Minimal Material: Eliane Radigue March 29, 1973

There is something very special about the music of Eliane Radigue, but after thinking about it for almost a week, I still can’t put my finger on what it is. Is it the intimacy? The way one feels that the music is speaking only to him regardless of how many other listeners may be sitting in the room? Is it the sheer efficiency with which it accomplishes so much with so little? Is it the enormous care and devotion which must have been required to make something so sensitive out of electronic sounds which most composers would consider drab and unpromising? Is it that Radigue sustains her minimal material for 80 minutes without ever repeating herself or becoming boring, and yet without ever leaving the restricted area within which she works?

‘Psi 847,’ the piece presented at the Kitchen on March 19 and 20, was created on an ARP synthesizer. It is built out of a number of themes or motifs, but they are not motifs in the usual sense. One is simply a low fuzzy tone which goes on for a long time, hardly changing at all. One is a very high tone, so high that it is difficult to tell exactly what pitch it is, so it sounds different, depending on what else is going on. One changes color from time to time. One is a clear middle-range tone which fades in and out quite a bit, sometimes dominating the other motifs and sometimes hovering in the background. Later there are some more elaborate motifs. There is a tone that wobbles quite a bit. There is a five-note descending melody. There is a tone that pulses every five seconds or so, something like a muffled department store bell.

The texture is never very thick. Often only three or four motifs are working at once. But there is always much to listen to, since the motifs fade in and out in many combinations and interact in many ways. The focal point often shifts from one motif to another, sometimes giving the impression that the music is changing key. As a motif changes color, it may begin to blend with some other motif which 1973/charlemagne-palestines-perceptioniously sounded alien to it. As a new motif fades in, everything else may begin to sound quite different.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about ‘Psi 847’ is the way its motifs seem to come from different places. They were all produced by the same loudspeakers, and many of them seemed to come directly out of the loudspeakers. But some of the sounds seem to ooze out of the side wall, and others seem to emanate from specific points near the ceiling. I am told that this is actually true with any kind of music, and that the acoustical properties of a room will always affect different pitches in different ways.

But one only becomes sensitive to this phenomenon in pieces like this, where tones are sustained for a long time.

For me this piece represents the height of musical sensitivity, but perhaps I should temper that statement by admitting that it is a minority opinion. Most people would have been unimpressed by the modest sounds and uninterested in the tiny things that happen to them. I am told that supermarket products which have no red on their packages are usually passed by, and the music of Eliane Radigue will probably be overlooked for similar reasons.

Strength and brilliance are certainly to be valued, but I am often more moved by simplicity and subtlety. Perhaps I was influenced by Morton Feldman a few years ago when he wryly mentioned that, since this is the Jet Age, everyone thinks that we ought to have Jet Age music to go with it. Things have simmered down a little since the multi-media craze of the late ’60s, but quite a bit of the music written today is still oriented toward speed, loudness, virtuosity, and maximum input, Eliane Radigue’s music is the antithesis of all that.