Eliane Radigue: Sound as a Mirror of the Mind

May 7, 2021
Minute Read

Eliane Radigue is a pioneering electronic music composer whose influence on various present-day fields of experimental music — including techno — can undeniably be felt. Yet, in spite of the increasing interest in her work over the last decades, during which time she has inspired poets, visual artists, dancers and scientists, it remains relatively unknown to wider audiences. Her legacy will likely grow, as her music is not only accessible, but also immensely relevant and useful in navigating the hectic, ocular-centric, attention-grabbing world we now live in.

Eliane Radigue’s music is soft, minimal and slowly evolving. While it challenges traditional conceptions of tonality and does not adhere to strict musical scales, it is always gentle on the ears of the listener. It seems to work on the parasympathetic nervous system, slowly transforming and undulating with benevolent intent. It draws the listener into a state of deep relaxation as it unfolds into expansive, uncharted sonic territories. It can seem static at first, appearing to be an unchanging, sustained tone. But as the listener’s attention sharpens, subtle melodic and rhythmic patterns emerge, shedding light on the very nature of our perceptual processes. Radigue intentionally defines and moves between sonic spaces left open to interpretation, so as to become prismatic reflections of the listener’s mind. One of the aspects of her sound that is so remarkable is that it does not ask the listener to feel anything; rather it is proposed more as a dwelling place rather than a story imbued with specific meaning.

Radigue’s musical explorations began as a child with her passion for classical music in the Paris of the 1930s. After the Second World War, she moved to Nice to raise her three children, allowing  her musical curiosity to seep out into the everyday soundscapes around her. On one formative afternoon, she caught herself listening intently to the distinctive tone of an airplane’s propellers as it passed high above her apartment, in the same way one might listen to a piece of choreographed music. Hearing influential modern composer Pierre Schaeffer’s “Etudes aux Chemins de Fer” on the radio for the first time confirmed her intuition: that all sounds can be considered music, depending on the intention of the listener.

After fortuitously meeting Schaeffer, a pioneering figure in the musique concrète movement, she began working as his apprentice, before moving on to assist Pierre Henry at the prestigious Studio d’Essai in Paris. Although she eventually took a creative direction radically distinct from that of the two Pierre’s musique concrète, much of her technical apprentissage — manipulating magnetic tapes and microphones, using feedback as a sound generation technique — developed during these formative years. 

In the 1970s, Radigue was invited to study at NYU and was given access to a Buchla synthesizer set up in a lab by the legendary electronic music composer Morton Subotnick. Although her first experiments were far from conclusive, the sonic possibilities opened up by early analogue electronic instruments were to spark the beginning of a decades-long inquiry, and she returned to France with an ARP-2500, a powerful analog synthesizer. Her relationship with her ARP, which she affectionately nicknamed Jules, spanned 30 years, as did her forays into the experimental music scene in New York, where she met composers such as John Cage, James Tenney, Phil Glass and Steve Reich, and gave concerts over the years.

In Radigue’s work and her dedication to analogue synthesis, there is a fundamental change of perspective around the traditional roles of the listener and the composer. Sound composition with analog synthesis is inherently a process of discovery rather than of structured planning as is the case for sheet music. Radigue approached her work as a researcher and observer. She considered sounds as entities with a personality of their own, and much of her work is dedicated to understanding what the sounds are telling her and organizing them accordingly. A substantial part of Radigue’s creative process revolved around listening via various qualities of attention: the benevolent, the concentrated, the distracted, the critical — each offering a unique and valuable lens on the work. Given her music’s unique quality in creating a sonic space open to interpretation, she also aimed to place the listener in the position of composer. Her music reflects the listener’s mind, and, through the subtle rhythms and beating weaved within an intricately woven fabric of sustained sound, it reflects the natural pulsations of the living body as well.

As Julia Eckhardt beautifully put it in her 2019 interview of Radigue Intermediary Spaces “Radigue's music is easily accessible, provided the listener's availability. There is no demand, no added layer, no training needed. It unfolds a power which goes right to the heart, without the diversion of an intellectual filter, and without separating body and mind for its perception. It throws us back to the essence of music: a hands-on discovery of what sound is and what it is able to do.”

Listen to Trilogie de la Mort

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