Éliane Radigue – Occam Ocean Vol. 1 (2017)
Note: This is a modified and expanded version of a text originally published by SoundOhm
What can be said about Éliane Radigue? International treasure? Sonic saint? The most important composer living today? Even these grand designations fall short of doing her the justice she deserves. Born in 1932, beginning her life in music in Paris during the late 1950 and early 60’s, working under Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, for more than half a century she has carved a singular path in sound, sculpting one of the most astonishing bodies of work that the world has ever seen – transcending the efforts of her teachers and nearly anyone else. Her latest release – Occam Ocean Vol. 1, the first new work by the composer to emerge since 2013’s Naldjorlak I II III, is first installment of the sprawling, evolutionary work which has occupied much of her focus in recent years. Issued within the French imprint Shiin’s already remarkable catalog, it is nothing short of a historic event.
My relationship with the work of Éliane Radigue dates back roughly twenty years, to my first first encounter with it as an undergraduate student in Chicago. It stopped me dead in my tracks, rewrote every expectation I had of music, and, despite all the time which has passed, continues the processes with every return. She is my hero, my guide, and the great teacher of my ear – the most important composer in my life. My love for her work, with debt I owe her, can not be quantified.
Radigue is a singular unique figure in the history of 20th Century avant-garde music, continuously defying nearly every expectation and standing presumption of what music is, within and without the bounds in which she works. Her efforts spring from another era of intellectual and creative optimism – meditations, joining life and art as a single force. Her life and work is a towering indication of what art actually is, rather than what often stands in its place.
For most of her career, Radigue was classified as an electronic composer. Drawing on her inward passage as a practicing Buddhist, until the early 2000’s, she almost entirely dedicated herself to an intimate relationship with her ARP 2500 – exploring it endlessly, composing a body of long form works so discrete, elegant, and subtle, that nothing like them has has ever appeared. Across the decade or so since, she has set her chosen instrument to the side, focusing on compositions which engage others in challenging new ways, working with and for small groups of musicians. The first four movements of Occam Ocean, spread across the two CDs of Vol. 1, is the result of one such journey.
Clocking in at roughly an hour and forty-five minutes, like so much of Radigue’s work, Occam Ocean is a slow, meditative, durational exploration in sound – a watercourse with its own gravity, drawing the ear into its depths. Growing from her long standing investigation of subharmonics – sounds within the sound, time is an inescapable force, unfolding on multiple planes – that of the work itself, the lifetime it has taken to get here, and the temporal inter-dynamics of the sonorities themselves. Because of how it has been realized – using only oral and aural transmission with her collaborating performers, Occam Ocean opens a crucial window into Radigue’s entire body of work – that sound is followed rather than guided into its final form. The work was composed through a process in which Radigue invited each member of the incredible ensemble – Rhodri Davies, Carol Robinson, and Julia Eckhardt, to her at home – further linking art, with the generosity and life which runs through her entire practice. One-by-one, they devised their parts collaboratively. The point of arrival is stunning beyond belief – a shimmering, pulsing, droning word of harmonic interplay which should stop the entire history of Minimalist music in its tracks.
While it might be easy to approach Occam Ocean as an isolated event – a singular moment of astounding artistry, because of who made it, and where it falls relationally within her career, it hold a great deal more potential – a means through which to access her entire body of work through different terms, as well as the history of electronic music as a whole. It is the endpoint of a long arc which began in the 1940s with Musique concrète and synthesis, transferring the creative potential and cultural optimism activated by electronic process, into the realms of a remarkable collaborative approach. Contained within the first four phases of Occam Ocean – the totality of which will reach a body of 22 infinitely combinable solos, spread across over 20 chamber pieces, is one of the most miraculous efforts in sound created so far this century. A marvel from one of the most important composers the world has ever known. As essential as it comes. Check it a couple of short samples below, and pick it up from Shiin, SoundOhm, or a record store near you.