Forum at 20

Interview with Vincent Puig, Ircam Forum co-founder, and Arshia Cont, current director.

The origins of Ircam Forum at its 20th Anniversary and Perspectives

Gathered by Paola Palumbo

Ircam Forum was founded in 1993 by Andrew Gerzso and Vincent Puig.

Ircam Forum gathers more than 2000 users today ranging from artists, sound engineers, researchers, teachers worldwide. Forum at its 20th anniversary is thus made of many thousands of user contributions.

« All the ideas were there! » affirms Vincent Puig, Forum co-founder and current co-director of IRI (Institut de Recherche et d'Innovation).

This article goes through the origins of Ircam Forum at 1993 and explores current perspectives. Interview with Vincent Puig (V.P.) and Arshia Cont (A.C.):

What was the initial idea of Ircam Forum in 1993?

V.P. The founding ideas of Ircam Forum are similar to a lot of retrospective ideas set forth by sociologists and intellectuals at the time, related to the figure of the amateur.

One should look at this term in its noblest form. It has nothing to do with "amateurism", but the critical capacity to engage in something, and the competence present in artists themselves. Andy Warhol used to say that for becoming at artist one should be an amateur. We can only create if we like something, and if we project ourselves in the artistic material. Non-amateur artists are rather craftsmen, they have lost the passion they are animated within.

What is Ircam Forum today?

A.C. Simply, the extended Ircam community. Ircam itself is a heterogeneous community, bringing together artists of all kinds, musicians, scientific researchers and more; accompanied by a know-how which in most part has remained "hand-crafted" capable of creating worldwide practices. Ircam Forum is the same image, extended to the entire world: A sharing community of know-hows with a common narrative which is that of art/science.

Forum today doesn't distinguish between users inside or outside Ircam. And the need to reinforce a profound art/science narrative beyond pure inspiration, is what brings the community together despite its variety.

How did you manage to gather members in 1993?

V.P. Since long, there are exchanges between amateur muscians: amateur trumpet players, amateur choirs, but the digital music amateur was new at the time! Here, the amateur is a digital instrument maker. This is the very first idea that brought in Forum members together for a discussion around digital tools.

Now we know the "amateurs" thanks to internet, social networks and internet forums. The initial idea of Ircam Forum was exactly that. A community of people who are related to each other through techniques. In the beginning, we wouldn't talk about aesthetic questions but tools.

Real-time, analysis/synthesis, composition assisted by computers, were our organological thematics. This organology was the initial drive. Ircam has its historical roots in authored contemporary music, coming from the genius of its intellectual founder Pierre Boulez. The idea of Forum was the following: We don't imitate what is in the artistic program of Ircam and we are not linked by its aesthetic. We took the axis of oranology, that of digital instruments and software.

We could not build the community only with composers, only with music teachers or researchers. We had to work with everyone.

The first thing to do was thus to create a collectivity around software.

Creating a community of users for software which at the time was not yet distributed outside Ircam... How could that come concretely to life??

V.P. Complicated! Until 1993, Ircam software was not really known outside the institute. We had to first make it happen.

In the beginning my job title was industrial liaison. My job was to go convince software editors to adopt ours. Real-time technology at the time was more on hardware for example at the time on specific stations. We had ISPW (Ircam Signal Processing Workstation) which we could insert into a NEXT cube. It was hard to distribute and not accessible to greater public where NEXT machines were relatively expensive by themselves.

Sound transformation was complicated as well since existing technology was in form of command-line tools. Everything worked on SuperVP. So the first task of the Forum team with Xavier Rodet and Philippe Depalle was to port all the codes on Mac. We copied SuperVP codes on floppy-dissks and we distributed them to members.

Regarding Computer Assisted Composition, Gérard Assayag was in charge of Patchwork (the ancestor of OpenMusic). There was a magnificent synergy there between the team and composers such as Grisey and Hurel. It helped us to develop specific tools for spectral music.

People were coming from completely different fields. We were getting in touch with sound installation ideas and we were far from the idea of home studio.

Has Ircam technologies become accessible for all amateurs and professionals of music?

A.C. Short answer: not yet but we are getting there. It all depends who you are targeting but you can see the process in the overall evolution of Forum over years: The technology does not define everything. Everything depends how you give access to users for that technology and most of the time, the "access" is defined by industrial standards. For example, SuperVP used to exist as command-line only technology but is now wrapped as Max objects, exist in AudioSculpt and can be used in OpenMusic. This schema covers a special crowd (which is our traditional Forum audience). But many users would prefer the same technology in a VST plugin or similar.

What I described above for SuperVP technology is what we have been looking at in the past few years in Forum and explicitly since 2012. Frederick Rousseau(@froussea), our industrial liaison director, is now one of the main actors of Forum and he has engaged the development process that made tools such as IrcamTools possible which are VST plugins for amateur and professional users of SuperVP and Spat in vairous used-cases. To that one must also add the Ircamax for the regular Max4Live users. These days, we should also look at nomad terminals (tablets, mobile phones etc.). This is not something that we can do alone but using a conjunction of super users, researchers and industrial partners which Forum can make possible.

What was the economic model of Ircam Forum in the beginning? How has it evolved?

V.P. This was a highly critical point in the beginning. We were told that "you are either a public research institution, in which case all your software should be free, or a private institution to have people pay for it". In fact we were neither of those and we would provide subscriptions for accessing know-how on existing tools, technical and artistic. And we would put upfront the community aspects of such gathering.

So we had to invent a notion of service. We ended up doing both: One pays partly the software and also partly the service that comes with it.

At the time, we made a Minitel service (the French visionary to Internet) where people could download sounds and we launched the Studio Online project, and we would deliver software on floppy disks..

A.C. We should first understand what is the purpose of this so called "economic model" of Forum: It serves beyond all to finance the Forum and Art/science projects at Ircam through calls for performances and artist residencies, which are open to the entire community since a few years.

Since 2012, we have completely changed the model of Forum which continues to this date: We divided the prices by 3 and multiplied access by 4! This shows above everything our will to strengthen the community access to our technology, know-how and services since 30 years. But the most important point today is our engagement since 2012 so that Forum becomes a social platform of excellence for Art/science projects, so that Forum would become the place to share ideas and technologies for the arts with the Ircam crowd and among users themselves.

The social aspects of the new Forum is the most important thing to develop and I would say that the "economic" aspects are now secondary or a function of the social. With the large crowd that we are attracting since last year, we would be able to adapt the economic model to better serve the community and provide easier and more affordable access. Above all, the main mission of Ircam is to strengthen the Art/Science collaboration that has been strongly practiced at Ircam and spread it throughout the world.

How did the Forum inauguration go in 1993?

V.P. The very first Forum took place on September 1993. At this time, there was no Forum Director but only an industrial liaison director and wanted it to be a collective project involving everyone at Ircam. I remember presenting the project first in Studio 5 of Ircam to Pierre Boulez and everyone in a plenary meeting. After the first Forum meeting, we immediately got several subscriptions (composers from outside Ircam, schools and universities) which convinced colleagues like Andrew Gerzo, at the time director of Production, who joined us in the adventure and became the first Forum director beginning 1994.

How did the partnership with industry begin? How does it continue today?

V.P. The link with the industry began with Max.

I hadn't yet set the redistribution of Max by Ircam since Opcode had its own network of exclusive distribution in France. To make this efficient and integrate versions of David Zicarelli (Max, now CEO of Cycling'74) and Miller Puckette (FTS), we had to hire Zicarelli at Ircam.

Another major link was the commercial expositions like MusikMesse and Namm. We told ourselves that we are not a private company but we had tools to exchange and share with the industry. Our presence in MusikMesse and Namm were quite successful.

A.C. Before 2012, the Industrial Liaison and Forum were two different departments but somehow merged in 2012. Sound and Music Computing technologies are now everywhere and in places where we don't usually expect. Links with the industry does not happen in expos like Namm which had their golden age... .

The mix of Forum and industrial liaison provides rapid prototyping of our technologies and a better visibilities for the actors of industry. A technology like SuperVP is now embedded in a variety of professional tools (not necessarily for music) and also brought into public attention (cinema for example) thanks to our active liaison Frederick Rousseau (@froussea) and researchers themselves. Spat is another example whose applications go beyond authoring and touch video games among others.

Frederick Rousseau (@froussea) has the idea of creating an Industrial Club inside Forum for better visibility and also as a new networking service among users. We will pursue this in 2014-15.

How does the Forum relate to the Research Department at Ircam?

V.P. Today many people talk about Open Sciences or contributive science. We already had this idea in the beginning at Ircam to articulate Forum and the R&D department. So we started with the ICMC conference and I went off to an ICMC with my floppy disks and paper leaflets on Forum.

A.C. Before being the Forum director, I am a researcher at Ircam. I also coordinate activities between R&D and artistic productions in the institute. The majority of R&D projects at Ircam are concentrated around an artistic goal and end up in some form of software development more or less defined. The fact that I hold the three positions at the same time is not by chance: Forum is an excellent platform for interaction between a heterogeneous crowd (artists and researchers and more). Forum is today a simple infrastructure that makes such collisions a reality and put people at work on what they are passionate about. This is precisely the goal of the Research/Creativity Department at Ircam. The process is complex to define here but for those interested, I strongly suggest having a look at a special issue of Contemporary Music Review on Musical research at Ircam published in 2013.

Mercredi 20 novembre 18:00 Vincent Puig, Andrew Gerzso et Arshia Cont retraceront l'histoire du Forum.  Suivez la conférence en streaming ici