IRCAM in Paris; Where composers go to play with sound

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Its fourth component is IRCAM. Largely because of Boulez's folk-hero status and partly because of the institute's special role as both research and performance center, IRCAM never became a subordinate department of the Pompidou Center. With an autonomous board of directors and a separate annual budget, the institute receives an annual subsidy from the Beaubourg but is also free to solicit private money from corporations and foundations. Boulez has devoted a generous share of his time to fund raising, and the institute, even before Mitterrand, fended quite well for itself financially. The commissions the institute offers composers are bankrolled by a group of private donors headed by none other than Mme. Georges Pompidou, wife of the late French President.

When President Pompidou conceived his new art palace, the notion of having music in it came only as an afterthought. Legend holds that IRCAM began as a single sentence appended to Pompidou's 1969 plan: ''This institute will bring together musicians and scientists in a new interdisciplinary research area.'' With those 14 words, Boulez constructed his pantheon.

''[Pompidou] had thought of putting music in his new center and was planning a kind of 20th-century archive, but knew that wasn't very imaginative,'' Boulez said during an interview at Radio-France House, where he was rehearsing for an all-Stravinsky concert. ''He wanted me to come back to France,'' continued Boulez, who at that time had built his reputation abroad as maestro with such prestigious institutions as the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and London's BBC Symphony Orchestra. In fact, at the time of Pompidou's invitation, Boulez was probably France's most celebrated exile.

''I said I wouldn't come back just to take another orchestra job,'' Boulez recalled, ''but I would return if there was something here very important in my life. 'Give me your ideas,' Pompidou said. I told him the new center should include a music research institute. But when the planners sent me the final report in Cleveland it was 300 pages long and the section on music was so small I couldn't find it. Nevertheless, I sent in my comments, they were accepted, and the architects began designing IRCAM. It was impossible to put IRCAM in the big building because of the noise level and the space we needed.'' Aside from the acoustic rationale, the institute was constructed underground to the south of the Pompidou Center, because Paris authorities would not permit the institute to block the view of historic St. Merri's.

Construction began on the IRCAM building in April 1975, and much of its early computers and electronics hardware - as well as many of its top programmers and engineers - came from Stanford University. Critics labeled IRCAM ''Stanford-by-the-Seine'' and snubbed its mid-1960s technology as dated and ''sound-stale.'' The institute staff begged to differ, and still boasts of its piece de resistance, the ''Espace de Projection,'' a geometrically fluid concert hall which is ''tuned'' like an instrument. By lowering the ceiling, the hall can shrink like Alice in Wonderland to one-third of its original size.

The gray walls are made up of a grid of 172 rotating prisms. Each is individually ''tuned'' by selecting one of three acoustical surfaces -- absorbent, reflective, or diffusive. ''I'm sure I once read a horror story about someone tortured in a room like this,'' mused Stanley Haynes, an eccentric British conmposer who escorted me through the IRCAM studios. He is one of its tutors in pedagogy, teaching courses for visiting composers.

''Let me play you something ridiculously simple,'' Haynes offered as he strode into Studio 1. The room was crowded with consoles and computers. In the far corner was the only familiar prop in sight, a music stand. It was of no use to Haynes, who typed his commands into an Apple I computer terminal.

''Vendredi 29 Mai 12:06 Job 14 IRCAM 6.03 PLE TT421'' bleeped across the top of the screen. ''I'll play you, uh . . . ,'' he said haltingly. ''Blast! What did we call that piece? Excuse me while I go through the file.'' He impatiently drummed his fingers while an electronic cursor methodically scanned the computer directory. It finally came to a stop. ''Ah, SL4! Of course,'' he sighed in relief. He pushed another button. From a set of waist-high loudspeakers came a short ''symphony'' of Star Trek-ish wind chimes, followed by something resembling a Maine Nor'easter. The final movement could only be described as a close encounter with a giggling oompah band.

''We're getting 38.98 on the amplitude scale,'' Haynes declared. ''I'll just fiddle around and play a few notes, A-1 and A sharp-1.'' He slid his hands over the console with the fluidity of a pedal steel virtuoso. ''Would you be interested in hearing a little test where I set up 20 voices fanned out from unison, defined enough on a lower limb so when the top voice hits it and bounces back, it meets the other voices along the line, and you get a marvelous collision?'' Haynes looked at the blank stare on my face and it suddenly dawned on him that he had left me in his digital dust long ago.

Rather than backtrack, however, Haynes picked up the pace of our tour -- dramatically. We swirled past Studio 6 (''a portable studio which can be picked up and put on the back of a truck,'' he said, ''but I don't think they've ever done that''). Next was the ''Chambre Soudre,'' an acoustically dead laboratory whose walls bristle with fiber-glass pyramids that devour stray sound waves with the voracity of Venus flytraps. Haynes, who was beginning to fidget, abruptly remembered he was supposed to go on vacation that afternoon, and announced the tour must come to an end.

When IRCAM gets applause, Boulez usually takes the bows. But frequently these days he is tipping his hat to the ''vision and imagination'' of his young American research director, Tod Machover.

Machover is a computer musician ''by birth,'' he says. His mother is a pianist, his father a computer scientist. He learned to play the piano before he could talk and began composing chamber music in junior high school. A year ago last fall, Machover conducted an original composition of his in Carnegie Hall. He recently finished a piece commissioned by the Tokyo String Quartet and has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon his ''Soft Morning, City!,'' a piece for soprano, double bass, and computer tape, set to the final passage of James Joyce's ''Finnegans Wake.''

An articulate fellow with an impish wit and irreverent Medusa head of brown curls, Machover possesses a frenetic energy capable of keeping umpteen plates spinning at once. His intellect is broad enough to offer informed opinions on everything from Chaucer to the New York Mets, and he thinks nothing of fielding interview questions while simultaneously carrying on telephone conversations in alternating French and English.

''He was my idol,'' said Machover, describing his first meeting with Pierre Boulez, in Florence. At the time, Machover was studying composition with Luigi Dallapiccola, and Boulez was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on tour in Italy. ''I went up to him after the concert but was too nervous to say anything, so I followed him down the street for about 20 minutes,'' Machover recalled. ''These society ladies on either side of him kept looking around at me as if I was going to mug them. Finally one of them said, 'Do you want to meet Boulez?'

''He invited me to a rehearsal the next day. I showed him some of my music and asked if he would teach me. He hadn't done that for 10 years and told me to study composition at Juilliard. I had never wanted to go there, because my mother had.''

Machover spent five years at Juilliard, where he studied with Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter Jr. In the fall of 1978 while in the midst of completing his doctoral work, Boulez invited Machover to Paris to become IRCAM's first visiting American composer. Fifteen months later Boulez appointed the young composer director of musical research.

''Paris has become again one of the centers of people trading ideas in the Western world,'' Machover said in his underground office at IRCAM. ''There's no bigger public for contemporary music than here. Every concert is sold out. In New York you wouldn't get more than 50 people. In Europe the arts have traditionally been an integral part of society and people's lives. In the States , it somehow arrived from the outside, and it's always been a question of nurturing a rare flower by giving it the right amount of water and the right amount of sun just to keep it growing.''

The week I visited IRCAM, Steve Reich, one of America's leading composers in the new ''minimal,'' or repetitive, music, arrived at the institute to investigate the possibilities of a computer in manipulating the human voice. ''I'm interested in doing things that are impossible with a tape recorder alone, that is, slowing down the human voice, making a (verbal) 'freeze frame,' stretching a single word out over a full minute or making a chord of a man and a woman's voice,'' Reich said during a lecture-demonstration of his music. ''I'm looking into taking the voices of important people, say, Harry Truman announcing the dropping of the atomic bomb, and making music by stretching their voices.''

Rolf Gehlhaar, a German composer, had just completed several months at IRCAM researching ''acoustic holograms,'' three-dimensional sounds that change as you move through the concert space. Gehlhaar, the son of a German rocket engineer, majored in the philosophy of science at Yale and studied music at the University of California, Berkeley. ''I'm interested in making small changes and getting large differences in the final results,'' he explained in the back garden of his London home. ''When you think about it, an iris and daffodil are genetically not that different, but look at the results.''

In IRCAM's ''Espace de Projection,'' Gehlhaar set up 16 loudspeakers in a circle and broadcast the same electronic signal through each speaker. The audience then walked through the interference pattern the sound waves made inside the circle. The way the sound waves interact not only gives the tone a three-dimensional quality, it creates different tones in different parts of the circle. If one stood perfectly still, you heard the constant sound of something resembling a duet between a saxophone and a helicopter. If one rocked to and fro you would hear three differing pitches. By moving from one side of the circle to the other, you actually walked up and down the musical scale. Gehlhaar's wife, Nour, ''had a fantastic time,'' he said. ''She was running and jumping and rolling in the music. That's the best way to hear it. It leads to a completely different attitude about music. You have to get it. It isn't just fed to you.''

When the Pompidou Center first opened in January 1977, it came under attack not only for its zany, irreverent design but also for the razing of the 19 th-century Les Halles market it displaced. Even now, five years later, the Beaubourg's enfant terrible reputation lingers. IRCAM, the Beaubourg's prize offspring, has felt the inevitable fallout of criticism dealt to its parent institution. In France, where culture is dauntlessly upper-class, IRCAM has come under fire from the press for being a ''selective club of the comfortable avant-garde . . . (it) serves the public . . . but won't tolerate them.'' Many French musicians view IRCAM with scouring cynicism because, they say, its dominance in Paris means that, ''culturally, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.'' The provinces and hinterlands, already deprived of high-quality opera houses, conservatories, and orchestras, are having their traditional music subsidies from the government siphoned off to support ''elitist research'' at IRCAM in the capital, some charge.

Where there is money, there is politics; and some say IRCAM's present entanglement in the political thicket is sapping energy that should go into creating original music. ''There's much more at stake in Europe, much more money for new music,'' said an American composer visiting IRCAM. ''But it's distressing to see some of the best musical minds on the Continent fighting over issues of territory.'' The composer sipped a Perrier with lemon and stared out from the cafe table across the night puddles phosphorescing with the glimmer of the Beaubourg escalator.''It's tremendous to be a creative person in French society which can spend a gazillion dollars to put up something grand like this, '' the composer added. ''The minus is that it's the only game in town. You have to play by their rules or not at all.''

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