welcome to the fourth issue of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every second and fourth monday, and on off-weeks we publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers. this week: a long look at the slow music of eliane radigue.
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recently there was something of an uproar in the ambient community, which of course was much quieter than most uproars (ambient joke). the problem was that on january 29th simon reynolds published a long piece for resident advisor touting the “comeback” of ambient music in the last decade. some folks didn’t like that he focused on the new age california feel-good type of ambient at the expense of other kinds, leading to a one-dimensional portrait of the genre. other folks pointed out that ambient music never really left and that versions of this same article have been written ad nauseam for years. here’s what twitter had to say:
the genre’s leading lights jumped into the fray:
people got bored:
and somehow even the horny account had an opinion:
anyway i think the reynolds piece is fine although he does do that thing where he swoops in and sort of surveys a movement or scene and gives it the ol’ reynolds imprimatur as if he found some new burgeoning trend, which seems silly to people who’ve been paying attention for ages.
but i wanna jump into the Ambient Discourse this week and talk about eliane radigue because pieces like reynolds’s and all those linked above are generally focused on three countries: england (because of brian eno and the telepathic fish stuff), the u.s. (because of la monte young and the dream house), and japan (because of the success of the kankyō ongaku compilation). france has a long tradition in ambient music too that is overlooked in these histories. david toop places the beginning of ambient music at the 1889 paris exposition where debussy first heard javanese music. you could also make a case for erik satie’s concept of “furniture music” from 1917 being the original formulation of eno’s idea of music that you don’t have to pay attention to. and then there’s radigue, whose work is fundamental to the whole of ambient music but who rarely gets credit. in all those articles linked above, eno is usually mentioned. satie is mentioned a couple times. radigue never is.
(come to think of it neither are laurie spiegel or suzanne ciani or pauline oliveros. this lack of attention to female artists isn’t a new problem for these types of articles or for reynolds in particular—check out this series of pieces of his from 1993, including a confusing diagram that somehow name-checks eno four times. as far as i can tell, yoko ono is the only solo female artist mentioned in this entire “archaeology,” which i mean i know ‘93 was a different time and all but…)
this is odd not only because radigue provides a direct link in the lineage that goes satie-schaeffer-radigue-eno, but because her practice is directly aligned with the spirituality and concern with nature that is reynolds’s focus. reynolds talks a lot about the connection between nature and wellness in his piece, arguing that in the sped-up distracted modern world “the idea of a soniferous panacea that filters and purifies the atmosphere of our living environment as effectively as a potted plant has renewed appeal. So too does the idea of music that induces in the listener a kind of vegetative bliss, that slows down your metabolism and deepens your breathing.” radigue has studied meditation for over four decades now and she is also a practicing tibetan buddhist. and this is how she describes her work in the ina grm interview:
i often give the example of the growth of a plant. this one, when it arrived, was like this [gestures to house plant, shows height with her hands]. now look. from time to time, when it reaches the ceiling, i have to prune it. but i’ve never seen it grow. i just simply noticed that it had effectively grown. it happens like that by itself.
generative techniques compared to natural growth, long synthesizer tones as aide-de-meditation—right down to the potted plant, radigue’s work is foundational to the interests of the new New Age that is being promulgated and dissected time and again in these “return of ambient” pieces.
so in an attempt to give radigue her due i present this overview of her work from the late 1960s to today. this time we’re using three sections presented chronologically: Early Feedback and Synth Works (1967-74), Buddhism and the ARP 2500 (1974-2000), and Collaborative Instrumental Works (2000-today).
Early Feedback and Synth Works (1967-74)
radigue grew up in paris and then moved to nice when she married the artist arman. she studied piano and started composing her own pieces and then in the fifties she started traveling back and forth to the studio d’essai in paris to study with pierre schaeffer who invented/ popularized musique concrete. then in the late 1960s she worked for pierre henry, schaeffer’s pal at the studio d’essai and fellow inventor/ popularizer of musique concrete. her job was to help henry edit his pieces and to organize his sound archive but she also started working on her own tape-based pieces. she quickly grew bored of the whole musique concrete game that the pierres were so into and latched onto one technique that henry used in his Le Voyage: feedback. so using two tolana tape recorders given to her by henry, she started her own experiments with long-form feedback works. she still wasn’t satisfied with this setup, however, and spent the early seventies experimenting with different synthesizers at universities in the u.s.
Feedback pieces (Jouet Electronique , Elemental I , Stress-Osaka , Usral , Ohmnht  Vice Versa, etc ): in the late sixties, when radigue was working with henry, she noticed how feedback could be controlled—or rather needed to be controlled—by adjusting the distance between sound source and microphone. too close and the feedback erupts into noise; too far away and it lapses into silence. just right, though, and an infinite generative loop is created which could itself be recorded and manipulated. this series of early works, which were only released in the last decade or so, represents her experiments with feedback loops made with her tolanas, usually at home at night when her kids were asleep. these pieces take techniques learned at the pierres’s groupe de recherches de musique concrete (grm) and apply them to long-form explorations of tone, in effect bridging musique concrete with ambient music as eno later characterized it.
On Buchla synthesizer (Chry-ptus ): Chry-ptus was the first piece radigue created with a synthesizer, a buchla 100 that morton subotnick installed at nyu. laurie spiegel used the same machine at the same time, actually. this piece consists of two tapes of drones that you can play at the same time or up to one minute apart, so that the total time runs between 22 and 23 minutes. depending on how you line them up, the tapes create different tonal varieties. this controlled chaos or infinite variety paradoxically within constraints carries over from the feedback pieces.
On Moog synthesizer (Arthesis ): this one has a special place in my otherwise withered heart because it was created on the moog at the university of iowa and well what can i say but go hawkeyes. it’s basically a 25-minute upsetting rumbling tone that makes you think you have something wrong in your basement even if you don’t have a basement. i was wondering what the common conception of the moog was in 1973 so looked on youtube and found this and well let’s just say there were a variety of different moods people were going for back in the day, some more colorful than others.
On ARP 2500 synthesizer (Geelriandre , Ψ 847 , Biogenesis and Transamorem-Transmortem ): radigue’s true love is the ARP 2500 synthesizer, which she first worked with around 1971. after 1974, she would use nothing but this synthesizer. for these four works, she is exploring the instrument and developing her production and recording technique by deploying one Big Idea per piece. each has something to recommend it. Geelriandre pairs the ARP with prepared piano performed by gerard fremy; Ψ 847 represents the first time radigue employed her 80-minute runtime which would later become her standard; Biogenesis incorporates sounds of her unborn grandchild from the womb; Transamorem-Transmortem was radigue’s first sound installation (though it wasn’t presented as such).
(from the 1974 premiere of Biogenesis / Transamorem-Transmortem at the kitchen)
Buddhism and the ARP 2500 (1974-2000)
the story is that after a 1974 concert of Adnos I a group of students recommended tibetan buddhism to radigue at which point she dropped everything, sought out the guru pawo rinpoche who was living in france at the time, spent three years studying buddhism under him, and then returned to composition. tibetan buddhism has informed all of her work since, either overtly in theme or implicitly in conception. actually, you can look backwards and say that the ideas of focus and discipline that have always been a part of her work are intimately tied up in core buddhist tenets—there’s a reason that those students told her to look into buddhism after hearing her peformance, after all. during this era from 1974 to 2000 radigue only composed with the intimidating ARP 2500, using it to produce looong multi-part pieces. this is the era in which she created her masterpieces (Adnos and Trilogie de la Mort) but unfortunately their sheer length limited their popular reception because they couldn’t fit onto vinyl. it was only after the cd became an everyday medium that these ~80 minute pieces could be distributed widely, and radigue’s reputation suffered in the interim. but it was also only through these extremely long pieces that she could properly develop her ideas about the relationship between tonality & meditation, technology & spirituality.
Adnos (1974-1982): radigue’s first trilogy. part i is a deeply immersive drone, part ii sounds more like a traditional ‘70s synth piece and could even be described as “jaunty” at times, and part iii is quicker-moving than part i but shares its sense of serenity. oddly i’d say that part i, the only one of the sections to be composed before her turn to buddhism, is the most traditionally or at least stereotypically “meditative.” then again i’m not an expert in buddhism—the levity of part ii could indeed be a result of radigue’s practice with pawo rinpoche.
Triptych (1978): this is technically the first full piece after radigue’s conversion to buddhism, as it predates Adnos parts ii and iii. it’s also her most austere—if you are a drone purist, this is the purest drone you will find in her catalog. the choreographer douglas dunn commissioned this piece on the advice of robert ashley, but only the first part of the triptych was ever staged. i’m trying to imagine the dance that went along with it—a lot of sitting in the lotus position, or perhaps a waltz performed by trained sloths.
Songs of Milarepa (1984) and Jetsun Mila (1986): these two pieces go together not only because it saves me from writing an extra entry but because they are both about jetsun milarepa, the 11th-century tibetan saint. milarepa answered his disciples’ questions with a short song and in his lifetime he apparently wrote a hundred thousand such songs. Songs of Milarepa is based on these songs, while Jetsun Mila is based on the story of his life as told to his disciple rechungpa. Songs of Milarepa features vocals in english by robert ashley and in tibetan by lama kunga rinpoche, which prevent it from engendering the calm meditative state that her other works do but also makes it more recognizable and thematically cohesive. Jetsun Mila is pure drone—it would take a smarter man than i to determine how its nine parts accord with milarepa’s life. or else i’d have to, you know, read a book about his life.
Trilogie de la Mort (1988-1993): this trilogy is often considered radigue’s masterpiece. its first part, “kyema,” is based on the tibetan book of the dead. its second part, “kailasha,” is based on an imaginary trip around the sacred mt. kailash in the himalayas. the final part, “koume,” is about life transcending death as Death is “born.” unfortunately, radigue’s son yves passed away in 1989 and her guru pawo rinpoche passed away in 1991, which gives this work an uncanny emotional resonance. she couldn’t have known at the outset that she would be working through death in her personal life at the same time as her work, but one can’t imagine a closer intermingling of spiritual practice, personal circumstance, and aesthetic production.
L'île re-sonante (2000): this is the last piece radrigue created on the ARP 2500. it’s also the first piece by her that i ever heard, via a youtube track linked <—over there that for some reason translates the title into spanish. the connections between this piece and her buddhist practice are less clear than with the previous pieces, but i had to include this here because of the ARP thing and because it’s simply too good to skip. at about ten minutes in a women’s choir enters and lifts the piece and its one of the best moments in all of minimalist music. no kidding.
Collaborative Instrumental Works (2000-today)
beginning in the new millenium radigue just ditched the ARP and started collaborating with people on instrumentals and all it took was for this guy kasper t. toeplitz to spend two years convincing her. somehow her work is still unmistakably hers though, and all the same concerns with microtones, extended drones, focus, and meditation still apply.
Elemental II (2004): this is a work for solo electric bass performed by the aforementioned kasper toeplitz, who is a mohawked polish bassist who somehow convinced radigue to collaborate with him on this piece. it’s a callback to Elemental I, a feedback piece from 1968, in five sections of ~10 minutes each that correlate to an element (air water fire earth ether). it does not sound like a bass, i’ll tell you that much. i know i just said all these are unmistakably radigue’s work but if you played this and told me that it was stephen o’malley i’d be like “that tracks.”
Naldjorlak I, II, III (2009): “naldjorlak” is the buddhist term for the progression of all things toward unity. Naldjorlak is a piece for solo cello conceived with and for charles curtis. it’s in three parts that correlate to the shape of the cello and it’s designed around the resonating tone of the body of the cello itself. curtis describes finding this “wolf tone”:
The tuning that I developed for Naldjorlak expresses a general congruency of all of the potential resonating elements of the cello. The tailpiece, endpin, and tailpiece wire I have tuned nearly to the essential frequency of the cello's resonating cavity, for these purposes defined as the frequency of the so-called wolf tone. The wolf tone itself is to some degree tuneable, it slides up and down a bit in response to greater and lesser overall string tension. If one of the cello strings is tuned exactly to unison with the wolf tone, the wolf tone evades that frequency and settles nearby. This may be due to sympathetic resonances cancelling the strong beating frequency of the wolf tone. I tune the cello in a kind of consensus tuning, getting everything near, but not too near, to the wolf tone, then adjusting the other elements accordingly. Every adjustment of a single element causes changes in the other elements, but over time it is possible to get everything in a very close range, within a small semitone at any rate.
each cello’s wolf tone is unique, so the piece itself will also be different depending on which instrument it is played on. further, there is no score for this piece, just a series of techniques exploring the resonance of the cello that curtis developed and then radigue “shopped” from. the process of collaboration, in which curtis flew to paris and visited radigue’s apartment, eating with her, taking naps on her couch, etc, were reprised for her next piece Occam Ocean too.
Occam Ocean (2011-today): radigue’s ongoing work is an extension of her previous collaborations and, to put it bluntly, really quite wild. what happens is as follows, as explained by luke nickel in his essay “occam notions: collaboration and the performer’s perspective in éliane radigue’s occam ocean” in cambridge university press’s journal tempo, issue 70:
In almost all cases, the creation of an Occam Ocean piece begins when performers reach out to Radigue to initiate a collaboration. After an exchange of physical letters, which generally include a CD-audio sample of the performer’s work, and an introductory phone call, performers agree to meet Radigue in her Paris apartment. For the most part, this collaboration does not guarantee the completion of an Occam Ocean piece, except in cases where Radigue knows the performer well and there is a specific opportunity for performance. Some performers choose to make musical preparations, others do not. In general, performers enter the collaboration with some degree of familiarity with Radigue’s previous work.
Upon arriving in Paris, most performers spend one to three days with Radigue. She begins the collaboration by explaining the key tenets of the Occam Ocean series and the conceptual background of the series as a whole. Then, Radigue and the performer settle on a water-related image that will guide the work – either a photo or verbal description provided by Radigue, or the performer’s own mental image of a body of water that is personally important to them. These images inform the work’s structure, mood and concept. With their images in mind, the performers then improvise on their instruments under Radigue’s guidance, often attempting to find novel performance techniques. After this, Radigue often conducts what she likes to call her ‘shopping’: selecting sounds from the improvisations that she deems appropriate for the work. Generally, once the sound world of the piece is established, performers leave Radigue’s apartment and practice individually. When they return, Radigue and the performer refine the work’s structural and sonic aspects. This phase of the collaboration sometimes concludes after one meeting; however, the process can also span multiple meetings over the course of several days, months or years. At some point, Radigue proclaims her part in the collaboration to be finished, and the piece ready for performance. pp. 25-26
there are no scores written for these pieces, so that their transmission is only ever oral/aural. performers who create an occam piece with radigue are free to teach their piece to someone else if they want, creating a sort of performance-folklore tradition. not to harp too much on this stuff but this also strikes me as an incredibly feminine/feminist mode of working, as it relies on collaboration, domesticity, hospitality, and a horizontal field of authority. the shiiin label has started issuing recordings of them but good luck trying to work out how to play them on your own.
alright so that’s it for radigue because substack is telling me i’m reaching my length limit. if you’re interested in finding out more about her there is a wealth of information online because she likes to do interviews. i suggest starting out with the ina grm interview linked at the top. this short documentary produced by austria’s institute for media archaeology is also good. oh and this interview is very recent and in english. listening to all this ambient drone by radigue to research this thing has truly been a pleasure but i think it might be because it gave me an excuse to sit in a chair and stare at the wall for 3+ hour stretches. if you can situate your life in such a way as to do the same i’d recommend it.
see you next week, don’t forget to tell a friend and post links on social media and also print these newsletters out and mail them to people you know who don’t have the internet.