Vol. 24 Issue 2 Reviews
IRCAM@Columbia 1999
Columbia University, New York City, 15-21 November 1999

This past November, Columbia University hosted a series of concerts, lectures, and workshops by IRCAM in New York City. The concerts took place on Monday, November 15 and Thursday, November 18 at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, and featured the compositions of Jonathan Harvey, Magnus Lindberg, and Tristan Murail. The lectures and workshops were presented on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, November 19-21. These included participation by several prominent IRCAM personalities, including Pierre Boulez, Laurent Bayle, Eric De Visscher, Andrew Gerzso, Mikhaïl Malt, and Manuel Poletti. The following text reviews each of the week’s events.

The Music of Jonathan Harvey
Ensemble 21; techical assistance, IRCAM

Reviewed by Christopher Bailey (New York, New York, USA)

The first concert of IRCAM@Columbia was devoted to the music of composer Jonathan Harvey; the works performed ranged from fairly recent (1994) to relatively well-established (1980). Mr. Harvey has had several residencies at IRCAM, and the influence of the techniques he has learned and utilized there could be heard both directly, in the case of works featuring electronics, like Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco and Tombeau de Messiaen, and indirectly, in the case of works like The Riot and Nataraja.

The latter, a fiery duet for flute and piano, opened the concert, played brilliantly (as was the entire program) by Ensemble 21. As is often the case, the pianist was utilized in every piece; and this pianist, Ensemble 21's co-director and rising star on the new music performance scene, Marilyn Nonken, deserves special kudos for her unceasing energy and vitality in performance throughout the evening. Nataraja is a work filled with wonderfully varied textures and scintillating instrumental writing, weaved together into a clear, satisfying kinetic-formal design. This listener heard perhaps a whiff of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mantra (Mr. Harvey, as you may be aware, wrote the book The Music of Stockhausen: an Introduction), especially in the way the music, on occasion, would suddenly become obssessively repetitive. The "indirect" relation to the composer's IRCAM residencies could be heard in the work's tasteful use of spectral techniques.

Nataraja is a piece with several dance-like scenes; The Riot (flute, bass clarinet and piano) seems to take "the dance" as its basic raison d'etre. From the title you might expect some chaotic din to be the principle mode of expression, but in fact, it's a much more controlled gathering of thematic characters. The main formal gist of the piece seems to be a series of clear sections (though with very smooth elisions between them), each based more upon a textural idea than a thematic one: irregular dance-like figures, upwards sequences (reminiscent, perhaps, of Shepard's tones), etc. Just as Nataraja and Mortuos Plango (as discussed below) contain bits of homage to Stockhausen, so The Riot, perhaps owing to its orchestration and its dance-like nature, owes a small debt to Stravinsky: the opening of the piece sounds somewhat like Symphonies for Wind Instruments.

Likewise (and obviously), Tombeau de Messiaen, for piano and tape, contains hints, in its block harmonies and birdsong-like rhythmic patterns, of the master to whom it is dedicated. The use of microtones, though, actually sets it quite apart from Messiaen. Tombeau is an effective piece, featuring the ringing, beating relationships between justly-intoned chords on the tape and their equal-tempered almost-alikes in the piano.

Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, for recorded quadrophonic sound, is quite an old piece, hailing from 1980; its somewhat dated techniques might cause a few groans from the most hard-core computer-music nerds, but, like another old quadraphonic work, Gesang der Jünglinge (Mr. Stockhausen again), it is still very effective musically and formally. The piece is based upon the sounds of a huge cathedral bell and a boy soprano Personally, I find myself waiting for the haunting final moments, a simple texture consisting of the ringing bell with vocal interjections multiplied into the gorgeous spectral chord derived from the bell itself. Concerning the "performance" of the piece, it was lovely. The IRCAM technical team had Miller Theatre set up for thorough sonic immersion.

The last work on the program was Song Offerings, for soprano and chamber ensemble. Though it offered many sonic beauties, this work satisfied me less, due either to a less-than-stellar performance by the soprano, Judith Bettina, or perhaps to a deeper issue: the appropriateness of a traditional operatic singing style to Mr. Harvey's musical aesthetic. Specifically, his meticulous manipulation of harmony and pitch seems to clash with the inevitable "devil-may-care" (what pitch is being sung) vibrato of a classically-trained singer. The parts of the cycle that were most successful were the chanted sections: Movement 1, for example, which contains mono-pitched chants over a constantly changing harmonic-timbral complex; and the last movement, where the singer seemed to use less vibrato, at least at the beginning. The instrumental writing was beautiful as always, especially the music in between the verses of the text during the last movement.

Works by Magnus Lindberg and Tristan Murail
Ensemble Sospeso; technical assistance, IRCAM

Reviewed by Oliver Schneller (New York, New York, USA)

Throughout the past two decades, IRCAM has been an expanding forum for collaboration, exchange, and innovation, and a trigger for a broad range of technological applications in music. It seems that such an integration of the creative powers of researchers, engineers, composers, and instrumentalists has become a productive model leading to some of the most interesting pieces in recent contemporary music. Perhaps it is relevant to note that both featured composers of this evening's concert had been important members of collaborative associations before they came to IRCAM: Magnus Lindberg in the Finnish "Ears open!" Society, and Tristan Murail in L'Itinéraire, an ensemble of composers and instrumentalists.

Composers who visit IRCAM today often learn similar things to what they would elsewhere. However, it is in the way they are subsequently enabled to implement this knowledge in their creative work and in the collaboration with the programmers and engineers that the primary contribution of IRCAM to contemporary musical composition lies. The differences between creative personalities remain untouched by the exposure to the possibilities IRCAM has to offer, as became evident in listening to the music of Mr. Lindberg and Mr. Murail.

Mr. Lindberg's Related Rocks (1997), for two pianists, two percussionists and electronics, opened the concert with a bang that builds, a formal trajectory that is frequently found in his works. Pianists Stephen Gosling and Eric Huebner and percussionists Tom Color and Pablo Rieppi performed this piece with breathtaking agility. The electronics, brilliantly managed throughout the concert by IRCAM's Eric Daubresse and David Poissonier, need subtle balancing since the soundfiles, triggered by the pianists on MIDI keyboards, must often fuse with the dense textures in the percussion or piano parts. However, the transformations of these sounds–derived from a Baroque cello and the rather rare sounds of the physical destruction of a grand piano–often remain outside the initially somewhat minimalist sonic world established by the pianos and percussions. Clearly, the composer is more concerned with the layering and interaction of heterogeneous materials than with their fusion to form a hybrid compound. Later, this process, with its restless activity across all registers, translates into a rapid and frivolous juxtaposition of identifiable stylistic allusions–Chopin, rock, boogie-woogie–with cartoon-music-like pacing.

It would be safe to say that the attributes of the second piece on the program, Mr. Murail's Bois flotté for amplified ensemble and electronics, also from 1997, are the direct opposite of those of Related Rocks. Here, the form unfolds like a slow motion sequence, occasionally punctuated by sonic "pillars" of resonant depths. Following the captivating opening–a calm, chorale-like progression of overlapping sonorities (derived from a microscopic analysis of water sounds)–most of the remaining sources are easily identifed as being reminiscent of water sounds: trickling, droplets, waves breaking on a shore. The electronic metamorphosis of these sounds and the way the ensemble music is composed around them turns their familiarity into the clarity of scintillating musical gestures mediated by quiet transitions. The material is economic yet rich in color. Compared to other compositions by Mr. Murail, the pre-recorded sounds have a great deal of weight and space in Bois flotté. Perhaps the title gives a clue: the wood (ensemble) "afloat" on an undulating surface of electronic sounds in constant motion.

Mr. Lindberg's Ur (1986), for amplified ensemble and electronics, features the rapid-fire world of extreme horizontal and vertical density that characterizes many of his earlier pieces for orchestra. Ur is intricately composed in such a way that one often seems to be hearing more than the five instruments it is scored for. Like Related Rocks, the piece is relentless in its bold perpetuum mobile energy. The music does not shy away from the plentiful use of extended techniques and there is a remarkable episode where the cello's lowest string is de-tuned. The virtuosity of the ensemble writing is at times engaged in a challenge against the potentially overpowering electronics, and much of the sustenance of the piece derives from the composer's keen sense for the dramaturgical disposition of his forces. The piece certainly lives up to its title; 'ur' in German implies being of archaic origin or energy.

Mr. Murail's L'esprit des dunes (1993-94), for amplified ensemble and electronics (sampled sounds triggered by a MIDI keyboard), starts with a characteristic ascending figure that is passed back and forth between the oboe and the sampled sounds, mediated by the flute. Over the course of the piece the origin of this motif is progressively revealed by the gradual accumulation of partial-strata that occasionally fill in the whole spectrum at sonorous anchor points. In the composer's words: "There is melody within a single pitch; the melody is created through the pitch's harmonics. It's both a sound and a melody. And while the opening notes of the oboe constitute a phrase, it is also a sound." The origin of the motif is in fact a snippet from an overtone "melody" found in Mongolian chant, a tradition that can be described as the art of creating (overtone-) melodies out of a single (sung) pitch. The vocal paradigm is felt in various forms throughout the piece: strands of kinetic energy that produce a pattern of tension and release; the alternation of compact and diffuse ensemble writing with the occasional appearance of re-synthesized Tibetan chant; the overall dynamic curve of the form make the piece breathe in a curiously organic way.

All four pieces received superb, energetic, and imaginative performances by the Ensemble Sospeso under their excellent conductor, Jeffrey Milarsky (Bois flotté and L'esprit des dunes were American premieres). The integration of the exemplary musicianship of the ensemble under Mr. Milarsky and the expertise of the IRCAM sound engineers made the evening a great success.

IRCAM Forum @ Columbia: Lectures, Conversations, Demos

Reviewed by Douglas Geers (New York, New York, USA)

On Friday, 19 November, several of IRCAM’s most noteworthy denizens presented a day of lectures and demonstrations regarding current activities there. The day-long events were free and open to the public, and an impressive crowd of over 300 people attended. The highlight of the day was Pierre Boulez’s conversation with Eric De Visscher. No doubt, Mr. Boulez’s participation helped attract the large audience, and it seemed that many in the crowd were inexperienced at computer music and the activities of IRCAM. Thus, these lectures provided an excellent opportunity to inform the wider community about the creative possibilities of computer music and, more specifically, what IRCAM has done to promote these.

After a brief introduction by Thanassis Rikakis, Associate Director of the Columbia University Computer Music Center, Laurent Bayle, Director of IRCAM, delivered a lecture entitled "IRCAM Today and Tomorrow." In his talk, Mr. Bayle discussed IRCAM’s current activities in several areas, including composition, research, and education. To the non-computer musicians in the audience, this lecture was probably quite informative; however, to those of us familiar with IRCAM, it did not contribute many new ideas.

Next, Andrew Gerzso, IRCAM Forum Manager and Technical Assistant to Pierre Boulez, spoke about the IRCAM Software Forum. He explained how and why the Forum originated, it’s development to the present day, and the benefits of membership. I think he spent a bit too much time on demographics and statistics; rather than intriguing the audience with creative possibilites, it was a business-type report. In general, I think both of these lectures would have benefited from some condensation and a more conversational delivery, especially given the non-specialist nature of their audience.

After Mr. Gerzso’s lecture, Pierre Boulez took the stage with Eric De Visscher, Artistic Director of IRCAM. Mr. Boulez was in New York to lead a series of performances at Carnegie Hall, where he is now the Composer-in-Residence. Mr. Boulez, a charming and witty speaker, began by discussing his first experiences with electronic music at GRM, working with Pierre Schaeffer. He stated that his early enthusiasm for musique concrète had diminished as he performed his early experiments there. To him, Mr. Schaeffer’s compositional methodologies and techniques were not a sophisticated enough match for instrumental music.

Mr. Boulez also criticized the early synthesized electronic music of others, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, because the timbres were too simple for his taste. However, he became intrigued by electronics once again after hearing Mr. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. The combination of recorded and synthesized sounds in this work was deamed successful. During the early 1960s, Mr. Boulez attempted some works using electronics, including a piece for orchestra and tape which he has since withdrawn. Once again, he was not satisfied. He told the audience that he eventually decided not to work with sounds on tape and to wait until electronics could be more responsive.

Mr. Boulez continued by describing his conception of IRCAM and his efforts to make it a reality. He mentioned that he had tried strenuously to ensure that his vision was not compromised. He achieved this by making IRCAM a unique entity–that is, not a subsidiary of any other cultural organization. As a result, funding and decision-making do not need to be funneled through additional layers of bureaucracy. He also reiterated that the focus of IRCAM should remain on the composers and helping them realize their music.

Mr. Boulez spoke for approximately 45 minutes, fielded some questions, then dashed off to another rehearsal. His performances that week with the Ensemble InterContemporain featured an all-Boulez program including the American premiere of Anthémes 2, for violin and electronics.

The remainder of Friday’s lectures focused on software developed at IRCAM and available through the Forum: Audiosculpt, OpenMusic, Max/MSP, and Spat. First, Mr. Gerzso introduced Audiosculpt, an elegant graphic interface for manipulating the time and frequency data of soundfiles. His presentation was clear, brisk, and peppered with clever, humorous comments. Next, Mikhaïl Malt gave a talk on OpenMusic, a graphical compositional sketchpad program and successor to Patchwork. The final speaker of the day was Manuel Poletti, who discussed Max, MSP, and the Spatialisateur. The last of these is an impressive algorithm that can be utilized from within Max, capable of eight channel spatialization (more channels are possible if one has a powerful enough computer with the appropriate soundcard). Mr. Poletti concluded by creating an impressive and hilarious demonstration, simulating the sound of one’s apartment during a rainy evening in Paris.

IRCAM Forum @ Columbia: Workshops

Reviewed by Elaine Thomazi Freitas (New York, New York, USA)

Closing the week of IRCAM activities at Columbia University were two days of workshops on IRCAM techniques and software at the Columbia Computer Music Center. These workshops gave 48 participants the possibility to examine more closely IRCAM's universe of computer-assisted composition and real-time systems. Within the same time-frame as the IRCAM Summer Academy, these two days of hands-on activities provided a sort of "fast-food" instructional approach to a very heterogeneous group of students. The workshops focused on AudioSculpt and OpenMusic, Max/MSP, and Spat, under the instruction of Mikhaïl Malt and Manuel Poletti.

The participants spanned a wide range of backgrounds and experience: Columbia University graduate students; faculty and students from other U.S. institutions such as MIT, University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, University of Iowa, Connecticut College, and others; industry representatives; and several independent computer music composers, including Judy Klein, David Gomper, and Daniel Oppenheim. Obviously, there is an increasing interest of American composers and technicians in IRCAM activities.

Both Mr. Malt and Mr. Poletti showed the basics to all the software in a very friendly atmosphere. In fact, that almost became a problem, since everybody would have loved to be able to spend at least one day on each of the workshops. But this happens at the workshops in Paris as well, and maybe it is a part of their merchandising policy. Moreover, the attendees were mostly rather experienced computer musicians, and thus did not need to be taught the basics of the software; but that is something to be considered for later occasions.

The students were divided into two groups of 24, each seated in a room with several G4 Macintosh computers with headphones and all the IRCAM software installed, so that they could work along with the instructor. This provided for lively exchanges between students and instructors, and proved quite effective.

Going back to the software itself, OpenMusic, an object-oriented environment based on Common Lisp, has been designed as the successor to Patchwork. It is visually attractive and features the ease of a colorful graphical interface, good for those moments of "what's next?"

Musically speaking, most of the old Patchwork libraries are incorporated into OpenMusic, and it seems to be not that difficult to translate old personal projects to the new environment. One novelty is Maquette, a graphical interface for arranging musical materials. This brings to the screen those old sketches every composer once made, and that some people still use. The idea of creating some sense of layered space is quite interesting, even though it gives us the idea of searching for a new musical notation. But the main point is that it is possible to touch the musical material directly (patches, MIDI files, soundfiles, or even another maquette), within a time-oriented structure.

AudioSculpt is software for the analysis, processing, and spectral editing of sound signals based on phase vocoding. It is supplied with a great graphic interface, perfect for scrutinizing the spectrogram of a given sound. AudioSculpt was designed to pass analysis data to Patchwork for compositional manipulations. It also works well with OpenMusic, allowing not-so-technical people to manage their materials in an intuitively musical approach. However, considering that AudioSculpt is a relatively old piece of software, it seems that not much has been done with its technical development lately. Of course, the short time-span of the workshops was not enough to show and try everything, but it was very nice to learn a few tricks without reading the manuals. This is such a rich program, however, that it was very tempting to go back to the lab afterwards to explore more of its possibilities.

The Max environment, now enhanced by MSP, still offers many possibilities for those interested in creating interactive works. Max, a graphically based software for real-time and interactive applications, has been the main tool for MIDI control and interactive multimedia environments for nearly a decade. MSP works as a set of Max extensions which add audio capabilities to it (allowing synthesis, analysis, and processing of audio signals in real-time). The workshop was introductory in character, pointing out a few interesting details for building patches and presenting ideas for expanding the musical horizon with the collaboration of visual artists, dancers, and others. Nothing concrete, though, was presented in that field.

The Real-Time team has recently given birth to an amazing new device named Spat (Spatialisateur), a well-conceived Max patch. As suggested by its name, Spat creates the idea of a virtual space, allowing the composer to have precise control over the positioning and projection of sound. Even though it is supposed to work fine both in stereo and in quadraphonic environments, it achieves its most perfect level of virtual reality when used in a quadraphonic system. The great thing to note is that its spatial conception comes from psychoacoustic research instead of physical data, resulting in a more realistic acoustic experience. In terms of interest, the choice to close the week-long activities of IRCAM@Columbia with Spat was a very good one; the participants went home with a good reference for starting new projects, improving current ones, or revising old ones. And that was perhaps the main purpose of this event.