Triptych: The music of Eliane Radigue, June 2011

ER The Lappetites

During the opening night of this two week-long Sound And Music-presented Triptych series on the work of the French minimalist composer Eliane Radigue, her archivist and collaborator Emmanuel Holterbach was discussing the young Radigue’s interest in classical music. In what seemed like a fairly throwaway remark at the time, he mentioned that she was particularly fascinated by the areas of sound between movements. While he was talking about intersections, overlaps and cross fades in a very specific sense, the notion of transformation from one state to another is one that has huge resonance when discussing the work of Radigue. Having experienced a number of the Triptych shows, it is clear that the idea of transformation is not only relevant in the technical sense of how she has produced her own music over the last forty-plus years, but also in a more personal, and spiritual sense.

Radigue’s career in music started in the 1950s as an assistant to the hugely influential Pierre Schaeffer, where she was introduced to the tape looping and splicing techniques of musique concrète. Later, she assisted Pierre Henry, helping him to construct his experimental collages, which juxtaposed music and noise. She began to make her own music in the late 1960s, using just tape, microphones, and a monitor, deploying some of the techniques she had learned from Schaeffer and Henry, but focusing on the manipulation of feedback and resonance to make some delicate compositions. One of the the Triptych shows was devoted to these early works, and it was surprising just how well they have stood the test of time. The precision of a piece like Maquette, with its pulsating noises gradually melting into strains of classical music, belied the simplicity of the materials used to create it – you wouldn’t know that you were listening to tape loops. Her ideas about what could be done with these techniques were groundbreaking: on Etude the way she used room resonance, via repeated recording and playback, to transform Chopin loops into ghostly echoes, was contemporaneous with (but entirely independent of) Alvin Lucier’s more celebrated I Am Sitting In A Room.

As well as the subtle transformations that occur within the duration of Radigue’s often very lengthy works, the presentation of work at Triptych from throughout her career enabled you to view her entire ouevre as a triptych, with two barely perceptible splices between the sections. She only began to work with synthesizers when she found it could make a very particular sound – one not entirely dissimilar to that she had been making with her more primitive techniques. Hence the transition between a late feedback piece like 1970’s Vice, Versa, Etc and an early Moog/ARP 2500 piece like 1972’s Geelriandre (both also performed during Triptych) is almost seamless. Likewise, her more recent shift to using acoustic instruments is hardly seismic in magnitude. Her latest composition Occam I, premiered at Triptych in Christ Church Spitalfields, used a bowed harp to create the same split of pulsing low notes, overlaid by glistening high-pitched harmonics, that you could hear in a piece as far back as 1970’s Stress-Osaka. Similarly, the droning basset horns used in the recent three hour epic Naldjorlak were prefigured by similar sounds in 1986’s synthesizer pieceJetsun Mila.

Throughout all three stages, she has returned to similar themes: a key subject is that of the elements, and it is instructive to hear the changing approaches taken to them throughout her career. One of her very first pieces, Elemental I was based on field recordings made in 1962 which captured the sounds of wind, fire, and water. Some of those sounds reappeared on later works (a particularly bitter wind blows through the centre of Trilogie De La Mort), but she explicitly returned to them on 2004’s collaborative Elemental II. The two versions of this later piece which were performed in Triptych took different approaches to the reference material, the Lappetites (Kaffe Matthews, Antye Greie and Ryoko Akama) combining to build up layers of processed sounds using laptops, and Kasper T Toeplitz performing an extraordinary solo version using electric bass. This was a more impressionistic reinterpretation, applying steel wool to the strings to create the crackle of “fire”, using scarves and ebows to summon “wind”. By tapping gently on the body of the instrument, he built up a quiet yet powerful bass rumble, which showed the continued relevance of Radigue to modern music – in fact, it particularly reminded me of the similarly deep, dark and understated work of Thomas Köner.

Earth, water, fire and air are the four “great elements” in Buddhism. Radigue converted to Buddhism in the 1970s, some time after Elemental I, though Triptych showed that in a sense her music had always felt quite Buddhist, with those quiet, slowly shifting, meditative sounds: even an early piece like Vice, Versa, Etc sounds like the pulsing tones of a Tibetan singing bowl. The change therefore manifested itself in subtle ways: such as the use of what sounds like chanting and horns in Jetsun Mila, a piece inspired by the Tibetan yogi Milarepa from the 11th century. Her monumental Trilogie De La Mort (so monumental that it was split across three consecutive nights), makes the explicit link between her spirituality and the notion of transformation, the first section being an exploration of the the six intermediate states of being according to the Tibetan Book Of The Dead: birth, dream, meditation, death, clear light, and crossing/return. Under the high dome of St Stephen Walbrook, it made for a wonderfully rich and resonant experience.

Radigue5

Ultimately, the biggest transformation is that caused in the listener by prolonged exposure to Radigue’s ideas. Musicians from Kasper T Toeplitz to Rhys Chatham have remarked on how this music has fundamentally changed them, and over the two weeks of Triptych I began to understand why. It immediately demands a significant change in how you listen. The initial reaction of everyone to this music seemed to be that it was too quiet, that the environmental sounds were too loud in comparison, but these levels were purposely set by Radigue herself, and over time I found myself adjusting accordingly. As the pieces rose slowly from absolute silence, I became increasingly conscious of the sound of my own breathing, even my heartbeat. Fittingly, that sound is another recurring theme in Radigue’s work, from the sampled heartbeat of Biogenesis to the electronic pulse in Jetsun Mila; despite the use of electronics these are very human-sounding works. At the end of one piece, I actually took my own pulse: 52bpm. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relaxed in my life.

After the recalibration necessitated by the first show I attended, I found myself slipping into a hypnagogic state for parts of subsequent performances, drifting in and out of full consciousness, taking the music in a semi-dreamlike state. It was a completely transcendent experience. On the last day of Triptych, I climbed into the sonic bed which had been designed by Kaffe Matthews, and which was playing Radigue’s Omnht through speakers installed around and under it. I found I was able to block out the clatter and chatter from the cafe upstairs, and drift away on the waves of blissful sound coming from all around, quickly becoming entirely dissociated from my surroundings. Ultimately, I too had been completely transformed by the wonderful music of this great artist.

Photos by Alex Delfanne.