The hard facts of Elaine Radigue’s Oeuvres Électroniques imported into my digital library are 20 songs with a duration totalling 14 hours and 21 minutes. It’s clear that’s a very long time and not many songs. Of course, nothing on the 14 CD survey of the still active, French composer’s work could really be categorised as a song in any traditional sense either.
If Radigue’s output could be simplistically categorised as drone, under the surface is a huge amount of storytelling. As a broad genre, it’s something I’ve looked out for as a code word to peak my interest. But I’ve noticed several seemingly static drones do perform a fairly standard structure that is best illustrated when quickly scrubbing through the timeline of the recordings. Often, they start low and climb higher, or start spacious and get crowded or more abrasive. The illusion of static motion in the continuum is actually a slow and seemingly imperceptible continual transition. The fact that music is still a moving, is like an aural equivalent of life in general. The world outside is full of trees slowly stretching ever nearer the sun, or our own finger nails are slow motion keratin waterfalls.
So, in a way, drones as a whole interweave our experience with the very fabric of time. the 3-minute pop song, neatly and concisely telling its story in a perfectly formed capsule. The shortest track here is 17:30 which in the world of pop music would be considered an epic duration. Much of the music here sits around the limits of vinyl at around 25 -30 minutes, the 60-minute mark or the 72-minute mark, very near to the threshold of what a CD can store. A big chunk of what’s presented here also relates directly to the recorded medium, and how these physical limitations frame the ideas at work.
Of course, all of this sounds incredibly dry as a means of simply making things as long as they can but whilst some artists working in the field of drone may be guilty of a mannered laziness, Radigue’s work feels packed with depth and immense beauty.
As the collections title points out, the music itself plots an in-depth overview of much of Radigue’s electronic work from the early 70’s to 2006. 3 discs each are allocated to massive and hugely significant works like Adnos I-III and the Trilogie De La Mort. It also collects two re-workings of Chry-ptus as well as other major works like Jetsun Mila, Les Chant De Milarepa and many others…
Adnos, for me, has always been a favourite and I’m familiar with it from its previous release on Table Of The Elements back in 2002. It’s 3 parts composed between 1973 and 1980 means ‘holy’ in Greek. Adnos 1 is a curving buzzing warm bank of ARP generated energy. The sound of the unfathomable represented as accurately as possible. Gonging puddles that slowly get wrapped in tiny densities of higher frequencies. This is a journey into the fabric of sound as ever tinier nuances becomes more and more significant.
Adnos II starts more like an unmoving organ tone. A jammed down key that strobes as the edges of sounds slowly hypnotise your brain. The solid single sound again exposing its internal components. The sound gets brighter as the music ascends, before the strange looping rhythm grows around 20 minutes in. Like an alarm clock or space manifesting itself as a black hole in your room… a transmission from beyond. The message forms like a helix of rhythmic DNA over the next 20 minutes before being engulfed by another huge buzzing glow. And finally, opens out into a bristling 30-minute machine derived OHM like theme.
Adnos 3 grows out that very same OHM before pointing skyward. A slow rocking around 13 minutes in feels like the cosmos has responded with a drifting 20-minute signal. The last 45 form a slowly intensifying transition into a blinding white light.
By this time in Radigue’s career, she had converted to Buddhism and drew deeply on her faith as models for her compositions. The equally impressive Trilogie De La Mort, filling another 3 discs here, follows the six stages of consciousness as mapped out in the Tibetan Book Of The Dead (the work also influenced in part due to the tragic death of her son). Diogenis uses a heartbeat and is dedicated to one of her daughters. In a way, the entire boxset explores huge subtle responses to events and discoveries in Radigue’s life. Each of the 20 monoliths grouped here all offer subtle variations on everyday themes we all have some sense of. This is music that feels like an accurate sound tracking of the universe and the core of our very existence in that space. Much of which was then channelled into a human scale, in human frequencies, then squeezed through a weird bank of electronics set up in the corner of a kitchen in Paris. And captured here.
Despite the fact much of the music on show here is about as minimal as it could be, there’s a significant amount within a seeming narrow bandwidth of elements. Even the packages understated sleeves and CDs all play in the gradually intensification of blue through tinted images of the composer at relevant points in her career. Whilst it’s possibly a simple design decision, which initially feels a little underwhelming, given the huge timeframe to consider, even connects Radigue’s work to the visual avant garde of France. Radigue was married to the conceptual sculptor Arman but whilst it may seem like a lazy connection, it’s the blue-sky joy of Yves Klein that feels like another obvious link to some earth-based re-imagining of the infinite.
Atom sized, brain sized, planet sized and completely essential stuff.
Oeuvres Électroniques is out now here