For a composer at 90, there is only time

Éliane Radigue lives and works in a second-floor apartment in the Montparnasse district of Paris. A weeping fig tree rises above his he...


Éliane Radigue lives and works in a second-floor apartment in the Montparnasse district of Paris. A weeping fig tree rises above his head; Across the loft-like room are three large windows adorned with indoor plants. The windows face a school across the street which, she wrote in a recent email, “sets the days, weeks and months in rhythm.”

She’s been living there for 50 years, definitely writing a lot of slow, very minimal, mostly electronic music. The work of Radigue, who turns 90 on January 24, often seems static at first glance. His most famous piece, the Buddhist-inspired “Trilogy of Death,” is three hours long and feels vast and empty. Still, zoom in on the musical material and you’ll find that each line progresses slowly, even deliberately.

“Time, silence and space are the main factors that make up my music,” she wrote in an interview conducted over a series of emails. “Shivering space, like a soft breath, slightly induces the vibrations of silence, becoming sound.”

She added that “this natural way of working – the slow – takes a lot of time, of course”, and that she works “in time”.

His music, however, can feel less inside than outside of time. In her commitment to letting her ideas develop organically, she often makes people forget that time exists.

Radigue was born in Paris in 1932. She studied piano from an early age and remembers attending classical concerts on Saturday afternoons. But although the spirit of slow symphonic movements persists in his work, such a style rarely appears explicitly; the opening of “Opus 17,in which she gradually deconstructs a phrase from Chopin, is an aberration. Most of his other nods to standard classical music history – such as in “Kyema”, from the “Trilogy”, and half an hour after “The Resonating Island” — appear faintly, like a stranger on the road whose cries are lost in the wind.

More than the music itself, it’s the noise that speaks to Radigue. In the mid-1950s, she lived with her young family next to an airport in Nice. It was while listening to planes flying above her head that she heard for the first time on the radio “Etude aux Chemins de Fer” by Pierre Schaeffer, a sound collage based on recordings of trains which formed the first part Schaeffer’s “Five Studies in Noises”. It was one of the first examples of concrete music, which uses recorded sounds as its source material, manipulating them using electronic techniques.

It was a moment of clarity for Radigue. “Of course it’s music” she said in 2019. “Anything can become music. It depends on how you listen to it. »

Radigue contacted Schaeffer, eventually securing a position at the Studio d’Essai in Paris, which he had founded as a Resistance center during World War II and which, after the conflict, became a kind of music institute. experimental. There she cut and pasted the magnetic tape used by Schaeffer and another composer, Pierre Henry. It was painstaking work, the financial and artistic recognition was negligible and the men dominated.

“It was the way everywhere in those days,” she said in the interview. “I didn’t pay attention to that. No time to waste on that. I just ignored it and went my way anyway.

But, she adds, “it was nice to experience a kind of different path in the United States.” Radigue first traveled to the United States in 1964, for an extended stay with her then-husband, Arman, a well-known painter. (Their son was named after Arman’s best friend, artist Yves Klein.) She returned to America in the early 1970s, falling into a bohemian crowd.

“I got to know all the richness of American artists of this period, both from the Pop Art scene and musicians,” she says. “James Tenney was a close friend and introduced me to the musicians of this period” – including John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, David Tudor and Laurie Spiegel. She attended epic performances at the then SoHo loft.

It was in America that Radigue began to experiment with synthesizers, leaving behind Schaeffer and Henry, who did not approve of the “non-concrete” path taken by their assistant’s music. Rather than manipulating recorded sounds, Radigue was more intrigued by electronic feedback – a precarious and time-consuming process to capture, especially as she focused on controlling minute changes. Radigue worked with various synthesizers, including the Moog and Buchla 100, before settling on the ARP 2500, the modular device that would define his sound for the next 30 years.

Radigue even named her ARP: Jules. “What touched me the most was ‘his voice,'” she said during the interview. “It was so rich and expressive. Even if, when we disagreed…”

With Jules there was an appealing ease of use, with sliding matrix switches enhancing the tactile sensitivity of her music, which she explored further once she returned to Paris, having divorced Arman in 1967. “Psi 847” and “Transamorem – Transmortem”, both of which were created in art galleries, have intermittent timbre changes and rhythmic events that intensify already immersive atmospheres.

In the 1970s, she embraced Tibetan Buddhism, giving up music completely for three years. When she returns to composition, the incorporation of Buddhist ideas – as in the “Songs of Milarepa” and the sprawling “Trilogy”, influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead – only reinforces the simple and homogeneous construction of her job. “Kyema”, subtitled “Intermediate States”, is particularly evocative; following the Book of the Dead’s journey of existential continuity, it eschews finality, meandering slowly and backed by beats, harmonic imperfections and grainy white noise.

It wasn’t until Radigue reached her sixties that she began to gain recognition in France, and it wasn’t until later that she made a living from her music. An unexpected change happened in 2001. For years, Radigue’s only collaborator was his cat. Then, with some reluctance, she accepted her first acoustic commission – “Elemental II”, for musician Kasper T. Toeplitz – and began collaborating more regularly with performers, including on a release with the laptop quartet les Lappetites. Over the past 20 years, the collaboration has spawned new works; ten years ago, a composition for solo harp, “Occam I”, launched a huge cycle of “Occam” works.

The enormous “Occam” collection put forward a new philosophy in its work, derived from Occam’s razor, which states that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”. This principle of parsimony is a useful way of understanding how this defiantly slow recent music comes together: instead of the piece adopting a process of distillation, it now begins with material that is already incredibly distilled.

For the listener, the most recent work is still made up of the same building blocks that his music has had for decades: slow fundamentals, shimmering harmonics, microtones and long stretches of material. The only real change is that a few more people now share the design and build process.

In the interview, she said that career-ending fulfillment was fading. “It’s hard now,” she wrote. “I am quite old, with health problems, and I have to reduce my activities.”

But any slowdown in her production cannot diminish a career that embodies a committed art: a composer who stumbled upon a sound and spent her life nurturing it.

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