This is one of those albums that seems to occupy a space far out on the edges of what might usually be called music, yet, at the same time, surrenders its pleasures very easily to patient ears. The debut LP by Paris-born electronic music pioneer Eliane Radigue, it consists of two 20-minute-long musical tributes to the 12th-century Buddhist saint Milarepa, who dedicated his life to meditation in the mountains of Tibet. He was revered for his teachings, which he would deliver in spontaneous song, composing more than 100,000 such lessons.
Both tracks (‘Mila’s Song in the Rain’ and ‘Song of the Path Guides’) include the same three simple elements: a low, droning hum created on an arp synthesizer by Radigue herself; tales of Milarepa told in Tibetan by Lama Kunga Rinpoche; then their translation spoken in English by the American avant-garde composer Robert Ashley. In some ways, Songs of Milarepa feels like one of Ashley’s own early records. His 1978 album Private Parts, an earlier release by the American new music label Lovely Music, became an obsession for me last year, and Radigue’s album treads similarly hypnotic ground, likewise combining super-minimal music with the slow, seesawing vocal cadences of Ashley’s idiosyncratic delivery.
However, while Ashley’s voice lends itself perfectly to the banal backyard poetry of Private Parts, which sounds like observations from Raymond Carver short stories read aloud over a mesmerising tabla rhythm, his midwestern drawl is almost comically incongruous in these Tibetan settings. I find that part of the appeal. On repeated listens, his pauses over pronunciation and haltering intonation become part of the texture of the pieces, adding to their lulling, incantatory effect.
Radigue discovered Buddhism in the mid-1970s, and her slow, vibrating drones throughout the 80s and 90s took Buddhist inspiration in their serene, meditative simplicity and endurance-testing stillness. A 1998 reissue of Songs of Milarepa added two more 20-minute tracks from the time (‘Elimination of Desires’ and ‘Symbols of Yogic Experience’), as well as the hour-long ‘Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream’, which was originally released as a cassette on its own in 1987. These additions gather together the Milarepa cycle as an epic comparable to her three-hour Trilogie de la mort from 1998, which was the first Radigue stuff I heard.
The album in its original 40-minute form casts a spell all on its own, however, and perhaps provides a more manageable introduction to Radigue’s work. It sounds something like a self-help tape sent down the centuries and over the oceans, but with a depth, intensity and even humour that completely disarms. A climactic moment of sorts occurs around the 13-minute mark of ‘Song of the Path Guides’. In his entrancing style, Ashley retells a lesson to Milarepa’s disciples offering suggested paths to enlightenment, before describing the beatific scene that ensues. His terms could fancifully relate to this beautiful record: “As he sang, flowers fell from the sky and a never-before-experienced perfume was smelt.”