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Since it opened 31 years ago in Paris, a place called IRCAM has been a mecca and playground for classical composers and sound designers. IRCAM is an acronym spelled I-R-C-A-M. Roughly translated from the French, IRCAM stands for the Institute for Musical and Acoustic Research and Coordination. As part of our series this month on the impact of technology on music, Frank Browning took a peek inside IRCAM.

FRANK BROWNING: Central Paris is a noisy place. A few blocks from city hall, next to the colorful Pompidou Center stands a bland steel and glass building. Duck inside the IRCAM Sound Research Center, and what you hear is, well, nothing much.

Most of the sound science takes place underground in modest acoustic caves that line a couple of grey corridors. Inside those caves, sound technicians, designers, and composers, usually wearing headphones, punch at keyboards that might easily be confused for software engineers in Silicon Valley. High up on the sixth floor, where you can look down on architect Renzo Piano's famous Pompidou Plaza, IRCAM's director, Frank Madlener, describes what's going on down below.

Mr. FRANK MADLENER (Director, IRCAM): They're trying to mix artists, scientifics, and technology.

BROWNING: Madlener is not a musician, but he pushes his team of engineers and designers to continually rethink and challenge our basic notions of sound. Madlener says IRCAM always poses a simple question.

Mr. MADLENER: What's the relation between man and machine? How the electronics will follow a player?

BROWNING: IRCAM was created more than 30 years ago by the Pompidou Center as a kind of aesthetic lollipop to lure Pierre Boulez back to France from Germany, where he was well-established as one of the 20th century's preeminent composers.

(Soundbite of chimes)

BROWNING: Working at IRCAM, he wrote a piece that utilized orchestra musicians and the computer playing off each other. The piece was called "Repons."

(Soundbite of song "Repons")

BROWNING: Today, IRCAM's primary mission remains much the same, working with composers to realize their ideas through technology. Musicians are invited to come to Paris to work with the staff of 150 people. British composer Jonathan Harvey has been a frequent IRCAM collaborator. The research institute helped him compose a piece in which acoustic orchestra instruments fed through a computer create sounds that seem almost human.

(Soundbite of music)

BROWNING: Sound engineer Olivier Warusfel, who calls himself a scientist, is one of those guys who spends most days sequestered in an audio cave with a computer. He explains how acoustic instruments and electronics can work together.

Mr. OLIVIER WARUSFEL (Sound Engineer, IRCAM): We are mainly interested in mixed music, where you will have a real instrument on stage and virtual sound sources which can be coming directly from the computer. So you will have the player playing live, and the recorded sound will be transformed by a computer and then played back on an electro-acoustic system with several loudspeakers around the audience.

BROWNING: Another technique IRCAM is developing uses scores of small speakers lined up around a concert hall to create something called wave field synthesis, or WFS. It was designed to address a problem that's been brought to IRCAM over and over again, dead spots in concert halls. To actually hear the effect of wave field synthesis, you have to be inside a WFS hall, where, no matter where you're sitting, you're enveloped but not deafened by the sound produced by those carefully-placed speakers.

Mr. MADLENER: You don't see them. They are hidden.

BROWNING: Frank Madlener

Mr. MADLENER: And then you walk, and you can hear sounds. It's very magical.

BROWNING: Mixing the real and the virtual has become a signature for IRCAM sound scientists. But it's not just for the rarefied world of the concert hall. IRCAM regularly contracts with companies like Sony and other film studios on proprietary inventions. It even advised car maker Renault on how to match the sound of its car doors closing to the company's marketing imagery.

Perhaps the most accessible IRCAM project so far is still in the computer. The research center is creating a sonar garden along with landscapers in Central Paris. What visitors will hear on entering the park will change according to how many people are there, what time of day it is, the season, or even whether it's cloudy or rainy. But that's still a year or two away. For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

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