A Feminist Listening of Éliane Radigue’s “Biogenesis”

By · Title Image Delphine Migueres (CC BY-SA 3.0) · Date 06/29/2017

Few pieces within the contemporary classical repertoire concern themselves solely with pregnancy, a fact of which I am all too aware as someone living a double life as a music writer and a reproductive rights activist. Examples of womb-centric compositions include chamber and orchestral works by Dai Fujikura, in which he appropriates and musicalizes his wife’s pregnancy experience—substituting his voice for her own—and “Why We Bleed,” a chamber opera by Sky Macklay, sung from the perspective of a feisty uterus, which musicalizes and dramatizes the experiences of pregnancy prevention, mediocre sex, and menstruation. And in Éliane Radigue’s 1973 “Biogenesis,” the composer and then-soon-to-be grandmother sounded out her “hymn to the perpetuation of life” via the sounds of overlapping heartbeats, including that of a gestating fetus.

Radigue composed the 21-minute piece when her daughter was pregnant with what would be Radigue’s first grandchild. The French composer created the piece using only a stethoscope, a microphone plugged into one of the stethoscope’s branches, and her trusty ARP synthesizer. In a 2014 interview with Claire Payement, Radigue referred to the piece as “an association of heartbeats,” going on to describe the process as follows: “The baby’s father was too serious, at first he didn’t want to… but my son was there to record my heart, my daughter’s heart obviously, and then I recorded the small heartbeat of the baby, who is now in turn a mother to her own family.”

Radigue was born in 1932 and during her formative years in Paris of the 1950s and 1960s, she studied with and worked alongside both Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. However, Schaeffer and Henry were not enthused by their female protégé’s deviations from their prescribed techniques, and in the early 1970s Radigue broke away from these traditions and went off in her own direction. For roughly three decades she wrote only electronic music before abruptly switching to acoustic instrumental composition in 2001. The same way she had been drawn to electronic realism, Radigue just as suddenly became drawn to the human element of collaboration. At age 85, Radigue now works closely with musicians such as cellist Charles Curtis and harp player Rhodri Davies. Her ARP synthesizer has been packed away, but she still concerns herself with the same musical and narrative qualities, such as harmonic frequencies and gradual change, that had occupied her while composing “Biogenesis” back in the 1970s.

On the topic of her compositional process, Radigue has said, “I always avoid dramatic change. This is what I’ve been involved with, and I am still involved in. It’s very slow changing… This slow changing where we don’t even know that it is changing, and when we hear that it has changed, in fact it has taken place long before. I know that, but even I don’t hear it at the moment.” Rather than remaining static, Radigue’s drones evolve over the course of her compositions, even though this evolution is sometimes so gradual it might not even be perceptible to its own author.

Despite their teleological and undeniably human elements, Radigue’s drones have been used as a case study in “emptiness” by climate philosopher Timothy Morton, who makes the case for an anthropocentric reading of drone music. In his 2013 book Hyperobjects, Morton writes that “Biogenesis” is a hyperobject, a term he coins and which he theorizes as an object vastly distributed across time and space relative to humans. Examples of hyperobjects aside from “Biogenesis” include black holes, global warming, and the internet. Hyperobjects, according to Morton, are responsible for the end of the world. Like drone music, Morton argues, hyperobjects “spell doom now, not at some future date”; they are viscous and sticky, an interobjective abyss which we exist inside the same way we exist inside global warming. Although hyperobjects are nonlocal, we are only made aware of them on a local scale: for instance, a seemingly nonseasonal weather disaster makes global warming visible to us. Hyperobjects can prod us towards an ecological awareness even while maintaining an element of unreality, yet ultimately are so all-encompassing that we can cannot comprehend them.

To compare a 20-minute piece of electronic music with the unknowable horrors of global warming seems to me a bit excessive, yet it is not an uncommon perception of “Biogenesis” nor of drone music more generally. Static or, at most, barely-changing, drone music can been heard as an embodiment of apocalyptic dread or inevitable doom. In the absence of the usual musical markers of time, the listener’s sense of expectation is at once heightened and nullified. There is no indication for when this music will end, but when it does, all sounds will be obliterated in a sort of aural apocalypse.

Photo Ulises Jorge (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 
Photo Ulises Jorge (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As musicologist Joanna Demers puts it, “Drone music is…a music of afterness, that which resounds after machines and chatter have died off. Drone music is a music for when the markers of time such as clocks, metronomes, alarms have stopped. It is an acoustic foundation from which other sounds emerged, and to which all sounds will eventually return. Just as apocalypse is an ending, drone music often taxes listeners’ sense of time and duration, as well as space and distance.” Any possibility for a human element in electronic music is frequently erased because of the technology involved in its creation (the same tools responsible for atom bombs and nuclear weapons and the other kind of drones)—which is ironic when we consider how much more intimately “human” a piece like “Biogenesis” is than the average violin sonata.

Yet the piece is referred to by musicologists not only as “the sound of the void” but as a “sonic blanket” recalling the comforts of the womb. Morton writes of this musical-composition-cum-hyperobject that “it is not ‘about’ the environment: it is an environment.” Morton turns Radigue’s work static by calling it an “environment,” rather than listening closely to its possibilities and evolutions. Of course the work isn’t about the environment; as Radigue has said, and as is made explicit through listening to the work itself, it is about pregnancy and motherhood and the heartbeats of potential human lives juxtaposed against those past and present.

Morton falls into the fatal trap of misogyny by reducing a sonification of pregnancy and growth to a sonification of an environment: a womb. He is certainly not the first to theorize sound in terms of gynecological metaphors: writers from Kodwo Eshun to Jean-Luc Nancy have relied on this image in their philosophical musings on a sonorous maternal blanket that enfolds the gestating fetus. (Even countless visitors to La Monte Young’s 24-year-long drone, a sound and light installation called the Dream House where I volunteer as a monitor, have commented on its “womblike” nature.) In these metaphors, sound is fetishized as a conduit of knowledge and “being,” while motherhood is reduced to an echo chamber ripe for reverberation: an emptiness to be inhabited.

In her deconstruction of Plato’s “cave” allegory, feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray reads the metaphor for a uterus in which men are imprisoned, and from which they must escape in order to find “reality.” Irigaray argues that the metaphor has perpetuated across language, symbols, and philosophy through the centuries. She points out that there is a forgotten passageway into and out of the cave; in other words, a forgotten vagina linking the internal with the external and linking positivity with the negative void. Morton reduces the work, and therefore the female body, to an object by labeling it a hyperobject. He underlines the womb’s hyperobjectivity while negating any possibility of subjectivity. He gets stuck in the cave of “Biogenesis,” hearing it as an all-encompassing room or environment which is, like the female body it represents, formless and dangerous.

Photo Sandor Weisz (CC BY-NC 2.0) 
Photo Sandor Weisz (CC BY-NC 2.0

Radigue’s music directly defies the apocalyptic perspective on drones by focusing not on precarity but on lived experience. “Biogenesis” marks the time not only of the present but of the future, not only of the exterior but of the interior. This interior, rather than representing a cave or an inhuman void, is fully human, beating in the rhythm of a heartbeat projecting itself into an unknown future. Despite the frequent patriarchal comparisons of sound to a womb, sound is not actually very womb-like at all, but is more akin to a phallus, penetrating space and time and ear canals. And just as sound is not really a womb, a womb is not really a hyperobject: it’s not a prison or a black hole or global warming. A womb is a site of growth, a place where for nine months two hearts will beat against each other, a place where human life can form and then exit, via the “forgotten passsageway” of the vagina.

In “Biogenesis” we hear a progression of overlapping heartbeats, from grandmother to mother to unborn child. Rather than “composing the void,” Radigue fills the void with pulsating feminized drones. Her music is not a devolution of sound heralding the end of the world, but an evolution of sound moving through a gradual process that is so undramatic as to be barely perceptible. We hear not emptiness, but rather a fullness of lived experience. Morton’s claims of emptiness are masculinist and reductive in their perpetuation of sexist notions of sound as a uterus and therefore as a feminine void to be inhabited by masculine reverberations. To analyze drone music in a more humane and equitable way we must move beyond these stereotypes; we must hear this music not as “the end of the world” but as the possibility for worlds, and for life, beyond our reach. ¶

Based on a paper presented at the Sixth International Conference on Music & Minimalism.