The Music is Simply There

Julia Eckhardt

OCCAM IV for viola

In the future, if attempts are made to mark the beginning swell of critical appreciation for Éliane Radigue’s work, Julia Eckhardt’s name will, undoubtedly, be an important one. Julia was already deeply involved as a performer in OCCAM when she began to apply her talents as a researcher and writer to shine a light on Éliane’s life and work.

Intermediate Spaces, published by umland editions in 2019, is the first book in French and English that delves into the life, music, and working methods of Éliane Radigue. The interviews between Julia and Éliane will become a sort of urtext for—what I think will become—a larger discussion by musicians and academics about Éliane’s electronic and acoustic work.

Research and critical theory are a large part of Julia’s artistic life. Beyond her work as a violist, she has authored or coauthored three other books on sound studies and gender in music. She is also a founding member of Q-O2 workspace in Brussels, which provides support for others to work through research projects of their own.

Just before the work on this issue of Sound American began, Julia and I were asked by Peter Margasak and the Frequency Festival in Chicago to perform our OCCAMs and something together. We initially talked about having the concert be our first meeting as improvisers, but were more excited about the possibility of creating an OCCAM River. This duo would be one of the first to be developed and premiered by the performers following Éliane’s guidelines remotely. Although the understanding that Éliane would, at first opportunity, hear it in person and shape it to be her piece, OCCAM XXVI for viola and trumpet was first presented as a work at the outer reaches of the compositional ecosystem, based on our knowledge of our own solos, of Éliane’s working method and way of structuring the pieces, and with a certain—not infallible—intuition about the correct way of approaching each other’s sound. 

The following is our conversation, which occurred on December 7, 2020. 

NW Tell me about the moment that you feel like you entered into Éliane’s world.

JE I played a festival here in Belgium and [sound artist] Manu Holterbach was playing in the same festival. I think this was 2005. And Manu could not stop talking about this composer he had discovered, Éliane Radigue. And that was very intriguing for me, that she could instigate such an incredible enthusiasm, such a fascination. This was the first time I had heard of her. Then, in 2007, we at Q-O2 had invited her, together with another organization here in Brussels, for a performance by Charles Curtis of Naldjorlak I for cello, and Manu set up an installation of one of Éliane’s early pieces. I drove her around, which was nice and cordial. Beforehand, a friend with whom I had a quartet had suggested that I ask her if she would make a piece for our quartet. I asked, but she said that she wouldn’t know what to do with percussion, which was part of this quartet, and she didn’t have time, because making a piece took her a whole year—I think this was when they worked on Naldjorlak II for two basset horns and Naldjorlak III for two basset horns and cello. So, my impression was of a likable but very decided woman.

And then, of course, I remember when I first went to Paris to work with her. In Belgium, I had met her as an organizer, a role I’m more comfortable with, but I wouldn’t really have thought of myself as a musician with her. I think that’s because, at that moment, Charles was “her” musician somehow, and he has a certain reputa­tion. It was actually Manu again who thought it could be a good match and encouraged me to get in contact with her, which I did.

I remember this moment very well; I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. My memory is that I had the feeling that Éliane was nervous too, perceptible by the way in which she came very quickly to the point, explaining the idea of the piece and the framework. Then, she gave me “my” lake, and I played. No small talk or other preliminaries, which is quite different from how it has been since then, where we always start with having tea and some chitchat. Looking back, I think that she was not so sure about her role as a composer yet. Anyway, I played, and it was a sort of lovely encounter. While we maybe felt a little awkward with each other at first, in the music we were on the same wavelength right away. I have had the feeling since then that how she listens, and how she is as a human being, has made me play things I would not otherwise play.

NW Can you give me an example?

JE Of course. To start with, I learned to direct my listening toward all of the things that make her music—harmonics, beatings, etc.—which are mostly based on natural sound phenomena and which, in the music training as I have received it, I learned to consider as undesirable and to eliminate. I think that’s an experience that all the musicians have had; that we learned to discover layers in sound we were not aware of. Then, it also changed my relation to time and finally also my concept of what music should be or do—the idea that music is simply there, and that one doesn’t need to try so hard to “make” it.

Something very important that I gained from working with Éliane is a tolerance towards experiencing music in general; that you can listen in many different ways and draw very different things out of it. Hers is music which doesn’t tell me what to feel. Even among us musicians who work with her, everybody hears in quite different ways, and that’s totally okay. We can still play together despite this heterogeneity of perspectives. Éliane calls this in the interviews for the book [Intermediary Spaces], “the mirror of the mind.” It has similarity with what composer Catherine Lamb calls “the bland”: a space which is opened for the listeners that they are free to enter. I have always felt that collaboration with both Cat and Éliane is like entering that space together. You could say it’s participatory music: composer, performer, and listener share the responsibility for it. And it gave me another, more open-minded, access also to other kinds of music.

NW Was there something in that vulnerability, or her lack of technical knowledge about your instrument, that allowed you to look at things with fresh eyes?

JE Yeah, definitely. I think it has to do with her approach coming from the work with electronic music—like a conversation with the instrument, the synthesizer—which she translates into this interaction between composer and player. This direct and spontaneous response and interaction was something refreshing for me, and it also implies the idea that whatever you propose during the phase of making the piece can’t be wrong, because you start with an improvisation and are just embracing all sorts of deviations—and whatever happens, happens. But, of course, her pieces are not improvisation at all, so it is more about an approach, a mindset; although I’m sure I couldn’t have worked with her if I hadn’t had some improvisation experience.

But, coming back to your question, I must say that I didn’t have the feeling of a lack of technical knowledge, not even about the instrument. I know that some of the musicians—and Éliane herself also—often stress this as a reason for the choice for oral transmission, but this music is about something else, and the translation onto my instrument was rightly left to me. It also meant that I could get the best out of myself—and my relation with my instrument—without musically needing to bend against my intuition.

NW You had experience with that kind of music before you started working with her, right?

JE Yes, I have played contemporary and experimental music and have practiced improvisation, and I have done a lot with continuous sound. But still, for example, to methodically use bow harmonics—like I do in her piece—is something I hadn’t done before. It just came when we started working together.

When I went to her the first time, I did not really know her electronic music. And it was very nice that she didn’t mind and gave me a CD of hers to hear the music she had made previously. It was Transamorem-Transmortem, still one of my favorites. So, this was like we say in German auf Augenhöhe, like at eye-level, you know. It wasn’t a situation where you have to first admire the composer and, then, he or she would be so kind to work with you.

NW I think it’s really lucky to not have heard the electronic music first. I knew it really well before I met Éliane, and when we started working, I kept trying to make my piece conform to the Éliane Radigue electronic piece in my mind. I was circular breathing for 20, 30 minutes and just sweating. Finally, she said, “you can’t do that!” I had strayed and it wasn’t her piece anymore. We had to readjust and make it OCCAM, as opposed to Kyema or whatever I was thinking of.

JE I had my reference in Rhodri Davies’ OCCAM I for harp, which is the first of the series. That was sort of a blueprint. I like it a lot, as well as Rhodri’s playing in general.

NW You’re in an interesting position, because you’re the first one to really dig into the breadth of Éliane’s work. In a lot of ways, I think your book, Intermediary Spaces, has become the lifting-off point for a critical appreciation of her work. What did you want to achieve with that book?

JE My first incentive came from the many questions I got about Éliane and about working with her. I felt that, despite many people liking her music, there was incredibly little knowledge about it. For example, I was often surprised at the astonishment of people when they heard that all these pieces are taught orally. You must have had this experience also: “Really, there’s no score? But how does she do it?” If you have worked like that, it’s the easiest thing, of course, and, as she says herself, it’s actually the oldest way to transmit music and more widespread than written scores.

There was so much admiration and so little knowledge. There were two books, by Manu Holterbach and the INA/GRM (Portraits Polychromes) and Bernard Girard (Entretiens avec Éliane Radigue), both of which are nice in different ways, but I found them personally a bit anecdotic, and both of them are in French only. It’s worth noting that both have informed my book, and especially Manu has been very generous in giving me access to his research.

And, with my interest in the role gender plays in our world of music, I was often quite disturbed by how she was perceived and portrayed in articles or writing, especially in France: as pretty, as the wife of Arman, and only rarely as a composer and as a person. I thought this needed another perspective, and I wanted it to be a book with a full concentration on her work.

Of course, when little is written about the music, it says something also about the music itself, because it’s very hard to describe; it’s so different from the rest of new music. If you’re a regular music journalist, what can you really say? What vocabulary is at hand? It must be said that the understanding for such music has changed and grown a lot in the last few years.

NW It’s difficult to enter into someone’s history like that. It can be so intimate. What were some of the surprises you encountered in your research?

JE I gradually understood that I knew very little about where she comes from artistically; in the first place, the way she started from musique concrète—the importance of which is only recently rediscovered and acknowledged more widely—and how this informed her work, not only technically. I had no idea about the work with tapes, the cutting and reassembling, the loops and all these sorts of strategies that stem from very material possibilities. I wanted to ask her about it. Another thing I discovered was that Éliane hasn’t been so isolated as the legend seems to go, at all, quite the contrary. She met and let herself be inspired by all sorts of people. Strong personal bonds seem to have accompanied her through her whole life.

Was it sometimes difficult to make the book? Yes, I think it has been challenging for both of us at moments. I remember twice that Éliane even got quite angry at me. But, in a way it might have helped that I’m a woman too, and I could guess where this anger came from: as a woman you have more reason to be afraid of how what you say is going to be perceived. And Éliane is no stranger also to doubts, less about her music maybe, but certainly about how to conceptualize, explain it. But since we had already made music together, I knew her temperament, and it wasn’t so difficult, actually, to come to terms with any problems we had. Éliane has a sharp mind and was mostly right with her critique.

NW I listened to a lecture of yours from May 2020 called, “What is Good Music?” Gender in music is an area that I am just starting to research, so I’m coming at this question with the admission that I am under-informed. But I was taken by the idea of the canonization of composers and how gender influences it.

Of course, I was listening to the lecture with an ear toward Éliane’s experience, so I would be interested in hearing what you feel has happened to Éliane’s reputation in the past ten years? It does feel like she’s entering a canon, and that is overdue.

JE This is a huge question with many layers. And one of them, of course, is that women for a long time were just seen as wives of [male artists], or hobby musicians; there were many reasons not to take them seriously in their aspirations. I guess that has changed a lot recently and rightly so. Luckily, there has been almost an inflation of the discovery of female musicians, some of them at the age of Éliane or even older—like Daphne Oram and other, often electronic, musicians. That fact that Éliane’s generation has so many interesting female composers probably has a lot to do with that era’s new sound technologies. They were approaching these technologies without a canon in a way; approaching them as offered possibilities. And I think one of the reasons that people have been so uncomfortable with placing this music in the canon is the question of what composition is. In one way, there are female composers and male composers. But then we could also say, if you take this in a non-essentialist way, that there may also be female ways of composing and male ways of composing, simply as two opposites. As an example of perceived female way of composing, you can take Oram who has this very intuitive approach to science—for example, drawing connections in an almost fantasizing way. You could say it is scientifically approximate, maybe, but never wrong. This is about an approach which is available to male artists too.

I read an article recently by Andra McCarthy. She’s a Canadian scholar—an anthropologist, I think—who has written a lot about sound and soundwalking among other topics. This was an article about the beginnings of electronic music, where she observes how musique concrète, because it used real life material, was condescended to by those who worked with pure electronic sound—[Karlheinz] Stockhausen for example. She said that this, almost ideological, bias still has consequences. For example, Pierre Schaeffer was looked down upon by some of his contemporary colleagues for working with musique concrète. In this sense, she also named Hildegard Westerkamp. McCarthy said there’s an ongoing discussion, about whether Westerkamp is a composer or “only” a field recorder. As an example, she mentions one piece by Westerkamp in which she uses as material a recording of a cricket, but she didn’t want to process this material too much because it felt then that she would not do justice anymore to the cricket—is she then still a composer, or is it the cricket?

NW One could make an argument that composing is primarily about making decisions. So, if you map that onto what Éliane is doing—or the example of Westerkamp and the cricket sounds—it’s as much about the decision to let the sound be as it is to restructure that sound through a number of edits or processes—or to render it in score-form.

JE Yes, and that obviously has consequences on the construction of the canon. So, who gets a place in the canon? Is this person who is not manipulating the sound material a real composer? It is like something Éliane has said repeatedly in the book, that she didn’t want to bend the sounds to her liking. It was something she had learned through her work with the pure electronic sound phenomena and kept as an approach with the musicians. So, this is, of course, a question you can ask about her music: is just having a long sound, with no narrative, actually a composition? The fact that Éliane has been so extreme in her commitment to this, despite plausible doubts on the matter, shows her strong artistic personality. This is the music she wants to hear, and if others don’t find it music that’s not really her concern.

Éliane has a friend who sometimes comes with her to concerts to push the wheelchair and help her: Michèle Gagliano. She is not a musician herself, so I asked her how she got to know about Éliane and her music. She told me that she went, rather randomly, to a concert at Festival d’Automne—the fact that the composer was a woman having triggered her curiosity—and the music totally blew her away. And she said: “I would have never thought that such a music could exist.” For me, this was so lovely, really; the thought that there could be a music which you could have not imagined existing, some sort of futuristic music. So Michèle wanted to meet Éliane, and now she’s a friend. This is where the canon comes back in again. The canon always wants something which is already accepted as worthy for the canon in a linear way, following some known parameters. And if somebody makes such different stuff; yeah, what is this, then? It’s hard to judge.

NW I want to talk a little bit about our experience at the 2020 Frequency Festival in Chicago, where we performed a new OCCAM River. We were not able to rehearse the piece with Éliane, so it was a unique premiere. Making a piece primarily from the knowledge and the understanding that we have gained from working with Éliane, but without her present, was really interesting. It started me thinking about how we have essentially learned a language that consists of how you meet your instrument and how you listen and react to the results.

It was an important experiment in how the pieces may be able to propagate, and I wanted to get your impressions of that process. I got a lot from you in how to put the piece together and felt like you were more fluent in that language than I was.

JE I think the most fascinating part is that Éliane never had a plan of propagation at the outset. It came about, step-by-step, as she followed her curiosity about the possibilities of collaboration. It’s closely related to her role, as she sees it, in these collaborations and to her very unusual approach to what it is to be an artist. A lot of people think an artist is a person who sets out a project and then has it realized, but she’s actually starting out with a curiosity and then exploring it with people who have the same curiosity. I thought in Chicago that we were getting the piece together very smoothly, I remember thinking, “well, this must become difficult at some point?” [laughs]

NW Maybe we weren’t working hard enough!

JE No, no, no. I think that Éliane sets out the way to a language, that’s for sure. But it is actually a simple language. So, it’s not like feeling that you have to learn something artificial. She sets out a way to converse somehow; to collaborate. Maybe you could say [it’s] an intersubjectivity, a way of listening in which sometimes you don’t know who does what anymore. It’s something very important in OCCAM: the way you listen to each other. I hear so much around me about listening as research, as a phenomenology, and that often gets quite heavy. With Éliane, the process involves concentration, but it’s also about having fun, having a good moment. In Chicago, I thought, this is how it should work, and I felt that Éliane was present. She hadn’t heard us making the piece but she was with us.

NW In a way, the rehearsal at Experimental Sound Studio felt like being at her apartment. It was comfortable because we had the experience with Éliane to work from. No one has had to explain it to you in philosophical terms, because you have done it. It’s very practice oriented.

You spoke earlier about your different roles. One of them is as the director of a musical research center where some of these questions of practice probably come up a lot. Can you tell me a little bit about how Q-O2 started?

JE Q-O2 was first a music ensemble. A group of musicians got together who wanted to present a concert of the New York School composers at a theater in Brussels. For some time, we played concerts regularly, but then I became more interested in projects and research questions and collaborations with artists from other disciplines.

One big project was in 2000, when Brussels was European Capital of Culture. We did a project where each month we went to a different public space with a different, very specific, research question in mind. I think this, for me, was a key moment.

Then, in 2006, the category of “laboratory” was introduced in the Flemish funding politics. From then on, we have had structural funding in four- or five-year cycles—so we can have a space of our own—and also started the residency program which is the basis for other activities such as the festival and the publications, workshops, etc. We do as we like; it feels like a luxury. The residencies remain the core thing; it’s nice, you know, when people are here for one month and you really talk, and they search and try and share. It’s something very valuable for me. I learn a lot.

NW I’ve been noticing that there is a new interest in understanding how composers engage with instrumentalists in new ways, especially in the way that Éliane works on OCCAM. The Chicago experience is a good example of that way of working. Are you seeing that as well with the people that that you deal with at Q-O2?

JE I mean, of course there’s a lot of interest now in open works and oral transmission. In my case, I may come more into contact with it because people know that I work with Éliane, but there might also be a general interest. But I’m not sure if this way of working will grow, because it is not so easy to really subsume the ego; the wish to control stays very strong. You have to go further than just telling musicians how the piece goes, without writing anything down.

Éliane developed a language, and that did not happen overnight. This is really a mindset—almost a philosophy—and it took a long exploration to get there. When we talked for the book, I got a sense of how, throughout her whole life, she’s been so open and curious; that she was never afraid of new things or of putting herself in new or unknown situations. Most people are afraid and shy away. Or, maybe it’s more correct to say that Éliane is also afraid—afraid to lose control maybe—but she doesn’t shy away.

The Music is Simply There