1. Analytical Description: “Kailasha”
What we’re trying to do is to surround the audience with a sound, so that when you turn your head you hear something different. The sound is everywhere. There is no stereo; the stereo is everywhere. Éliane Radigue (Schütze 2011)
The performance aesthetic at work in Radigue’s music is radically opposed to that of artists who value uniformity of sound throughout a performance space, and who, moreover, enforce that uniformity through conventions such as seating policies, where listeners are required to sit in chairs facing the stage. Radigue crafts variability into her music, ensuring that it not only is dispersed everywhere, but that it is different everywhere – a result of her choice of instrument and spare style of composition. Her use of the term “surround” to describe this variable diffusion contrasts with how it is used as a technical specification in audio engineering. Rather than a two-dimensional arrangement of sounds along a horizontal line, Radigue refers to sonic characteristics that can reveal the sense of depth that underlies our spatial experience. Essentially, she is saying that she does not want her sounds to give the impression that they emanate from a phantom source. Instead, she wants them to exist as non-localizable sounds that have the ability to envelop the listener. In addition, the quote identifies a further distinction that the word “everywhere” tends to obscure: the sounds are not “everywhere” as a pervasive, uniform substance. Instead, as Radigue notes, “when you turn your head you hear something different.” Her language here echoes Gibson’s definition of texture, suggesting that what her music contributes to the shaping of space can be considered in similar terms.
Radigue’s music is distinct from what is typically termed “spatial music,” that is, works that feature instrumentalists placed in locations other than a stage in front of the audience or electroacoustic works that use location and direction as parameters of musical sound. In the literature on popular music and sound engineering, such location information is a component of the “staging” of an individual sound source. Staging is a technical term that refers to the studio practice of mixing vocal and instrumental sounds in stereophonic recording (as well as for 5.1 and other surround-sound formats) so that each component seems to originate from a specific site relative to the listener. These locations are specifiable along a lateral axis and, in surround sound systems, a sagittal axis, with the addition in some formats of a vertical axis as well. The spatiality of Radigue’s works, however, is not dependent upon such technology. Instead, spatiality arises out of the enhanced capacity of electronically-generated sounds to exhibit interference patterns that undermine our ability to identify the location of their sources.
Radigue is not only the composer and performer of her music but also the recording engineer, layering and mixing the sounds she produces with the ARP 2500 synthesizer in her studio. For public performances of a work, a tape recording of the final mix is played back in the performance venue, while she remains hidden away. In a long interview with Julia Ekhardt, Radigue has described how she would carefully arrange the loudspeakers before these performances, making intuitive choices that maximized the area available for listening:
At each rehearsal I would go around the room […] to evaluate the acoustics at different places in the space. I checked and tried possible improvements, such as placing a wedge under a speaker or turning it slightly against the wall. I remember a technician who one day told me it was anti-acoustic, but I wasn’t interested in this question. I decided by ear. (Ekhardt 2019: 131)
The reason for these small adjustments, she explained, was to avoid directionality. “I make a grid in order that the sound be present everywhere […]. I don’t like having to advise listeners to place themselves in the center to better hear the subtleties of the sonic configuration” (Eckhardt 2019: 120). In fact, Radigue even encouraged listeners to move about the room as they like (Schütze 2011). Once the speakers were set, she always preferred to be offstage, letting the tape play (Eckhardt 2019: 120).
With the availability of her tape works on CD, these public events are no longer the only way to hear her music. But her practices of the 1980s and 90s alert us to the importance of how her work is heard in the private sphere. Listening to a CD of Radigue’s music on headphones will not provide listeners with the full range of spatial experiences available to them: listener movement does not affect the sound arriving at the ears, and the interactive, participatory quality of the music is lost. The following analysis, therefore, is based on listening through loudspeakers. Indeed, Radigue’s electronic music illustrates just how different these two modes of listening truly are.
Radigue has remarked that she has always considered herself to be engaged in making the “same music”: “I think all my work is part of a continuity. [...] In some way, each new piece became the continuation of the previous one” (Eckhardt 2019: 131). Her pieces are indeed similar in many ways. Nearly all her works from the early 1970s through the 1990s are made with the ARP 2500 – manipulated with potentiometers rather than controlled by a keyboard – and recorded to magnetic tape. In addition, she works with only a portion of the synthesizer’s controls. After setting the oscillators for the piece (the electronic components that generate the fundamental frequencies) she leaves them alone and focuses on manipulating modulators and filters that affect the harmonics of the tones. “The basic frequency on the five oscillators is the same for the whole piece […]. I don’t work on the oscillators; when I have made my adjustment for one piece, it stays there. I work after that on all the partials” (Rodgers 2010: 57).
One of her major works of this period is Trilogie de la Mort (1998), comprised of three 50- to 60-minute compositions. It was composed over a period of eight years, between 1985 and 1993. The piece analyzed here, “Kailasha,” is Part II of the trilogy and is representative of Radigue’s art and craft, exhibiting a shape and structure that makes it a useful work to examine for its spatial qualities. It has a less active surface structure of timbral variation – variations that can easily be heard as series of melodic pitches – than Part I, thereby allowing an analyst more ready access to its signature space-generating qualities. It is also more uniform overall in terms of amplitude and spectral composition compared to the stark contrasts between sections in part III.
“Kailasha” is a programmatic work that reflects Radigue’s study of Buddhism in the years prior to its composition. The liner notes contain the following (unattributed – though likely Radigue’s) explanation of the title:
“KAILASHA” is a reference to an experience drawn from real life, being transposed into an imaginary journey around the most sacred of the Himalayan mountains—Mount Kailash—considered as a path to other spheres of existence.
The circumambulation of the remote peak Mount Kailash in western Tibet is a pilgrimage undertaken by several thousand Buddhists each year. How the music relates to this program is not made explicit by Radigue, though she has stated that she was inspired by photographs from the site and that the construction of the piece is based on different stages of the pilgrimage (Eckhardt: 141).
“Kailasha” begins with a thirty-second fade-in of a low, warm, gently pulsing electronic tone, and for the first eleven minutes the piece exhibits very little change at all. Every minute or two there is a slight adjustment of the filters on the sounds that cause slow and subtle changes in the audible resonant frequencies, but otherwise, everything is held in stasis. This first eleven-minute section is essentially a prelude, introducing the listener to the tones, timbres, and pacing of the work. At around 11:40 another, lower oscillating tone enters, changing the overall color of the sound, though the other elements continue unaffected. From this point on, comparatively more rapid and noticeable changes occur every three to five minutes. While slight timbral variations are still detectable in the various strata of the texture, these more dramatic shifts serve as transitions that stake out relatively stable regions in the work as a whole. (See Figure 1.)
Once the music at the beginning of “Kailasha” has reached its full volume and has continued a few moments, it becomes apparent that this opening sound is not just a single, complex tone, but is comprised of at least two parts: a subtly oscillating sound pitched around D♭3, accompanied by a lower one pulsing at a slower rate an octave below. In fact, the slow pulse of the lower sound is actually a pair of alternating tones with periods of approximately two and three seconds, respectively. The higher sound, by contrast, is more like a tremolo, with a cycle approximately one second long. The interaction of these repeating cycles generates sonic patterns that continuously vary. Such oscillations are clearly present throughout the piece; they provide a pulse that manages to propel the music in lieu of any harmonic progression. At 2:56 a higher pitched resonance emerges, not as a separate tone exactly, but rather as the highlighting of a particular harmonic frequency. Such highlighted harmonics become increasingly prevalent as the piece continues, eventually coalescing into small melodic fragments.
Manipulating the filters on the ARP 2500 to select discrete pitches is a technique Radigue applies throughout “Kailasha.” As the filters can be adjusted to isolate overtones, melodic intervals of a perfect fourth, fifth, and octave are common, but Radigue also manages to produce major and minor thirds, major seconds, and the occasional semitonal and microtonal melodic interval. At times, these notes outline simple chords, for instance, a D♭major triad in the beginning section and later, a B♭minor seventh chord between 30:00 and 33:00. Sections where the individual tones are more easily heard as melodic occur around 35:00–38:00 and again in the closing section. At these points the sequence of pitches falls within a narrow, singable ambitus, and makes use of rudimentary rhythms and modest motivic repetition.
The transitions, though gradual (their beginnings are often obscured and are not always noticed until the transition is well underway), exhibit a rate of change that makes them stand out against the surrounding, more stable sections. They often occur through the addition or subtraction of lower frequency sounds that can be felt as well as heard and thus have the ability to affect the listener on a more visceral level. The transitions also facilitate identification of some of the separate strands that make up the complex texture. In a piece such as this, it is not always easy to differentiate between texture and timbre. What might seem at one moment to be an integrated sound may reveal itself to be made up of multiple layers when one of those layers begins to change. Through her configuration of materials, Radigue inverts the model of musical structure found in much traditional analysis of common practice works. Rather than considering rhythm and melody as a scaffold upon which timbral qualities are overlaid, this music is fundamentally timbral, with its pulsing and melodic components overlaid as coloristic qualities.
Just after the forty-nine-minute mark there is a relatively rapid (perhaps 20 seconds: between 49:05 – 49:25) and more pronounced transition into a lengthy, subdued section that closes the piece. Radigue has said that she composes by layering multiple tracks onto a single tape, each one performed by herself, added one at a time (Schütze 2011). In this closing section, the layers have been thinned out, so the resulting tone sounds much less active, characterized by fewer oscillations that beat against one another at different rates. The ending thus restores a relative purity of tone, or at least, after the preceding passage, one that initially sounds much simpler. Though, as with all of Radigue’s tones, its rich, undulating quality soon becomes apparent.
One of the most striking features of “Kailasha” is that even though the signal that constitutes the piece is fixed on tape, the music produced from it is highly variable. Not only can timbral characteristics vary depending on the position of the listener in the listening space – a feature of all music and of all sound, for that matter – but individual components of the texture can recede into the background, loom into prominence, or just disappear. This is not the ordinary type of variable sound quality that occurs in a listening situation where direct and reverberant sound mesh together throughout the listening area. Because Radigue’s tape music is designed to be diffuse, there is no ideal listening position and, therefore, no one way in which the sounds emitted from the loudspeakers are supposed to combine into the sounds heard by the listener. “Kailasha,” by calling upon us to use our bodily capabilities for engaging with music, is able to point us toward its own affordances for action, which in turn allow us new ways of interacting not only with musical sound, but with our own surroundings as well.