In the basement under Place Igor Stravinsky, IRCAM’s Espace de Projection is a temple for ‘spatial’ and music research, and the beating heart of IRCAM. Since 1977, it has been the stage and laboratory for a multitude of landmark works, technological innovations, formal inventions and unique interdisciplinary adventures. From Pierre Boulez to Natasha Barrett, Georges Aperghis and Olivia Grandville, a subjective retrofuturist journey, to mark the recent re-opening following works of a venue heralding a new world of sound.
‘This space is not really a concert venue, but it is equipped to project sound, light, audiovisual and any other possible events, not necessarily linked to traditional instruments’, said Pierre Boulez, the venue’s designer (with architect Renzo Piano) in 1978, during the inauguration of IRCAM’s Espace de Projection (‘Espro’ for those in the know), which had opened the previous September. At a time when the punk movement was beginning to send shockwaves through King’s Road in London and Les Halles in Paris, other musical revolutions were about to surface from this underground venue. Located 16 metres under Place Stravinsky, and accessible via an endless staircase, Espace de Projection was like a box with mobile walls and ceilings, thanks to its famous périactes. Named after a theatrical device of Greek tragedy, périactes are 3-sided prism-shaped modules (absorbent, reflective and dispersive) enabling all sorts of acoustic adventures. An ‘enormous cube of impressive volume’* recalls Eric de Visscher, Artistic Director of IRCAM from 1997 to 2003, a cocoon which began as a subject of study in itself, according to Olivier Warusfel, Head of IRCAM’s Acoustics and Cognitive team, which he joined in 1983. ‘In the 1980s, the aim was to carry out research on architectural acoustics with a special focus on auditory perception. Not only to measure, model, and judge the acoustic quality of a concert hall, but also to understand how hearing can be an important dimension in representing ourselves in space, in representing space itself. Sound events enable us to situate ourselves in space, in the same way as sight does. And while vision is more precise spatially, hearing serves us constantly, as we are able to hear in 360°...’
Photo: Espace de projection, January 2023 © IRCAM-Centre Pompidou, photo: Quentin Chevrier
"This space is not really a concert venue, but it is equipped to project sound, light, audiovisual and any other possible events, not necessarily linked to traditional instruments." Pierre Boulez
The first musical work to come out of Espace de Projection was Répons by Pierre Boulez. Although premiered in Donaueschingen (in 1981) for reasons of audience numbers, Répons took shape at Espace de Projection, as Andrew Gerzo, the computer music designer recalls: ‘We used Espro to experiment with spatialisation, or how to orchestrate soloists...’ ‘Boulez didn’t like taped music,’ he adds, ‘he wanted the electronic component to blend in naturally with the instruments, which explained the need for a machine in real time to transform the sound. We therefore worked a great deal on various types of transformation by bringing in soloists, individually at first and then together.’
"Espro was a working laboratory." Andrew Gerzso
The other public highpoint of those years was Casta Diva by the choreographer Maurice Béjart, performed on 17 March 1980 to music by Alain Louvier. The following year, the American Rolf Gehlhaar put on Pas à pas, for tape and spatialisation system. This work, which featured (on tape) flautist Alain Marion and saxophonist Jean-Louis Chautemps, is subtitled Music for Ears in Motion. Andrew Gerzso remembers it as ‘a rather funny, minimalist play, for which the area was empty except for loudspeakers with electronic sounds designed to create audio phrases in space. Depending on where you were and how you moved around the space, you heard different things. I have a clear memory of Boulez holding Alain Marion by the arm and walking around the space to hear new sounds...’
In 1984, improvisation came to Espace de Projection, in the shape of Rainbow Family by George Lewis, featuring the double bassist Joëlle Léandre and guitarist Derek Bailey. In 1987, the creation of Jupiter by Philippe Manoury, a technological fireworks display (synthesis and spatialisation, etc.) for flute and real-time electronics, celebrated the 10th anniversary of ‘spatial research’ with pomp and circumstance. Ten years of acoustic adventures in all directions and experimentation with machines. Ten years during which a host of diverse musical figures such as Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho or Emmanuel Nunes crossed paths at Espace de Projection.
Photo: Maurice Béjart, Casta Diva © Gamma/Michel Folco
*All interviews by Sandrine Maricot Despretz (Hémisphère son).
by Sandrine Maricot Despretz & David Sanson (Hémisphère son)
Polytopes de Cluny, reopening of the Espace de projection, June 2022 © IRCAM-Centre Pompidou, photo: Quentin Chevrier