Boulez, IRCAM, and Bayreuth

In January 1977, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) officially opened its doors to the public. The occasion was marked by a series of important concerts entitled “Passage du XXe siècle” celebrating the music of the 20th century. Part of the Centre Georges Pompidou (CGP), IRCAM is a music center that focuses on computer music production and computer music research. It began as President Pompidou’s vision of a cultural center in Paris that would improve France’s prestige abroad and at home, which along with a music center included a Museum of Modern Art, a large public library, and a center of industrial design. President Pompidou chose Pierre Boulez to create and lead the new music center, since Boulez was France’s most revered musician and composer – even if Boulez had left France after a bitter argument with the former Minister of Culture André Malraux. When Boulez began planning the music center in 1970, he had two models: the Bayreuth Festival and Bauhaus. I will focus on how and why the Bayreuth Festival became a model for Boulez, since Bayreuth seems like an unlikely model for an experimental music research center.

IRCAMphoto4

The IRCAM building (seen above) and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus look nothing alike, but Boulez nevertheless saw Bayreuth as a model for IRCAM.

Boulez’s thoughts about creating a new music research center can be traced back to a talk that he gave in Saint-Etienne in May 1968, at the same time that student and worker protests were erupting throughout France (Born 1995). Entitled “Where Are We Now?,” Boulez’s talk calls for sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France:

Contemporary music in fact demands the intelligent participation of the audience … but our concert-hall arrangement, and indeed the whole character of our musical life, implies, as I have said, an attitude of worship … I believe that solutions to this problem can be found only in a common undertaking in which each individual will have his own part to play. I am quite clear in my mind that musicians by themselves cannot solve these problems … but they alone will be capable of determining the direction of any new discovery (Boulez 1986: 462).

Boulez concludes that composers, musicians, and scientists must work together to create new sounds and a new musical language that is shared by musicians and listeners alike.

When Boulez gave this talk in 1968, he had already conducted Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, an experience that had a profound effect on his understanding of music and its place in society. After collaborating with Wieland Wagner on a production of Berg’s Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Opera in April 1966, Boulez accepted Wieland’s invitation to conduct Parsifal at Bayreuth later that year. Both Wieland and Boulez set out to capture a sonic equivalent of the New Bayreuth style, stripping away the layers of tradition that had accumulated at the festival. It seemed all the more shocking then when Boulez said in a 1967 interview in Spiegel that “blow[ing] up the opera houses … would be the best solution.” When asked to comment on his appearances in Bayreuth, Boulez explained that the Bayreuth Festival is an exception – that Bayreuth is a site for experimentation and innovation, since it is not bound by the same constraints as other opera houses.

(In the 1966 Parsifal at Bayreuth, Boulez provided the sonic equivalent of Wieland Wagner’s New Bayreuth style, stripping away old layers of tradition at Bayreuth.)

In Boulez’s writings on Wagner, he frequently repeats his argument that Bayreuth is not bound by the constraints of traditional opera houses. In his essay “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works” (1975), Boulez writes that Wagner “overturned the existing language of music as well as of the opera” (223), which required not only a different performance space but also a new school of singing. Boulez states that Wagner finally accomplished this task with the Bayreuth Festival. Yet Wagner died shortly afterward, and Bayreuth “was soon to become a blindly conservative rather than an exploratory institution” (229). Here Boulez’s discussion of Wagner’s new musical language mirrors his own call for a new musical language and research center in the 1968 Saint-Etienne talk. In other words, Boulez’s experiences in Bayreuth shaped his plans for IRCAM.

The events leading up to IRCAM’s opening unfolded at the very same time that Boulez was working on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. (See my post on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring.) Wolfgang Wagner, who had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland’s death in 1966, approached Boulez in May 1972 to conduct the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. As documented by Dominique Jameux, Boulez’s nomination as head of the new music center was finalized in 1972 (Jameux 1991). In March 1974, Boulez held a press conference at which he publicly announced the future opening of IRCAM and discussed the center’s organization. There were to be four departments, to which a further one was later added: electro-acoustics (led by Luciano Berio), instruments and voice (Vinko Globokar), computer theory (Jean-Claude Risset), administration (Gerald Bennett), and pedagogy (Michel Decoust). Such a comprehensive music center was unheard of at the time, and Boulez’s selection of personnel was a sign that he wanted a diversity of viewpoints, a collaboration between a group of composers and theorists. In 1975, Boulez published a collection of essays (La Musique en projet) outlining IRCAM’s aims and objectives. The key point of the articles was that musicians and scientists must work together to discover new sounds and musical forms. Later that year, Boulez received additional funding to establish the center’s own ensemble, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Henceforth, an important aspect of IRCAM became the training of musicians to perform new music and the creation of a concert series in which the public could be educated about new music. The importance of education and communication with the audience were ideas that Boulez had initially articulated in his 1968 talk in Saint-Etienne.

The simultaneous unfolding of both IRCAM’s opening and the Bayreuth Centennial Ring was much more than a temporal coincidence. At IRCAM, Boulez was guided by the idea of Bayreuth as a music center existing outside of the traditional opera and concert-going system. At Bayreuth, Boulez approached Wagner’ music through the lens of IRCAM’s aim of discovering a new music language. In conclusion, the founding of IRCAM and Boulez’s experiences at Bayreuth were inextricably connected: we cannot understand the one without the other. Commentators at the time were also quick to make this connection, likening the construction site of the subterranean IRCAM building to Nibelheim (Jameux 1991). (See photos of the IRCAM construction site here.)

Next year, when we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of IRCAM, we should also remember this connection between IRCAM and the Bayreuth Festival, which was one of Boulez’s greatest accomplishments.

Further Reading:

Born, Georgina. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Where Are We Now?” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 445-463. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works.” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 223-230. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Jameux, Dominique. Pierre Boulez, translated by Susan Bradshaw. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. [Link to book]

(This blog post is based on Chapter Four of my dissertation. All rights reserved.) 

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