Precarious Sound, Precarious Being: Eliane Radigue’s Feedback Works

Feedback emerges within a zone of sonic precarity, intensifying into the intolerable on its hither side. As anyone who’s used a microphone knows, the most obvious factor in determining this zone is space: the distance between microphone and speaker, where they’re pointed, the shape of the room, and so on. We move the mic here and there, and are haunted by whining that comes and goes, until, in a moment, it escalates into shrieking. Typically, then, we rush to escape the zone of precarity. We adjust the settings, and move the mic away, hoping never to return to that region of danger where any sound seems to lie in hiding, waiting to leap out in an instant and stab at our ears.

After several years of intense work at Pierre Schaeffer’s famed Studio D’Essai, learning the techniques of musique concrète under the guidance of Schaeffer and his most famous student Pierre Henry, Eliane Radigue spent around a decade (1957-67) without access to studio equipment. After her return to Paris in 1967, Henry invited her to work at his Apsome studios. There, she helped him execute his monumental L’Apocalypse de Jean (1968)—often forced to take on the bulk of the labor. However, despite being buried under the strain of 14-16 hour work days, Radigue managed to begin her own experiments with tape music.

Once she parted ways with Henry, these experiments continued in earnest. Radigue was a young single mother, having left behind her husband, the artist Arman, after their separation. Often, then, she could only work on her music from the hours of 10pm to 4 or 5am. And, the only equipment she had was a handful of primitive items Henry had simply left behind in her apartment: three tape recorders, a mixing board, an amplifier, two loudspeakers, and a microphone. Nevertheless, she persisted. In particular, she began exploring the zone of precarity. With only these meager resources at her disposal, feedback was the ‘instrument’ she had to work with, and thus became the core element of her compositional efforts.

I can’t help but wax a bit romantic when I think of Radigue at work during this period. I imagine her all alone in middle of the night in the makeshift studio she’d made for herself in a basement room, exhausted from the day’s parental duties. She sits holding a microphone, patiently learning how to ‘play’ feedback. Over months and then years, she spends endless hours shifting the mic here and there by infinitesimal increments—a dance of near stillness whose moves are thus the tiniest of motions, her ears and hands letting themselves be choreographed by the most fragile of sounds.

Radigue’s later conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, as well as simple gender stereotyping, might lead us to imagine this process as a dive into passive reception: feminine restraint, feminine listening. The subtle, meditative quality of the pieces she produced in this period can easily lend themselves to such a reading. However, to the extent that we embrace the latter, we must also remember the sheer fearlessness of Radigue’s tutelage in feedback. There was, of course, her simple persistence as an artist. As in many other fields, the world of mid-20th century avant-garde music was a boys’ club. Schaeffer and Henry hadn’t taken Radigue seriously as a composer, treating her as a mere intern rather than a genuine pupil. Despite all this, and despite a life as a single parent without the money for more sophisticated equipment, she produced major compositions: stunning examples of minimalist music avant la lettre like Stress-Osaka (1969), Usral (1969), Omnht (1970), and Vice-Versa, etc. (1970). In doing so, she found music in sonic territories that others hadn’t even thought to explore.

More than this, though, was her exploration of these territories itself. Radigue’s efforts are a perfect example of what, in a previous post, I’ve described as apprenticeship: the joyful headlong rush into precariousness. Radigue entered into a space most of us avoid, where sound seems like a predator ready to pounce. She cultivated a discipline of the body: not one, though, of control, but rather of equanimity—of dwelling in stillness as sounds wax and wane, and of moving only at the pace of the tide. In doing so, she demonstrated the courage of waiting, of listening, of not flinching away—of facing what seems to most like a threat, and letting it carry her where it would.

With a little bit of care, when listening to these pieces—collected in Feedback Works (Alga Marghen, 2012)—we can hear the zone of precarity. We can even partake of the bodily attunement that allowed Radigue to compose them. Tones sustain for minutes at a time. At first, they seem without variation. However, if we listen carefully, the subtle nuances of their variations start to become audible, and we hear complex flows and juxtapositions. And if we’re patient, structures unfolding over long intervals begin to take form from them. All the while, we’re kept suspended, deprived of both the comfort of easy resolutions, and the signposts of quick turns to mark the passage of time.

It’s like waiting in stillness on the edge of a knife—not, though, for fear of being sliced, but rather with focused attention to the feel of its metal, wondering at the many textures we’d not known were there. The “breath, pulsations, and beating” (as Radigue has called them) that make up the “miniscule zone from the immense vibrating spectrum” we call sound thereby become an image of the world itself as encountered from the viewpoint of apprenticeship (Radigue 2009, 47-8). As all precariousness does, the feedback’s “breath, pulsations, and beating remain,” and we find beauty and joy in their doing so (ibid).

Works consulted

  • Bécourt, Julien. “Eliane Radigue: the Mysterious Power of the Infinitesimal.” Red Bull Music Academy. https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/specials/2015-eliane-radigue-feature/ (accessed 6/17/2019).
  • Holterbach, Emmanuel. “Eliane Radigue: Feedback Works 1969-1970.” Liner notes for Feedback Works 1969-70. Alga Marghen, 2014, vinyl.
  • Radigue, Eliane. “The Mysterious Power of the Infinitesimal.” Leonardo Music Journal 19 (2009): 47-9.
  • Radigue, Eliane and Holterbach, Emmanuel. “Interview about the Feedback Works: Paris, April 5th, 2011.” Liner notes for Feedback Works 1969-70. Alga Marghen, 2014, vinyl.

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