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Sounding out the sonic frontier

WHAT would an orchestra of bullfrogs playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on bassoons sound like? The French Institute of Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music (IRCAM) is working on the answer. By studying why a tuba sounds different from a trombone when both play the same note, or why the buzzing of a bumblebee has hundreds of harmonic levels, the composers and scientists at IRCAM are exploring the frontiers of sound. They then use computers to turn their discoveries into music.

IRCAM, which is situated under le Centre Pompidou, has more than 20 composers in residence, advanced computers and sound synthesizers, and a unique commitment to musical composition. According to their director of musical research, Jean-Baptiste Barriere, IRCAM imagines the tools composers of the future might need, then invents them. ``The ideal would be to write the manual of what the machine does and how it does it before you invent the machine itself,'' he says. ``That's the kind of process we are accomplishing.''

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The institute wants to create a language that composers, scientists, and machines could all use to compose sonic poetry. Mr. Barriere explains: ``Using computer models, we take the vibrato of a voice and put it into a cello and see what happens. With a computer model we can interchange excitation patterns and resonance patterns and see what you get if you blow into a violin. You can imagine things that are totally fantastic, that you could never do in nature. When you understand more about the physics, you start to have totally new ideas.''

This collaboration of music and science began in 1978 when Georges Pompidou began planning the center for modern art that now bears his name. He called on Pierre Boulez to incorporate music and computers into the design. Mr. Boulez left his position as musical director of the New York Philharmonic to found IRCAM.

The four underground levels of IRCAM provide a variety of spaces for experimenting with sound, including seven studios, six laboratories, an anechoic chamber (an acoustically dead space), and a unique performance auditorium. In this experimental concert hall, the walls can be moved to create different acoustic spaces, and each wall has panels that can be adjusted to change the sonic environment from absorbing all sound to being an echo chamber. The center also has a very advanced musical computer, the 4X. Designed by the scientists of IRCAM, this machine can instantaneously imitate any sound, including that of a 1,000-piece orchestra.

IRCAM disseminates the creations of its composers with recordings and a traveling computer musical orchestra called ``Ensemble InterContemporain.'' The ensemble is touring the United States. Now in New York, it has visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. This tour is also the first time Pierre Boulez has played in the US since leaving the New York Philharmonic.

Brian Kruse-Smith is one American who talked his way into IRCAM. Having been trained in music and computers by composer Gordon Mumma at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and having studied at the computer music center at Stanford University, Mr. Kruse-Smith offered IRCAM a simple exchange: He would write computer instructions for it if it would permit him access to its ``toys.''

In the underground caverns of IRCAM he encountered a strange sonic environment. This house of sound is eerily silent: The walls are double-insulated, so that no stray noise will disturb the sounds being studied. There, no distinction is made between scientist and artist, and the process of musical composition is seen as simply researching and inventing sounds.

Above IRCAM's ceilings is the incredible sonic richness of the Paris soundscape; these are the sounds Kruse-Smith experiments with and turns into music. He works with the ``two-tone European cop-car siren,'' the clicking of high heels in the metro, the yelling of the hawkers in the markets, and the clicketyclack of trains.

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``My newest piece is taken from interviews with women who were very active in the Resistance, what these women did in their everyday life to get out from under a very oppressive system. One woman delivered forged papers in her baby carriage that helped smuggle British paratroopers out of France. She would take her baby for a stroll in the Tuilleries gardens in Paris, walk by the German guards, and say bonjour. No one would suspect a woman with a baby carriage. It's a silly thing, but it's a heroic thing.''

As part of this piece, he is building a digital spatial location instrument that would allow him to place speakers all over an auditorium and make the women's voices come from the stage, from the audience, from above and below, in a process he would make an integral part of the composition.

Kruse-Smith answers the criticism that this is oral history, not music, with Gordon Mumma's definition of music: ``Anything that is consumed as music, is music.'' ``The sound of a falcon cry in the mountains is incredible; you hear the echoes off the faces of the surrounding mountains. That can strike someone as strongly as the Ninth Symphony. Who is anybody to say it's not music?''

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