Words, a score, a performance, a place, a listener, they
are all permanently drifting – drifting along. They
contigently meet as part of the world’s abundance.
After a prolonged and awkward silence, full of stolen glances and anticipation, a sustained, vibrating note sneaks into the room. People shift almost imperceptibly on their benches, as if getting ready for some sort of test. The note grows thicker and denser, throbbing like molten lead. The drone moves around us and around the eight white marble columns of the church, gradually adding new textures and pitches to its body.
I can’t identify the source of the sound, which seems to descend upon us from the dome. I keep looking, almost squinting, until my eyes identify four speakers suspended over us in the shape of a cross. But who or what is generating it I can’t tell. I eyeball my fellow listeners. There must be around thirty or so of us here, no more. No one seems particularly puzzled by the unusual acousmatic situation: attending a concert –the quintessential visual-aural experience– where there is nothing and no one directly related to the production of sound to look at. This is the perceptual mode Pierre Schaeffer termed ‘reduced listening’, in which the lack of visual reference permits the listener to overlook the cause and meaning of a sound, thus concentrating fully on its acoustic properties and the experience of listening.
Someone drops a book on the polished marble floor and, in the midst of Kyema’s trance-like calm taking hold of the nave, the thud resonates as if a thousand solid objects had collided into a shattering glass.
Paris, 1954. A speaker finishes his presentation and a round of desynchronised applause clumsily kicks in. It is at this conference, which has gathered several intellectuals to discuss the work of Lanza del Vasto –a poet and philosopher with a keen interest in Hinduism and close friend of modern mystics like George Gurdieff and René Daumal– that Eliane Radigue sees Pierre Schaeffer for the first time. Just a few months earlier she has listened to a radio broadcast of Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer, which provokes a musical epiphany of sorts in this twenty-two year old harp player. In the conference hall, Eliane’s gaze follows Schaeffer as he moves and talks to people across the room. She wants to approach him, express her admiration and what discovering musique concrète has meant for her musically, and existentially. But, she feels too intimidated, and retreats. Her friend, who has come with her to the conference, is anything but. She grabs Eliane’s blouse sleeve and plonks her in front of Schaeffer, makes a flippant introduction and leaves them to talk.
In the course of that first conversation Eliane is invited to join Pierre Schaeffer and Pierry Henry at the Studio d’Essai –the electroacoustic laboratory hosted by the Radio diffusion Française– and assist them in the numerous and sometimes rather ludicrous experiments imperative for the development of a new musical vocabulary. Eliane enthusiastically agrees but –despite being a native Parisian– finds herself having to commute from Nice, where she lives with her husband, the visual artist Arman, and their three toddlers, Marion, Anne and Yves.
The ten-hour train rides are exercises in aural memory. Eliane revisits the sounds –or ‘sound objects’, as Monsieur Schaeffer refers to them– that she carefully gleans from the Tolana phonogene and magnetophone. In the studio’s, booth, they record the most mundane sounds: a bell, a door closing, an off-key piano, a mumbling human voice… Then they split and splice them until their original provenance becomes utterly indiscernible, their semantic value stripped off. As the valleys of France glide past her, her body gently shaking in unison with the carriage, Eliane stares at her hands, focusing on the fingers that manipulate the knobs and cut the tapes at the studio and, for a startling moment, she sees them as if for the first time, as if they belonged to another person. She looks up, outside the window. She has come to terms with the fact that she won’t be able to keep making these trips to Paris for much longer. Her family needs her. Leaving them in Nice makes her feel guilty, but she enjoys her time at the studio too much. ‘We are developing a new musical language’, she reminds herself, mantra-like, when she slides into her old single bed at her parent’s house in Les Halles, feeling absurd and out of place. The train keeps moving forward to a soundtrack of whistles and metallic clickety-clacks, which remind Eliane of the Schaeffer piece she first heard on the radio. She smiles at the thought and concentrates on the noises, looking for hidden patterns. She has already realised that the sounds she’s been weaving in her head have little or nothing to do with the startling staccato symphonies these men are creating at the Studio d’Essai. Her own music will be very different. She wants sound to expand and pulsate, prolonging its frequencies in an endless, ebbing flow.
30 minutes in, and Kyema starts to shift. The meditative, translucent drone turns dark and sinister. Some people have fallen asleep by now, or so it appears, their eyes closed and bottom lips hanging. The modification of the aural hue upsets me. My breathing becomes irregular and I jerk a single time on my seat, as if warding off a panic attack. The change has started with a low frequency and a howling sound, like a wind carrying bad news over a doomed landscape. The howl morphs into a loop, an allegory of my anxious breathing in a circular shape. Further winds lace themselves to this supernatural gathering, becoming a clamour, louder and louder.
The ominous crescendo reaches a climax and dissolves. My lungs widen, filled with oxygen again, the invisible grip on them gone. Now the reverberation of a bell, like a Tibetan singing bowl, comes in, ringing rhythmically. I remember reading somewhere that in Buddhist practices singing bowls are used to signal the passage of time or a change of activity. In Japan, they are also used in funeral rites. The chime is an enticing device that creates sonic signposts, punctuating the path of the dead towards the gates of the underworld. I am so inside this metallic sound I feel I can almost hold it. I join the fingertips of my hands in my lap and close my eyes.
It’s 1965 and the marriage between Eliane and Arman has begun to shake. He’s gone on to become an established artist while Eliane, never resentful until now, starts to feel she still hasn’t had the chance to develop her compositional ideas. She’s become an accomplished wife and mother, but she is growing restless. During the last few years they have lived between Nice and New York City, where Arman has been spending more and more time since the success of his first ‘accumulations’ pieces. For a short while they live at the Chelsea Hotel and get acquainted with the local art scene. At a dinner party they meet fellow French émigré Marcel Duchamp, who’s been settled in the city for more than twenty years. After many late night conversations in which the artist, now in his seventies, beguilingly recounts his thoughts on the game, Arman and Eliane start playing chess at home regularly. ‘Chess is a school of silence’, repeats Duchamp, an aphorism that Eliane finds as alluring as an open portal. She considers silence a pivotal compositional device, recurrent in all the music that interests her. Silence creates a space to listen, giving you the time to reflect on what you just heard and to prepare for what’s coming next.
The church where Kyema is being played, the Anglican parish of St. Stephen Wallbrook, sits in the middle of the City of London, tucked behind the Bank of England. It is a strange location for a concert, I think. A contemplative piece of music of Buddhist overtones being played in a Christian sanctuary that happens to be embedded in the heart of London’s financial and corporate hub. On the doorstep of the church, lawyers and brokers in a state of permanent rush inhabit the streets like a swarms of ants, speeding to a meeting or back to their offices where more capital, on a scale a person like me will never comprehend, has to be created, circulated and spent.
Eliane is walking around the 14eme arrondissement looking for an apartment. It’s 1967 and she has just moved back to Paris with her three teenage children. Walking absent-mindedly through the streets near the entrance to the Catacombs, occasionally looking up to check the rental ads hanging from doors and windows, she runs into an old friend. After a brief catch up, Eliane mentions she is looking both for a flat and for work. Will she please let her know if she hears of anything? Her friend says Pierre Henry –who left Schaeffer’s Club d’Essai and started his own electronic music studio– is in fact looking for an assistant. Eliane gets in touch with her former mentor, who immediately offers her the post. Henry is busy finishing Apocalypse de Jean and running rather late for the premiere night, so he has a studio installed in Eliane’s house so that she can work longer hours more conveniently. The equipment consists of just two loudspeakers, a mixing table and two Tolana tape recorders. It is a rudimentary setup, but now Eliane has, to herself and for the very first time, all the equipment she needs to start composing her own music. She begins playfully, without ostentation.
A dry cough awakens me from my reverie, forcing me to return to the space around me.
This building was designed by the architect Christopher Wren in 1672 and built on the ruins of an ancient Roman temple. I look around, assessing its neo-classical features and symmetrical axis, but my eyes keep wandering back, as if magnetised, to the viscous round shapes of the centrepiece, the altar, which sits on a double circular base adorned with a colourful textile rim. Two big white candles sit atop, supported by thin bronze candelabra. The white marble has been sculpted with such organic delicacy that it feels as if, instead of being extracted from travertine, it had materialised slowly through the years, by the accumulation of melted wax building up in relentless layers. Henry Moore carved this altar in 1972, exactly 300 years after the church was erected, using marble extracted from the same quarry that provided Michelangelo, gloats a leaflet I have picked up at the entrance.
Paris, 1988. Eliane is about to finish Kyema, the first part of a trilogy based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book, also known as Bardo Thodol, is a funerary text written in the 8th Century to be read out loud to a dying person, guiding her consciousness during the interval between death and the next rebirth. Eliane is compelled by the possibility of reaching spiritual deliverance through hearing and by the idea of consciousness being able to listen and process sound after its physical death. She’s been toying with the idea of composing something around this book for a long time, even before she started practicing meditation and Buddhism. She remembers having lengthy conversations with Pierre Henry about Le Voyage, his 1963 composition also based on the Bardo Thodol. The idea never quite left her mind.
With my eyes still on the altar, I leave my thoughts on those bygone craftsmen and their weighty remnants behind and drift back to the music. Kyema must be approaching its end; I can tell by its fading cadence, like a maze of winds gathering in preparation to blow away to another region. The drone has lulled me into history, triggering all these mental images augmented by black and white photographs –of Eliane, of Schaeffer and Henry, of analogue synthesizers converting electricity into sound, unaware of the digital shift lurking round the corner. I feel comforted by these images of old which I reimagine so often, filling in the gaps of my factual research with the fictions they evoke. I look at the same images and play the same tracks over and over again, obsessively, rejoicing in the pleasures of this familiarity acquired in distance. I am soothed by the continuum that repetition creates, a temporary antidote to the contingency of a brittle condition. It lightens my anxiety, this fear of death that gains strength through the passing of time. Finding solace in artefacts suspended in perfection, untainted and unmediated by my experience, I long for a slower phenomenology of time. Speed and acceleration might be the paradigm of contemporaneity, but I prefer to dwell in the sustained pace of Eliane’s pieces, which are slow and durational, drenched simultaneously in detail and void. They are, quite probably, a non-event for many listeners. Some have seen this immersion in presentness as meditative. But I inhabit it as a retreat. A mental space where, despite a heightened sense of awareness, there’s no room to be afraid.
When the music finally stops, a round of desynchronised applause clumsily kicks in, as if the audience were unsure whether the piece had finished or not. Eliane appears from behind a column, smiling in her New Balance trainers and patterned scarf, like a delightful young woman that has just turned 80. My gaze follows her as she moves and talks to people across the room. I want to approach her, express my admiration and what discovering her music has meant for me, existentially even. But I feel too intimidated and retreat. Picking up my stuff from the bench I walk slowly towards the exit, stepping into the muffled noise and cerulean light of the city at dusk.
This text was first published in 2014 in the issue 05 of journal…ment.