A Synth in Slow Motion: Éliane Radigue & the ARP 2500

All photos by Yves Arman. Courtesy of Important Records, used with permission.

Éliane Radigue at the New York Cultural Center, April 1971. Photo by Yves Arman.
Éliane Radigue at the New York Cultural Center, April 1971. Photo by Yves Arman. Courtesy of Important Records, used with permission.

In 1970, the Parisian composer Éliane Radigue was invited to a residency at New York University. She had spent the better part of the past two decades cutting her teeth as an apprentice to the musique concrète pioneers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Many of her early compositions utilized microphone feedback and drawn-out tape loops, but that all changed once she encountered the Buchla installed in Morton Subotnick's studio at the newly-formed Tisch School of the Arts.

It was there that she first experimented with using synthesizers and was led one step closer to the instrument that would become her muse. Starting with Subotnick's Buchla and a few tape machines, she had set out to create music marked by a glacially-paced, enveloping "unfolding of sound" that had far more in common with New York's minimalists than it did her French contemporaries. The following spring, Radigue premiered the first of her fruits of labor at Subotnick's studio, a piece titled Chry-ptus, at the New York Cultural Center on Columbus Circle. The performance of the shrill, percussive composition required two tapes of Buchla recordings played simultaneously.

As Radigue was learning how to use these early synthesizers and prepared her first pieces using them, an engineer who began his career designing amplifiers for NASA spacecrafts commercially released one of his own. Named for its inventor Alan Robert Pearlman, the ARP 2500 was as monolithic as it was monophonic: it was eventually acquired by a handful of nascent academic electronic music labs, much like the one Subotnick developed at NYU. Eventually, it made an iconic cameo as the source of alien communication in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Radigue's own close encounter with the ARP 2500 came shortly after the premiere of Chry-ptus. As she tells it, it was a chance meeting: she was drawn to the fact that it utilized a matrix of switches to connect its modules, which effectively eliminated the frustrating mess of patch cables that were present on the Buchla system. "It was like dipping your hands into a plate of spaghetti," Radigue said of the Buchla in a career-spanning book-length interview with musician and curator Julia Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, published in 2020. "If you weren't careful, you would accidentally disconnect one of the cables slightly, and finding it again became a real exploration."

In this short documentary produced by Ars Electronica in 2006, Éliane Radigue gives viewers a tour of her ARP 2500. Courtesy of Important Records, used with permission.

Once she discovered the ARP, her search for her instrument-of-choice effectively ended: she developed an exclusive relationship with the instrument, which she would use to create all her subsequent compositions for the next 30 years. She often refers to her 2500, which she nicknamed "Jules", as a friend or a spouse, and she is quick to praise its unparalleled filters and range of resonance, which she would later call "the marvels of the instrument".

"First of all, there was the ease of seeing the connections between the different modules, in one holding, without having to search through all the wires," she goes on to say. "I could build linear connections involved in the creation of a sound, and better control its evolution. It was like a loop that ended in the mixer. Then there were the returns: since the whole circuit was connected and could be reconnected in succession, a mere glance was adequate to see how and where the connections were made. The best of the best was its distinctive and delicate voice. That's what determined my choice."

Éliane Radigue and her ARP 2500 at her studio in Paris, 1971. Photo by Yves Arman.
Éliane Radigue and her ARP 2500 at her studio in Paris, 1971. Photo by Yves Arman. Courtesy of Important Records, used with permission.

Her process was virtually unchanged for every piece: turning the knobs spread out its large wall of modules ever so slowly with the keyboard detached—she left that part in the United States upon returning to France with the ARP—she would create pieces by recording a series of thick, long tones to reel-to-reel tapes, which would then be slowly cross-faded and stitched together through a process of time-consuming, elaborate editing.

"To make the final mix of these long pieces, it was first necessary to re-listen to all the segments, then to decide where the crossfades should occur," Radigue elaborates on her compositional strategy. "I made myself scores that indicated the starting times." More often than not, the mixing and assembly of a piece had to be done in one fell swoop. "If something went wrong at eighty minutes, I had to start all over again."

Many of these works ooze out for longer than an hour, including the 70-minute meditative drone masterpiece Adnos I (1974), the first of a zen trilogy which premiered at Mills College at the invitation of composer Robert Ashley. Shortly after it was unveiled, she took a three-year hiatus from musical activity to practice Tibetan Buddhism under the guru Tsuglak Mawe Wangchuk. The influence her spiritual practice would have on her subsequent musical output is instantly perceptible: using the exact same palette of ARP and tape machines, she produced a series of works that were dedicated to the 11th century Tibetan yogi and poet Jetsun Milarepa, including Songs of Milarepa, which featured intermittent narrations from Ashley, and the overwhelming 90-minute wall of drone Jetsun Mila, initially released on cassette by Ashley's label Lovely Records in 1986.

Éliane Radigue's "Jetsun Mila" (1986) is an homage to the 11th century yogi and poet Milarepa.

After the death of both Wangchuk and her son, the New York-based art dealer Yves Arman, Radigue worked through her grief through immersing herself in the composition of a three-part, three-hour work that could easily be considered her magnum opus. Created between 1988 and 1993, Trilogie de la Mort was equally influenced by her mediation practice as it was the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and plays out like a journey without a destination. Above all, it serves as the ideal introduction to her signature sonic slowness: one could argue that the vast range of sounds she coaxes out of the ARP over the course of the triptych is the closest a synth has come to achieving sentience and conducting a sound bath of the highest caliber.

As she was completing the Trilogie in the 1990s, she was introduced to Pro Tools newly-developed digital software and synthesis through her colleagues at Mills College, citing both the matrix switches on the ARP wearing out as well as the painstaking process of mixing by hand. "I started building my old sounds, with my old recipes for applying different modular connections… but then, when I wanted to make them evolve imperceptibly, everything fell apart completely. With this system, sounds were transformed into sand or sound dust."

She soon found that her encounters with digital would not measure up to the nuance she was able to explore with the ARP. "Analog sound is continuous sound, so you can make it evolve in the texture of the track. But digital sound is by nature discontinuous, produced by bits. So I knew it wasn't for me. It was not worth wasting another two or three years of my life attempting to use a technology that didn't correspond to the music I had always wanted to make. I value and respect the very beautiful and interesting work of musicians using digital technology, but it's not what I would want to do."

"L'Île re-sonante" was the last piece Éliane Radigue composed for the ARP 2500.

After sending her ARP 2500 to be reconfigured—a three-month process that involved changing the routing of the matrix switch systems—she composed her last piece of electronic music at the turn of the new millennium, L'Île re-sonante (2000). In a rare case of diversion, her synth of choice was also accompanied by a Serge Modular. "The hours spent with this magnificent instrument brought me back a few decades, when I first discovered the ARP." Radigue wrote in the liner notes accompanying the 55-minute piece's 2005 release. "I was thus able to try to combine the qualities of these two instruments among the best of their generation, their age being approximately the same." At the time of its completion, she had not intended for it to be her final work of electronic music, but the work that would follow would find the French composer forging a new path into the 21st century.

Éliane Radigue in Paris, 1971. Photo by Yves Arman
Éliane Radigue in Paris, 1971. Photo by Yves Arman. Courtesy of Important Records, used with permission.

For the past twenty years, Radigue has exclusively worked with acoustic instrumentation and classically-trained performers, starting with collaborations with the French bassist Kasper T. Toeplitz (2004's Elemental II) and American cellist Charles Curtis (2006's Naldjorlak). Her role as composer evolved into uncharted, unconventional territory: working without scores, she directly collaborates with musicians on the conception of the pieces through oral transmission.

Radigue is quick to downplay her current methods of operation. "It's not that remarkable," she told Julia Eckhardt. "Oral transmission is the most widespread method in all the world's music… This music needs a margin of imprecision in order to allow the instrumentalist the freedom to give rigorous and precise form to what has been transmitted orally. It encourages their contemplation and generates a fluctuating submersion, a ripening over time. Eastern cultures call this the 'heart to heart', the site of the spirit."

In many ways, what she describes as her "long marriage" to the ARP 2500 has had a pivotal influence on her exclusively acoustic compositions. Look no further than the ongoing series of open-format collaborative works she first embarked on as she turned 80, titled Occam Océan (2011—), and you'll hear the same power of sound in slow motion, a microscopic attention to harmonic placement, and a striking sense of impermanence.

As Radigue's electronic works have reached a new audience through the release of retrospective reissues from the archives of pioneering French electroacoustic studio INA-GRM and Massachusetts-based experimental label Important Records, plenty of discussion has been prompted by the modular synth community about how to recreate what Radigue accomplished with the ARP through the Eurorack format. Beyond the basics, synthesists would really only require multiple VCOs, a voltage controllable mixer and a ring modulator or two as the foundation, but for those who want a component-by-component breakdown of Radigue's ARP, one can find that in this guide, courtesy of the module designers at AMSynths.

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