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The Essay
Show #243
Reinventing IRCAM
David Gunn

The big red house with the little blue door and external escalators at 1 Place Igor-Stravinsky in one of the odder sectors of Paris is called IRCAM. Depending on which side of the pate one tilts his beret, it stands for either Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique-Musique, or the Implementation of Rats and Cheese in Adobe Muffins. While a fine line has always existed between experimental music and cooking, IRCAM was the first to totally blur it, probably because its origins had little to do with either discipline. The current artistic director, Eric De Visscher, is loathe to admit it, but the joint's history is less steeped in musical or gastronomic innovation than in piscine photography. Our story begins on a cloudy Saturday in 1961. It was April in Paris, but conditions were wholly unlike those in the song. Charles de Gaulle, then president of the Fifth Republic, had just traded the Champs Élysées for a Zanzibarian clove factory. Hedgehogs on their weekly furlough from the Marne River Porcupine Research Centre had refused to return, and had instead scattered throughout the city, taking several television personalities hostage. More importantly, Pierre Boulez had just arrived on the ferry from New York, where he'd been studying at the famous Midtown Culinary Institute, learning to perfect what later would become his world renowned "Blancmange Boulez" and "Pirogies á la Pierre." Better known in those days for his borscht than his baton, Boulez had traveled to France to learn the secret of tuna salad from the birthplace of the genre itself, a tiny seafood café on the Parisian waterfront, Les Fishes Fraîches. Surrounded by huge, diesel fuel-spewing trawlers and annoyed hedgehogs, Boulez thought that the eatery's ambiance was more akin to a landlocked industrial park. But first appearances could be deceiving, he explained in a letter to his culinary chums back in New York, so he pushed open the door and strode in. The sight that greeted him could have come straight out of a bad Kafka dream. A dozen very short people in latex crow suits were sitting in a circle on the floor playing a very loud card game. The cacophony, which was akin to quatre cents hiboux essayant à déjoue une blaireau géante sous la pluie, made figuring out the game impossible. Suddenly, the door to the kitchen burst open and in came a man wearing scuba gear, followed by a director, a best boy, a props man, a sound engineer, and a make-up artist -- the minimum requirements for a film crew. Apparently, the scuba man was the cinematographer, because he carried a Panavision movie camera encased in what looked like translucent plaster. The director motioned for silence, and got it. The crow-suited people put down their cards and watched attentively. The waitress stopped loudly attending to a patron to whom she'd served a plate of pemmicans. Even Pierre momentarily forgot about his tuna salad quest. The director then nodded to the props man, who dumped a hundred pygmy narwhals into the café's otherwise empty lobster tank. The cameraman clambered in after them. After setting up an underwater light bar and positioning his camera, he gave the thumbs-up signal to the director, who immediately cried out "Faites avec l'action s'il vous plaît!" -- the Parisian equivalent of "action!" The tusked sea critters heard and obeyed, commencing a slow-motion, synchronized quadrille. It was elegant but chilling, an unearthly pas de cent performed by creatures that rarely consent to being filmed. Fearful any incidental noise might break the spell, the onlookers held their breaths, and the only sound in the café was the intermittent air bubble from the cameraman's breathing apparatus. Finally, after the narwhals had gone through their routine six times, the director yelled "cut!" But the props man, accustomed to a French command, misunderstood and instead dumped the bucket of piranha into the tank. Startled, the scuba man

IRCAM, by the way, enjoys a "special relationship" with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a group that caters to modern musical works, no surprise there. But did you know that "Intercontemporain" is an acronym for Indécrottable nouilles terrible et ranse comestible outré néfaste trés expérimental musique pour odieux ramure a ironie nouveau, or "Terribly incorrigible chowderheads and excessively rancid provisions: Very ill-fated experimental music for obnoxious antlers of new irony?" Well, if you did, then you’re probably ready for the rest of this 243rd episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, possibly even readier than is, say, Kalvos.