We’re in a strange time, as we big farewell to a great generation of pioneers of electronic music. French composer Jean-Claude Risset’s work can still tickle our perception and challenge what’s possible. He helped expand the frontiers of what digital synthesis can do for our ears, and brought the technology to the European continent. And this week, he left us at the age of 78.

The sound for which Risset is best known is perhaps the most emblematic of his contributions. Creating a sonic illusion much like M.C. Escher’s optical ones, the Shepherd-Risset glissando / Risset scale, in its present form invented by the French composer, seems to ascend forever.

I’ve noted a resurgent interest in Risset’s sonic illusion. It’s a sign the composer’s legacy will go from academic curiosity to far-reaching phenomenon, as the practice of electronic sound making becomes more global. There are new composers like Germany’s Marcus Schmickler embracing the technique. When Schmickler performed his dizzying audiovisual onslaught in Berlin earlier this year, it won over new fans and impressed even FM pioneer John Chowning. Chowning, who even studied with Risset, took it as an indication new waves of sonic inventors could reinvent and expand on the past techniques, keeping them fresh as ever.

Those ever-ascending Risset barber-shop techniques are now in iZotope’s filter plug-in, and passed around in YouTube tutorials and copy-pasted SuperCollider code. They’re spreading, transmitted the way folk melodies once were. Oh, yeah – there are rhythms, too.

Rhythms probably sound craziest:

We imagine, in some antiquated 19th Century Wagnerian/Hegelian/heroic mode, that what makes people influential is their contributions as individuals.

But as I find myself frequently saying in these histories, it’s the ways in which people come together that have mattered in musical invention and transmission. So, when Risset met Max Mathews’ team at Bell Labs, he was able to bring wild new sonic possibilities to Mathews’ young computer synthesis language. Max himself often downplayed his skills as a composer, and while Max’s structure for the original MUSIC language was ingenious, a lot of his early demos sound crude and dated. Max understood and was articulate about the theoretically unlimited possibilities of synthesis. Risset was the sort of composer who could dazzle with those capabilities and produce something futuristic and new.

He was at the beginning of IRCAM in Paris with Pierre Boulez, the beginning of CCRMA at Stanford with John Chowning, there for the renaissance at Dartmouth with Jon Appleton (where the Synclavier got its start).

And he brought digital synthesis to Europe as he set up the first-ever system at Orsay, 1970-1.

In other words, even if you managed never to hear Risset’s music, you’ve come in contact with his students, or the students of his students, with the infectious ideas and technologies he explored.

His 1968 Computer Suite From Little Boy was produced the year before humans arrived on the moon – but it sounds today like something that we’d listen to peering out a bay window on our way to Mars. The man who brought digital synthesis to Europe made sounds that now could be played in club nights at dozens of festivals on the continent for enthralled twenty-something fans. In a world that has lately seemed regressive, that’s encouraging.

And in a world that threatens to be “post-truth,” Risset was a composer who was ceaseless in arguing that understanding perception was necessary to making and processing art. And, oh yeah – you’ll have a good time.

For instance:

“One can generate auditory illusions, “errors of the senses, but truths of perception” … These examples support the view-point that hearing performs auditory scene analysis to provide useful information about the environment: the elaborate mechanisms involved in analyzing the auditory signals are gratuitously involved for our enjoyment when we listen to music.”

Simulacra and Illusions: Understanding Perception is Important for Computer Music [Seminar: The Science and Technology of Music]

Watch that lecture (in English):

He also had a knack for interweaving his traditional training in piano and composition with electronics, with unusually bold effect and sensitive technique. Duo pour un pianiste at MIT in 1989 pits pianist and computer accompaniment in a duet on the same piano, at the same time.

Here he is doing wondrous things with Disklavier:

There’s a French-language obituary by Olivier Lamm; I’m sure more will follow:
MORT DU COMPOSITEUR JEAN-CLAUDE RISSET, PIONNIER DE LA MUSIQUE ÉLECTRONIQUE [next.liberation.fr]

There’s actually a lot of Risset’s music you can hear online – check out this nice page from Apple, for instance, including both GRM gems and the wonderful violin innovator Mari Kimura.

Irrespective of decade, Risset’s works delight the ear and take the mind drifting into deep space.

1979’s Songes is eerily beautiful:

Sud from 1985 traverses endless sonic spectacles:

1998’s Elementa: Aqua mixes natural sounds and synthetic for added dimension; the form itself of the piece feels effortless and organic:

For a live performance, Nicolas Vallette (flute) and Alain Bonardi (digital sound) perform a beautiful rendition of his Passages.

And in one of my favorite meetings of minds ever, computer visual pioneer Lillian F. Schwartz added her visuals to his sound for the 1973 Mutations, a work that’d feel perfectly comfortable in the midst of an AV festival today.

To me, our cenral challenge as these artists leave us is figuring out how the next generations will bend sounds and share ideas and influence. And there, I’m optimistic – especially if I go back and listen to Risset’s music.

My condolences to friends, family, and students. If you want to remember your work or life with him, do get in touch. There’s obviously more to say.

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