The Enthralling Drone Music of Pioneer Éliane Radigue

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Éliane Radigue: Œuvres Électroniques (courtesy Ina GRM

Recently, an art historian friend placed in my hands a new box set of electronic ambient drone music by an 87-year-old French composer named Éliane Radigue. A former harpist, Radigue, from 1969 to 1974, worked with Pierre Schaeffer and was exposed to his musique concrète movement — a genre of electronic music that uses recorded found sounds. The new box set, produced by Ina GRM and titled Œuvres Électroniques, focuses exclusively on Radigue’s minimal synthesizer music (usually produced on a modular ARP 2500). Her work here aligns with the drone music tradition mastered by La Monte Young and Phill Niblock. All three artists were clearly influenced by the Minimalism movement, though their compositions also relate to Erik Satie’s early-20th century musique d’ameublement — or “furniture music” that you normally listened to in the background — that was revived by John Cage in the early 1960s.

Like Young’s and Niblock’s, Radigue’s impressionistic compositions are agonizingly slow: based on dawdling, discreet resonances that amble along. Listening to her subharmonic seas of sound is like convening on the bank of a babbling brook and carefully paying attention to its surface. At first, the glacial, acute overtones of these virtuoso compositions sound spiritual (spacey), but they also have a slowly shifting, deep current to them that’s grounding. It’s not surprising that in the mid-1970s Radigue embraced Tibetan Buddhism.

Curiously, in the late 1950s, while steeped in the 12-tone music of Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern, Radigue was living in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, near the Nice Airport, where she noticed that aircrafts are wonderfully sonorous. Once, on a Nice-Ajaccio flight, Radigue created in her head a found sound symphony by simply listening to the engines. This transformative experience recalls Tony Smith’s famous illicit drive in 1951, where he and three students drove on the not-yet-opened New Jersey Turnpike from the Meadowlands to New Brunswick with no street lamps, lane markers, or guard rails. Later, Smith described this drive as a transmogrifying experience that influenced his black, monumental, and minimalist aesthetic.

While in Nice, Radigue married Nouveau réalisme artist Armand Fernandez, known simply as Arman. In 1963, Radigue went with Arman to New York where she established an important friendship with composer and music theorist James Tenney, who introduced her to a budding downtown minimalist scene that valued her work. Tenny made many door-opening introductions, including to Charlemagne Palestine, Philip Corner, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, who, in 1970, expedited an artist-in-residency for Radigue at Morton Subotnick’s New York University electronic music studio. This would be followed by more residences at the electronic music studios of the University of Iowa and California Institute of the Arts.

During this period, Radigue composed “Biogenesis,” a classical musique concrète piece and the most rhythmic of her electronic compositions. To make it, she placed a microphone and stethoscope onto her pregnant daughter’s extended belly and recorded the rhythms of heartbeats, then mixed these organic rhythms with flowing, extended sounds composed on the Arp synthesizer. The piece is saturated with tender memory. It is also around this time that Radigue produced one of her best early electronic pieces, “Geelriandre” (1972). This masterful half-hour reverberation ride recalls again the brilliance of Cage as it features Gérard Frémy on prepared piano mixed in with a stream of seductive electronic hums.

Radigue moved back and forth between Paris and New York for a few years. While in New York, in 1973, she performed her modulated minimalist piece “Ψ 847” at the Kitchen, on the invitation of Rhys Chatham. The box set includes a recording of this playback concert, which is lush and intense in its sweeping (almost weeping) waves of crescendos and decrescendos.

Éliane Radigue open box set (courtesy Ina GRM) 

Though all of Radigue’s slowly shifting works are very long (some over an hour) and demand our full concentration, only the two versions of her 1971 Buchla piece “Chry-ptus” included in the box set seem gratuitous — there are only slight variations between them. “The Les Chants De Milarepa” tracks, which draw on the texts of the Tibetan yogi-poet Milarepa, are also much less compelling than the instrumental tracks, with the exception of a fantastic electronic mix of Tibetan monks chanting in “Song of the Path Guides.” If the track was only that reverberating chanting, I would have put it on endless repeat.

If I were to pick a favorite composition, it would be Radigue’s exquisitely ferocious “Trilogie de la Mort,” a spectral sound triptych inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead (aka Bardo Thodol). Here, ghostlike, ominous sounds are shaped as adagio melodious washes, vast as curtains. The tragically powerful but infinitesimally nuanced resonances of “Trilogie” are as enthrallingly pleasurable to listen to as observing glistening icicles melting in the winter sun.

In its entirety, Œuvres Électroniques is a monumental contribution to culture. Each of the 14 CDs come in a color-coded cardboard wallet in shades of blue with photos of Radigue at work. There’s also an 80-page booklet with liner notes by Joseph Ghosn, and track-by-track comments by Radigue in both French and English. The excellence of Œuvres Électroniques proves that Radigue is a deftly uncompromising musician, and sits high atop the historical scaffolding underlying electronic-based art and music.

Œuvres Électroniques by Éliane Radigue is produced by Ina GRM.

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