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IRCAM in Paris; Where composers go to play with sound

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1982


In the cobblestone plaza beside the Beaubourg, that joyous six-story tinkertoy on Paris's Right Bank, buskers flock like crows to a cornfield.

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There, tattooed men swallow fire for breakfast and Arabs in red turbans perform sleight of hand. French schoolboys in army fatigues whine old Pete Seeger ballads while the punk rockers in two-tone mohawks harass the inevitable accordion player. They are part and parcel of the bizarre menagerie that panhandles tourists queueing in front of the world's largest modern art museum.

Above this daily melange wafts the humdrum howl of the neighborhood's stray dogs, sirens, and pinball machines. The cafe clatter of espresso cups and waiters scuffing Italian shoes across worn linoleum floors is sublimated by the church bells of nearby St. Merri's, where French composer Charles Saint-Saens once played the organ.

Below the Gothic church and cobblestones, buried beneath the urban cacophony, is a subterranean kingdom of absolute silence and infinite sound. It is known throughout the contemporary music world simply by its acronym, IRCAM. The concrete staircase down to IRCAM (L'Institut de Recherches et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique) looks like an entrance to the Paris Metro. The steps, however, lead underground to a set of sliding glass doors beyond which is the world's largest and best-endowed electronic and computer music center.

Pierre Boulez, France's preeminent composer-conductor, heads the four-year-old institute. Boulez, an early French proponent of avant-garde music, is one of the movers and shakers in modern music. Over the last several decades he has helped topple the Humpty Dumpty of 17th-century classical forms and create fresh blueprints for putting music back together again. At IRCAM he has assembled an international team of some threescore musicians, inventors, and scientists representing countries from England to Ecuador, Germany to India. They are doing nothing less, he says, than exploring the ''musical passage of the 20th century.''

''The century of airplanes deserves its own music,'' Claude Debussy said. ''As there are no precedents, I must create anew.'' The volcanic eruption of new forms in Western music began shortly before World War I, and Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schonberg, and Boulez, to name a few modern composers, devoted their lives to pushing back the frontiers of sound.

By the mid-1950s computers had opened the door to musical infinity. Sound was being ''digitalized,'' reduced to waves and numbers. It became possible not only to create any imaginable sound but also to stretch, twist, compress, or exaggerate that tone. With the turn of a knob, the pull of a lever, the push of a button, composers began sculping sound to meet precise musical needs.

The earliest experiments in computer music were conducted at the University of Illinois, soon followed by pioneering research at Princeton, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at San Diego , and the University of Padua in Italy. Today Boulez's IRCAM stands alone, many would argue, at the head of the pack. Under the new arts budget of France's Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand, IRCAM now has literally more money than it can spend. Its stature derives, however, not only from the immense scale of its research but also from its off-campus status. ''We're not just an ivory tower research institute,'' said Tod Machover. He is the 28-year-old New York composer and computer music Wunderkind whom Boulez hired as IRCAM's director of research. ''IRCAM is a musical think tank, a creative, collaborative effort where the world's composers come and share ideas,'' Machover said. ''The optimism and money of the '60s has dwindled and nearly dried up almost everywhere. The opportunity for cross-fertilization in contemporary music just doesn't exist anywhere else.''

IRCAM is part of, but apart from, the Beaubourg, which is alternately known as the National Center of Art and Culture, Centre Georges Pompidou, or simply the ''Pompidouleum.'' This metal monster, which its architects Piano and Rogers once described as a ''cross between an information-oriented, computerized Times Square and the British Museum,'' houses France's National Museum of Modern Art, a Center for Industrial Design, and a library, one of the few in Paris open to the public.