On the Fringe of Paris: Pierre Marietan, Eliane Radigue, Horacio Vaggione May 4, 1982

After six months in Paris, it was time to return to New York, and I thought I should try to put together a general column summarizing the new music I’d been hearing in Europe. I soon realized, however, that what was really necessary was an article devoted to a few of the extraordinary independent composers I found there, but have not yet written about. Like most critics, I often find myself reporting on the more prominent public events, and forgetting about what I hear in more modest circumstances. So I want to conclude this series of European reports by telling you about Pierre Marietan, Eliane Radigue, and Horacio Vaggione.

They have much in common. All are mature and highly experienced musicians. All work more or less on the fringes of Parisian musical life and are more or less ignored by the French press. All are strong individuals with highly personal styles. I’ve become friendly with all three, and I’ve gained much by hearing their music, listening to their ideas, and observing the richness of their musical lives. Perhaps you will find their stories rewarding as well.

Pierre Marietan is one of the few composers who has studied with both Boulez and Stockhausen. Of Swiss origin, he spent two years as a young horn player with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, but he then settled in Paris, which offered a more stimulating new music environment. His current life sometimes leads me to describe him as the Phill Niblock of Paris, because he spends so much time presenting the work of other composers and working for the cause of experimental music in general. He is particularly concerned with making people more sensitive to environmental sounds and often organizes programs that encourage school children to listen to the rain, the insects, the sounds of their neighborhoods. Once a week he teaches a course in sound addressed to city planning students. Once a month for the past seven years his organization GERM has presented informal concerts of experimental music which consistently seem to offer some of the most original and professional work around.

Marietan continues to write some music for conventional instrumental ensembles. I heard a recording of a piece for 24 instruments, for example, which consists of 42 sections, written on 14 consecutive days. It’s a sort of diary, pleasant and whimsical. The composer’s heart, however, is outdoors. One of my most pleasant days in Paris was the time Marietan drove me out to the suburb of Evry, where he has been collaborating with an architect, contributing sound elements to an attractive new public housing project. One area had been acoustically shielded so as to permit quiet conversation right in the middle of the busy garden. At several points, curious looking pipes rise up to the surface allowing children, or other people, to send sounds to one another through underground interconnections. As you walk along the sidewalk, your footsteps produce intermittent clapping rhythms because Marietan had the fine idea of interrupting the concrete sidewalks with sections of resonant planks. I like the way Marietan has dealt with acoustics, and his work seems somehow more integrated with the space than the installations of artists like Max Neuhaus or Liz Phillips, who make their effects solely with electronic equipment. But Marietan has not eliminated electronics. For example, he also played for me a gorgeous tape of sustained overtones, which he made by playing the natural harmonics of the Alpine horn. He wants to realize a computer version of this music, to be triggered off automatically at sunrise and sunset as part of one of his outdoor installations.

Eliane Radigue’s music has been familiar to me, and to other New Yorkers, since the early ’70s. She worked for a year at the electronic music center at NYU, where she came to know Morton Subotnick, Rhys Chatham, Laurie Spiegel, and others, and she has returned to the States periodically to present programs of her own electronic works at the Kitchen and other places. In 1975, however, she became a Tibetan Buddhist, went into retreat, and dropped her composing career completely. Curiously, when she returned to music four years later, her work went on very much as before. The aesthetic was still minimalist, one might even say ascetic. The sounds were still long and sustained. The source was still her 1970 ARP synthesizer. The medium was still recording tape. The result was still a technically impeccable sequence of carefully tuned tones, which emerge from unexpected places, coalesce into unique modes, and change very slowly. The music still challenged the listener to slow down, be patient, and observe subtle changes. Listening in this way can be considered a form of meditation, and I would say that Radigue’s music is clearly religious in nature, though perhaps no more religious than before her own conversion.

Recently Radigue embarked on a long-term project based on the 100,000 songs of the Tibetan master Milarepa. Privileged one night in early March to hear a private playing of the first segment of the new work, which lasts about 75 minutes, I was particularly impressed by the distinct personality of every tone in the new piece. This one has a breathy quality. This one has an odd oboe-like edge. Another vibrates in a quirky way. Another is somehow very distant and rather loud at the same time. Another is so soft that you sometimes can’t be sure whether it is there or not. There is a rhythmic motif in the second of the four sections of the piece, and for a while Radigue’s music seems to be moving, dancing, making gestures in a way that it normally never does. Her style develops over the years with the same kind of subtle progress that can be heard in one of her individual pieces. Only the time scale is different.

Horacio Vaggione grew up in Argentina and received his early training in South America. As a young composer, however, he came to Europe, where he has been based ever since. He lived for several years in Spain, where he sometimes worked with the members of the innovative Spanish group Zaj, and often toured with Luis de Pablo in the group Alea. In the early ’70s, he gravitated to Paris, began working more and more by himself, and gradually developed the unique electronic music that he now presents live in solo concerts, generally out of town.

You could say that Vaggione is basically a synthesizer player, and you could say that his music is a little like the solo presentations of Richard Teitelbaum or Alvin Curran, but this is perhaps misleading. For one thing, Vaggione’s repertoire is segmented into specific one-movement pieces, generally about 20 minutes long. Each involves a specific mode, a specific kind of texture, and a specific category of electronic sound. Generally the material is prerecorded on several different tapes, which the composer mixes together with one hand while overlaying improvised lines on an electric keyboard with his other hand. Vaggione has exceptional keyboard technique, and it is impressive to watch the speed and control with which he puts everything together in a performance, standing all the time, and sometimes almost dancing with the music. What really impressed me in the solo concert I heard, however, was the cleanness, both of the ideas and of the sound. Each piece is carefully defined, and neither the prerecorded material nor the improvised lines go ever beyond the vocabulary of the specific piece. And the sounds are about as high in fidelity and low in noise as in any electronic music I have ever heard. This is remarkable for a composer who works mostly in a modest home studio, and I asked Vaggione what his secret was.

‘Oh, it’s not so hard,’ he said. ‘Just get a couple of Revoxes and some good quality tape. Don’t bother to work at 15 inches per second. Seven and a half is good enough.’ He neglected to add that you must also have a lot of experience, a sensitive ear, and enough patience to do things over and over until each element attains the same superb sound quality.

As I left Paris, Marietan was completing a program for the French radio that involved recording and mixing the bells of some 30 Parisian churches. Radigue was preparing to present her new work in some concerts in the United States. Vaggione had just mixed a new composition made with computer-generated sound and was collecting tapes of other composers in preparation for presentations of electronic music he will be making in Argentina. All were doing their customary high-quality work, and none of them seemed particularly bothered by the idea that it would not be taking center stage in Parisian musical life. In fact, I think they feel rather comfortable working on the fringes. It’s quieter there, there are fewer hassles, and one can make wonderful music strictly for its own sake, as they do.