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Jean-Baptiste Barrière

Electronic devices for sound and video capture are not simply recorders; they modify reality. Not only do they send back images to us – literally and metaphorically – but they allow us, even force us, to get some distance from them, and therefore also allow us the possibility of taking up a new position in relation to them....

To allow new art to develop is to allow it to change us. What would be the use of art, if it was not to change the world, even just for a moment?

- Jean-Baptiste Barrière


      Born in Paris in 1958, Jean-Baptiste Barrière was just twenty-three when he joined the research team at IRCAM. His studies at the Sorbonne, in mathematical logic as well as music, had prepared him for a part in two of the institution’s early programming endeavors: CHANT, whose goal was to synthesize sounds like those of the singing voice, and FORMES, which had to do with structure and composition. Out of this work came the nine-minute piece we hear first on tonight’s program, Chréode. At the same time, Barrière acted as technical assistant to many of the composers who arrived to work at IRCAM, including Kaija Saariaho, who became his wife in 1984.

      He and Saariaho worked together that year on Collisions, a multi-media show directed by Pierre Friloux and Françoise Gedanken for the Ars Eletronica festival in Linz. Collaborations with visual artists, on video projects and virtual-reality installations, followed from this. With Friloux again he worked on Venus Hybrid, a sculpture incorporating video screens and computer music that was on view inside one of the piers of Brooklyn Bridge in 1988. Since then he has worked with some of the foremost exponents of virtual art, including Catherine Ikam and Louis Fléri (Le Messager, 1995; Alex, 1996), and Maurice Benayoun (numerous works, beginning with World Skin, 1997).

      In 1998 Barrière left IRCAM to concentrate on creative work, which by now included audio-visual presentations of his own – notably his Reality Checks series, to which Violance and Time Dusts belong. A new aspect of his work also opened up, purely visual: creating computer-generated video displays for concert performances of operas. He is currently composer-in-residence at the Columbia Computer Music Center.

      Often collaborative, nearly always multiform, frequently depending on interactions between live participants (whether musicians, dancers, or spectators) and computer- stored material, Barrière’s work does not lend itself easily to normal recording media – which makes this concert an especially rare and valuable event. Chréode appears in the Computer Music Currents series of CDs on Wergo, and his music for the Peter Green- away show 100 Objects to Represent the World (1997) is also available on CD. Some clips from later works are up on YouTube; further information may be found on his website.

Program Notes by Jean-Baptiste Barrière

Chréode (1983)
      Chréode,” or in English “creode,” is a term borrowed from biology, where it designates the developmental path of a cell as it takes its place in a tissue or organ. It serves here as a metaphor for a cross-systematic investigation of sonic materials and organizations. Though the sonic materials were created with care, attention is more on organization. Chréode is the first step towards a grammar of processes I wanted to try to elaborate.

      This research on musical processes, their fields of action and their limits, is a strategy of approaching the musical territory, as it has been renewed by the possibilities brought in by computers.

      A very general purpose of this project, using the CHANT and FORMES programs developed at IRCAM, was to experiment with different types of organization, and at a higher level to structure them in time and formally.

      The piece won the Prix de la Musique Numérique at the Concours International de Musique Electro-acoustique in Bourges in 1983. It is dedicated to the CHANT/FORMES project and to Kaija Saariaho.

Crossing the Blind Forest (2011, rev. 2014)
      Crossing the Blind Forest is a piece for flutes (bass flute and piccolo), electronics, and images, composed especially for and dedicated to Camilla Hoitenga, who gave the première in New York in September 2011. This evening, she is the recorded flutist, with Margaret Lancaster playing live.

      The piece is a kind of evocation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Les Aveugles (The Blind), itself based loosely on the similarly titled painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and is a revisiting and development of the flute materials I composed for the multimedia show Deux Songes de Maeterlinck d’après Bruegel (Two Dreams of Maeterlinck after Bruegel), first performed by Hoitenga at the Festival Les Musiques in Marseilles in May 2007.

      In this new piece, the flutist is in a certain way playing the character of the blind people lost in the forest, the people of the Maeterlinck play. She is lost in an unknown world, and must heighten all her sensations and skills in order to try to survive the dangers all around her.

      The virtuoso flute playing is challenged by sophisticated electronic transformations in an uncertain conflict, one whose outcome may be left open, undecided. Images, mix- ing cross-transformations of the live performance of the flutist with images of forests devastated by storm, are meant to represent and accompany this quest undertaken by means of the senses.

Violance (2003)
      “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” - Matthew ii.16

      Violance proceeds from the search for a new scenic and musical form, merging instrumental writing, images, texts, and sounds transformed by computer. The piece belongs to my Reality Checks cycle, which includes interactive installations, stage pieces, and concert works. All are investigations, by means of the senses, into questions of identity and representation in the digital age, as explored and renewed by bringing about dynamic interactions between artistic disciplines in computer-assisted creative work.

      This cycle includes, among other works, a piece for cello and electronics, Cellitude (a compound of “cello” and “solitude”), based on an old Japanese poem on the difficulty of distinguishing between dream and reality. Violance is its continuation in spirit, this time concerned with the idea of violence.

      The piece starts out from the Massacre of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s gospel, painted again by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and given a literary interpretation, after this painting by Maurice Maeterlinck, then a young poet. I have adapted Maeterlinck’s text to develop its universal dimension, outside of any religious and nationalistic context, and unfold its span for all times and places.

      Materials are staged, assembled, and processed, together with other sources from various origins, to propose an enigmatic re-reading, a mise en abîme altogether of the myth, the painting, and the poem, an attempt at an extra-temporal reflection on the representation of violence and war.

      A timeless African lullaby, computer-analyzed, produced melodic interpolations for the violin part and harmonic textures for the electronic. The “child’s voice” reciting the text is created in real time from that of Raphaële Kennedy, and the visual aspect combines prepared imagery with live capture.

      The work was commissioned by the French government and performed for the first time at the Théâtre de La Criée, Marseilles, in May 2003.

Time Dusts (2001, rev. 2014)
      Time Dusts reworks and develops percussion materials composed for Peter Greenaway’s show 100 Objects to Represent the World. Unloosed from their scenic context and from some related referential elements, they recover their abstract and formal nature, proceeding from musical ideas that are important to me, of timbral and rhythmic interpolations. The percussion materials also allowed me to develop, in this version commissioned and first presented by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in 2001, interactions between sonic and visual processes, which proceed from the same formal preoccupations. To conclude, they helped me in a quest for a form of abstract narrativity in music.

      A relatively restricted set of instruments (bell plate, low cow bell, and tympani, Korean gong, Chinese cymbal, log drum, bongos, temple blocks, snare drum, crotales), was chosen to represent the different timbre families on a sort of conceptual map. Categories defined as such were then used to elaborate interpolations, formal developments that constitute paths through the sonic material represented. A similar approach was carried out for rhythm, starting from archetypes, rhythmic characters.

      Music then proceeds from explorations of qualities of time, light, and color, and also of language games, these appearing progressively in the electronics.

      Each of the percussion player’s gestures is prolonged by the computer, triggering bits of language, processing of the sound of the instruments, synthesis of musical fragments, and also prepared sequences and processing of live images of the percussionist, as well as of different natural sources that were pre-recorded.

      Like Violance and Cellitude, Time Dusts belongs to the Reality Checks series, which stages interactive situations under the form of installations, as well as concert pieces under the form of performances, both based on the confrontation, in one case of the spectator, in the other of the musician, to his or her own reflection and its electronic becomings.

      Sounds and images, captured and transformed in real time, are mixed and interpolated with pre-recorded sources coming from percussion instruments and other origins, mainly natural.

      Thus the electronic involvement prolongs the instrumental writing, reveals a hidden becoming of the instruments (cf. Gérard Grisey: “Music is the becoming of sounds”). In this case, vowels and consonants prolong percussive attacks and resonances, quasi- obsessional pulsations and polyrhythms, to become figures in a musical dramaturgy that takes place at the borders of music, language, and image.

Ekstasis (2014)
      Louise Michel and Simone Weil: two women committed to the great struggles of their respective times, women whose lives, together with their political, philosophical, and poetic writings, offer us extraordinary testimonies. Two women, seemingly separated by many circumstances, but as one – especially in making us understand the necessity, unfortunately always renewed, of the fight, without any possible concession, against the unacceptable, in society as well as in our minds.

      Ekstasis, a piece for soprano, electronics, and video display, takes the form of a double portrait, or better, a cross-portrait, which oscillates between the background noise of the violence of the world and the internal silence of reflection, hesitates between engagement in armed struggle and withdrawal into the self in search of the absolute. Here are two experiences that proceed from the ekstasis, the “stepping aside,” outside of normality, or outside of the world, two feminine singularities asserting themselves during the era of the masses (cf. Elias Canetti: Masses and Power) to encounter the utopia of a reconciled community.

      These women knew, in the one case, the noise and the fury of the Commune, in the other that of the Second World War. Witnesses of the social violence of their times, they held great hopes, smashed in great disappointments. They knew, too, the uprooting of forced exile: imprisonment for the one, resulting in the revealing discovery of another oppressed culture in New Caledonia, and for the other an emigration that led to ultimate disillusion, exhaustion, and death in England.

      Ekstasis is built on two extremely strong and contrasted poems: “La Porte” (The Gate, 1941) by Simone Weil, and “Pensée dernière” (Last Thought, 1887) by Louise Michel. While Simone Weil evokes waiting at the threshold of the experience of the sacred, Louise Michel delivers the song of indignation and the exhortation to fight.

      The two women are incarnated by a single soprano, varying between registers and colors, a voice with two faces, a character with two dimensions, closely intertwined. Meanwhile, other fragments of the two women’s writings, related to the chosen poems, are sung by a recorded “choir” of the same soprano multi-tracked, processed and spatialized around the audience by electronic means.

      The electronics include a studio-recorded part, triggered during the performance, and a real-time part with transformations and de-multiplication of the voice, but also with voice synthesis, using especially the techniques developed at IRCAM and other musical research centers with which I have collaborated, such as the Computer Music Center at Columbia.

      The visual part extends the vocal and electronic sound in an abstract way, transport- ing in real time the face of the singer into virtual sets evoking the characters’ emotional evolution.