RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

Special Issue - March 2004
  PORTRAIT : JEAN-CLAUDE RISSET  -  The paradoxes of perception

For the past 40 years the musician Jean-Claude Risset has been exploring the possibilities of synthesising and digitally processing sound. As a physicist, he is also engaged in research into the characteristics of auditory perception. As a composer, his musical creations are inevitably linked to his research work – with the recognition he receives coming in equal parts from both the scientific community and the world of music.   

'My scientific work on the synthesising of sounds and perception has brought me new possibilities for composing. And my work as a musician has raised stimulating problems for my research.'
'My scientific work on the synthesising of sounds and perception has brought me new possibilities for composing. And my work as a musician has raised stimulating problems for my research.'

'Art and science are distinct in terms of their goals, tempo and criteria. But my scientific and artistic activities nourish each other. The driving force behind science, as well as creativity, is a kind of emotion and desire.' Jean-Claude Risset was awarded the CNRS(1) gold medal in 1999 for his work as a theoretical physicist. As a composer, he has received many awards, most notably the Prix Ars Electronica (1987) and the Grand Prix National de la Musique (1990). To succeed in these two equally difficult worlds, considerable tenacity, a twofold talent, and a little luck are required.

The latter first took the shape of Pierre Grivet, the young Risset's boss at the Institut d'Electronique Fondamentale (Paris). He suggested to Risset that he should explore subjects that could bring science and music together, rather than abandoning one for the other. He gave him an article by Max Mathews published in Science magazine, entitled “The digital computer as a musical instrument”.

The 'Bell Labs' musicians
Max Mathews, John Pierce and Newman Guttman were producing computer sounds across the Atlantic in the early sixties. They were conducting their experiments at the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, just outside New York – a hotbed of imaginative researchers. Pierce, an acoustician, was also the inventor of satellite communication and the progressive wave electronic tube used in radar systems. Bell Labs is the birthplace of the transistor, satellite communication, solar cells, the Unix system and C language – as well as being the location where the background noise of the Big Bang was discovered. At the time, Max Mathews was in search of a music fan with sound scientific knowledge. France, for its part, needed top-level computer scientists. Risset applied to the ‘electronic calculators’ committee and obtained a grant to go to the United States.

'It seemed to me that the precision and complexity of the computer could produce flexible musical material more rich and lively than electronic music.' The work of serial composers, the latter is characterised by sounds which are precisely controlled by oscillators but lack resonance. During this same period, champions of the almost divergent school, concrete music, were achieving some very rich sounds but finding it difficult to give them any kind of form. 'For me, concrete music largely involved an artistic mix, while the effects produced by electronic music lacked warmth. Therefore I tried to explore sound synthesising – the digital equivalent of electronic music – by attempting to introduce life into artificial sounds.'   

At Bell Labs, a giant computer and modular software designed by Mathews (Music4 and Music5) made possible  the use of digital coding to produce some unique sound effects. Risset himself devoted his energies to the complex task of imitating brass instruments. In 1965, while working on the relationship between the spectrum and intensity, he succeeded in simulating the trumpet. This initial result caused quite a stir among experts.

Auditory illusions
The computer not only makes it possible to ‘sculpt’ sound, but it can also analyse the listening experience. What is the relationship between the sounds made (via objective parameters) and the sounds heard (their perceived effect)? Why do some sound structures not resonate as expected? Why do some imitations of instruments remain unconvincing? 'To manufacture synthesised sounds, we give the computer a precise digital description, a 'complete' score which will be translated into sounds. A schematic representation is not enough. Certain sounds, even very simple ones, do not sound as expected.' 

In analysing the peculiarities of perception, Risset combines physics and music to produce 'paradoxical sounds' and 'auditory illusions'. These unique constructions seem to defy common sense. 'They are sounds which seem to become lower when you double the frequencies, or rhythms which become slower when you double the speed of the tape recorder they are played on. Some sounds seem to rise and fall at the same time, or to continually become slower, despite being faster at the end than at the beginning.’

These paradoxical interpretations by the senses – comparable to perspective tricks played on the eye – reveal truths about perception. Risset was the first, for example, to create the illusion of an indefinitely descending spiral in 1968 for the work by Pierre Halet, entitled Little Boy, which reconstructs the bombing of Hiroshima. A descent into hell, it illustrates the despair and madness of Eatherly, one of the pilots who flew on the nuclear attack.

Computer Suite for Little Boy and Mutations (1969) are considered as the first 'major' works totally synthesised by computer. Jean-Claude Risset later created combinations of synthesised sounds and performing musicians (Dialogues, Inharmonique, Moments newtoniens, Passages). This was followed by Sud, in which Nature makes its appearance. Sud is presented as a musical landscape, complete with waves, birds, insects and frogs, and is the result of recordings made near Marseilles, Risset's adopted home for the past 30 years. 'I was crouched at the end of a rocky inlet. It was the sound of silence, the impalpable, the crackling of grains of sands, and the scraping of pebbles.' Electronic sounds were then mixed in with these echoes from the natural world. 'These two elements – or characters, in a sense – didn’t merge, but created a hybrid. It was the interpenetration of two worlds, one of which was initially foreign to the other. I often quote Cézanne who said he wanted to unite feminine curves with hilly shoulders.'

Inner multi-disciplinarity
Sound research involves physics, data processing, signal processing, psychoacoustics and music. 'People often talk about multi-disciplinarity. It is a question of specialists from different fields working on the same project. But the level of dialogue remains low if each one doesn’t venture into the world of the other at some level. I believe that multi-disciplinarity often takes place inside the individual. Pasteur was not a biologist, but a chemist and physicist. A lot of scientific progress has been achieved by outsiders who are not a part of the normal establishment.'

Art or research, if Risset had had to abandon one of the two which would it have been? Music would no doubt have won the day – but it would not have been the same music. 

(1) The gold medal from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has been awarded annually since 1954 to people who 'made an exceptional contribution, in various fields, to the dynamism and influence of research in France'.

  Career path  
  In 1969, after three years at the Bell Laboratories (United States), Jean-Claude Risset published a Catalogue of synthesised sounds for use by researchers and musicians. On his return to Europe, he developed this type of work by computer at the Institut d'Electronique Fondamentale d'Orsay and at the Faculté de Luminy, Université de Marseille (1970) before heading the Computer Music Department at the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Création Acoustique-Musique), under Pierre Boulez (1975-1979). 'Mediterranean by adoption', he then returned to the CNRS as director of research at the Laboratoire de Mécanique et d'Acoustique (Marseilles), where he is now emeritus professor of research.

In 1998, Jean-Claude Risset was charged by the French Ministry of Education with drawing up a report on 'Art-Science-Technology' which analyses the scope for synergy between these three areas in the field of education.

His very varied musical works are available on over 20 different CDs.