Apr 17, 2015
The scores of Eliane Radigue invite you to listen carefully and deeply particularly as the French electronic music composer creates a sonic ambience that seems to move as a continual, nuanced flow around the listener. In her performances at The Kitchen during the 1970s and 80s, however, Radigue employed various unconventional strategies to pull her audience’s minds, ears, and hearts close to her soundscapes sometimes using the written space of a press release as a platform to present her work to the public, and occasionally incorporating sounds appropriated from her personal life. For Radigue, the act of listening carefully to her compositions inevitably pointed back to, and asked for, such sensitivity in everyday experience.
Her first show at The Kitchen was in 1973, featuring Phi 847, an 80-minute piece created on an Arp Synthesizer. She dedicated the track to her daughter and provided the following notes on the press release that present her work in a traditional narrative format:
1) Primary Material
2) First Elaboration
This form provided the audience with a familiar structure to interpret Radigue’s work. Through this familiar story build, the audience could understand when to expect the variances in sonic texture within an otherwise seemingly ambient flow. John Rockwell from The New York Times described Phi 847 as consisting “almost entirely of thin, soft, sustained sounds,” with no “sharp attacks,” and, in turn, no apparent ‘conflict’ as indicated in the press release. He continued writing, “One kept waiting for something to happen. Then one became aware that on a far smaller level, the sounds were constantly permutating in texture.”
These subtle nuances continued in her next performance at The Kitchen of Biogenesis and Transamorem-Transmortem the following year. If Radigue encouraged detailed listening by outlining the piece in a typical narrative form in Phi 847, she encouraged the same sensitivity in Biogenesis by providing content from an autobiographical story. Here, she dedicated Biogenesis to her daughter and “for the child she bears within herself and will bear for a long time.” By placing a microphone and a stethoscope to her pregnant daughter’s stomach, she recorded the rhythms of her grandchild with her daughter’s heartbeats. She then mixed these organic rhythms with sounds that she composed on the Arp Synthesizer: At the beginning of her piece, these heartbeats are not immediately recognizable, and could be interpreted as electronic beats. However, the recorded pulses grow louder and one starts to become aware of the heartbeats’ presence, and ultimately the natural, sonic textures within each single thud. It’s as if this performance took Phi 847 one step further by asking the audience to follow a sonic narrative as in in Phi 847, and to concentrate on Radigue’s story of her daughter in Biogenesis.
In addition to contextualizing her pieces as stories, Radigue encouraged her audience’s engagement in the temporal framing of her pieces. In 1975, she performed her piece E-5th at The Kitchen for 24 hours. She stated in the press release, “From one second to any number of hours, the real time of “E-5th is that subjectively given to it by the listeners: each person’s own listening period, added to the last, and to the next, makes the real time of the piece.” The score is so elongated that it stretches the, already not apparent, nuances in sonic texture, further exaggerating its ambient vibe. By her framing the event’s ‘real time’ as being constructed by each listeners’ unique participation, she is showing how these very extended nuances in sonic texture need a listener to exist. This dependency coupled with the score’s extreme length transforms the soundscape into a landscape.
Radigue emphasized the idea of the soundscape’s landscape more visually in her performance of Adnos II in 1980 at The Kitchen. Her only description of the piece in the press release was a statement comparing the sounds to shimmering light in water: “In the conch formed by sound waves, the ear filters, selects and emphasizes some areas of hearing, just as one’s eyes would look at the shimmering of water.” By describing the sound waves in Adnos II through a comparison to another sensory experience in everyday life, she was further bridging her complex work to other dynamic visuals, framing it as accessible images of landscapes. She even placed speakers throughout the space and hung headphones from the ceiling, encouraging the audience to walk around and listen and in turn, further engage with the sound as if it were a landscape.
Whether she writes her program in the form of a narrative, incorporates her very content from her personal life, sets up her work to have time slots for listening, or alters a physical space to encourage participation, Radigue shows her concern for people. While creating work that is very subtle in its sonic changes, she asks us to listen carefully, and with her artistic choices in presentation and content, she encourages us to continue sensitive listening as we exit the art space and enter back into the world around us. Radigue wants for everyone to understand how much beauty there is in the mundane.
Photograph by Yves Fernandez. 1980