Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Oct 26, 2008


(From Prism Escape 4 / / thanks to Phillipe Simøn)

A pioneer composer of electro-acoustic music, Eliane Radigue is a remarkable figure in the contemporary experimental music scene. As soon as the early 50s, she was closely related to Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. From 1970, she started distinguishing herself from other composers by focusing on the new possibilities offered by the first synthesizers. More particularly, she worked with an ARP synthesizer, which became and remains her trademark. Her drone music, a continuous flow of intermingled sound waves, is impossible to ignore and is a major influence to a whole new generation of composers - in France as well as in many other countries.

Some of your music has been qualified as “environmental music”. Could you tell us about the genesis of your work ?

We could talk about environmental music concerning my early sound pieces. They were mostly played in exhibitions, galleries, and used by other artists. My first environmental piece was made for the artist Marc Halpern, during the “Salon des artistes décorateurs”. He had made a sculpture out of a glass block with moving elements inside. Inside the base, there were loudspeakers that diffused three tracks with different durations - each was about nine minutes long - that played endlessly and that desynchronized frm each other progressively. The music was thus evolving on its own. Then I made a more complex piece based upon the same principles for Tania Mouraud entitled One More Night at the Galerie Rive Droite. Tania Mouraud’s scenery was totally white and the walls were covered with double boarded panels inside which Rolen Star - a type of loud speakers that diffuse sound through walls - were screwed. The sounds weren’t very nice, almost inaudible, but it had a certain character. More recently, I made a piece called Labyrinthe Sonore (sound labyrinth). The concept emerged in the 1960s but could only be realized in 1998 at Mills College, where I was invited to teach a seminar for graduate students. This seminar was based upon continuous tracks that we used in the Labyrinthe, but those tracks had already been made decades earlier. The piece played with the temporal evolution of seven soundtracks without an end that were slightly different from one another and that were diffused through loud speakers all along the musical score. We also worked on the localization of the sound by including different interventions by Maggie Payne and Pauline Oliveros, with some piano and wind instruments. We worked on an entire composition outside of the music school. It was fantastically interesting work. That was in October. The evening before the concert, there was a torrential weather, which prevented us from using the music as initially planned. As an indication, the key words were “the map is the score”, which meant that the composition itself would define the partition. That’s why I had to go all over the partition again. And everything went very well. Beside the students, people like Pauline Oliveros or J.D. Parran gave me a hand. If I had to make another environmental piece, it would be something of the same sort - open and not fixed once and for all.

After this period, you started using the ARP synthesizer in your work...

When I used to do environmental music, my music was made of savage electronic sounds that were produced by many Larsen effects or feedbacks - which are produced with the microphone and the speakers, by slowly moving the microphone while always paying attention to maintain it into a certain oscillating zone. I also used a tape recorder that read a sound. At the same time, I would manipulate - but in a very subtle and delicate way - the potentiometers of a second tape recorder that recorded the whole thing. That way I managed to make the sound evolve. I think it is precisely what enabled me to create my own musical language. Because most of the time they were sustained sounds and beats that varied constantly. That was what I wanted to work on. When I left for the US, at New York University, I got access to a real synthesizer for the first time. It was the Buchla, which had been installed by Morton Subotnik in his studios. It was my first contact with a synthesizer of sounds. At the time, there were four or five modular systems : the Buchla, the Moog, the Electrocomp, maybe the VCS in England and also the Tonus Incorporation ARP. It was during that stay that I realized this type of instruments was perfectly suitable for me. I could “master” in an easier way. That’s a big word but at least we could control the sound’s parameters better. That’s how I discovered the ARP and I still consider it as the Stradivarius of the electronic instruments of that generation.

What kind of relationship do you have with your ARP ?

It is a very emotional relationship. You probably need this relationship so as to make it work properly. I was in New York where I was considering all the different possibilities available. Then I came across this instrument, which I found absolutely amazing. The only slight problem I had was that it was conceived to be connected to a keyboard, and for various reasons I didn’t want any. For instance, when I was disheartened, it would have been extremely tempting to allow myself to choose the easy way in using a keyboard. I decided to forget about it so as to only have this direct contact with potentiometers.

How do you use your ARP when you create your sound pieces ?

I work in a very simple and natural way. Frequencies go through different subtly balanced modulation systems, with a little amplitude modulation and sometimes some ring modulation effects. Then the whole thing goes through different filtering processes. The filters are the most extraordinary units in the ARP. No other system possesses such delicate filters. I make the sound evolve, thus creating a sound pattern that lasts from five to ten minutes. Then, I start the same process again from where the previous one stopped and I make another sound pattern of about the same length, and so on. What I try to develop with sound is what I would call sense. Indeed, I pay a lot of attention to what this sound is actually telling me. Besides, I don’t compel a sound to go in the direction that would be the most suitable for me. It’s a bit as if you had many wound up threads of different colours. I take one thread of a certain colour, and when I find it long enough, I take another one, and then another one, then I leave the whole reel unwinds on its own. As soon as I have all my sounds, I recompose them by means of mixing processes. I manage to make one sound slide on the other. It’s what gives this impression of almost flawless continuity. But there are always accidents. When I used to do pieces that were 80 minutes long and the final mixing on my own, in the event of a snag occurring at the seventieth minute, I had to start it all over again. So after ten times, you think that enough is enough. If a little hitch occurs at the fiftieth minute, never mind, it will remain there. And there are accidents in almost all my pieces. I would even say that it’s my personal trademark.

So your pieces are a bit like patchworks ?

Yes, that’s the reason why I’ve never been able to do live performances. Playing live for eighty minutes is impossible. The minimum for a live performance would be four or five synthesizers and highly skilled performers. Still the only thing we can be sure of is to never get the same result twice. As a consequence, the final product is always recorded. I’ve always presented it as such during my concerts. I’ve always refused to be on stage to make a show. As a result my concerts have always been very sober : sound and only sound.

What are the advantages of analogical instruments over digital ones ?

I completely failed with the digital. I’ve got friends at Mills College who showed me different softwares, MIDI devices, etc. It’s been tremendously interesting from an intellectual point of view. I find the digital fascinating. During the first months, I went through very exciting moments, those when you discover a world that isn’t directly familiar to you, and mostly, the great easiness to get a wonderful sound that fills in the whole room by only pressing a single key. But when the question came about how to make the sounds I wanted and when I tried to use my old recipes - that is reconstituting the sounds based upon basic frequencies and submiting them to the different processes we were talking about earlier - I got very disappointed. If I first obtained lovely sounds, as I was trying to make the sound evolve from the inside, the sound would alter, as if turning into sand. After two years, I was totally disheartened and one of my friends told me that the problem was coming from the system itself : the analogical sound is a continuous sound while the digital sound is a discontinuous one. The way I make sounds has to do with craft, just like weaving, it couldn’t work out with the digital. Maybe people who are more skilled can make it. We can make things evolve, but from the outside, by using external elements, but it isn’t my intention at all. So, I left all these things aside and I came back to my old friend, the ARP.

Do you feel close to any particular musical tradition ?

My first musical emotions came with classical music. It is still one of my greatest passions. I feel - I’m sure musicians said to be classical musicians are going to scream - that I didn’t go so far away from it. Things that always fascinated me in classical music are the two or three, sometimes four bars or modulations - when a key switches to another - and when there is a little accident that intervenes, when at a certain instant, the ear experiments with uncertainty. The key that preceded is still not the key that is about to come. When analysing my work musically speaking, these intermodulations - that is to say, these moments when it is absolutely impossible to give the ear a real tonal or modal reference - can be found in most of it. Nevertheless, it’s never purely atonal or tonal, we don’t really know in which tonality we’re in. And I think this comes from my taste for classical music. I also often play on harmonic and subharmonic sounds, which are almost at the limit of what you can hear.

In your compositions, you play a lot on those “micro-accidents”...

That’s right, and sometimes I let myself get completely carried away and trapped. When I develop a sound, some micro-elements appear behind this sound. I bring them up to a certain point and then I stop and listen to the track again. The ear selects what it wants to hear, contrary to the microphone. So, during the recordings, I’ve got my little sounds, but they keep being overshadowed by an enormous sustained sound. So everything has to be made all over again.

You also give a significant importance to the hiss...

In the first place, with analogical devices, it was impossible to bypass the hiss. There was the hiss of each instrument, of the speakers, of the mixer, etc. The hiss was such a nuisance for the technicians at that time. But, very quickly, I realized that some extremely interesting things could occur with hiss frequencies. I couldn’t just lower the frequency of the hiss, since it would cause a void in the sound itself. The only trick I found was to lower the sound level of this frequency at the beginning of the piece, so as to be able to raise it again gradually. What you cannot avoid, you have to integrate it and transform it into music.

You also worked on extreme frequencies...

In the piece I made for Marc Halpern, I used extremely high pitched sounds among which there were some ultrasonic sounds, therefore totally inaudible. However it provided some very interesting things during the recording and the slow motion playing. I was interested in those extreme sounds. Since then, I’ve always carried on by taking things over from where I had left them, one piece leading me to another. I’ve also been very tempted to work on very high pitched sounds with my ARP. My piece called PSI 847 is a good illustration of this aspect, especially in the 15-20 last minutes. But I realized that it was noxious and tiring for the ear. I wouldn’t advise people to work on ultrasonic sounds for you can’t fully realize what you’re doing exactly. Simultaneously, I enjoyed a lot working on extremely low sounds and there I had the chance to have my Altec Voice of the Theater speakers, which are highly efficient in that field. But the trouble was that when transferring the tracks I created on Altec to other systems, it created some distortions. Obviously, everything the Altec speakers would diffuse without any problem, other systems wouldn’t. Afterwards, I came back into far more reasonable spheres. This lasted for a rather short period - from 1970 to 1973 - when I started working with the ARP.

So you came back to a certain form of wisdom. Is it linked with your work on the Tibetan Saint Milarepa ?

This is another story that goes back to 1975. I had just finished the first opus of Adnos and that’s when I came across Buddhism. This encounter was a very important event in my life. I spent many years studying Buddhism during which I stopped making music, except in my head, where it never stopped. Music seemed absolutely shallow compared to what I was discovering with Buddhism. It seemed essential to me, it seemed to be the most important thing in life. After I spent three or four years with a great Master, who used to live in Dordogne, I even thought about getting rid of all my instruments and of my wonderful synthesizer. Then, I asked my Master for some advice. He was extremely wise and told me : “No, certainly not, this is your instrument. Besides, you must go back and play music again but it should be an offering as a testimony of your commitment”. I was very surprised. Then I got back to work. I wanted to create a piece inspired by The Life of Milarepa. It seemed far too daring to start with The Songs, which seemed to be the quintessence of his teaching. The Life appeared to be more within my reach, yet it raised some problems. The text had to be cut and I had to find some people who would read the text. It was theatrical and too ambitious at the same time. I couldn’t master everything on my own. I contacted people of great talent, but I needed funds, which I didn’t find. So I gave up the project on The Life of Milarepa. In the meantime, I had already started a work on the different themes of The Life, which afterwards gave birth to a piece called Jetsun Mila. It lasts for eighty minutes and it’s recorded on tape. But before working on Jetsun Mila, I became familiar with The Songs of Milarepa. I was guided by Lama Kunga. This Lama, of Sakyapa tradition, has inherited a certain number of texts, and very special ones. Those texts have been translated into English by one of his students. So, not only did he accept to lend his Tibetan voice, but he also sang the texts in the Sakyapa tradition. On the other hand, the voice of my friend Robert Ashley also seemed an obvious choice to me, because Milarepa - contrary to all expectations - was not a yes man. He had a kind of ironic way of living and teaching and I thought that Bob Ashley’s voice - with all its deepness and charisma - would be perfectly appropriate. As soon as I got the readings in Tibetan by Lama Kunga and the ones in English by Bob Ashley, I created a kind of sound track that supported their voices. I know very little about the Tibetan language, but just enough to know where I had to make the cuts. My intervention is of the lightest and most fluid type. After this period directly inspired by the Tibetan tradition came the Bardo Thödol - or the Tibetan book of the dead - which is the first part of the Trilogie de la mort (trilogy of death).

Could you tell us about the Trilogie de la mort ?

In fact, these pieces were not supposed to become a trilogy. The only project I had was the Bardo Thödol, which I had studied with my Master. Two or three months after I finished it - in the meantime I had started another piece inspired by an imaginary pilgrimage around the sacred mountain called Mount Kailash - my son had a lethal accident. It was in 1988. Still today, it’s very difficult for me to listen to this piece for it’s obviously linked with the grief I was going through. This piece was dedicated to him. Then my Tibetan Master died shortly afterwards. So I started working on a third piece that was dedicated to him. In the end I was invited to the CIRM in Nice, for the MANCA festival. I said, almost as a joke, that it was like a trilogy. Michel Redolfi found the idea pretty good and so, in a certain way, this is him who gave the three pieces the global title. Redolfi told me he wanted to present the three pieces. Thus I finished the third piece and it became the Trilogie de la mort.

What kind of effects does your music have on the audience ?

Certain sounds echo certain rhythms of the body. Yet I don’t know whether it’s stimulating or not. I think that all the music I did - inspired by Buddhism and mostly by Tibetan Buddhism - is secular. The sacred music is that of the Pujas - with wonderful voices - and ragdoungs, which I sometimes used thanks to recordings. But the very essence of this music is to make sacred offerings. This sacred music can contribute to the awakening of consciousness. All the sounds in it can contribute to free the mind from any ordinary preoccupation, to help it acquire more lucidity and clarity. I don’t pretend that my music can lead to that ; it is far more down-to-earth. I have interesting reactions in relation to that. They actually correspond to what I feel. For instance, if I’m in a bad mood, I can’t stand the music I’m doing. On the contrary, if you’re relaxed, in an opened and state of mind, it’s wonderful. I believe that these sounds can be like a mirror that reflects our state of mind.

Your work is quite a lonely one. Finding collaborations must not be very easy...

That’s true, it’s a very lonely work. The problem I haven’t solved yet is the one of the writing, of how to explain to others the sounds characteristics I really want. When I got my ARP, I tried to create a system of writing so as to remember the processes I used. Since then, things have been solved thanks to the MIDI and the digital, but it doesn’t work for me. Nevertheless, I can help someone creating something. Michèle Bokanowski asked me to lend her some sounds. Then, she works on them again so as to create the soundtracks of Patrick Bokanowski’s films. But generally speaking, collaborations don’t really work out because you’re bound to compromises. Nevertheless, I quite like the idea. I’d love to be able to do it. I’m ready to give my sounds to others. For instance, Kasper T. Toeplitz asked me to write a piece for his instrument, an electric bass. He plugged his bass guitar and I explained to him what I wanted. It was the first time I did such a thing and it was a great pleasure.

Do you have a personal theory about your music ?

Oh no, there is no concept at all ! You can give it all the names you like, I really don’t care, I agree with everything. It was described as minimalist, meditative, trance-chiante*... Why ? Do you have something to suggest ?

I found trance-chiante was very funny...

Yes, trance-chiante isn’t too bad.

* Editor’s note : in French, trance-chiante means boring trance, and there’s also a play on words with the term “transient”.