Eliane Radigue’s still, slow soundscapes made her an electronic music pioneer – so why has she abandoned the synthesiser, asks Pascal Wyse
In New York, 1970, Eliane Radigue met her first synthesiser. It was a Buchla, and looked – as early synthesisers did – more like a badly organised telephone switchboard, all dials and dangling wires. The machine was installed at the New York University School of Arts by US composer Morton Subotnick, and Radigue, a guest composer from France, was not impressed: “After the first three months I wondered what on earth I was doing there with this silly machine.”
Over 40 years later, Radigue, visiting London for a retrospective of her work, laughs at the recollection. After all, this was the instrument she would go on to develop a deep relationship with, and through which she would evolve a music that, for the select few who came across it, offered rare rewards.
Those rewards have not come easily to Radigue, just as they don’t always come easily to the hasty listener. Her painstaking approach to composing, sometimes taking years per piece, leads to music with similar qualities: a tectonic plate of sound that evolves so slowly it seems to move and stay still at the same time.
“For the first three months in front of the synthesiser, I just ejected anything I didn’t want,” says Radigue. “And believe me there was quite a lot. All of what I would call the ‘big effects’. Then, finally, I found a tiny little field of sound that interested me – and I just dug under its skin.”
Radigue was not stumbling on something new – but rediscovering on a different instrument a sound she was already captivated by. In the 1950s, after hearing radio broadcasts by composer Pierre Schaeffer, she had a chance encounter with him through a friend in Paris. Radigue went to study musique concrète with Schaeffer and fellow composer Pierre Henry, and later she worked for them as an assistant.
“I was just cutting, splicing and editing tape. Of course, at that time the universe of electronic music was totally male, but I was pleased to do anything they asked of me. I was there to learn, and I was learning by doing, like an apprentice. It wasn’t really electronic music I was studying. The studio was against electronic music in favour of ‘concrete’ music: a simple idea of taking real sounds and manipulating them by cutting, splicing, editing, slowing down and so on.”
Radigue credits Shaeffer with encouraging her to hear the world in a different way. Through him she realised any sound could be, or could contain, music. This, she says, was a great antidote to the “intellectual gymnastics” of the regimented 12-tone and serial music she had been studying, and which Schaeffer thought had “made for a century of the most boring music”.
Despite her love of Schaeffer’s brilliance, Radigue sided artistically with Henry when she began to develop her own sound using Henry’s technique of tape feedback – small cells of sound getting slower and slower, stretched out across time and revealing their microscopic innards. Working with multiple tapes, Radigue’s pieces from this time, the late 1960s, were marathons of tape editing and layering. This was the tempo she was happy with.
“With classical music I was already very fond of the slow movements, such as the adagio of the Piano Concerto in G by Ravel,” she says. “I used to jump to the recorder to stop the third movement because after that I didn’t want to hear ‘pom pom pom’! I had some music within myself which I wanted to take flight somewhere, somehow.”
Radigue realised that synthesisers, and in particular the American ARP 2500, offered great potential for this meditative approach. She could build sound from its constituent parts, changing in tiny increments up to 40 parameters such as frequency and modulation, encouraging waves to beat and pulse against each other. The music didn’t contain sound: the sound contained the music. She didn’t even bother bringing the keyboard part of the ARP back to France.
“I could change the sound from the inside. To explain it visually, you could imagine a mountain turning into a cup, but so slowly from one state to another; it takes time by nature.”
She approached the ARP with the same tactile physicality she would apply to the piano or harp, which she also plays, becoming so intuitive that when composer Michèle Bokanowski asked her for “a sound that is the silence of the stars” she didn’t even need to fire up the synthesiser. “I just went over to it, adjusted a few parameters. Then I just switched it on. That was it!”
Although she does it with humour, Radigue is fiercely self-critical, describing herself as stubborn, unable to improvise and constantly imperfect: “There is always, in every piece I do, something wrong.” Being alone is also a condition that frequently enters the conversation, though it is never expressed as loneliness: being alone as a woman in the male-dominated world of electronic music; bringing up three children after her marriage to the French-born American artist Arman failed; the solitary nature of composing; her dedication to Buddhism and its hours of private meditation.
This makes her latest musical discovery all the more poignant, since it would seem at face value to be the most easily accessible bonus of music-making: company. In 2004, after considerable badgering from bass player Kasper T Toeplitz, Radigue finally accepted his invitation to write an instrumental piece. The results were so revelatory that Radigue abandoned the synthesiser. All her future work, she says, will be with instrumentalists. They very mention of “musicians” brings out a blissful smile.
“Ahhh! Extraordinary. This is what I have been looking for all my life. When I plugged in to that experience of working with a musician, it was so wonderful, sharing that experience of doing music together. I have been working very much alone all my life. My only collaborator was my cat. I thought she was a little bit nervous about this new project with the bass player, but when I saw her being very quiet, I said, OK, maybe this is right.” She leans forward conspiratorially: “I discuss everything with her.”
The list of collaborators is growing: between 2004 and 2009 Radigue created the tripartite cycle Naldjorlak for the cellist Charles Curtis and basset horn players Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez. Most recently, she completed Occam I with harpist Rhodri Davies.
“It is what I was trying to do with electronic music, but I never succeeded; every piece felt like a compromise between what I wanted to do and what I could achieve. I think I have been searching for this tremendous emotion that I had when I was 10 or 12 years old, when I was living in Paris and hearing concerts of classical music every Saturday afternoon. A wonderful feeling.”
It is as if, in her 80th year, Radigue is just starting. She admits without any sentimentality that most of her work is probably behind her now, then laughs and points to the sky. She will, she says, apply for another 10 years and see how that goes.
Triptych: the Music of Eliane Radigue is at various venues in London until 26 June. Details: soundandmusic.org