The Ear Experiments with Uncertainty
by Zeny May D. Recidoro
The listening sessions for Trilogie de la Mort held at the basement gallery of Andrew Kreps at 55 Walker Street, New York on November 5 and 17 are part of Éliane Radigue: Intermediate States, a retrospective curated by Lawrence Kumpf and Charles Curtis, developed in collaboration with Radigue for Blank Forms, a non-profit organization that supports underrepresented and emerging artists from interdisciplinary fields which includes experimental music, performance, dance, and sound art.
Éliane Radigue’s three-part composition Trilogie de la Mort is a masterwork on passages through death and life, grief and rebirth. Subtle and potent, it is built upon the amplification of sounds that oscillate, spiral, hiss, recede and swell. The sounds are sub-harmonic and long-drawn, often compared to the sound of a drone, it is a hum that nestled under my skin and pressed lightly on my ear. It is also patient and self-contained. Though there is a lingering sense of anticipation when listening to the piece, it also fosters equanimity, the patience to focus on the process of listening through its culmination.
Radigue’s life has been marked by fortuitous encounters, breaks and boundless curiosity—intermediary states of cessation and creation—similar to the silences which she defines as the space where vibrations come forth to create sound. Her work has spanned the 20th and 21st centuries. Born in 1932, she grew up in Les Halles, Paris where daily life was punctuated by the noises of World War II and the German Occupation. She trained as a classical musician until, in the 1950s, she heard Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer, which changed her ideas of what could be considered music, or more precisely, affirmed that the sounds of warplanes which she perceived as music could be conceived as such. Between 1955 to 1958, she was an intern at Studio d’Essai, directed by Schaeffer and the center of musique concrète, a movement of experimental music that used recorded sounds as its base material. After this internship, she took a break from her work that lasted until 1967. In 1970, she took up a residency at New York University where she began working with synthesizers, particularly the ARP 2500, which became her instrument of choice for more than thirty years.
In a long interview with Julia Eckhardt in Intermediate Spaces published by Umland Editions, Radigue always refers to the synthesizer as a friend and spouse. It does seem an instrument that aligns itself with poetry and idiosyncrasies. The ARP 2500 is a modular synthesizer developed by Alan R. Perlman in 1970, having been inspired by Wendy Carlos’s work on the Moog synthesizer for Switched On Bach (1969). A big, monophonic instrument (meaning it has only one voice), its face is filled with many switches and knobs that invoke the wondrous complexity of computing or codebreaking machines used during World War II. Which then, of course, folds back to the awareness that so much of the wondrously complex machines created for warfare are just what they are— machines that are at once life-saving but also death giving. Noise and raw sounds serve as signal sources. The ARP 2500 produces sounds by directing electrical currents and processing them through a number of effects regulated either by a keyboard or the switches and knobs. The long-drawn pulsations and oscillations are produced by Radigue using only the knobs of her synthesizer. One current or signal, the voice, passes through several filters that makes it move in different directions before reaching the amplifier. I imagine the ARP 2500 works like a prism for sound.
Radigue chose the ARP 2500 for its distinct and delicate voice. She turns the knob only very, very slightly to achieve the sounds she wants. They come as circles, as particulars, but move in waves. It washes over one’s grief— perhaps in the same way Trilogie de la Mort soothed, perhaps washed, over the grief she felt upon the deaths she had dealt within the course of its creation. If she turned the knob a bit more, the music will dissolve like sand, she says, “everything I was developing would explode or disappear.”
The November 17 listening session had four speakers set diagonally against the corner walls of the rectangular basement room, which was a fitting venue— where else to listen to music that meditates on death and intermediate states but underground? The music was played through a reel-to-reel tape player. If Radigue were to play live— which she doesn’t do— she would need around eight people playing several synthesizers with her at the same time. She would rather play in a closet, besides, to let the sound “ooze out of the walls”, to let it diffuse into a room. The sounds from Trilogie de la Mort seemed a ghost that hovered around the room. It was everywhere and nowhere at once. I felt as though I was inside an instrument like a piano or cello, or inside a spiral shell.
Trilogie de la Mort was created between the years 1988 to 1993, and shows Radigue’s spiritual commitment. When asked by Eckhardt whether she is bothered by people’s assumption that she makes meditation music, she ends her long recounting of works influenced by Buddhism by saying, “My music is profane, but undoubtedly inspired by the sacred.” The Trilogie features sub-harmonic and atonal sounds which means that they lack a key note. Each piece is also characterized by a subtle hiss, a signature sound in Radigue’s oeuvre, that becomes more pronounced by the third piece, “Koumé.” The sub-harmony and atonality in Radigue’s music accounts for its subtlety, the sounds are an inversion of an overtone. If one were to think of the sounds as colors, the sounds in Radigue’s music feature muted colors that depict geometrical forms and quiet topographies.
The first piece, “Kyema” was inspired by the final six stanzas from Bardo thödol or The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State, which is traditionally read aloud to the dying in order to ease them into the light of the afterlife and subsequent reincarnation. Radigue used recordings of a gyaling, a double-reed instrument similar to an oboe, and big horns called ragdungs which she ran through her ARP 2500 and electronized. “Kyema” is a Tibetan term that invokes the sigh a person makes when faced with inescapable fatality. An additional meaning to the word comes from “ma”, the suffix that marks the feminine and maternal, and “kye” which refers to birth. It begins with a high pitched signal that gives way to the full-bodied sound of the gyaling and ragdung, it evoked an image of a band of light hitting a wall or a piece of cloth fluttering in the wind against a crisp, blue sky. The sound held firmly and gently, like a hand that guided me along an imagined path.
Moving into “Kailasha” the pitch becomes deeper and I imagined the light becoming dimmer—the light source is no longer the sun but the steady flame of a candle. I felt as if I had entered a cave or the inner room of a temple. “Kailasha” refers to Radigue’s imagined pilgrimage around Mount Kailash, an important spiritual site in Tibet. The music itself is an expression of deep grief. She began composing it after her son Yves’s death in a car accident in February 1989. The pitch oscillates between high, medium, and low, evoking the path pilgrims take around a mountain. Though the transition between each pitch change is gradual, slow and arduous. It feels like a journey with no end in sight.
The passages in Trilogie de la Mort seamlessly flow into each other, with only brief pauses of silence in between and culminates in “Koumé,” where the pitch has becomes even deeper, as though one has become completely situated underground. Evoked by this piece is complete darkness and a heavy feeling, as though the ground pressed against my body. “Koumé,” the final piece, is where Radigue discovers transcendental death through attending the cremation of her master, S.E. Pawo Rinpoche in Kathmandu. Towards the very end of “Koumé,” the sound of ragdungs combined with chanting voices intensify, they become louder and cacophonous, pulsating reverberations similar to an earthquake except the quaking was in my bones, before winding down to a middle pitch that gave my pulsing flesh some respite. I felt as though after passing underground, I was breaking out again as a different body or consciousness. It ended with relief. The sound enveloped and embraced me. I was within the territory of sound, my body was the sound, as well as the sound being another body in the room that neither desired nor repelled. It is as one is—a condition that makes for an ideal relationship.
About the Author:
Zeny May D. Recidoro was born and raised in the Philippines. She is an Asian Cultural Council fellow and currently taking up an MFA in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts.
Image of the ARP 2500 via Wikimedia Commons (cc).