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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