ÉLIANE RADIGUE FOR PURPLE MAGAZINE
infinitesimal variations, no breaks, no narration, just music that resonates with the world,
a vibratory intensity that opens to introspective soundscapes
interview by JONATHAN HEPFER
portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
shot in éliane radigue’s apartment in paris
JONATHAN HEPFER — Your career as a composer has had three periods: your work with feedback in the ’60s at the Studio d’Essai [in Paris]; synthesizers in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s; and acoustic instruments since around the year 2000. Do you see these as unrelated chapters of your life, or do they belong to some kind of trajectory?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — I think there’s absolutely a sense of continuity in what I’m doing. In fact, there’s not that much difference between the electronic period and what I do now, working with musicians. It’s all just a continuous development.
JONATHAN HEPFER — It takes a certain discipline and strength of vision to move from medium to medium with such a sense of finality. When you choose to stop a chapter of your artistic life and begin a new one, you never look back.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Well, when something is achieved, it’s time to quit. So, when this is the case, I can stop without any regret. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a big change in my artistic vision. When I stopped working with electronic sounds, it wasn’t for the sake of change — I simply wanted to go further by working with musicians and acoustic sounds. The music itself kept the continuity of what I’d been doing before.
My life as a composer really began in the ’60s at the Studio d’Essai with my feedback works, which were the only electronic sounds that I could get at that time, in that environment. So, when I had access to a synthesizer in 1970 or ’71 at NYU [Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development], I didn’t need feedback effects, since I could make them with a synthesizer. And the vocabulary I was developing with the synthesizer was quite similar to what I was doing with feedback, except that it was much easier to control.
And then in around 2000 or 2001, I discovered the pleasure of working with musicians and sharing experiences. I’d been working very much alone my entire life. Except for my cat, I haven’t even had an assistant! [Laughs] And I discovered that the pleasure of working with musicians on acoustic sounds was what I’d been looking for all along while making electronic music: acoustic sounds are much richer than electronic sounds.
JONATHAN HEPFER — When did you first encounter the musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — I first heard his music on the radio, in my early 20s. I was living in Nice, quite close to the airport. At that time, there were only about five or six flights a day. And I liked to listen to the big flights because I found the sounds very interesting, and in this mass of sound, I was able to hear some kind of melody. So, when I heard this Pierre Schaeffer piece on the radio, it was just what gave me the freedom to pursue this interest further. His “Étude aux Chemins de Fer” [“Railroad Study”] — of course it’s music! Like flights are music. Like water in a pipe is music. Everything can become music. It depends on the way we listen to it, and what we do with it also.
JONATHAN HEPFER — How did you approach Schaeffer after that? Did you study with him?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — It was in the ’50s, maybe 1955. There wasn’t a special course yet for studying this kind of music. Schaeffer was still directing the Société de Radiodiffusion de la France d’Outre-Mer [the French overseas broadcasting company]. And [the musique concrète composer] Pierre Henry was the one who was at the Studio d’Essai the whole day. That was a small studio. No bigger than this flat. Pierre Schaeffer came only in the evening, and I was mainly working with Pierre Henry. Since I was living in Nice with my children, I was only able to go there from time to time. I was neither an assistant nor a student. But when I was there, I was just learning all of the technical processes of editing, mixing, splicing tape. I did all of that freely.
JONATHAN HEPFER — My understanding of musique concrète is largely that you go out into the world and record some sounds and bring them back into the studio to manipulate electronically. But your music during this era doesn’t seem to include a lot of these types of sounds.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Well, I was much more interested in experimenting with feedback, which was so fragile, than going out and recording sounds. The recording aspect wasn’t what interested me the most. What interested me the most was to be able to change the speed of the tape and what we could do with any kind of sound.
JONATHAN HEPFER -- I’m fascinated by the way you started with standard classical music, then decided to compose using electronics, and finally returned to acoustic instruments — but in a way that pushes the limits of the instruments, thanks to what you discovered working with electronic sounds.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — But the history of art is full of coincidences of this sort. At any given point in time, there are certain ideas that are simply in the air, and voilà: several people in different locations can reach out and catch the idea without knowing about each other. There are many examples in every era — for example, Impressionism or 12-tone music. Developments like these are completely normal. I’ve always done what I wanted to as an artist, independent of my surroundings.
When I was with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry at the Studio d’Essai in Paris, I was never concerned with making music like theirs. I had no desire to do that, anyway. And when I went to NYU in the early ’70s, I shared a studio with Laurie Spiegel and Rhys Chatham. Despite sharing the same space, we only saw each other a few times to coordinate the planning and all of that. The only lesson Laurie, Rhys, and I had on the synthesizer with the director of the studio at that time was how to clean the synthesizer! [Laughs] And after that, we all had to make our own way. So, one could not say there was an influence.
I’m not an intellectual. I’m much more spontaneous and instinctive. Like a barbarian or a savage! [Laughs] But I was an intellectual earlier in my life. When I was young, one was obliged to be. My generation had to be fluent with the ideas of the existentialists, and to be able to follow and develop these extraordinary ideas. But I left it behind, and that was my decision. I respect very much those who are capable of rationalizing or intellectualizing things, but I don’t have the time for too much intellectualization in my life nowadays. I’m too old for that! [Laughs]
JONATHAN HEPFER — For many years now, your artistic and spiritual lives have been interwoven.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — In the ’70s, I made a profound investment in the study of Buddhism. And ever since, it’s been a constant in my life. I can explain it through the metaphor of a train and its tracks: the two rails that constitute my life have been music and Buddhism. And the train, obviously, is what I do with my time. And these rails of music and Buddhism are what my life needs in order to roll forward.
JONATHAN HEPFER — Your work’s defined by what you choose to leave out of it. How did you arrive at such a strong degree of focus?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Especially when one is young, one needs to develop one’s sense of curiosity and explore it. It’s absolutely necessary. But when one has found one’s own voice, one must direct one’s energy in an extremely focused way so that that voice can speak.
I’d compare this to an arrow: for an arrow to fly properly, it needs a tip and also fletching at the back, which is important for the weight. The fletching is like one’s sense of broad curiosity, and then the tip is one’s specific vision of what one wants to do. Our effort is like the bow that’s capable of launching the arrow. To fly smoothly, we need these different parts of the arrow to be proportionate to one another. We need to be intensely curious up to a point, but we must decide what our goal is, in order to move strongly in a direction and not be all over the place.
JONATHAN HEPFER — When we met, you told me that you’d only begun earning a living from your music three years ago, at 84. Can you tell me a bit about the circumstances of your life as an artist, especially as a woman in a milieu dominated by men?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — When I was working at the Studio d’Essai, it was easiest because my children were very small, and my parents were living in Paris, so I could go to the studio and leave my children with them while I worked. I was still living in Nice but would come to Paris to work at the studio as often as I could. But after my children were in school, it wasn’t that easy for me to go back and forth like that anymore.
And there was one problem: once, when going between Nice and Paris, my son got quite sick, and I had to make a real decision. I took the night train back from Paris to Nice. I had a very important meeting in Paris that I had to cancel in order to go back home for my children. I made the decision to give up working for the moment, for the sake of my family.
There was nothing happening in Nice artistically except what we were doing. There were, of course, some other artists around, but I was the only musician in the group. There was no École de Nice [School of Nice] before us! We made it ourselves somehow. And Arman [Éliane’s husband] felt the need to travel and work as well.
At one point, he wanted to leave for New York, and I said, “Go ahead, I’ll take care of our children.” And Arman was very grateful to me for that decision. And so, for about 10 years, I was playing some piano and harp, and composing some scores using the Fibonacci series and all that, but it was not exactly my way. I knew through my work with musique concrète that my way was going to be to go further with electronic techniques.
Arman and I had a very interesting marriage. We had a very friendly divorce and remained close and maintained a certain tenderness until his death in 2005. And so, after we separated, Arman was good enough to be my supporter. Without his help, it would’ve been much more difficult for me to do what I wanted to. I didn’t have to pay attention to making money. I could just go with all of my fantasies with sounds. I was free in that sense. And it’s true that I only started to earn a living with my music recently. I got some money from time to time, starting about 10 or 12 years ago. No more than that. And only in the past three years have I actually lived from my music! [Laughs]
JONATHAN HEPFER — Did you ever experience doubt in your work as a composer?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Yes, of course. My god! [Laughs] Creative people have a lot of doubt about what they’re doing. I’ll only speak for my own work, but all of the creative people I know are exactly the same. Sometimes I’m completely certain of what I’m doing. But I’ve had terrible doubts, thinking I’m completely crazy to do this or that. There are moments that come from time to time when one feels almost as if one’s working in a trance. The two poles of experience are rather extreme.
JONATHAN HEPFER — Do you have a daily routine?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — I don’t, no. I don’t have the same energy that I used to, so that requires discipline and organization. But it’s not very strict. I don’t like to have a very rigid attitude. I have some rules. I try to organize each week by the day, and I try to avoid being pushed. I hate to be pushed! [Laughs]
JONATHAN HEPFER — Can you tell me how you met Arman and the artist Yves Klein? Was it in Paris?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — No, it was in Nice. I was on vacation with some friends, and it was there that I met Arman. And I just stayed in Nice. And then, through Arman, I eventually came to meet his friends Yves Klein and [the poet] Claude Pascal.
JONATHAN HEPFER — Did you fall in love with Arman instantly?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Love at first sight has its own way of doing that. It’s obvious that Arman was very important in my life. We fell madly in love. It’s as simple as that! [Laughs] We fell in love, and then we came to share what we could. And in fact, he had much more to bring to the equation, since I was not in my city. I was from Paris.
JONATHAN HEPFER — I find a lot of resonances particularly between your work and that of Yves Klein.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Yes, of course! It’s the same thing I spoke about before: when we were young in Nice, we were a group of four or five artists, and ideas came together from every direction. It was as if I’d throw an idea like a ball, and somebody else would catch it and put it in his pocket, and vice versa. But that’s normal! When one is in a group of several people, sometimes there’s a similar movement or a similar curiosity. It’s obvious that there will be some degree of influence in situations like that. Everybody influences each other.
When I met Arman, it was this triple unity that he had with Yves Klein and Claude Pascal. The three of them were united by their interests. They met through a mutual love and investment in both judo and the philosophy of the Rosicrucians. And at the time I met Arman, I was very invested in Hinduism, which is relatively close to the philosophy of the Rosicrucians. So, we met upon a common spiritual terrain — through our mutual curiosity and artistic investment. Obviously, it was a very vital and vivid time in our lives.
JONATHAN HEPFER — I read that as teenagers, on a beach in Nice, Arman, Yves Klein, and Claude Pascal divided the world into separate parts: Arman was responsible for the Earth, Pascal for words, and Klein for the sky. Each time you begin a new chapter of your work, you begin with a piece you call “Élémentaire,” which deals with a different element.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Yes: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Rosicrucianism and Hinduism, and to some extent Buddhism, were very present in our minds at that time. And in those practices, the elements and their construction are very important. In Buddhism, the construction of a stupa has the five purified elements: first earth, water, fire; then air; then space. It was something that already existed within ourselves that we developed together through our own curiosity on a spiritual level. This was truly the foundation of what existed between us.
JONATHAN HEPFER — It sounds like that was a formative time for the four of you. You were exploring.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Absolutely. During that time, Yves went to Ireland because he was interested in horses. He wrote me a very beautiful letter about horses. And in London, he worked with a goldsmith. We were still trying to find ourselves. Yves wasn’t yet doing his monochromes. Arman wasn’t yet the accumulator-sculptor. He was at that point making abstract paintings, which were very interesting and elegant. He was an excellent painter, Arman.
For my part, I still felt cornered into writing classical music. Classical music was my first love, but a composer at that time was obliged to write 12-tone music. We hadn’t yet fully constructed our arrows, so to speak. We met in our development periods of great curiosity. Together, we shared a great capacity for verbal exchange. It was like a game between us — saying things that even seemed insane, like a sort of verbal delirium we were engaged in. There was a connection to Dadaism and Surrealism. We were children of those movements — they were our close ancestors. We used the same modes of communication.
JONATHAN HEPFER -- Does this by any chance relate to Yves Klein’s “Monotone Symphony”? It seems like an early precursor to your work in the sense that it is so reduced in its scope as a musical work.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — I have a bit of a story about the “Monotone Symphony.” It dates back to 1954. It was a birth for Yves Klein. At that time, I was pregnant with my son. I’m not very tall, but I was very much pregnant. At that time, pregnant women didn’t go swimming during the day — that would have been indecent, carrying things, and all that. We lived very close to the beach in Nice. At night, with the whole crew of us, we’d go swimming. And during that time, Yves was in Spain and other places. He came back that year from Paris, where he went every Monday to visit his mother, Marie Raymond, who was a painter, and his father, Fred Klein, who was a painter as well.
At that time, Mondays were for Marie Raymond’s soirées, and people gathered at her place. That year, Yves met the Lettrists in Paris — François Dufrêne and Raymond Hains. And the game was to verbalize on the apostles of Pentecost using the spoken vocabulary of syllables from the “Ursonate,” by Kurt Schwitters. And so we went to the beach, and Yves, when he returned from Paris, had a lot of intellectual and cultural baggage with him.
Since Nice was something of a cultural desert, Yves was trying to nourish us with these ideas that he’d brought from afar. And we began to speak in nonsense syllables on the beach. Arman said the idea to make a simple tone was mine, but I’m not so sure. The thing I am sure about is that it was my idea to harmonize the voices — to have everyone in their own register. So, we did the first monotone symphony on the beach, in a certain sense. For me, it was a game — nothing more. But Yves found it very interesting and asked me to write it down for him.
JONATHAN HEPFER — When did you learn so much about psychoacoustics?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — I was raised with classical music. And classical music is very strict. Technically. Physically. Whatever the instrument. But it points to another way of listening. And I know this through the instrumentalists that I’m working with now — the ones who have a classical background have another way of listening and hearing sounds. It’s like a dancer. Once you have it in yourself, you don’t have to think about it anymore. When you walk, if you had to think about which muscles are involved — wow, how much time it would take for one step! Like a baby. But once it’s there, we don’t have to think about it — we just walk. It’s the same with sounds. Once you have some kind of familiarity with a certain type of sound, it goes naturally. Wildly. [Laughs]
JONATHAN HEPFER — There’s a similarity between the nature of your work and Yves Klein’s concept of the void. I’m as impressed by what’s absent in your work as by what’s there.
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Well, the void is not nothing. The void is something ready to have something put into it. Just like silence. Silence is the basis for sound — when it starts to vibrate. The void is exactly the same. The void is an opportunity to have something put into it, even if it’s something very light, like a cloud in the sky.
JONATHAN HEPFER — Is there ever any aspect of improvisation in your work?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — I’m a bad improviser. I always need a clear idea of what I’m going to do in advance. Everything that I do, whether at the synthesizer or with a collaborating musician, needs a clear structure as its basis.
JONATHAN HEPFER — Do you have any advice for young musicians?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — Oh, my god. What a question! [Laughs] The only advice that I would give to young musicians — I’ll come back to the metaphor of the bow and arrow. And then to do what they want to do and how they want to do it, and to not be searching in every corner, but to be very strict and very straight ahead in their work. And to look deep within themselves with respect to what they’d like to do.
JONATHAN HEPFER — What are your hopes for the future of contemporary music?
ÉLIANE RADIGUE — That the future of music is as vast as space itself.
END. // (May 24, 2019)