1977-2023: The Espace de Projection Odyssey [3/3]

Porous partitions for mobile walls

In any case, Machinations crystallised that moment which saw IRCAM open to flexible, porous stage forms and other fields. According to Eric de Visscher, the launch of the Agora festival in 1999, which extended beyond the Espace de Projection, confirms this: ‘The festival format was a move away from the seasonal approach, and opened a path to all multi-disciplinary fields and other horizons.’ Those horizons were first and foremost in dance. Almost twenty years after Béjart, the prodigy Boris Charmatz arrived at Espace de Projection in April 1999 with Herses, une lente introduction. This 1997 work, ‘a quartet for five dancers and cellist to the music of Helmut Lachenmann’ was of striking starkness, with a scattering of ghetto-blasters next to small sources of light on a platform where the dancers performed naked. Myriam Lebreton was one of those dancers: ‘What struck me at Espro was that we performed in a bare, lit-up space, which was very different to the standard “black box”. The metal plate which served as a stage was placed in this bright, metallic space and reverberated to the audience, creating a closeness which gave the audience more of an “actor’s role”, so to speak. The performance took on all its meaning, I felt that this was exactly where it had to be...’

1999 also saw the creation of a choreography unit, run by François Raffinot, which, despite its premature closure, also helped to open eyes and minds. Programmes also became more interdisciplinary. People came to Espace de Projection to work on increasingly sophisticated motion sensors. Who could forget the creation in the neighbouring Centre Pompidou of Double Points+ in 2005, a fascinating encounter in real time between the music of Hanspeter Kyrburz and Emio Greco’s improvised dance... In 2004, and in association with the IRCAM team and Romain Kronenberg, Olivia Grandville dissected the interactions between movement qualities and sound parameters for her show Comment taire. Espace de Projection also welcomed Mathilde Monnier, Odile Duboc, and others.

At the same time, the Espace de Projection continued to host acoustic research which, once again, found outstanding applications, boosted by the exponential increase in computer processing power. In this case, the 2000s saw the invention of WFS (Wave Field Synthesis). This cutting-edge technology uses a ring of several hundred loudspeakers to recreate, for example, the perfect illusion of a sound source at the center of the hall moving through the audience. Olivier Warusfel explains, "The Espro's WFS system consists of a ring on 4 walls, with up to 280 loudspeakers positioned touching each other side by side. This is complemented by a 75 loud-speaker HOA dome (High Order Ambisonics) on the walls and ceiling."

Dispositif de spatialisation sonore multicanal équipant l'Espace de projection et combinant les systèmes WFS et Ambisonics © Centre Pompidou, photo Philippe Migeat

The combination of these two systems, HOA and WFS, conceived by Markus Noisternig for the Espace de Projection, and their integration into the Spatialisateur library by Thibaut Carpentier, created the most ambitious spatialization instrument of the late 2000s. "The inauguration of this comprehensive system was conducted with Natasha Barrett and Rama Gottfried, who were composers-in-residence in 2011," recalls Olivier Warusfel. “It was a great moment, bringing together IRCAM, the President of Pierre et Marie Curie University, the CNRS, co-financiers along with the Ile-de-France region..." He concludes, "The spatialisateur is the repository of our knowledge, the matrix."

A multitude of tools to inspire artists. In 2014, the Israeli Chaya Czernowin used WFS for HIDDEN, a score for string quartet and electronics, created as part of ManiFeste. Initiated by Frank Madlener, the Managing and Artistic Director of IRCAM since 2006, this festival for ‘time-based art (music, dance, theatre, video and film) and technological invention’ was a successor to Agora in 2012. A multitude of tools which also attracted ‘classical’ performers, such as pianists Hélène Grimaud and Alexandre Tharaud, who took advantage of the acoustic features of Espace de Projection for their recordings. Lastly, a multitude of tools which extended their use beyond the walls of Espro. From the main courtyard of the Palais des Papes in Avignon to China, a host of venues have been equipped with the WFS system.

Well beyond the technological aspect, the scope of possibilities can take a whole array of forms. One example is NetTrike, a work by composer Bernhard Lang and choreographer Christine Gaigg, performed in 2010 as part of the CO-ME-DIA programme. Two dancers perform the same piece, one at Espace de Projection, the other in Graz, on two separate but synchronised stages. Andrew Gerzso was behind this initiative: ‘Expanding the notion of space was an experiment that had never been tried. We created a large virtual space for the two stages, and we even recorded audience sounds (foot movements, coughs, etc.), to accentuate the presence of the audience and make the event happen “in real time”. It was quite complicated, with a huge bandwidth! The audience played the game though, and it was a resounding success.

Such was also the case with Germination, in 2013, a project by Jean-Luc Hervé, a composer with a love of Japanese gardens and landscape. This project led IRCAM to team up with nature. In Serge Lemouton’s words, ‘the idea was to imagine the underground world as the home of roots, to plant seeds which would sprout between the cracks of Place Stravinsky. This intervention in a public space was a completely new experience for us. We worked with a landscaper and the apprentice horticulturists of the Breuil School. At the end of the show, the 3D spatialised sound spiralled upwards, and we guided the audience towards the garden on the square to see the plants that had sprouted. We had placed small loudspeakers among those plants, as if they had broken through the roof of IRCAM.’ While Espace de Projection was drawn towards the outside, while its walls appeared to have become increasingly porous, things were also happening at its core, thanks once more to troublemaker Georges Aperghis. In 2011, he created Luna Park there, a hybrid, unsettling show during which four performers were each confined to a narrow metal cage, lined up in a row and equipped with 4 cameras and a screen. The theme of the show was video surveillance, ‘a serious subject, tackled in an original and finally quite pleasant way’, says Richard Dubelski, a long-time accomplice of Aperghis and performer in this Luna Park. ‘I had “accelerometers” attached to my wrists; sensors which were specifically designed with computer music designer Grégory Beller at IRCAM for this show. When I moved my hand, it triggered pre-recorded sound sequences, such as voices or flute sounds...and we had to combine everything.’ Andrew Gerzso was enthusiastic: ‘We often see performances with a lot of technology, but which doesn’t always work very well. Here, the various elements of video, recordings and movement form a highly-convincing coherence!’ Yet again, with an opus offering technology both a central role and a mise en abyme, Georges Aperghis succeeded in eluding the dialectic of demonstrativeness and the excess of subtlety.

Luna Park by Georges Aperghis © Ircam-Centre Pompidou

On 13 January 2014, Isis und Osiris by Jacques Lenot was the last concert to be held in Espace de Projection prior to its closure. More of a ‘mixed sound installation for wind septet and electronic environment’ than a concert, inspired by a Robert Musil poem, this was one of the almost 70-year-old composer’s first forays into electronics. Serge Lemouton felt as though he was attending a ‘Renaissance mass’. ‘Jacques Lenot came to IRCAM with the idea of using the verticality of Espro. At that time, we already had the ambisonic dome and the 350 loudspeakers. The audience were in the middle, the 7 musicians placed around them, and a spatial broadcaster placed behind. It was a one-hour show of highly polyphonic composition, spatialised with various electronic sources. A moving experience.’ Then the doors closed for almost ten years on a venue, as Andrew Gerzso points out, managed to attract, in addition to contemporary music fans, ‘an audience looking for a different experience’. Serge Lemouton adds: ‘People imagined a very closed, rigid space, but I never did the same show twice there! It was very creative; composers invented according to the venue, we never limited ourselves to the means at hand, we always tried to go beyond...

This utopian spirit will no doubt continue to guide Espace de Projection, which re-opened in January 2023 with six days of ‘celebration’. What artistic and/or technological utopia can Espace de Projection now offer? What role can it play, in an era when the ‘immersive’ aspect appears to have become an unavoidable prerequisite? ‘Espro is a unique venue in Paris’, Frank Madlener concludes, ‘A place of possibilities and first times, more an instrument than a venue, which offers artists and scientists what they most lack: experimentation and production time. “Nowhere Else” also addresses to the audience. Why leave home today, when in theory we all have access to everything through digital technology? Why go out, except to experience something completely different? Espro, which is in the zeitgeist, will be devoted to creation and repertoire, which is creation and life; to musical composition and exploratory electronic music; to installations, sound stories, and performing art as a participative science. We will experience music here, seated, standing or lying down, as with the recreation of Xenakis’ Polytope; there will be conviviality, outer edges and stage bars. The utopia is dual. To prototype in order to transpose elsewhere. To no longer recognise each audience member as a contemporary art fan, because a new audience will be attracted and won over by the pleasure of living creation in the present.

by Sandrine Maricot Despretz and David Sanson (Hémisphère son)

Photo 1 : Herse, une lente introduction © Jean-Michel Cima, Le Quartz, Brest, France, 1997
Photo 6 : Maquette du projet Germination de Jean-Luc Hervé et Astrid Verspieren