CIRMMT Distinguished Lecture Series: Jean-Claude Risset, Music is meant to be heard: Perception is central in (my) computer music


Music Multimedia Room, 555 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, QC, CA

Digital technology permits to extend compositional control down to the level of the sonic microstructure – to compose the sound themselves, beyond composing with sounds. As Pierre Schaeffer liked to say, « music is meant to be heard » : this control must be appreciated by the ear. Now the exploration of computer-synthesized sounds has shown that perception is complex and that the heard musical relations are not always in simple relation with the physical relations prescribed between physical parameters. Hence psychoacoustics - the understanding of the relations between the physical structures and the heard effect - is central to computer music. In the title, I mentioned perception, not psychoacoustics : the latter name tends to evoke knowledge which is insufficient in that context, since most traditional psychoacoustics has focused on simple, isolated sounds, while music deals with complex, evolving sounds. In fact McGill’s Albert Bregman has proposed the notion of auditory scene analysis: CRMITT is ideally placed to develop musically significant psychoacoustics.

 I shall first recall how the development of technology since 1875 has open new avenues for music, enabling composers to work on the vocabulary of music and not only on the grammar, specially when they use sound synthesis. With the help of Max Mathews » Musicn programs, by listening to the synthesized sound, one can experience the auditory effect of a specific physical structure. I shall then give many sound examples drawn mostly from my own music as instances of gaining insight on perception while preparing my computer-synthesized musical compositions. Auditory illusions demonstrate that the objective relations can be deceptive when trying to predict aural effects. Instrumental simulacra are harder to realize than one expected. But the mastery of simulacra and illusions opens musical possibilities that have been exploited in particular by John Chowning and myself (illusions of space, pitch and rhythm, close encounters with the acoustic world and continuous timbral transformations). The refinement of digital processing makes it possible to merge musique concrète with electronic music. Performance is also important for digital music, and its role is now better understood.




"Directeur de recherche" emeritus, CNRS, works on computer music in Marseille. Scientific and musical studies (Ecole Normale Supérieure, piano, composition with André Jolivet). Worked at Bell Labs with Max Mathews in the sixties to develop the musical resources of computer sound synthesis (imitation of instruments, including computer brass synthesis; pitch paradoxes; synthesis of new timbres; sonic developpement processes; sound catalog of synthesized sounds, 1969). Head of  Computer Department at IRCAM (1975-1979). At M.I.T. Media Labs, develops in 1989 the first « Duet for one pianist », whereby the pianist triggers an accompaniment on the same acoustic piano that depends upon what and how he or she plays. Author of 70 compositions for for orchestra, instruments, digital sound. For his pionnering work in computer music, he received notably the first Golden Nica (Ars Electronica Prize, 1987) Grand Prix Musica Nova (Prague, 1995), the1st Prize EAR 97 for mixed and live electroacoustic music (Hungarian radio), the Quartz d’honneur Pierre Schaeffer 2008, the Giga-Hertz-Grand-Prize 2009, and the highest French awards in both music (Grand Prix National de la Musique, 1990) and science (Gold Medal,  Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1999).