Eliane Radigue, Wild Tones


I meet Eliane Radigue, eighty-six, in her apartment, located in a lively part of the 14th arrondissement in Paris. She tells me this will be one of the last interviews she gives, as she now feels time is passing rapidly and wants to concentrate on the only thing that truly matters to her: new compositional works. She does not want to be recorded, asking instead that I write my own story. She talks the way her work unfolds, embarking with the materials, without any view from above—without system or fixed theory—sliding from the history of one piece or anecdote to the next with a presence that permeates. We talk for three hours, share a glass of Porto, and I leave, highly moved by this encounter, holding her last published work— Occam Ocean I (2014)—in my hands.


Solitude is a word that frequently appears in conversation with Radigue, and a world she seems satisfied to have left behind. Her isolated work with the analog ARP synthesizer parallels her solitude in male-dominated communities: be it with her former husband Arman and his New Realist friends such as Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Robert Filliou, Ben Vautier, and Jacques de la Villeglé; with the two great masters of European experimental composition, Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer; or as a single mother of three. “I’ve always worked very much alone, except for my cat as an assistant but she didn’t say much.” This solitude was an indicator of a practice radically ahead of its time, which opened uncharted sonic territories. In a way, Radigue’s work can be inscribed within a long modernist tradition of women working with machines—I think here of those “wives of” working with woven materials and the early Jacquard machines at the beginning of the 20th century such as Sonia Delaunay, Anni Albers, Varvara Stepanova, and Sophie Tauber Arp, among many others. All of them worked with and through cutting edge technologies, opening new paths in the visual arts and music. Many are still under-recognized.

Indeed, Radigue is regularly referred to as a “pioneer woman” in experimental music, a term which references an ambiguous status. This questionable framing of a pioneer woman severs her both from a general genealogy of experimental music (as a figure of exception) as well as from a tradition of music practices carried by women. “Pioneer” also positions Radigue retroactively as a figure of influence, highlighting the fact that the works she produced were too forward-looking for the time in which they were made. They needed decades to be properly acknowledged and recognized. “This may be why,” she says, “I started working with live performers at a later stage … none of them would have engaged in the kind of music I was producing [before].”

This language of exceptionalism also feeds upon a practice that defies simple classification and clear-cut definitions. Radigue’s music is fugitive. Neither fully drone nor fully minimal, and with no system or theoretical texts to support a “new definition” of sound, Radigue insists that her music simply “can express what words cannot say.” It constructs a bridge between two continents and two aesthetic projects: the European tradition of musique concrète, on the one hand, and the American contemporary scene on the other, where it was influenced by peers such as Philip Corner, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. She opened her work quite early to other influences, notably Buddhism, which also highly influenced her way of thinking. These various layers of histories and temporalities are compressed in music that feels like a long static chant. This compression opens a diagonal path, taking on experimental histories and traditions like Tibetan or Mongolian singing, and traces a singular synthetic expression that evolves into her meditative compositions.

Working through Materials

Radigue doesn’t have any a priori system, but instead works from and through materials with extreme rigor and critical awareness. “There is always, in every piece I do, something wrong,” she says, favoring intuition as a mode of intervention. But the kind of intuition that Radigue engages is neither superficial nor subjective; it is conducted not by the immediacy of feelings but by a specific kind of (non-discursive) knowledge that comes from and is learned through materials—their constraints and degrees of freedom. Her place of intervention is what she calls her “tiny space,” a space of maximized constraints that demands a full mastery of its boundaries.

Radigue puts into place the following procedures: logical operations, impersonal flows, and an attention to sonic details in modulation, taking simple elements and pushing them to their highest point of resonance. Her works act like mathematical structures: a series of material inferences that construct and unfold their specific and continuous time-space. But the strict framework within which she works also opens to unexpected results: failures and accidents in which she seems especially interested. These procedures were kept as founding elements once she started, late in life, to work with acoustic instruments: producing spaces of freedom in highly constrained environments. 

Opening her music to a new set of constraints, the acoustic world introduced the body of both instrument and performer, responding to these elements with the tools constructed with and through the machine. After more than thirty years of working solely with the ARP 2500, a modular synthesizer, Radigue started a new phase in her practice when Kasper T. Toeplitz, a noise musician, approached her for a commission. It took a long time to convince her, he recalls, but eventually, two years later, their collaboration led to the premiere of Elemental II (2005), a composition for double electric bass. “For the first time, a direct interpretation, without any intervention of my old partner, my dear ARP synthesizer, could be realized and offered me the rare and unique pleasure of a living realization, free, and animated only by the talent of its interpreter.”

Wild Sounds

However, it was not until Radigue collaborated with Charles Curtis on Naldjorlak that she decided to fully abandon her long-time partner, the ARP synthesizer, and focus entirely on compositions for live performers. Naldjorlak is a three-part piece composed between 2004 and 2009: for a cello (Naldjorlak I, Charles Curtis); for two basset horns (Naldjorlak II, Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez); and for two basset horns and cello together (Naldjorlak III, Curtis, Robinson, and Martinez). Naldjorlak I engages a manipulation of the “wolf tone,” the “terror of string instruments performers.” The wolf tone is, in the words of Chris Dungey, “the result of the instability between the vibration of the body of the cello and the vibration of the affected string, which then serve to cancel each other out.” This can also amplify or expand the frequencies of the original note, creating, as Curtis explains, “an extraordinary spectral complexity.” When fully tuned to the wolf tone (tailpiece, spike, and tailpiece wire alike), the cello “behaves somewhat like a bell, or like a tamboura, resonating in a complex but unified fashion.”

The use of unstable sounds that respond to their environment is characteristic of Radigue’s practice. Those “wild sounds”—sons sauvages, as she names them (feedbacks, wolf tone)—suggest a paradoxical mastery of the momentary loss of control of the instrument that create them: a performance from and at the edge of that instrument’s specific sensitivity. “It comes from the first access I had to electronic sounds which were the wild sounds coming from feedback. When one sound is coming from one loudspeaker and one microphone it means that when you go too near to the speaker with the microphone everything collapses, and when you go too far, it disappears. If you find the right place, which is very narrow, then you can move it very slowly and it changes but that requires a lot of patience.” Those moments of unstable equilibrium, whether with electronic music or live performers, trace a direct line from a practice that dealt with synthetic instruments to the production of an extended synthesis with all the dimensions of live music (instrument, bodies, performer, space).


The three parts of Naldjorlak were created for and with the performers who play them. When creating a new piece, Radigue follows the method she developed with the ARP synthesizer. She begins with a general idea or theme, the “spirit of the piece,” which gives way to its structure. Naldjorlak is no exception. The title comes from what she calls her semantic “Tibetan cuisine:” “Naljor” meaning "unity and “la” being a sign of respect. The three parts connect to each other as elements of a whole, which she refers to as the cello being “the body” of the piece and the basset horns its “voices.” Buddhism’s dualistic tradition of emptiness and wholeness is deeply connected to Radigue’s durational soundscapes. In the long and meditative chants she produces, slow modulations and imperceptibles changes lead to an experience of delayed events. “Changes have happened without even noticing they were happening”: infra-modulations altering, progressively and with a very slow pace, the entire structure. Duration, in Radigue’s work, cuts the chronological time for an experience of floating or being suspended within a wave of gradual changes. This process is explained by Radigue through the words of Verlaine: being “never altogether the same, and never altogether different.”


A second moment in Radigue’s compositional process lies in virtuoso listening – very close to fellow experimental composer Pauline Oliveros’s practice of deep listening. Before she met Curtis in Paris, in 2005, she asked him to provide a “sound catalog” of his work with the cello. He recalls that “she made her selections quickly, which she called her ‘shopping’ ... the sounds and techniques I proposed I prepared based on their qualities of diffuseness. I concentrated on sounds which reveal secondary components at least as prominent as their fundamentals; […] working with Eliane is learning to hear as she hears.” Working with acoustic instrumentalists did not change Radigue’s careful practice of sound manipulation (the specific performers and instruments were selected according to this high attention to sonic detail; the two basset horns, for example, had to be from the same series and maker). To listen, in her work, means to acquire an in-depth understanding of the qualities of a specific sound, of what lies between a sound and another … to “let them live” by accompanying them: a state of extreme presence, awareness, and patience.


Each process of composition similarly emerges from a sustained conversation with a particular musician or musicians: a back-and-forth process between the “sonic fantasy of the composer” and its specific embodiment by performers “who actually make the music.” As Radigue expresses with regards to Naldjorlak I: “The score became the whole body of the instrument. The result is a kind of wild and frail, versatile and volatile world of sounds. Taming them with the huge control that Charles provides all over the piece. The aim being to follow the natural flowing of overtones and to respond to the games of the harmonics all the way up to the threshold of their disappearance beyond the limits of human hearing.” This one-to-one transmission does not result in any written scores (except for technical notations), but is a continuous choreographic process that apprehends the performer’s complete sonic personality.


To the three dimensions of instrument, performer, and composer, one more element should be added: architecture, or space. Radigue creates “situations;” each performance acts as an “acoustic answer” to a specific space. This expanded experience at the core of Radigue’s work parallels what happened in visual arts during the same period. In the 1960 and 70s, the status of the object, whether in society or in art institutions, came under close scrutiny: attention shifting from the autonomy of the object to its context of production, exhibition, and reception. Minimal art instantiated a phenomenological relationship to the artwork, raising awareness of the structural definition of its experience. That era’s Light and Space movement similarly acted on the sensorial perception of the spectator. By the mid-1960s art had anchored in a specific site, and context—the background—of the artwork became the new figure.

Site-specificity, as a concept, was formed through the practices and writings of this new generation of artists, among whom Donald Judd produced one of its most refined engagements, at the level of a small West Texas town (despite never stating the term as such). Radigue’s work is tied to this idea of “specificity.” Her compositions act as sculptural and situational moments. The situations she produces can be understood as a methodological tool that weaves together all the elements contributing to the music piece: its resonance in a specific site, in which the performance space is part of the set-up; the singular ability of each member of the audience to listen to the music, which depends on their level of attention, concentration, or understanding of the music; and, for acoustic compositions, the mastery of the performer and the sensitivity of the instrument. Radigue attempts to reach an experience of synthetic wholeness: a fleeting union of sound and space.


On Friday, May 27, 2016, Charles Curtis performed the first work in the Naldjorlak trilogy at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. A former office and warehouse for the sale of wool and mohair, the building, made of adobe and tiles with a roof of corrugated aluminum, contains a permanent installation of twenty-two sculptures by John Chamberlain. After checking the acoustics of the space, Curtis decides to sit in a corner. We—teachers and students from European art schools, members of the Marfa community, experimental music aficionados, and professionals from Houston, Los Angeles, and Mexico City—all sit in front of him. The slow modulations of the cello’s wolf tones enter—some kind of impersonal ritual—in resonance with the surrounding steel compressions. It felt as though Radigue’s world of tones were being unfolded in their entirety by Curtis’s cello. A world of long duration, patience, continuous transformations, sounds within sounds, fleeting tones, sounds that emerge between two sounds, partials, sub-harmonics and overtones, and phenomena of resonance. The inner richness of a sound and its qualities of diffusiveness seemed, that day, explored in all their dimensions.


Born in Paris, Radigue lived in Nice in the South of France with her husband, the artist Arman, before settling in Paris after their marriage ended. In the late 1950s she started to archive sounds: found materials taken from her immediate environment. At that time, the twelve-tone and serial music inherited from Schoenberg was widely influential, but was, to her, “not satisfying in terms of sound.” Seeking an alternative, she discovered the work of Pierre Schaeffer through the radio and started soon after to work at the Studio d’essai at the RTF (French radio and Television Broadcasting), which was from 1957–58 directed by Pierre Schaeffer and presided over by Pierre Henry. As an intern she was “splicing, cutting, and editing tapes.” After stopping her compositional work for a decade, a period during which she raised her three children, she returned to Paris in 1967–68 as Pierre Henry’s assistant at the studio Apsome: working fourteen to sixteen-hour days on his major work l’Apocalypse de Jean (1968). In Paris she felt isolated: both Henry and Schaeffer were unsympathetic to her propositions. She finally found her “very tiny space” in the vibrant community of New York, following two visits. The first trip was in 1964–65 with Arman, during which she met James Tenney, a composer, music theorist, and pioneer of computer music who mentored her and introduced her to musicians such as Philip Corner, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich as well as the FLUXUS scene. Returning to New York in 1970–71, on Steve Reich’s recommendation, she started a residency at New York University School of the Arts, where she began working with the Buchla Modular Synthesizer. At NYU, Radigue shared her studio with two American composers, Laurie Spiegel and Rhys Chatham, who introduced her to artists like La Monte Young, among others.

"Eliane Radigue, Wild Tones," 2018. Copyright of the author.