The World Is Sound
Eliane Radigue and Laetitia Sonami on Collaboration, The Body, and Le Corps Sonore
“The Buddha emphasized the importance of listening in his earliest teachings and methods. He did not write a single word of his sermons during his lifetime (ca. 563–483 BCE). He spoke them. In the year after the Buddha’s death, a close follower (often identified in Mahayana literature as his relative Ananda) gathered together five hundred monks in Rajgir, Eastern India, and recited all of the Buddha’s discourses from memory. The monastic community (sangha) then approved them as the authentic teachings of the Buddha (dharma). For hundreds of years after this event the Buddha’s teachings
still were not written down but transmitted orally in memorized musical chants.”1
In her introduction to The World is Sound, the first exhibition at The Rubin Museum to exclusively feature music and sound studies, curator Risha Lee provides the context for intersections between contemporary sculptors of frequency and the millennia-old ritual use of music in Buddhist practices. The attention to listening is an essential connection between the two practices but a less explicit underpinning in the above extract is the concept of lineage; a surprisingly apt starting point for this short issue of Sound American, which will feature three artists from the exhibition, along with Dr. Lee herself, over the next three weeks.
Lineage: The term itself can be troubling outside of the more or less clearly defined DNA passage from parents to offspring. To use an example that can be applied to composers Eliane Radigue and Laetitia Sonami, the subjects of our first article, what defines lineage within a specific modality of artistic practice; in this case electro-acoustic music? Can it be prescribed upon a set of artists by the audience or must a lineage be agreed upon by those that are involved? In simpler terms, can you be a student if the teacher doesn’t recognize you as such? Is lineage in this sense a subjective feeling or, as Lee’s quote above implies, the participation in a transmission of some sort?
Eliane Radigue met Laetitia Sonami in 1976. The latter was “a young [girl] with a very interesting energy to tame, obviously talented on both visual arts and sound.”2 It was an energy and talent that Radigue sought to support without defining. “I never ‘taught’ anything to her all… I respected [her talents] completely and didn't want to push in one or the other way.”3 These are not necessarily recognizable as the words of a willing teacher, but Sonami frames her first experiences with Radigue in a slightly different light.
Eliane Radigue and Laetitia Sonami working on Radigue's Occam IX: Photo by Renetta Sitoy
“[It was] an incredibly fortunate encounter. Looking back 40 years later I see how lucky I am. I was introduced to Eliane in 1976 in Paris by a common friend who worked with the Shandar Gallery. Shandar had a record label which specialized in producing seminal avant-garde composers. I think Eliane had done installations in their gallery. I had had my first encounter with electronic music while in Boston for a year at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and wanted to continue studying it. There were very few places at the time where one could do this, and the GRM5 was not open to having me there unless I went to the Conservatory first. IRCAM6 was just opening. There were few artists who owned any electronic music equipment. So I met with Eliane and what was to be a short encounter lasted all year. Eliane let me use her studio once a week, and play on her ARP 2500. She would leave some patches on the ARP and leave all afternoon so I could experiment, then we would talk late in the evenings. It was like a refuge for me at the time. She would not give me guidance on what was musically right or wrong but let me make my own sonic wanderings. After a year she thought it best I return to the States to explore new technologies and new ideas. We stayed closely in touch through the years, meeting in the States and in France regularly, sharing experiences. I owe much of my career to her.”7
Sonami mentions gentle guidance from Radigue that feels familial, friendly, but also instructive. Like Radigue, she stops short of ascribing a musical tutelage, however.
“Looking back at that time in Paris, I remember mostly long conversations, very little about music, but all topics that interested her, which were so vast. Her curiosity and openness were most influential.”8
And so, it can’t be said that either artist is claiming a sort of direct teacher-student relationship and while, through cursory research, there are many similar surface attributes, such as their both being French women and practicing Buddhists who continue to present their own completely original and personal ideas in the field of electronics, Sonami is clearly not a modified copy of Radigue. Both composers work with space, as will become clear below, but Radigue’s music is known primarily for its micro-events, slowly and quietly shifting the sound of one or two frequencies within the aural space, while Sonami has developed instruments, such as the lady’s glove9 and Spring Spyre,10 that translate bodily movement in physical space to manipulate sound production.
A case can be made, however, for lineage as the transmission and manipulation of ideas, as laid out in Lee’s opening historical comments about Buddhism. And, this concept of transmission is perhaps most clearly shown in the way they collaborate within their ongoing close friendship, from Sonami’s performance of Radigue’s Occam IX for Spring Spyre to their work with fellow sonic-space master Bob Bielecki on Le Corps Sonore, a featured sound installation for the World is Sound exhibition, opening June 16th.11
Eliane Radigue spoke to SA about the concept and history of Le Corps Sonore:
“Le Corps Sonore is a variation from the Labyrinthe Sonore, a concept from 1970, which was [also presented] in 1998 at Mills College with Laetitia, [as well as] 27 students, staff, and distinguished professors [such] as Maggi Payne, Pauline Oliveros, William Winant, David Abel, and the Vocal Ensemble directed by Elizabeth Eshleman...
The basic concept for the work from this period was based on the use of at least three tape loops of slightly different duration. For the Labyrinth, seven tapes were made to be played on a ‘parcours’ with overlaps from one to the other, creating a continuous trend of sound, which was discreetly changing all the time.”12
And Laetitia Sonami spoke about the circumstances that brought about the collaboration with Bob Bielecki and the concept behind this special installation at the Rubin:
“When Risha Lee contacted me to find out if there was any chance we could install the Labyrinthe Sonore, which had been been presented a year earlier at the Cartier Foundation in the Rubin museum, I sent the architectural plans of the museum to Eliane. She was taken immediately by the spiral staircase, and we started discussing ways of transposing the horizontality of the Labyrinthe Sonore to a vertical plane. We saw the spiral staircase as a body, somewhat like a spiritual body, and went through several scenarios, some with more visible elements. Eventually we came to the current presentation where sounds infuse the vertical axis with very little visual elements.
Bob Bielecki had fortunately agreed to collaborate. I had approached him as I thought his sensibility and, of course, expertise would be a great match. We would not have done the project if he had not accepted. Bob, who is passionate about wave field synthesis13 and speaker arrays,14 was interested in adapting the arrays, which are mostly horizontal to a vertical axis. However, we don't perceive sounds vertically well, so he devised ways to animate the sounds from the ground floor to the cupola to create movement.
With the Labyrinthe Sonore, the listener creates a personal ‘mix’ by walking between sonic areas. Here the listener walks up and down the staircase. It is more contained so we ended up programming subtle changes to allow for different experiences. We had envisioned one visual element for the ground floor, the base of the body, where ‘worldly’ sounds are first encountered, and Bob built the ‘reflective pool’ where sounds focus over the reflection of the cupola from above.”15
Laetitia Sonami was born in France but has worked since 1978 out of the Bay Area where she attended Mills College and studied with Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Terry Riley. Her work involves instruments of her own construction, such as lady’s glove and, the more recent, Spring Spyre. Her musical performances also intersect with text and movement practices. In 2013, she premiered Eliane Radigue’s Occam IX, one of a cycle of pieces for solo performer and written especially for the Spring Spyre instrument. Even though there is an element of collaboration and transmission to the Occam series, Sonami admits that the experience was very different from their direct collaboration on Le Corps Sonore.
“[Occam IX] is entirely guided by Eliane's musical approach. I ‘surrendered’ all decisions to her and strictly followed her directions. It took me thirty years to get there!
Bob Bielecki, Eliane Radigue and Laetitia Sonami working on Le Corps Sonore: Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum
Le Corps Sonore is very much a collaboration, where each brought their expertise and personal attractions to the mix. That said, the essential sonic elements come from Eliane's sounds she had created in the sixties when she first got the ARP. There are five sounds, which form a sonic base and which dictate what other sounds and movements we introduced. The museum itself is an essential component, not just because of its architecture but because of the art that is being exhibited. The statues and tangkas are silent witnesses and observers and became, in a strange way, collaborators, too. [Bob and I] would Skype with Eliane and discuss various approaches we were considering, and even though she was not at the Rubin, she could envision all the possibilities due to her many years of working with perception of sounds in space. While the process and implementation was complex, we always kept in mind the need for a feeling of simplicity, to allow the listener to make his or her own experience and not overwhelm the ears.”16
Sonami’s work is, necessarily, involved with movement. Both the lady’s glove and Spring Spyre instruments use spatial considerations and movement to affect parameters of the electronic sound, effectively giving her compositions a sort of performative element that approaches the dance world. In conjunction with the micro-event aesthetic of Radigue’s music and the physically stationary installation of Le Corps Sonore, her work provides a point of departure for an interesting dialogue about space, movement, and the idea of the body.
“There are two aspects referring to the body that are not directly related. The installation at the Rubin did envision the spiral staircase as a body: The body/spiral staircase became the structure, the map for the installation. It is not a performative body per se.
But having an installation where people can wander and make their own sonic path allows the listener to be somewhat of a performative body. It is a great relief for me not to be performing and not guiding the listener through my gestures. When performing, the gestures have to be authentic and necessary and allow for some trust between the listener and the performer, as the gestures and what they do are not an assimilated vocabulary with these new instrumentations. Here people are free to move as they wish for as long as they want and it is great. It may not be a captive audience, but I think that the nature of the sounds created by Eliane do allow for slowing down and make the listener attentive.
I think I am going the opposite direction of Eliane. Eliane started mostly with installations, ‘propositions sonores’ as she calls them, and then migrated to scored pieces. I am trying to move more into installations, spaces of embodied listening!
Now, how the body as a map, and the performative body relate to each other, that would take lots of deep discussions!”17
Eliane Radigue has worked in France her whole life, with brief periods at NYU and Mills College in the early 1970s, where she made her first synthesizer pieces. She got her start in electronic music in the early 1950s as a student of Pierre Schaeffer and also worked as an assistant to Pierre Henry in the 1960s before developing her own iconoclastic vision of electronic composition. She made her last electronic work in 2000 before turning to acoustic composition with the radical Naldjorlak for cello and two basset horns and the ongoing Occam series of solo and ensemble works.18
In the 1970s Radigue left composition for a period to study Tibetan Buddhism under Pawo Rinpoche.19 Her work after this time, beginning with Songs of Milarepa taking the teachings of the Tibetan yogi as its central concept. The Trilogie de la Mort, a three-hour masterpiece that uses the Tibetan six stages of consciousness and the Bardo Thodol as conceptual material, is one of the central works of her electronic output. The connection between her own thoughts on sound and the theme of The Rubin’s exhibition provided an opportunity for her to contextualize her own composition as outside the ritual and tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
“Tibetan music is sacred by nature and used only for ritual of offerings. If we except a popular Music mainly singing and very different.
I have sometimes used these sounds in pieces directly related to Tibetan tradition, such as in the Chants de Milarepa or Kyema—the piece inspired by the Bardo Thodol—and the six ‘stances’ referring to the continuity of the intermediary states of consciousness, but I considered these works as ‘profane,’ even though they are related to some of the Buddhist tradition.”20
Laetitia Sonami and Eliane Radigue: Photo by Brian Laczko
After discussion of Le Corps Sonore, collaboration, and the thoughts and actions of Eliane Radigue and Laetitia Sonami, the question of lineage remains blurred. Clearly there is a connection between these two great artists in the basic way they conceive and articulate sound, an idea that will be extended in next week’s interview with Samita Sinha, a former student of Sonami. However, is the idea of lineage, in this context, the same as the one implied in Rubin curator Risha Lee’s opening words on the history of oral transmission in Buddhism, or is it something less linear, flowing from one generation to the next: being transformed through collaboration and discussion before reversing course. This is just one intersection of ancient and contemporary practice in sound that is being explored by artists such as Sonami and Radigue. They move in all directions and make listening the central practice not only to composition, performance, or transmission, but to living.
1. From “Listening and Liberation”, Spiral Magazine p. 20
2. From an email exchange with the author, received May 29, 2017
4. From an email exchange with the author, received May 28, 2017
5. Groupe de Recherches Musicales, an electro-acoustic music studio in Paris founded in 1951 by Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, and Jacques Poullin.
6. Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, also a French institute for musical research. It is attached to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
12. From an email exchange with the author, received May 29, 2017
13. A practice in which a virtual acoustic environment is produced by “artificial” wave fronts. Unlike stereo or surround sound, the listener’s perception of the sound source does not change as they move through the space. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_field_synthesis
14. A way of referring to a group of, usually identical, speakers used in audio playback, often to create spatialization effects.
15. From an email exchange with the author, received May 28, 2017
16. From an email exchange with the author, received May 31, 2017
18. An excerpt from Occam Ocean, the largest ensemble in the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMMFg_CcF2w
20. From an email exchange with the author, received May 30, 2017