The Wire

Issue 180, February 1999

Eliane Radigue: Death Becomes Her


1998 was a watershed year for Parisian composer Eliane Radigue. The release of two major cycles, Songs of Milarepa (Lovely Music) and Trilogie de la Mort (Xl), placed her at the forefront of composers, preserving faithfully the spirit that initiated Minimalism. Although distinct in character, both works manifest a characteristic mix of daring and serenity, and both show unswerving devotion to the intrinsic character of their acoustic materials.

During the 1950s, Radigue drew her first substantial nourishment as a composer from the innovations of musique concrete. Previously, she had played the twelve tone game, but found it unfulfilling. Then, while working as Pierre Henry's assistant, she chanced upon electronic feedback effects. "I was absolutely fascinated," Radigue remarks in a telephone interview, "not only by the sounds but by their behavior. With the tape recorders of that period, a little defect could bring interesting results. I found this garbage of sounds very expressive."

Her early experiments did not meet with approval from her mentor, however. "The first time Pierre Henry listened to what I was doing, he was furious. He said I was gifted, and he had hoped I would be a faithful follower." Instead, Radigue embarked on her own course, turning her attention to synthesizers which allowed easier building of the sounds she required. An ARP analog synthesizer has remained her chosen means to make music, although for 25 years her style has been Minimalist. PSI 847 was her breakthrough piece -- for the first time her musical conception was closely matched in execution over 80 minutes of sustained, gentle sound. "The duration was just a matter of the necessary time I had to go through in order to reach what was my real goal," she explains, "which is still my goal, a very slow changing process within the sound itself. Something which is not external to the sound." She feels that the nature of her chosen synthesizer's modular system grants her "access within the flesh of the sounds".

A sense of the physicality of acoustic materials is important to Radigue. Biogenesis, completed in 1974, actually combines the heartbeats of her son and her pregnant daughter, with the rhythms of her grandchild, then still in the womb. This "hymn to the perpetuation of life" was realized using an ordinary microphone and a stethoscope. The technique was primitive, "something absolutely not professional", but the result is stirringly corporeal. Though it's not exactly a representative work it palpably demonstrates the continuity she feels between composition and the rest of her life. She has resisted the new generation of synthesizers. "There are beautiful sounds which are already made," she says, "but if you try to change anything, you get nothing, just ashes, just destruction." The ARP, on the other hand, starts "from almost nothing, just a few waves", allowing her to discover rich expressiveness in sounds. "I've been merely listening to them, and after that respecting them, trying to figure out what is the basis of any composition, what do they want to say next."

Her respectful approach extends to Songs of Milarepa, the cycle she composed in homage to an 11th century Tibetan saint and poet. In setting these Buddhist texts, Radigue was inspired by her love of the songs themselves, and of the voice of Lama Kunga whose traditional intonation is paired with "the witty voice of Bob Ashley, which brings a special coloration, definitely in the spirit of this Tibetan yogi." She proceeded by attending to "these beautiful texts, and these two wonderful voices." She speaks of her musical settings as a try on which these delicacies are offered to her listeners. Such metaphorical thinking is an important ingredient of Radigue's creativity. "I always start with a kind of metaphor. I cannot start any piece if I don't have clearly in mind the general idea of what I want to do." In the case of PSI 847, "the image was quite abstract, a geometrical figure, the cone." She conceived it as a shape made of multicolored thread which unravels to the point of its disappearance, before reversing the process. "I am not sure that the sounds carry that idea, but I need, myself, something like that," she confesses. "I need to have a general conception of the whole thing before I can make the sound, and after that I am looking for the sounds which can, more or less, fit with this general idea.

PSI 847 effectively laid the foundations for subsequent compositions, including Trilogie de la Mort. Radigue accepts the validity of Tom Johnson's remark that she has been making the same piece throughout her life. "There is not that much difference between one work and another," she says, "no more than from the beginning of any one of my pieces to the end. It is never exactly the same, for sure, but it's never totally different." Unsurprisingly, she feels musical affinity with LaMonte Young, Phill Niblock, whom she has known for many years, and Charlemagne Palestine, another sympathetic friend. She also feels close to Maryanne Amacher, although they have never met. Further afield, she has found an especially supportive musical community in the Bay Area of San Francisco.

A year ago, Radigue gave a four hour concert in Berlin, featuring Adnos I, II & III. Such performances are increasingly rare, and although resident in Paris, she has never presented her work in England. But the recent CD releases of Songs of Milarepa and the monumental Trilogie confirm the vitality of her Minimalism. Characteristically, she avoids sentimental attachment to completed works. "The only work which interests me is the coming one," she concludes. "A piece is always most wonderful during its conception. The next piece will always be the best one."