The Deeply Meditative Electronic Music of Avant-Garde Composer Eliane Radigue

Among a number of influential women in electronic music whom we’ve profiled here before, French avant-garde composer Eliane Radigue stands out for her single-minded dedication to “a certain music that I wished to make,” as she says in the video portrait above, “this particular music and no other.” Her compositions are haunting and meditative, “prefiguring the concept of ‘deep listening,’ expressed by Pauline Oliveros some years later,” as Red Bull Academy notes in an extensive profile of Radigue.

Using feedback, tape loops, field recordings, and, beginning in the 70s, the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer, Radigue “developed soundscapes… an interweaving of electronic drones, subsequently assimilated to what would later be called drone music.” But she has rejected the term as too static, stressing the variations and constant change in her music:

In Radigue’s work, sounds interact with each other like the cells of an organism, progressing in glissando in an extremely slow and subtle way. “I had found my own vocabulary. For me, maintaining the sound did not interest me as such; it was primarily a means to bring out the overtones, harmonics and subharmonics. This is what made it possible to develop this inner richness of sound.”

Radigue seems particularly self-assured, possessed of an intuitive sense of her work’s directions from the beginning. “I cannot start a piece if I don’t have an idea of what it would become, but what I would call the spirit,” she says in an interview with Electronic Beats.

“The spirit of what I wanted to do should be there… And I keep that spirit, that theme in mind, quite often several months before I start to do something. So, when I come to make the sounds it’s already there.”

But her career took many turns on a path through the compositional centers of mid-century avant-garde music. After studying traditional music theory as a child, she left her home in Nice at 19 and married the artist Arman. She was swept into an “exciting bohemian life” that would soon take her, in 1955, into the orbit of musique concrete pioneers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry.

While working as an intern for the composers (“If I claimed to be more, I don’t think they would have accepted me, because they were both the damndest machos!”), Radigue learned their methods and collaborated on their compositions. In 1967, she worked with Henry on L’Apocalypse de Jean, a piece designed to last for 24 hours. She ended her (unpaid) apprenticeship that year and began focusing on her own work, like Vice Versa (1970, excerpted further up) and Geerlriandre (1972, above) and Triptych (1978, below).

You can hear more of Radigue’s work at Ubuweb, including a more recent synthesizer piece recorded in 1992, as well as a 1980 interview for program The Morning Concert with Charles Amirkhanian. That same year, she became a convert to Tibetan Buddhism, and her work—like the Adnos series, below—was inspired by the religion’s history, her own meditation practice, and texts like the Bardo Thodol.

As the pulsing, droning, humming compositions she created throughout the late 20th century have become integral to the sound of the 21st, Radique has moved on, since 2001, to writing work for acoustic instruments. She made her last electronic piece, I’lle-Re-sonante, in 2000. The move came in part from requests she received from musicians, but it also represents a deliberate turn away from modern technology. “There’s always something missing with digital,” she says, even if it is somehow cleaner and clearer.”

Radigue has always favored the absorption of analogue sound, intent on taming its unpredictability as a meditator tames the darting, leaping, busy mind. “My music is always changing,” she says, “It comes from the first access I had to electronic sounds which was the wild sounds coming from feedback,” the noise of a microphone and a speaker getting too close to each other. “If you find the right place, which is very narrow, then you can move it very slowly and it changes but that requires a lot of patience.”

The word could define her entire approach, one radically opposed to instant gratification and quick fixes, focused singularly on outcomes while also fully present for the process.

Related Content:

Meet Four Women Who Pioneered Electronic Music: Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliveros

Hear Seven Hours of Women Making Electronic Music (1938- 2014)

The History of Electronic Music, 1800-2015: Free Web Project Catalogues the Theremin, Fairlight & Other Instruments That Revolutionized Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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