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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Luke Lasky: IRCAMs Inception and Contributions to Computer Music

IRCAM, or the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique is a French culture laboratory for contemporary audio research, composition and production operating in tandem with the Center de Pompidou. It was initially conceived in 1970 and publicly opened its doors in 1977 and has since been providing the world with a unique perspective on contemporary musical practices and the development of key tools in its aid. It has undergone much internal and external change since the year of its founding, but its significance and reputation have remained the same. Particular in esteem are IRCAM’s achievements and contributions to early computer music and digital synthesis techniques, spanning the gambit from programming, to sound design, to performance interfacing. These developments whether they are in mind for the studio, the scientist, the artist, the musician, or any sort of the immerging hybrids of the time have provided the technical materials and know how to achieve their diverse ends.

IRCAM was envisioned by the then President of France, Georges Pompidou. His entire term as president was dedicated to the modernization of his nation’s capital, and he asked the already world famous composer, conductor, and soon to be long time director of IRCAM Pierre Boulez, to help him found a musical research institution. Boulez, who had been working away in Germany for quite some time agreed to come back to France and the two began forming the plans for such a center.

President Pompidou was apparently unhappy with the hostile relations between Boulez and French officialdom, and with Boulez’s virtual exile for a decade. Over dinner at the Elysee Palace in 1970, Pompidou offered Bouleza carte blance to design the new music research center…thus inviting him to take part in the renewal of French culture...Boulez’s return drew great public attention and IRCAM was launched with a major canonical statement(Georgina Born 83).

Once established, IRCAM began its work and quickly established itself as the country’s leading musical research facility and a point of pride for French nationalism. It took precedence as far as reputation and civic funding were concerned, much more so than any other similar institution. This happened at a pivotal time in music history and it is important to have an understanding of the climate IRCAM enter into. Massive discourse and conflict were afoot over the direction of contemporary music. Many questioned if the continuation of the times most prominent avant-garde musical practices, otherwise known as modernism, were relevant any longer.

For the first half of the century, Parisian art had represented the height of western culture, and Paris was considered the center of modernist thought, But in the aftermath of world war II, a series of factors… led to extreme politicization of Parisian art and a chaotic fragmentation in which there was no space for the consolidation of a new avant-garde(Georgina Born 74).

Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and in years prior to IRCAM’s inception, the school of serialism was the main focus of composers around the world. This form of composition marked the change in era from the 17th,18th, and 19th century thought.

In music the advent of modernism is usually date from the breakdown of the underlying musical system of tonality that had lasted for over three hundred years, and that formed the basis for baroque, classical, and romantic music. The late romantic composers, such as Wagner and Scriabin, had expanded that system so much that it was under great strain, its basic principles in question, and composers began a search for new organizing principles (Georgina Born 48).

Serialism is from a processes based methodology of composition where all twelve notes in the chromatic scale must be used singularly in a series before those notes can be used again. This idea was supposed to eliminate the hierarchical ordering of pitch space in tonality. IRCAMs first director Pierre Boulez was raised in this school and devoted much of his earlier works to serialism’s conceptual tenants. As serialism evolved it began to become more scientifically based, with much research and time spent in the realms of statistics, logic, linguistics and arithmetic as a compositional tool rather than a means of charactering relationships. However, the resulting complexity of most serialist pieces makes them difficult to relate to outside of the avant-garde niche, and they began to garner criticism.

Its opponents felt that with new technologies and new ideas a whole other world of undiscovered sound awaited the ears, and it was of the utmost cultural importance to pursue these budding practices. “In short, nothing less than a new concept of orchestration, with all of the underlying compositional ideas that this implies, is in the process of being developed. And since the beginning of IRCAM a clear progress has been felt”(Tod Machover 8). New advances in technology revealed many of the weaknesses of serialism. The serialists thought that computers would be able to give them total control of all timbre and tone qualities by using the most simplistic and pure sonic information, the sine wave. However, in practice they quickly realized that sine tones relate to each other in many different, idiosyncratic ways, which is why they lend themselves so well to organic qualities of sound. This type of experimentation lead other, new composers to emerge on the contemporary music scene, such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Steve Reich. These composers were the dissention of the modernist methods and the ushers of postmodernism. However, both modernist and postmodernist are similar in the sense that their approaches are rooted in mixture of research, science, experimentation, and the use of technology as an enabling tool, it just became much less of a rigid system of rules and the random aspect of compositions became a little more welcome as these artists delved further and further into areas not yet known.

This diversity of musical outlook reflects quite clearly the current situation of contemporary music, were no single ideology is predominant and where, in the best of cases at least, talent and message are valued more and adherence to this week’s latest stylistic fashion (Tod Machover 1).

This is the world IRCAM entered into, and this is why it has been such a revolutionary force in the entire spectrum of both music and other new media arts. Never has a government so willingly brought together all of the tangents of the avant-garde scene for the advancement and continuation of these practices in the most serious manner.

We are now in a position to grasp, in advance, that many significant features of IRCAM culture and of Boulez’s ideology – the founding principle, the “necessity” of bringing technology and science into music; the concern with new media, sound materials and forms, the self – conscious vangaurdism and preoccupation with constant innovation; the theoreticism; the formalism, linked to an absence of critical concern with the social and political dimensions of culture (Georgina Born 64);

IRCAM became not only a European bastion for such thought and activity but an international one as well. It is important to note that other laboratories and schoolings similar to IRCAM in goals and ideas existed at this time, particularly in east coast American universities, but none came close to the magnitude of space and manpower that IRCAM possessed. This is also important because it gave IRCAM easy access to collaborators and guidance. “Two major American centers had an enormous influence on IRCAM from its inception. Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) was the model for IRCAM’s original infrastructure in 1975-76”(Georgina Born 66). Another important tenant of note is that though however global IRCAM is in action, it has still clearly identified itself within the Western tradition, mostly by whom the institution has chosen to work with and for, especially in the realm of computer music, which in of its self is a very western concept. “IRCAM is an institutional manifestation of particular forms of French cultural life, but it exists within and is part of a broader international context. The most significant element of this context is not European but transatlantic” (Georgina Born 66):

One of the most successful international collaborative developments since the inception of IRCAM has been in the field of computer music. Finding its roots in the military computing technology developed during and after World War II, computer music initially was one of the most arduous and labor-intensive processes music making had ever seen. In its earliest stages, it like all other computer data needed to be fed into the machine via punch card, and often it would take days to process the information, so technicians and musicians would sometimes need to wait for no less than a week to hear what the parameters of their compositions sounded like. In 1975 a scientist and pioneer of early computer music by the name of Max Mathews was brought in by IRCAM as its first scientific director. He had been the long time director of telecommunication giant AT&T’s Bell Telephone Laboratories’ Acoustics and Research department and developed the earliest forms of computer music using Bell Labs’ powerful machinery. He wrote a series of programs called “MUSIC” while he was there which have become the entire basis for digital sound processing as it is known today. At his early inspection of IRCAM’s computing environment, he found it was a little lackluster for the amount of projects the institution wanted to consider.

When he arrived at IRCAM, he found that the institute operated only during the office day, rather than a full twenty-four hours as do all self-respecting American computer centers…He demanded more more memory for the machine. And twenty for hour opening…by the late ‘70s ICRAM’s computing environment had expanded to become one of the best facilities” (Georgina Born 67).

With IRCAMs new computer facilities up and running under the steady hand of Mathews, IRCAM was able to begin its serious work in the field of computer music. One of the first commissioned pieces of computer music for the institution was John Chowning’s Stria. John Chowning was a professor in Stanford University’s computer music department when he discovered the algorithm for frequency modulation synthesis, a process of digital synthesis were the timbre of the carrier frequency is modulated by another audible frequency and is useful for producing both harmonic and inharmonic spectra. This was to become the basis for all of Chownings work at IRCAM. When asked in an interview what initially perked his interest in traveling to Europe he replied “The electronic music. That was a very active time in Paris. Pierre Boulez had the Domaine Musicale concert series going. I heard all the current performances of important composers being done there, like Stockhausen's Kontakte, Berio's Circles...After about a year and a half I was ready to stop. The third year I just wrote music and participated in the concerts”(Curtis Roads 17).

Stria was composed in 1977 for the Domaine Musicale concert series, which was a year long performance series celebrating IRCAM’s opening. Stria was composed in a rigorous and scientific manner, and made use of one of IRCAM’s most unique hallmarks, the technology tutors who work side by side with the composers to help them realize the technical elements of their pieces. The piece was programmed in an extremely high level programming language and its values were all derived from numbers in the mathematical principle of the “golden mean,” a series of ratios…Chowning describes his piece

In Stria, all frequency components are based on powers of the Golden Mean in the carrier to modulation ratios. Then I divided up the frequency space so there was some degree of complementarily. So it is all very cohesive perceptually, even though it's inharmonic and sounds a little strange. But it doesn't take long, even for a naive listener, to realize that even though it's strange it's cohesive at a deep level. I believe this is because of the unified structure of spectral formation (Curtis Roads 18).

The golden mean or golden ration is achieved when any two sums are added together, resulting in a ratio between the sum of those qualities with the larger number the same as the ratio between the larger and the smaller numbers. When John Chowning used this as the basis for his piece he produced a wonderful tones and timbres related to each other in a very mathematical and scientific manner, and used technology to help him process his data and achieve a set of sounds that could not have been made in any other context. This piece is characteristically very inharmonic, and due to the ratios he used it produces some of the most interesting sidebands that all vary very slightly and add an excellent textural layer behind the lead values. It was very well received at IRCAM’s massive performance center the Espace de Projection as one of the grand opening works and goes down in history as one of the most famous pieces to be produced at the institution. This collaboration between foreign and French artists as well the collaboration with computer technology has always been one of the most important aspects in IRCAMs methodology.

The Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique has been one of the most important cultural developments in music history. A government sponsored international effort to research, explore, compose, create and produce all aspects of sound making is really a quite phenomenal establishment. It entered into the world in such a pivotal time for music as modernist ideas were beginning to homogenize with the newly immerging postmodernists to form a new trend in understanding. John Chownings influential work Stria works as a poignant example of the postmodern musical theories IRCAM stands behind and undoubtedly exemplifies these ideas. The piece was constructed out of pure math and science, played out by a machine but made with editorial decisions and parameter control by the multifold artist, engineer, and scientist. It is such an excellent example of the IRCAM methodology and mindset, based in the collaboration with other artists, technicians, scientists, engineers and computer technology. The institutions current director speaks to this exact point in a recent interview with National Public Radio,

Frank Madlener, describes what's going on down below. The German-Belgian Madlener is not a musician, but he pushes his team of engineers and designers to continually rethink and challenge the basic notions of sound. Madlener says that IRCAM always poses a simple question. "What's the relation between man and machine?" he asks. "How will electronics follow a [human] player (NPR November 16, 2008)?

Works Cited/ Consulted

Born, Georgina. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Gard. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

Browning, Frank. "IRCAM: The Quiet House of Sound." Weekend Edition Sunday. National Public Radio. Paris. 16 Nov. 2008.

"IRCAM." Recherche et Creation Musicales. IRCAM. Sept. 2008 .

Moachover, Tod. Contemporary Music Review: Musical Thought at IRCAM. Vol 1. United Kingdom. GmbH and OPA Ltd., 1984.

Roads, Curtis. The Computer Music Tutorial. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.

Roads Curtis. The Composer and the Computer. Los Altos, CA: William Kauffman Inc., 1985

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