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Pierre Barbaud: “Saturnia Tellus” (1980)

From the album Musique algorithmique

Another piece in the archaeology of computer music comes into focus with the music of the Algerian-born French composer Pierre Barbaud (1911-1990), who was previously featured in a joint post between Acousmata and Continuo’s Weblog. Among the first to make intensive use of the computer as a musical tool, Barbaud pursued the goal of “automatic composition” for three decades, developed a number of early programming languages, and collaborated with like-minded figures in a manner more typical of scientific research than of artistic creation. And yet Barbaud remains a non-entity in stubbornly provincial English-language musicology, meriting not even a token entry in the illustrious Oxford Dictionary of Music, nor in Gerhard Nierhaus’ recent book (to my knowledge the first of its kind) on algorithmic composition.

Barbaud’s early works, written in the 1940s, adopted the dominant international style of neo-classicism and frequently bore ironic titles such as Cinq minutes de mauvaise musique (“Five Minutes of Bad Music”). Beginning in the late 40s, he began composing film music, and that genre became his primary source of income in the following decade. His scores include soundtracks for major French art-film directors such as Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. (He also made appearances as an actor in a number of Resnais’ films, including Hiroshima mon amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad.) A vigorous autodidact, Barbaud also taught himself advanced mathematics and several foreign languages. Toward the end of the 1950s, he struck upon the idea of employing probability calculus to lighten the labor of composition.

Around 1960, Barbaud founded the Groupe de Musique Algorithmique de Paris (GMAP), joined by Roger Blanchard, Jeannine Charbonnier, and Brian de Martinoir. In the same year the group produced a collective composition called Factorielle 7, which was one of the first computer-generated scores. The piece was built around 5040 (7! = 1x2x3x4x5x6x7 = 5040) combinations of a twelve-tone row, devised using aleatoric techniques.

From 1959, to 1975, Barbaud found an institutional home at the French computer company Honeywell Bull. In exchange for unfettered access to the firm’s powerful mainframes, Barbaud was tasked with promoting the company through conferences and musical events—in essence, the international computer conglomerate took on Barbaud as a composer-in-residence, a uniquely 20th-century form of musical patronage! 

In 1975, financial difficulties at Honeywell Bull led Barbaud to seek a new sponsor, which he found at the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), where he worked in close collaboration with computer scientist Geneviève Klein and electrical engineer Frank Brown. In the spirit of scientific collaboration, the three released a number of works under the collective moniker BBK (Barbaud Brown Klein). Barbaud also corresponded with visual artists such as Vera Molnar and Manfred Mohr, who pursued analogous paths in their work. 

Barbaud remained with INRIA until his death in 1990. During this final creative period he produced a number of tape compositions with evocative Latin titles, such as Terra ignota ubi sunt leones (Unknown Land Where There Are Lions, 1975), Vis terribilis sonorum (The Awesome Force of Sound, 1976) and Saturnia Tellus (Saturnian Land, 1980). Sadly, apart from the LP shared by Continuo and the recent release on the French label Terra Ignota, little of Barbaud’s music has seen the light of day.

Barbaud’s compositional and theoretical work centered on the effort to automatically generate musical structures from sets of rules encoded in algorithms and executed by computer programs. He formulated his project of musique algorithmique in a number of highly technical (and, alas, untranslated) books, including Initiation à la composition automatique (1965), Musique, discipline scientifique (1968), and Vademecum de l’ingénieur en musique, which was left unfinished and published posthumously in 1993. In addition to his theoretical works, Barbaud wrote monographs on Arnold Schoenberg and the Viennese classical composer Joseph Haydn.

For Barbaud, algorithmic music embodied the rational spirit of modernity, whose goal was “to submit the appearance of sound events to calculation, to demolish what is conventionally called ‘inspiration,’ to channel chance into charts and graphs—in short, to replace the mystical passivity of the composer in the presence of the ‘muse’ with lucid and premeditated activity.”

But far from being a “divine clockmaker” overseeing a perfect musical machine, Barbaud was a musical gardener, surprised by the unexpected flowerings of his botanical experiments. There is an incongruity that lurks in many algorithmic, mathematical, and formulaic approaches to composition: hyper-rationality of construction is paired with indeterminacy of sonic result. In this, Barbaud’s project resembles the “cybernetic music” of German composer Roland Kayn, whose vast, recursive modular synthesizer patches were meticulously built yet took on an unpredictable and quasi-sentient life of their own. (Indeed, Barbaud originally called his music “cybernetic” before settling on “algorithmic” as a more fitting descriptor.) But unlike Kayn, Barbaud is uninterested in feedback as a generative principle and focuses on tonal and rhythmic relations as opposed to textural metamorphoses. His music is closer in spirit to that of Iannis Xenakis, with whom he maintained a relationship of amicable rivalry.

Composed entirely by algorithm, Barbaud’s 1980 composition Saturnia Tellus gives witness to the composer’s quasi-metaphysical quest for self-creating “infinite music.” (His fascination with musical automatism stems from an unlikely influence: the Viennese composer Josef Matthias Hauer, who developed a mystically tinged and highly idiosyncratic form of 12-tone composition in the first half of the 20th century.) As Pierre Mariétan explains, the work is the result of a process whose outcome is unforeseeable but whose initial state is absolutely determined by the composer. Barbaud sets in motion a musical process which runs its course without intervention. He forbids any ad hoc modifications of the musical output; if it is found aesthetically insufficient, the composer must adjust the “controls” of the generative algorithm and then let it run again. 

An example of Barbaud’s code, using the language ALGOM 4

October 13, 2012, 12:17pm

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