Interview with Eliane Radigue
Bovine Battle Guide to Stasis
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #62, 27 July 1996. In the WGDR studio, also with guest Rhys Chatam. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:42:00–1:31:35].
Née à Paris, Éliane Radigue a étudié les techniques électroacoustiques avec Pierre Schaeffer et Pierre Henry. Puis elle a effectué plusieurs séjours aux États-Unis dans les studios de la New York University, Iowa University et du California Institute of the Arts. [electrocd.com]
[Kalvos] Rhys Chatham just arrived, we’ll talk to him in a while. Right now, we’ll return to Eliane Radigue, who’s going to practically tell us the history and the future of new music.
[Eliane Radigue] The future, absolutely not, I cannot tell anything about the future.
[K] Well, how about the past and the present?
[ER] Well, about that, what would you like me to say about it? How I have been digging in that, or crawling into that, or feeling into that?
[K] Yes, all of the above. Actually, tell us how you began with your work, what it was like to work at that period of time, how things have become easier or harder, and what kind of, actually I should phrase it this way, what kind of pioneering activities are you responsible for?
[ER] It’s difficult for me to answer that, certainly not in terms of the technique I have been using, because frankly enough, I have absolute no interest in my technique, and I have to use it. But this is more of a burden for me, and it’s a very real burden, since as I was telling you, I’m currently recycling it, and you’ll have to give me a least a year to ask me some questions about that, not now. But some of the fields in which I think I have been a pioneer — and this is completely forgotten now — are things which I did at the end of the 60s, so-called “environmental music,” which now you know are made everywhere. At that period I was working for galleries and all that. I was using long tape loops for that, three tape loops, but of a slightly defined duration, which made it so that when playing continuously, the music was evolving by itself.
[K] And when you say the loops are long, how long?
[ER] For one of the pieces I made with a sculpture by Marc Halpern, the durations were around nine minutes. But there was another piece which I made for Tania Mouraud in a very white environment. In fact it was so white it was impossible to put a loudspeaker anywhere. It was a like a spider on white cream. So, the gallery had been covered with some wood panels in which we screwed some Rolen Stars, which made the wall vibrate, and I made the sounds for this system. It wasn’t a very good system, but the sound were made for a bar, you know, so I had to use this Rolen Star screwed in doors for the sound for that. The duration of the three tapes were around 20–25 minutes, so there was no representation of cycles. It was impossible to realize that there was a cycle, because even just trying to get one event when it was going on again, it was in another context because of the different durations of these three tapes. I think that’s maybe one of the things in which I have been a pioneer, and which almost no one remembers now. [Laughter] Also, I had a period project which was never realised, Labyrinthe Sonore, which was conceived for several loudspeakers. That was seven tracks on loops. The system was such that when you were between two loudspeakers, you could hear one track on one loudspeaker, and the other on the other, and you could move around that make your own music, going slowly or rapidly. In fact, it always remained at this stage an idea, because it’s never been realised [It was finally realised in 1998 at Mills College –Ed.]. At the time, the technique for that was very heavy. Now, it would be very easy with a computer.
In fact, I’d proposed that one in 1970 for the French Pavilion at the World Fair in Osaka, but that was too heavy, and it came out with a commission for a ten-minute piece, which was not interesting to do, neither for me or them. I think something like that would have been more interesting to have in this space, music which was just evolving with the walk, and maybe this is the only thing I consider pioneering, because for the rest I think I have done the same as everyone, like Phill Niblock, like Rhys, like every musician.
[K] Did the audience at the time, the people who were in the galleries, were they conscious of it, did they understand it, were they shocked by it, did they enjoy it, what was their reaction at the time?
[ER] I had a pretty good reactions, I must say. I remember there was a book, like in every gallery there is a book and there were very flattering comments in that. In fact, a few years after — in 1972 or 1973 — this piece had been presented again in another gallery, the Galerie Yvon-Lambert in Paris, in different rooms. Also, in this period I made a 45 record, whose name is ∑ = A = B = A + B, because two records would be played in 78, 33, “A and B,” with several phonographs, with a mixing table. And the first time it had been performed was in Como in Italy, and they put that in a room with people playing, and this was in the 70s. All this had been redone in ’72 in Paris, and here also it was rather nicely received. Well, not by everyone, of course. It has always been that way with my work, that I have met people who are really friendly, that I can tell this about how they see my work. I think that, conversely, there are people who can’t stand it. Because that’s normal, you know, and in between there is a range. When I was giving concerts there were people who were leaving after ten minutes, and why not, you know?
[K] [Laughter] Well, we’ve had that experience too. As a matter of fact, some of our concerts have been left probably one or two minutes after we’ve started our music, so yes, we understand that very well.
[ER] Absolutely, that’s what I thought. That’s just normal, I think.
[K] So, that’s the pioneering part, that’s the history, and I’m sure everyone gets tired of talking about history. We were reprimanded about asking about history in one interview. The interviewee said, “Ask me about what I’m doing now!” So, what are you doing now?
[ER] Now, I told you I am recycling, which is a real, real, real burden. I have been working with my old ARP synthesizer for 25 years, I was very happy with it, I had a very good relationship with it, just like an old companion, but apparently I have problems with the equipment and need to reconsider it.
[K] Yes, I’d like to just say for a moment, break in here, that the ARP synthesizer is an old, original, groundbreaking instrument from… what year is your instrument from?
[ER] Oh, I got it in ’70.
[K] It’s a very complex instrument to run, it’s several feet long and a couple feet high, and uses tiny patchcords in a huge matrix of sockets, that allow you to connect various oscillators and filters together. It was a brilliant piece of engineering, but it was also very unstable, very hard to use, and over time it breaks down, the capacitors and resistors get unstable.
[Damian] I think you’re talking about the Buchla synthesizer, or perhaps the Moog, or something. The ARP synthesizer doesn’t use any patchcords.
[K] Oh, it doesn’t? I’m sorry, it’s not patchcords.
[ER] It was matrix switches.
[K] Matrix switches, right, matrix switches. Sorry.
[ER] Which makes it easier to read, because you just have to read them to always know where to where, not having to go, like what you were explaining… but I’d been working with that in the Buchla we used at NYU, working on the same Buchla instrument, which has been settled down by Morton Subotnick.
[D] It’s sitting in the Smithsonian right now, this particular group of synthesizers.
[K] Okay, well, I have broken in, explained it incorrectly, I’ve been corrected, now let’s get back to your recycling.
[ER] My recycling now, it the attempt to work with the Proteus, which makes digital sound and a MIDI system and all that, and it’s so complicated that sometimes I think it’s completely dumb to do this, that I will be unable to do any more music in my life, you know? I make sounds, that’s true. Actually, I wouldn’t say I make sounds, it makes sounds. It makes very beautiful sounds, much more beautiful than any sounds I’ve ever done. But the problem is that for me, my old system, my old sounds, were maybe not flattering sounds, but they had something within. I would be taking out sounds one by one, by hand, and I could take a sound and make it evolve slowly. Taking it in a stage, taking it into another stage, where I slowly, unnoticeably maybe for the very moment, can get trapped in this sound somehow by a sort of fascination… The problem with these sounds, they are very beautiful, so I immediately say, “Oh, yes, so beautiful,” but they’re very difficult to find a way of tracking them through this evolution, and after one or two minutes, I say, “Okay, it’s beautiful, but… so what?” I didn’t find my voie. In French there are two ways of spelling it: voie, which means my way, and voix, which means my voice. So, neither my way nor my voice. But it’s just for two months, so maybe I can just be patient. Patiently, within one year, and you asked me today about where I am, not knowing if I’ll be able to make music any more, except maybe by going back right away to my old ARP synthesizer, with which I know how to make sound and music. But with this system, and today is the 22nd of March, 1996, I cannot tell anything about music, I am just trying to tame not only the instrument, but to tame my mind to this, because it’s another way of thinking about music. There are lots of people using this sort of instrument brilliantly, like David Behrman [see interview in this issue of eContact!].
[Rhys Chatham] And you too, will be using this instrument when the time comes.
[ER] I’m not too sure about that.
[RC] You’ll get by.
[K] Well, we’ve asked a lot of people about how they’re progressing with new equipment, and I found in one composer we interviewed the other day, that he was very wrapped up in the equipment, had been wrapped up in the equipment for ten years, and was struggling to break out of that into really believing he was making music. He didn’t quite say it that way, but you could hear from the struggle in his explanation that he was always overwhelmed by equipment and by software. If you could brush those troubles aside, what would you be doing tomorrow?
[ER] My record. If I could master this equipment, what would I be doing? I would be doing Five Dances of Dakini, which I have in my mind, which are in my mind and ear, and I have to find a way to do it. Here they are, they are ready to be made, except for the means. I have Five Dances of Dakini which are waiting for me to be able to put it into sound, which I knew somehow to do with that. I am faithful somehow, I have been working with some sort of sounds which I like, I have some way of doing that, and actually I don’t want to make another music (or another type of music) than the music I have been doing all my life, or almost all my life. The matter is, that I need to find a way of doing it with this equipment, but it will come.
[K] Let’s hear some of your music now. I have a CD in my hands, which came out a few years ago. Tell us about how it began, something about it, and then we’ll listen to it.
[ER] Kyema is a piece which I finished in 1988, and its inspiration comes from the Bardo-Thodol, which is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It reflects the six intermediate states of a continual being, you know, the three states of life, like birth, the dream, and the meditation, concentration, and the three states which are death, the clear light after death, and the sidpa, the coming back. It’s this cycle, so it has six parts, and it attempted to reflect that.
We listen to an excerpt of Kyema by Eliane Radigue [1:00:45–1:06:40].
[D] Previously, you referred to your ARP synthesizer as “it,” neuter case. Previously, when we were talking to other composers, some had given male and female names, or essences, to their software and their inventions. Do you have any feelings of male/female, or neuter?
[ER] Absolutely, because if I use “it,” it’s just because it’s in English. In English, “it,” neutral, does exist, but in French it doesn’t. In French, he is. He’s male, definitely male [Laughter]. You know, at the beginning when I started to work with it, I was calling it “him,” monseigneur. [General laughter] And since we’ve gotten more accustomed to one another, I named it Jules, a familiar, but he’s definitely male, no question about that.
[K] Well, speaking of male and female, this is another question about how it is to be a composer. We’ve spoken to several women composers who told us of the struggle to be a woman and a composer in Europe, among men. Was that a problem for, is that a problem today? Is it difficult, has it changed?
[ER] You know, I really can’t say. I’ve always had the best support from all my musician friends. Also, it may seem strange to say, but it’s true somehow: I consider that my problem. When I started to do this music, I just wanted to make some sort of music. I would say I was dreaming, I never succeeded it in doing it perfectly, so I am always learning at building, doing this sort of music, but what it is.
In fact, I was telling you about the first piece using loops. I was an artist and did want to discuss if it was music, or not. I called it a proposition sonore, sound proposal. Since it was made out of sound, I completely avoided the question about that. In fact, I was doing it a long time for my own pleasure, until friends considered it music and called it “music,” I accepted calling it music. I would say that I’ve been helped tremendously by my friends, male and female, mostly men, you know. I can name some names, Bob Stearns, when he was running The Kitchen, Rhys Chatham, Phill Niblock, Tom Johnson. I don’t know, Joel Chadabe [see interview in this issue of eContact!], Bob Ashley… I could name dozens of people who’ve been helping me, so I don’t have much to complain about. It’s not even complaining about it, let’s say my situation in France, which is rather difficult. I think somehow, my music is a bit more known, in the United States than in France. Except that in France, they know my name, they know about my music, but since I am away from the system, independent in my music also, you know about working at the GRM, the IRCAM, there is institution to institution to institution here in France. Now it’s starting to come to this… let’s say style. Well, it’s not a style, but this sort of sound, big kinds of sounds, running like that. But in the beginning they were absolutely against it. Since what I was doing was not going into the style of the nature of the GRM, of the IRCAM, I have never been invited… You know, I have been invited for the first time to do a piece at the GRM in last December. I was not invited directly by the GRM, but by Jérôme Noetinger, who is a distributor here who knows about my music. He has a collection on his label called “Cinema pour l’oreille”, so will put one of my old pieces on his label. I was invited with a carte blanche. But I have never been invited to a place like the GRM, never, and this is the way it is. This I could complain about, but I don’t think that it is due to the fact that I am a woman. It’s not possible, so I don’t complain that being a woman, lost in a continent of men. Men have been very kind to me, nothing to complain about.
[K] This sounds like the fate of an artist in general, when you’re at the forefront you’re always struggling, and in your case it’s still a struggle.
[ER] Yes, but I also won’t say that I’m really stuck, because somehow I don’t pay as much attention to that. I have the chance, all my life, every time I have been finishing a piece… I would say that 50% or more of my pieces have been premiered in the Phill Niblock space in New York.
[K] What we’re talking about here is the Phill Niblock space in New York City, which is the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Phill has over the course of, either close to or at least 20 years, given a large number of performances in his loft.
[ER] Yes, and long ago, when it was in the beginning days of The Kitchen, it was through Rhys, because he invited me first. That was when Bob Stearns and Jim Burton…
[RC] No, I was there before that. It was 1971 when I first invited you to The Kitchen…And also, when I first invited Phill Niblock and we became very good friends, he started his series, which has been going on since 1972.
[K] Phill has been here since 1972? I don’t recall it being quite that far back, but my memory fails.
[RC] It might have been ’73… my memory is failing also.
[ER] Well, it must be ’73, because I know I have been invited by him for his 15th year celebration, since I was in the first period, so he invited all the people over.
We listen to and excerpt of Kyema by Eliane Radigue [1:15:10–1:21:22].
[K] A lot of what I might call “rewriting history” is going on, where people are taking credit in recent times for the invention of a lot of things. You can turn to some of the people in the, shall we day, digital world who are saying, “We are inventors of multimedia, we have created this concept.” How do you react to that? Does it make you angry, or do you just say, “Ah, I was there, it doesn’t matter to me.”
[ER] It doesn’t matter to me, really, and I would say another thing: if there is something that happened, which reminds me a little bit of something I saw… I was right. [Genereal laughter] As I figure, and that’s it. Even if no one should mention it, but I think that’s a good feeling. Another thing, in the early 70s, I tried to put together a sort of research centre for electronic music. I was really taking all my friends, going into this big adventure, it was something which was supposed to be used to share concepts, and so on. So, briefly, the only thing which has been done out of that, which is quite something, has been five concerts, of five countries. East Coast, West Coast of America, South America, Italy, and France. The organization was that in each country there was one responsible for the choice of what he wanted to promote. Full responsibility, with full respect. It was Jorge Arriagada in South America, Barry Schrader on the West Coast, and I don’t remember exactly who was in the others. These five concerts were performed in New York at The Kitchen, Bob Stearns was running it at the time at the time to perform the five concerts. In Los Angeles, Barry Schrader put it on at the Theatre Vanguard, and in Paris at the Musee d’Art moderne. That’s not that bad. This, with no money at all, music only on tape, and for the concerts in the United States I was carrying [the pieces] in my own luggage. I was in Montréal to visit some other people to talk about the future, and I suggested to people if they wanted to follow it that they could, but that was it, it never got very far. After that, I felt a little bit guilty, because I was pulling in some of my very good friends, and we did that somehow because they trust me and they were also enthusiastic about the project. But I think that at that time, this was also somehow pioneering, to put that together. The idea was to have some sort of library, and at that time one of the preoccupations was to find a way to save the sound, because as you know, with magnetic tape? Now there is some response to that with digital, except that there is always the problem of support, the material, even with the CD. One of the goals I remember was trying to promote some research, like to embed the sound into crystal, you know? But this is also one of the things I have been going through, not alone, but with all my friends which I bring into this. It seems like it’s a good thing to be done, but now there are several places where these attempts to keep the memory of the past, to save old pieces and all that, and they’re going up in numbers. I said, “Okay, I was right. It was a good idea.” It was a good idea 25 years ago, and it works today, wonderful.
[K] Yeah, that’s the moment of pleasure when someone says, “Yes.” Even years later, when they recognize.
[ER] Absolutely! It’s a real pleasure to say, “That’s good to hear. Good to know.”
[D] We’ve also been trying to trace the paths of our European composers back to the United States (when they have visited there and worked there), and we have found that there are connections with certain schools. Today and earlier, we’ve located the University of California at San Diego as a place where people have worked, also the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana. Did you not say that you worked for a time at New York University?
[ER] Yes, I worked at New York University, Iowa University at the time that Peter Lewis was in charge, and at CalArts in California when Morton Subotnick was still there. There I met people like Barry Schrader [see interview in this issue of eContact!], Carl Stone [see interview], Charlemagne Palestine and all these people. These are the three places I went through 25 years ago, in the early 70s. After that I had my own equipment, and conversely to the people who were saying it, I didn’t want to get trapped with the technical… which I failed now, not having followed the technical [developments]. I’ve been very happy for 25 years with the same old system and equipment, except for a week from time to time, but of course 25 years is just like in a house when things start to leak. At the beginning you can just put a pan somewhere, but after a while it leaks from everywhere and you just have to change the roof, which is what has happened now. But I have been very happy for 25 years, and I miss my old system. Techniques were just something I had to go through, to make what I wanted to do, but I don’t have a real patience for it by itself.
[K] It’d be interesting if a total software emulator for that machine could be developed, where it looks like the same machine on the screen, and you work with it the same way. That would be very nice.
Thank you, Eliane Radigue, very much for joining us on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Sesquihour, it has been a great pleasure.
[ER] Thank you, it’s been my pleasure!