On Eliane Radigue’s PSI 847

30 Mar

I was at a bookstore today flipping through Leaving the Atocha Station, a new book by Ben Lerner that I’d heard from the internet was supposed to be good. As the novel begins, the narrator/protagonist, a young American poet living in Spain on an academic fellowship, describes his routine on a typical day, which involves imbibing a hippie speedball and going to the Prado to spend some time sitting in front of a particular painting by van der Weyden or some other Flemish master. One day, he arrives to find another man sitting in his usual seat. The man begins crying. The narrator is surprised — did the man bring these intense feelings in with him, or was he having a profoundly emotional response to the painting? This leads to a self-examination of his responses to art over time. I myself, he tells the reader, do not have such strong reactions, in fact I distrust people who say that this or that song or book “changed my life” — I knew them before and after the supposed life-changing experience and they don’t seem to have changed.

I know where the narrator is coming from. Sometimes I look at (listen to/read/whatever) a work of art and feel like i’m having an authentic aesthetic experience. Other times I view the same work and, while I still recognize that I like it, don’t feel that… feeling from before. What has changed? Was my deep experience false? Has my relationship to the work shifted? Was it mostly my state of mind that caused the deep feelings, and the work merely a lens or mirror or inkblot?

But anyway, so what? To feel that my life has changed, it doesn’t have to appear different from the outside. This isn’t a movie. My life, my attitude towards it and myself in it and the world around me and the people I know, is constantly changing. A week ago I went with some friends to hear Eliane Radigue’s PSI 847 in concert. The piece is an 80-some minute electronic work created on an ARP synthesizer and played back from tapes that were recorded in the early 1970s. Like most of her music, it develops slowly over time. Because things happen so slowly, the listener is free to hear and explore different aspects of the sounds. The level of detail at any one time is astonishing. Within what sometimes, on the surface, resembles the sounds of idling household machinery, can be heard a world of elements working in subtly but constantly changing relationships. Perhaps halfway through the piece, something resembling a very slow melody appears, and you just don’t know what to do with it. But these are all cliches of writing about Radigue’s music, and the actual content and experience exists in that place that writers are afraid to deal with, a place outside of words.


After the concert I felt very strange. The consensus among my friends was that we felt high, but as with one’s first time being high on something (marijuana, alcohol, coffee, love), we couldn’t place these strong feelings. On a somewhat regular basis I come away from a concert feeling ecstatic, excited. This was different. I was turned inward. I thought about things about myself. I couldn’t put words to these thoughts, except to say that the music had deeply moved me. A quote from C.S. Lewis that I read in a Zizek book seems apposite: “Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.”

If you look at an object from two different angles, it’s still the same object. Maybe the different vantage point strongly changes your opinions on the object because you see some aspect that you couldn’t see from the first angle. Or maybe it looks almost the same, but either way it’s still different. Your relationship to the object has changed. I’m convinced these feelings were “real,” brought about by listening to the piece of music. If I heard it again, would I feel the same way? Hard to say and, really, probably not. But I did learn something about myself from going to this concert.

[I wrote most of this a year ago. It has languished in my fireproof file cabinet until now. PSI 847 just came out as a 2CD set on Oral Records. One CD is a digital transfer of the tapes, the other is a recording of the described concert. You should buy it; I will too as soon as I have money again.]

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