Jean-Claude Risset at CCRMA

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see composer and computer-music pioneer Jean-Claude Risset present a concert of his work at CCRMA at Stanford. Risset has made numerous contributions to sound analysis and synthesis, notably his extension of Shepard Tones to continuously shifting pitches. The sound of the “Shepard-Risset glissando” where pitches ascend or descend and are replaced to give the illusion of a sound that ascends or descends forever. You can hear an example here, or via the video below.

Sadly, I arrived slightly late and missed much of the first piece Duo for one pianist (1989-1992), featuring Risset himself on a Yamaha Disklavier piano. The duo comes from the computer control of the piano simultaneous to the live human performer. It’s not a simple computer-based accompaniment part, but rather a duo in which the actions of the live performer are interpreted by a program (written in an early version of Max) and inform the computer response in real-time.

The remainder of the concert features works for multichannel tape. The first of these pieces, Nuit (2010): from the tape of Otro (L’autre) featured eight channels with meticulous sound design and spatialization. The ethereal sounds at the start of the piece sounded like either frequency-modulation (FM) or very inharmonic additive synthesis (actually, FM can be represented as inharmonic partials in additive synthesis, so hearing both techniques makes sense). Amidst these sounds there emerged the deep voice of Nicholas Isherwood speaking in French, and then later in English as well – I specifically recalled the phrase “a shadow of magnitude.” Surrounding the vocal part was a diverse palette of sounds including low machine noise, hits of percussion and wind tones, a saxophone trill, tubular bells and piano glissandi. There were examples of Shepard-Risset glissandi towards the end of the piece.

The next piece Kaleidophone (2010) for 16-channel tape begins with similar glissandi, providing an interesting sense of continuity. In this instance, they were ascending, disappearing at the top of the range and re-emerging as low tones. Above this pattern a series of high harmonics emerged, like wispy clouds. The glissandi eventually switched to both up and down motions, and subsequently followed by a series of more metallic tones. At one point, a loud swell emerged reminiscent of the distinctive THX announcement at the start of most movies; and a series of percussive tones with discrete hits but continuous pitch changes, getting slower and slower. There was a series of piano-like sounds with odd intonations played more like a harp, followed by gong-like sounds reminiscent of gamelan music but with very artificial pitches and speeds. Industrial metallic sounds gave way to a section of tense orchestral music, and the long tones that subtly and gradually became more noisy and inharmonic. A sound like crackling fire seemed to channel the early electronic pieces by Iannis Xenakis. Highly-comb filtered environmental sounds gave way to eerie harmonies. They constantly changing sounds lull the listener in a calm state before starting him or her with a burst of loud noise (perhaps the most intense moment in the entire concert). This was followed by machine noises set against a sparse pattern of wind pipes, and a large cloud of inharmonic partials concluded the piece. I had actually not looked in advance at the subtitle in the program of “Up, Keyboards, Percussion I, Percussion II, Winds, Water, Fire, Chorus, Eole” – but my experience of the piece clearly reflected the section titles from perception alone.

The final piece Five Resonant Sound Spaces for 8-channel tape began with orchestral sounds, bells and low brass, gongs (or tam tam), timpani. The sounds seemed acoustic at first, but gradually more hints of electronics emerged: filtering, stretching and timbral decomposition. A low drone overlaid with shakers and tone swells actually reminded me eerily of one of my own pieces Edge 0316 which was based on manipulations of ocean-wave recordings and a rainstick. This image was broken by a trombone swell and the emergency of higher-pitched instruments. The overall texture moved between more orchestral music and dream-like water electronics. A series of fast flute runs narrowed to a single pure-tone whistle, which then turned into something metallic and faded to silence. All at once, loud shakers emerged and granular manipulations of piano sounds – more specifically, prepared piano with manual plucking of strings inside the body and objects used to modify the sound. The sound of a large hall, perhaps a train station, with its long echoes of footsteps and bits of conversation was “swept away” by complex electronic sounds and then melded together. A series of high ethereal sounds seemed to almost but not quite be ghostly voices, but eventually resolved the clear singing voices, both male and female. The voices gave way to dark sounds like gunfire, trains and a cacophony of bells – once again, channeling the early electronic work of Xenakis. A breath sound from a flute was set against a diversity of synthesized sounds that covered a wide ground, before finally resolving to a guitar-like tone.

The concert was immediately followed by a presentation and discussion by Risset about his music. His presentation, which included material from a documentary film as well as live discussion covered a range of topics, including using Max and the Disklavier to perform humanly impossible music with multiple tempi; and marrying pure sound synthesis with the tradition of musique concrete, with nods to pioneers in electronic music including Thaddeus Cahill, Leon Theremin, Edgard Varese, and Max Matthews (who was present at the concert and talk). He also talked about the inspiration he draws from the sea and landscape near his home in Marseilles. The rocky shoreline and sounds from the water in the video did remind me a lot of coastal California and made it even less surprising that we could come up with pieces with very similar sounds. He went on to describe his 1985 piece SUD in more detail, which used recordings of the sea as a germinal motive that was copied and shifted in various ways. Percussion lines were drawn from the contours, he also made use of sounds of birds and insects, including the observation that crickets in Marseilles seem to sing on F sharp. I did have a chance to talk briefly with Risset after the reception about our common experience of composing music inspired by coastal landscapes.

Overall, this was an event I am glad I did not miss.

3 thoughts on “Jean-Claude Risset at CCRMA

  1. Very interesting indeed. I can hear the pitch going up (or down), but the range (low to high) isn’t big.

    Risset came all the way from Marseilles? It is a rare occasion to hear his music and talk to him. It’s not everyday that you can go to Marseilles.

  2. I was also struck by the amazing resemblance between the Marseilles coastline and and the southern reaches of Big Sur.

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