Jean-Claude Risset vs. Jean-Pierre Brisset

risset brisset

Several years ago, I gave a paper about Jean-Pierre Brisset and music. I was asked to do so because of my compositions based on his work and ideas: Catalogue de grenouilles, Brisset Rhymes and Les origines humaines.

Some of the audience came along, it emerged, because they thought I was going to talk about the music of Jean-Claude Risset. It was an understandable error. Apart from the similar-sounding surnames, there is a section in my book The Digital Musician devoted to Risset’s piece ‘Sud’, and I was speaking in the context of an electroacoustic music research group. I’m not sure to what extent people were pleased to discover that my attentions were elsewhere!

Now, by a strange twist of fate, I find myself invited by the Collegium Musicae of the Sorbonne to speak at a two-day colloquium at IRCAM, Paris, devoted to Jean-Claude Risset. I am speaking about interdisciplinarity, of which Risset was a prime example.However, this coincidence has given me the opportunity to reflect in this blog on any potential connections between Risset’s music and Brisset’s works. Let’s call it a pataphysical mash-up.

At first glance, the differences are almost total. Brisset died in 1919, twenty years before Risset was born, and was an outsider: largely ignored or ridiculed. Risset, on the other hand, was very much the insider, leading the development of computer music through scientific discovery and collaborating in an open and mutually respectful manner with other pioneers. Risset was a composer and computer scientist working in universities. Brisset was a minor railway official and philologist/philosopher, propounding his eccentric theories that Man is descended from the Frog through a kind of linguistic evolution based in puns in French.

But, despite the unlikeliness of this collision, I detect two areas where they seem to share a common interest: the interior properties of sound; and the importance of meaning.

Risset made his reputation by entering within sounds to explore and exploit their characteristics (pitch, timbre/spectrum, rhythm, etc.) Most of his works are made from a drawing out of normally unnoticed sonic content. In particular, he was fond of aural illusions, such as glissandi which appear to continuously ascend or descend (they are the aural equivalent of the drawings of M. C. Escher). He uses these illusions to shape episodes in compositions in which sounds transform into one another. Bells become human voices which then transform again into percussion. As sounds mutate into one another, it is the closeness and detail of the listening that distinguishes his music. He had a delicate and sensitive ear and a certain lightness of touch in composition.

Brisset, too, entered into the detail of sound. For him, each human word contained a series of mutable components derived from the phonemic utterances of frogs. These utterances themselves were polysemic and polyvalent. They could be combined and modified over time to adapt to their new meanings, as the creatures (our ancestors) that produced them physically developed. In other words, as the frogs morphed into humans, so the cries they uttered morphed into longer words and phrases. For some examples, see some of my translations.

Which leads on to meaning. For Brisset, the entire universe was full of signification. Every frog call, indeed every sound, meant something (he was, after all, a religious man). Now, at first, what emerges from the colloquium is how little meaning Risset’s sounds possess. Bells, human voices, instruments, etc. are chosen not so much for their significance but rather purely for their sonic properties. Risset’s style is to process well-chosen sounds into even more well-chosen sounds.

But (and this is my main conclusion from the colloquium so far) Risset’s sounds have mathematical meaning. Where, for Brisset, the universal frame of reference is language, for Risset it is mathematics. That is why the computer is such an appropriate tool for him. It is not that Risset’s work is meaningless. It is rather that it’s meaning lies in an area outside normal language. And it’s the same with Brisset.