!
You’ve also recently moved from electronic sounds to more instrumental, or acoustic sounds. Do you see this as a kind of return to your early influences?
Yes it has been like a spiral because classical music is my background and I am still fond of it. Classical music has so many different moods and feelings, it’s a complete world. I spent a while working with twelve tones in music in the same way that I think about a crossword or a sudoku. I was just interested in writing it and inspecting some of the rules, but I was not so interested in doing a kind of analysis. That was until I discovered musique concrète and Pierre Schaffer in France. It was so obvious that music is first of all a matter of listening. Pauline Oliveros made a basic statement about this: ‘deep listening’. This is right but Pierre Schaffer was already doing so without knowing it. It’s natural that if you listen in a deep way to something, that you will be totally ‘caught’ by it. In fact at the time I was living in Nice and there was a very small airport, and at the time I was very interested in the sounds of the different flights, and there was a lot of secondary and side effects, and we have this ability to filter different aspects, to make our own music through any kind of sounds. The way we listen gives us the meaning.
Did you ever consider your work in drone to be in some sense reactionary to the musique concrète that you first worked with?
Oh no, it was not a reaction because the first time I listened to concrète music, it was already with natural sounds and centred on some kind of vibration; running water, wind et cetera. It’s the vibration of some material, and what interests me about so-called ‘drone’ is just like a means amongst others to project the tones, harmonics, subharmonics and contents of the sounds. That was what interested me the most; trying to dig into the sound, like you do when plunging into water, just to be immersed in the sound, and trying to work into it. The first piece I did on tape was Elemental I and at that point I was at a kind of changing point. Not a changing point in my music, but in my way of plugging or digging into the sound. In the 70s I put music secondary through my studying of Tibetan Buddhism and I thought that I would not make music anymore, but that’s impossible [laughs]. When I came back, I made a piece which was also inspired by the elements. For me it would be that basic ground to build from. So now I realise the rolling of the earth also contains somehow the kind of projection of other elements. For example, when you hear in the mountain you hear bells, and when the bells stop, you have all the mountains which is full of harmonics and this comes from contact with the earth. Wind and water are also very very rich materials and the sound is floating, floating through basic natural elements. It’s not a mean, it’s an end in itself. I don’t have any precept, it’s like doing an arpeggio or scale, these are just basic material, like words. They are words, but words made of another kind of sound. I don’t have any big statement about anything like that I don’t think.
Do you see your music as a form of meditation in itself?
There are several meditations. There is no one meditation. Meditation is like music, I’m not actually acquainted with the new music of young people like techno and all that, but it’s music! Meditation is the same, there are several aspects and of course there is obviously a link, music is a kind of meditation whether we know it or not. To say that I make music as meditation or to meditate ‘as music’ is there just by nature somehow. In fact, just to go a step forward, in tradition, in a spiritual sense, all religions include music in their rituals. Whichever spiritual tradition you look at, the ritual — like playing an instrument in a complex way — is just there as a kind of building this connection. It’s like switching on a TV, the simple pushing of a button leads to so much complexity, and you can catch a little aspect of the spiritual nature through rituals. Meditation can be like that [snaps fingers] or it can be much more complex. Music is everywhere and in every sound, everything in life is meditation, it depends on the way we are listening. Meditation depends on our way of being aware of what is in our minds. Whatsoever it is. After that, the rest is just technics, like keeping ones body in a good condition and so on.
Do you still have the ARP?
Not me, but my producer in Paris does. I couldn’t have him — I call the ARP him, not it [laughs] — when I start to work with musicians, it was a kind of divorce. I could always go and visit him, but I won’t play. But it’s still somehow still mine. I have played with digital synthesisers, and yes they are very good instruments, I learnt about them at college and found it very interesting. In the 90s, I was invited via a sponsorship to use these intriguing instruments, the first month i spent with that was great. Wowee the marvellous sounds that came from all that! Eventually I was like ‘oh well, wonderful sounds is maybe not really my way…’ and so I gave that up, or to be more precise, I thought that I would have to spend years working with it et cetera.
How did you first discover the instrument?
I was in the United States in 1970 and I had been invited to a conference at NYU and this is where I learned to play with it. The only thing that was difficult for me was working directly with the electronics. All the connections were made by wire, it was just working in a plate of spaghetti. If you made a bad move you could just take something off. You have to check everything, and it was very complicated. So in a way I was working very slowly and carefully. I was also working very slowly and carefully with the feedback, keeping the right distance with the microphone and the loudspeaker, to catch the sounds. It was the same working with the tape recorder; you have to be very careful not to break something. I never used a keyboard with the ARP, and people never understood that. It was the same price but I didn’t want it, I didn’t want to be tempted by it, and that was it. It’s been about 30 years, a long marriage!
Special thanks to Elsa Hewitt for translation.