The Acoustics of Solitude: On Éliane Radigue’s Adnos I, II, III
Electronic composer and sound artist Éliane Radigue was born in 1932 and grew up in Les Halles, Paris, where daily life was punctuated by the noises of the Second World War and the German Occupation. She trained as a classical musician until, in the 1950s, she heard Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer (Railway Study, 1948), which changed her ideas of what could be considered music, or more precisely affirmed that the sounds of warplanes which she also sensed as music could be conceived as such. In 1970 she took up a residency at New York University where she began working with analog synthesizers, particularly the ARP 2500, which became her instrument of choice for more than thirty years. Radigue often refers to the synthesizer as a friend and spouse; she chose it for its distinct and delicate voice—its particular sonority. Working only with the potentiometers (knobs), she turns them with careful precision to produce the sounds she desires. They are sub-harmonic, atonal and sustained, often compared to the sound of a drone and sometimes described as meditation music. Radigue states that her works are profane but inspired by the sacred . What is offered by Radigue’s oeuvre, apart from a distinct career defined by the singular pursuit of her own sound, is the synthesis of spirituality and philosophy with technology.
The Adnos cycle was composed between the years 1973 and 1982. I consider this period between 1974 and 1982 as a definitive moment in Radigue’s life and work, what I describe as her aural life, as it encompassed a spiritual transition for Radigue, taking her through two pauses following the completion of Adnos I in 1974. The first happened at Mills College in Oakwood, California. Three young French Buddhists approached and informed her that she wasn’t the one making her music . The second happened in New York City. While chatting with her daughter-in-law, Radigue leaned on the couch, one hand over her ear, and saw that her daughter-in-law’s lips were moving but could not hear her. “So, the discoveries of Buddhism and the fact that I was half-deaf, they happened around the same time. The two events together made me decide to mark a stop in my path as a composer .” In relation to these events, Radigue says her choice to work with the ARP 2500 synthesizer as one that was as easily made as her decision to study Buddhism .
Her electronic compositions contain certain signature sounds: the hiss or static, the thin oscillation, and the swell which is present in Adnos I and II. The Adnos cycle begins with a sustained electronic whistle that grows by circling around itself. The middle of Adnos I is punctuated by the distant sound of gongs, which creates a ripple that cuts through the whistle, amplifying the swell that ultimately leads to the pulse and reverberations in Adnos II.
The sound that issues forth from Adnos is a spectral companion. Where is my spectral companion headed? The meaning is to be found in the title, as explained by Radigue: ad in Latin means “towards” or “going towards”, movement and direction, a body going through a course (of healing, restoration, aging, decomposition); nos or noos is a philosophical concept in Greek that refers to the realm of consciousness, of knowing, reason, intuition, intelligence and spirit. The composition can be understood, in these terms, as a portal and key to a higher realm of being. Considering the encounter Radigue had with the three young Buddhists and her devoted study of Buddhism—where chants play a vital role in meditation that paves the way to mental fortitude and equanimity—the Adnos cycle can be considered the threshold in a period of Radigue’s career marked by compositions that embody the value of self-knowledge.
The listening experiments that I have conducted in various spaces and in different conditions is a means of achieving self-understanding as a person and as a writer. Listening to Radigue’s compositions, studying her aural life, and listening to myself (at this point all three are intertwined), I have been offered a guiding hand. Sound artist Julia Eckhardt writes, “Her role as a composer is not to control, but to share and guide a process .”
Adné: this is said of any part tied or welded to another and which appears to be part of it .
I listened to the Adnos cycle in my bedroom. The colors are warm here, the curtain is magenta with a sheen of gold, the bed comforter is purple, my fleece blanket is deep red, the walls are beige, the furniture handsome brown, and the plants add a touch of refreshing green. A statue of Our Lady of Manaoag painted gold and Our Lady of Guadalupe stand on the bedside table. The lampshade issues a warm yellow glow. These are the conditions with which I listened to the Adnos cycle. Being aware of the colors and the sensation of listening in an enclosed space added to the experience which informs the interpretations I made of the composition. The space suggests the womb as a place of rest and transmutation. (The bed, which dominates my space, is where I lie while listening, where I write, read and do my needle-work). A place of magic. My room is also the phantom mother I have fashioned for myself in the absence of my real mother. My real pursuit in all the cities of the world is after ghosts and mothers.
The conditions of this space (as well as the spaces I have happened upon for listening to L’Île Re-Sonante and Trilogie de la Mort) are instrumental to the experience of listening. The images, colors, and sensations that come to mind are connected to the sound—each one shapes the form of the other. When I describe a reverberation or a hum, an image, or a suggestion of it, comes to mind. I listen to still create images and places in my mind for my writing . This became explicit when I listed the things and images I thought about while listening to the Adnos cycle.
a single thread
a pin of light
the jungle at night
a muted shade of blue
the smoothness of eggshells
the deep, melancholy green of Balete  leaves
There is a coldness about Adnos that complemented the warmth of my womb-room, a place of comfort that preserves the integrity of my voice. Coldness here isn’t about the distance at which temperature travels but its proximity; which to me is the condition of containing myself in a space with the sound. Far from the familiar din of the city, in coldness that is the condition of the acoustics of solitude, I grew to be more aware of my interior state. Artist and writer Salome Vogelin writes “hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener having heard and himself hearing it… there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. However far its source, the sound sits in my ear .” The apprehension, or doubt, is the body attempting to move towards a certainty (and a hope for a favorable outcome, far from evil and danger), to know for sure what it is that is heard and one’s place in relation to what is heard. If I consider my bedroom a space of privacy and comfort, introducing the sound within my space, whether through my computer or a headset, adds another presence in the room— an electronic composition, sound, that has the ability to order thought but also unravel and dissolve it into chaos and noise. Listening brings me to a space and condition where I might choose to feel things rather than regard them and to describe rather than appraise. Then comes the attempt to translate the sensation and experience into a cohesive text.
Ados: a bank of earth used to protect plantings from the north wind and expose them more directly to the rays of the sun .
When I moved from Manila to New York, I knew that the rain felt and sounded different.
I come to know a city by its lights and I remember it through its sounds. In the same way, I remember dreams based on how loud or quiet they are. Cities are fragments of dreams and nightmares. Sounds swirl in the air like dust. Dust as history— everyone and everything that has at some point passed through a place to settle upon pavements and gravestones and doors. Roaming the city leads to an encounter with all kinds of sound that seem to meld with the movement through places—a blur from one place to the next. And similarly Radigue’s compositions are, on one level, perceived as continuous droning or humming but are in fact full of crests without resolve and reverberations, and are in constant flux. The stillness and cessation, pauses in a waiting room or at a subway station, are as frazzling as the constant, frenetic movement. The wandering, at some point, ends and I settled in my private space with the dust I have gathered. The pulses and oscillations in Adnos poured into me, and restored equilibrium while unravelling knotted feelings. On the floor are a tangle of threads from a project I had neglected.
In the often solitary act of writing, as with musical composition and for any creative pursuits, are a myriad of decisions and choices made at each step. Radigue’s aural life is marked by monumental and minute choices—the pursuit of her own sound, the effort to balance between her career and family, the preference for piloting her ARP 2500 synthesizer with switches and knobs rather than a keyboard, and leaving works-in-progress for a couple of months before resuming.
The practice of making conscious choices, those made when one is in full possession of oneself and fully aware of one’s position, not acting out of the sense of threats against survival and of fear, has been a theme of my writing life. The choices I made for this study in turn inform my habits of listening. For instance, listening to Adnos in one sitting, then again but one installment at a time and while doing other things—I was interested, for instance, in how the sound would affect my reading, while writing by hand, or when walking or sitting still. I felt it heightened my sense of a space and its qualities. I felt more at ease and attentive, and I realize that I am contained in a sonosphere, described by Pauline Oliveros as “the sonorous or sonic envelope of the earth… I conceive of the sonosphere as beginning at the core of the earth and radiating in ever increasing fractal connections, vibrating sonically through and encircling the earth. The sonosphere includes all sounds that can be perceived by humans, animals, brids, plants, trees, and machines .” My existence is filled with sounds that I can use and transform, but which have also been here before me and will exceed my existence . Even when I am alone, I am not alone. The acoustics of solitude suggest this paradoxical condition and the extremes of mundanity and profundity that preside over my life.
Music critic Geeta Dayal writes about Radigue’s approach to making electronic music as “less about controlling sounds and more about surrendering to them .” In listening, the act of surrendering occurs in conjunction with engagement. There is a sense of apprehension and uncertainty in hearing, a mixture of trust and fear— fear of what is heard and unseen (or yet to be seen) and the trust (into oneself and the situation) to move forward, an action that leads to encounter and experience.
Adnos: Moving stones in the riverbed doesn’t affect the course of the water, but modifies the liquid shape .
Radigue does not perform live with her ARP 2500 synthesizer. It seems idiosyncratic but reflects practical concerns. The ARP 2500 is an unwieldy instrument, and some of her compositions require that several synthesizers and musicians be present on stage at once . The choice is also due to Radigue’s own sense of how the sound is received by the space (i.e. the listening venue) and the listener’s consciousness and body—“I have always wanted the sound to be made very enveloping, without a feeling of right or left .” Radigue wants the sound to come forth in a certain way, which she achieves through careful and precise manipulation. Composing for her is an arduous analogical process of recording on tape, working with modulations and frequencies in the synthesizer, and adjusting or redoing an entire piece . Yet she recognizes that the sound itself is a body with its own qualities that she can hold only at a certain point. She makes a decision to be aware of what things are to be left to chance and to accept fortuitous sonic accidents—“I considered sound as an autonomous life that needed to be respected .”
Halfway through Adnos II, a stream of humming is switched off, leaving a single channel of sound that leads to a temporary cessation. The composition moves into a series of sustained reverberations accompanied by a hiss in Adnos III. At the time I first listened in my bedroom, when it played from a speaker and the sound diffused into the room, it was subtle and so gentle that I would sometimes strain to hear. In another instance, I listened to the composition with a headset to bring the sound closer to my ear. It felt as if a mild electric current coursed through my body and soothed me. The sensation was similar to the apparatus my trauma therapist asked me to use—two objects shaped like pebbles connected to a small machine that looked like a guitar pedal amplifier . I held the objects in my hands while she regulated the vibrations and pulses with different knobs. She asked me to think of a place of comfort and I immediately thought of my childhood home. Especially the kitchen because I enjoyed sharing meals with my family. It had a view of the creek and the jungle that covered the hills where I grew up. Cool wind passed through the windows and lulled me to sleep. It’s strange because the place of comfort was also a site of discomfort and feelings of abandonment, desolation—from the green hills that have been disfigured and turned into a golf course to the empty, broken house itself after my father’s death. So, in recollecting, I began to cry. I come to know of my grief by the amount of strength it takes to transmute it into grace.
The hisses, granular vibrations like sand falling through an hourglass, and reverberations in Adnos III are punctuated with sounds like water dripping on stones. Towards the middle, these sounds morphed into a four-tone cadence akin to chimes or the pulsation of sunlight when it hits placid waves at low tide. This cadence reaches a plateau of subdued sound. The chiming is repeated towards a luminous end, where it turns into a series of waves that overlap with each other. It slows into a low-pitched oscillation dominated by a dimming hiss or static before silence.
Endnotes “I didn’t want to take the keyboard, because I was sure if at one point I got discouraged, I would have the temptation of going back to it!… I was sure that I would just work with the potentiometers.” Éliane Radigue and Julia Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 57.  Ibid, 142.  Radigue provides no explanation of what she thought the three young French Buddhists meant, merely describing that their statement was a “strange and disturbing thing”. I surmise they were commenting on the latent spirituality in her music. Ibid., 132.  Ibid., 133.  “… Much like the discovery of the ARP, Buddhism was evident for me. I didn’t need to look anymore, I could devote myself to it. It was during the same period that I did Adnos II and Adnos III.” Ibid, 133.  Ibid., 35.  This text (and succeeding ones) comes from a text Radigue wrote for the Adnos cycle. Ibid, 182.  Éliane Radigue in her notes on the Adnos cycle: “Only listening is requested, like a double and absent attention that is simultaneously towards an image proposed from the outside, of which the reflection lives in thought in the interior world.” Ibid., 182.  The Balete is several species of trees from the genus Ficus, also known as the Strangler Fig.  Salome Vogelin. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound (New York: Continuum, 2010), xii.  Ibid, 182.  Pauline Oliveros, “Auralizing the Sonosphere: A Vocabulary for Inner Sound and Sounding”, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 91.  Christoph Cox. Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2018).  Geeta Dayal. “An incandescent force-field: the electronic composer’s Chry-Ptus is reissued”, 4Columns, October 4, 2019, http://4columns.org/dayal-geeta/eliane-radigue.  Ibid., 182.  In 2011, Radigue played L’Île Re-Sonante at Presences Electroniques (Electronic Presences), a festival of experimental electronic music, 2011 at Paris, France. The electronic composition was played with a digital instrument in front of a live audience.  Ibid., 120.  “… when I was doing pieces which lasted for seventy or eighty minutes, if something wrong is happening at seventy-five minutes, everything had to be redone from the beginning.” Éliane Radigue, Pink Noises: women in electronic music and sound interview by Tara Rodgers (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), 58.  Ibid., 32.  This is an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing apparatus used by psychotherapists to alleviate a patient’s distress rooted in traumatic memories.
Zeny May D. Recidoro is a writer and scholar residing in New York City. She is a recipient of the Asian Cultural Council fellowship grant in 2018 and 2019 and is pursuing an MFA in Art Writing and Criticism at the School of Visual Arts. She graduated with a degree in Art Studies from the University of the Philippines – Diliman in 2014. Her literary works have been published in Lontar: A Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, quarrtsiluni, Terse Journal, Unlikely Journal, Kritika Kultura, Queen Mobs Tea House, and Berfois. As an art writer, she has written for the Brooklyn Rail and Degree Critical. Recidoro was raised in San Pedro, Laguna, Philippines.