Eliane Radigue’s Occam Ocean

by Kate Molleson

Eliane Radigue © Delphine Blast

A composer writes an orchestral piece by inviting every member of the ensemble to visit her at home, one-by-one, to devise their parts collaboratively. This is how Eliane Radigue makes music: slow, exacting, verbal, personal. In many ways her work is a paradox. She writes drone music that dances. It is simple and rich, spacious and detailed, unhurried and full of movement, spiritual and non-didactic, narrative and abstract. Over the past 50 years she has honed a uniquely concentrated creative practice in order to access an expansive realm of partials and subharmonics — “sounds within the sound,” she calls them. She works instinctively, and her instinct has always drawn her to slowness and subtle modulations, yet she demands from her performers a kind of precision that is physically and mentally virtuosic. She claims with a shrug that her technique boils down to “fade in, fade out, cross fade,” whether in her early long-form synthesiser works or the acoustic pieces she’s been writing for the past decade. Yet it’s the complex, iridescent interior expanses of her music that achieve exquisite lift-off.

For many decades Radigue entrusted nobody but herself to illuminate those sounds within the sound. In the 1960s her vision went deeper, longer, lower and higher than the musique concrete pieces that Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were producing — she worked as an assistant to both, then stayed extra hours in the studio experimenting with the ephemeral potential of electronic feedback. And while feedback was conventionally a noisy domain of wildness and abrasion, Radigue trod gently and tamed the beast to make breathtakingly delicate pieces like Jouet Electronique (1967), Stress-Osaka (1969), Usral (1969), Omnht (1970) and Vice-Verse, Etc (1970).

“When I started with electronic sounds,” she says, “before I had access to a synthesiser with feedback effect, I just respected the behaviour of moving very slowly, not going too near or too far to the loudspeaker because that would make it blow up. I loved testing the limits. Believe me, you only had a hairbreadth to play with.” What emerged in her 17 pre-synthesiser pieces would end up defining her work: that painstaking way with process, and that commitment to the evanescent music of partials. In Chry-ptus, the first piece Radigue made with a Buchla modular synthesiser that had been installed by Morton Subotnick at NYU and which she shared with Laurie Spiegel and Rhys Chatham, she featured two tapes playing simultaneously or with a subtle lapse that produced tiny palpitations. “At that time there were only two others who were approaching things in a similar way,” she says, referring to La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier. But she always worked alone.

When she returned from New York to Paris, she bought with her an ARP 2500 analogue modular synthesiser — she loved its special hiss, its hazy potential, that it was less direct and metallic than a Moog or a Buchla. At first she felt almost shy of the temperamental instrument and addressed it as ‘Monsignor’, a term once reserved for the highest clergy of the Catholic church. Later, as they became friendlier, she fell into the habit of calling the instrument ‘Jules’. She wrote her electronic masterpieces for Jules — the Adnos trilogy (1974-1980-1982), Les Chants de Milarepa (1983), the mighty Trilogie de la Mort (1988-1993). These works tended to be labelled (if they were labelled at all) as drone music, but that missed the point: as Radigue’s tempos grew slower, her music became less static, constantly on the move like a shimmering aurora with all the time in the world. Her final electronic piece was L’Ile Re-Sonante (2000) whose immense, immersive arc supports a panoply of spectral merry dancers.

Radigue began writing for instruments just after the turn of the millennium. ”Actually, it was not much of a shift,” she says. “It was an extension of my previous work, no big change really.” And yet collaborating with other musicians was an epiphany. “Sharing is a joy. To discover other people who want to find the same sounds that I want to find… It is strange, all of this interest in me all of a sudden. Years ago some musicians asked to play my music. I said no — I wasn’t ready to open up — and I thought, I will never be asked twice. I was wrong!” The first instrumental piece she made was for noise composer Kasper T. Toeplitz, to whom she had been introduced by Phill Niblock and who performed Elemental II (2003) on electric bass and MAX / MSP software. Next the cellist Charles Curtis encouraged her to abandon electronics altogether and she did, eventually dismantling Jules from her living room and storing him away in a basement. She wrote a grand trio for two basset horns and cello called Naldjorak. She launched her OCCAM series, which to date includes 22 solo pieces, small ensemble configurations called OCCAM Rivers and OCCAM Deltas and the orchestral iteration OCCAM Ocean. She likens the series to the Chansons Sans Paroles — Felix Mendelssohn’s collection of songs without words. She named it after the Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) and his guiding principle that the simplest option is always the best.

Fade in, Fade Out, Cross-fade

The writing of OCCAM Ocean began with drinks, snacks and 30 members of ONCEIM sitting on cushions around a one-room apartment on Rue Liancourt in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. Radigue has lived here since the 1970s. Coat hooks are crammed with her trademark bright silk scarves and the walls are hung with bronze and resin collages by her sculptor ex-husband Arman. There are shelves of family photographs: Radigue is a great-grandmother several times over. There is no trace of Jules.

The removal of the ARP 2500 was a characteristic act of conviction, because Radigue does nothing by halves. When she converted to Buddhism in the early 1970s, encouraged to do so by the mystic minimalist Terry Riley, she stopped composing for several years and devoted herself to spiritual studies. She doesn’t discuss her religion but does acknowledge its impact on her work. “Meaning comes from the life in the sound,” she says, reluctant to acknowledge any direct spiritual expression in her music. She talks about meditation, about slowness, about how a sense of time in her work is both contracted (to provide a minutiae of detail) and elongated (to allow the swork to unfold over many hours). “By nature slowness is expansive, yet it allows us to hear up close.”

She quotes the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache. “He said that when an orchestra was running well he could slow his beat right down, but when things were going wrong he needed to speed up. The aim is to be as slow as possible. I love slow music — which is lucky, because I could never have made my music otherwise. Slowness was a technical necessity, the attentiveness to make sure the speakers don’t squeal. But it also went deeper. In the same way that I didn’t choose the colour of my hair, I didn’t choose the music I was drawn to. I always just knew when it was wrong, and I knew immediately. I cannot explain why!” She bemoans the fact that tempos these days are generally faster than when she was young. She marvels at how the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev navigates Mahler symphonies — “every section has its own colour”. She singles out the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G as a marvel of slow writing. “It is complex in form and always has this ambivalence. It is exquisite because the melody spins on and on. Always moving, always in transition.”

“I love when changes happen without us realising — or rather, when we only realise afterward. In classical music my favourite part in a piece is the modulation. All of a sudden there is a wonderful uncertainty. We are no longer in the previous tonality and we’re not yet in the next one. Here comes newness — ah! But what is it? Where will we be taken next? When I was young I could go to almost any city in the world and know where I was walking without a map. Venice was the only place where I ever got lost, and that was an incredible feeling.”

Modulation is her musical equivalent to that feeling of being lost in Venice. “Mozart was the best at it! He could make modulations last for pages. He would hint at many different avenues of tonal possibility then explore them in the rest of the piece. I love that. I love the feeling of floating and uncertainty. I remember long ago talking to Philip Glass. He told me that he was very interested in appoggiaturas, and look! All his music ended up being made out of appoggiaturas. I was interested in modulations, and my music is made out of modulation. It is always in transition.” So what happens at the end of a piece? Does the uncertainty linger, the transition process continue after the music has stopped? “I suppose that it does.”

Sounds within the sound

Radigue has always objected to her works being categorised as ‘drone music’: too reductive, too static, too concerned with fundamentals. “Of course, we need fundamentals in order to produce harmonics, but they are just the base, like something to sit on.” She pats the sofa beneath her. “Above, up here, is where you can move your arms, your head, where the interesting things happen. For me a piece is alright when a listener forgets about the fundamentals. My pieces start very quietly in order to give listeners and performers time to adjust their ears — to lay down the fundamentals solidly enough that we can then forget about them completely.”

For harpist Rhodri Davies, recipient of Radigue’s first OCCAM solo piece in 2011, the sense of expanded time and acute attention to delicate transitory sounds have been a revelation and a challenge. “I need to practice the stamina,” he says. “Sometimes I try playing OCCAM 1 at home for a full hour but I could never do that in concert. Eliane is inviting us to work with material that is fragile, difficult to control and unpredictable. She’s asking us to recreate those sounds. Things happen in the moment and they can be hard to come back to. That is the great test of working with her.”

“She’s not specific at all yet she’s extremely specific. She’s not concerned with exact pitches — that might depend on the room, the character of the instrument on a particular day — but she is absolutely concerned with the quality of sound that the pitches open up.” He recalls the first time he visited her at home. “I was playing harp with an e-bow and I thought she’d like the continuous tone, but actually she found it too similar to a sine wave, which for her was unexciting. Her aim is to achieve harmonics up and down the string. She’s not fussed about what the fundamental is as long as it activates harmonics and keeps them dancing. And dynamics: she wants playing that is not loud — but also loud enough to make the harmonics speak. She’s interested in the way that one harmonic interacts with another. The subtle play, the minute pulsations.”

Radigue, too, acknowledges the challenges. “Only very good musicians can do it,” she smiles. “It’s easy to make a C or an F, but my material needs to sound immaterial! The little beats that become pulsations and have a character of immateriality. The sound becomes like a rainbow. It’s not possible to catch a rainbow, it’s not possible to catch the aurora, but they are there. The difference between a great performer and a kid is that a great performer knows how to find richness in a sound. Like Pavarotti. Or I like to quote Jascha Heifetz. Someone once admired the beautiful sound that his violin made. He put it to his ear and said, ‘that’s funny, I don’t hear anything.’”

“The first thing I demand when I’m working with a soloist — even when they’re tuning their instrument — is for them to be sensitive to how the instrument sounds right here, on this day, in this weather. I don’t care whether they use American A, French A, baroque pitch. When it’s an ensemble piece like OCCAM Ocean, all the musicians should somehow find the same A — but even then, it can be interesting if they are not completely accurate.” By “not completely accurate” she specifies: the ensemble can be tuned up to three commas [minute intervals] out of sync. “After that it’s too much.” It’s a revealing detail. Radigue’s relationship with the musicians who play her work is at once enabling and extremely particular. Her instrumental pieces represent the first time that her music has been performed live — before that it was always tape, with fastidious attention to the set-up of speakers and acoustic. For the first time, she is not in total control of how her music sounds.

I ask what she considers to be her role as composer. “It’s not strict,” she replies. “There is no rule. The only negative thing is: no rules! And no big dissonances. I don’t like dissonance. I do like anything that brings more freedom to the music. I feel string instruments more easily than wind instruments, which are a complete mystery, but even with strings I don’t get involved in technical decisions. I just make suggestions like a slow crescendo here or there, but I have no rule. I have no big statement, I have nothing to explain, I have no bright intelligent theory! It is all in the hands of my wonderful performers.” And yet it isn’t, because when I play devil’s advocate and suggest that, if that were true, the performer could save a trip to the 14th and improvise an OCCAM work at home, she laughs. “No they cannot stay at home! And it is not improvisation! It is very specific. The only aspect of improvisation comes in performance, when the musician must constantly react to the sounds he or she is making. And that takes an incredible virtuosity of listening.”

Image as score

“Je me raconte des histoires,” says Radigue. “I tell myself stories.” There is a story, or an image, behind each of her pieces, though it is never explicitly programmatic. And she’s not one for telling. “I keep the stories secret because I don’t want people wondering what is happening in the narrative. The best audience is one that makes up its own images while listening.” Stories provide a frame, a structure for the music that Radigue calls a “living score”. Her notation is verbal, her language is pictorial. “It’s not like taking a photograph because the image is one that moves. And, like an architect who needs scaffolding then removes it when the building is complete, after the musician has memorised the piece he or she can put it on a shelf and forget about it. When the piece has not been played for a while it helps for the musician to come back to it. One musician — I won’t say whom! — hadn’t played his or her piece for some time and had forgotten the image. He or she tried to play it but couldn’t get it right. Then the group came here to visit me and I showed them the score [a description of the image] and the music fell into place again. You see? The images are specific. Conventional scores have lots of ways of interpreting them, but my scores are actually quite strict.”

Every new piece in the OCCAM series begins with a conversation during which Radigue and the performer choose an image associated with water. “There are no two pieces with the same image. Music inspired by a huge torrent won’t sound the same as music inspired by a little mountain spring. I like the musician to choose an image from his or her own country: we all have a special place associated with water. Who hasn’t meditated in front of an ocean, a river or a waterfall? For example — and I won’t specify which piece — one musician was interested in the image of an underground river coming out into a cave, forming a deep fountain and rising into a sea. That became the score of the piece.”

These images provide the frames, but there are two other sources of inspiration behind the OCCAM series. One is a sort of intergalactic sonic bathing pool, what Radigue calls “the spirit of the whole series. A kind of vertigo. I first experienced it years ago — because OCCAM has been in my mind since the 1970s, you know, when I had an epiphany standing in a museum and imagining all the wavelengths from the earth to the sun and also between galaxies. It was too much to comprehend. I imagined how we are all bathing in a galactic ocean of sound waves.” The other is the innate quality of the sounds produced by her collaborators. She says she writes for instrumentalists, not for instruments. Her music is entirely personal, and she gets around the conundrum of writing for orchestra by describing OCCAM Ocean as a solo piece for conductor. “I told Frederic Blondy: you are the soloist, I make this piece for you. The conductor is an instrumentalist and the orchestra is his instrument. And therefore I needed to work with each musician one-by-one in order to check that they were producing the sounds properly. The first question I asked all of them was: please, make some waves. Just waves. Of course we laters discussed in detail what to do, but at first that’s all I said. With some of them I knew it would be alright after about three minutes. With others it took more time.” Altogether the process took two years. Does she plan to write another orchestral piece? “I don’t know! Maybe a sea, and hopefully many more rivers. But I think there can be only one ocean.”

— ONCEIM perform Eliane Radigue’s OCCAM OCEAN at Musikaliska on 12 February 2017 as part of the Second Edition Festival for Other Music. Buy Tickets/festival pass.