Untold history: Pierre Boulez and the nuclear deterrent

Untold history: Pierre Boulez and the nuclear deterrent


norman lebrecht

February 25, 2016

Boulez was a man of many parts. From my current essay in Standpoint magazine:

Pierre Boulez is showing me around his subterranean Ircam labyrinth beside the Pompidou Centre when we come to a locked door marked “private”. “What’s in there?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you,” says the boss, his voice dropping to a whisper.

Ircam, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, was the ransom a president paid to bring Boulez home from self-imposed exile. “President Pompidou asked me outright: would you come back to France? I said: if I return it will not be to conduct an orchestra when I have better opportunities abroad. For the idea of Ircam, though, I would leave everything.”

On the phone to the Elysée, he described an idyll where scientists and composers would work with computers to invent music of the future. Without further detail, Pompidou signed on to the vision, and the cheque.

Was there more here than met my ear? That day, deep beneath the Paris pavements, Boulez whispered that behind the locked door his technical team was developing acoustic warfare devices for the French navy. I asked him to repeat that secret, to make sure I had understood him correctly. He did. I wasn’t sure whether to gulp or to giggle.

Beside me was a leader of the musical avant-garde, a man so dangerous that mothers threatened infants with a blast of Boulez if they didn’t eat their soup, a composer of idées fixes and doctrinaire ideology who, by some twist of French logic, was apparently applying his brain to making weapons for a navy whose only current war was against Greenpeace nuclear saboteurs.

Read on here.

boulez ircam


  • Mark HIldrew says:

    Besides Repons – I think there was a bit of decent Jonathan Harvey and George Benjamin music produced at IRCAM. But yes, overall there was very little for the millions of francs poured into it.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I could enter a couple of funny things here, but I won’t, fearing that the bomb shells of the Defenders of the Castle will set the site on fire. (And I don’t want to get angry people on the phone again.)

    • Simon S. says:

      Oh, please! I’ve only clicked this post because I was hoping for your funny comments!

      • John Borstlap says:

        We will forward your request to the master, who presently cannot be distracted, being in the stables for the preparations of the annual St Elisabeth Parade this weekend in the village. Just now looking out of the window, I see him riding on Shadow again into the grounds…. that always means he’ll be back late. But we will keep you posted.

        Sally (PA to Mr JB) BA, MA, PhD, BAM, Ir.Mag.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Now that the St Elisabeth Parade in the village has been a great success (in spite of the cart that ran into the baker’s shop window), we got a note from mr B saying that he cannot be bothered while listening to the second Pli of ‘Pli selon Pli’ to refresh his memory. On the back side we read: ‘The greatest deterrent effect of PB’s work was directed to itself.’


  • Simon Evnine says:

    Re: Repons which is a the one important piece ever produced at IRCAM, Paul Griffiths’ writes in his obituary :

    “The paradox was that the man who had such an extraordinary orchestral imagination ….. should have been so convinced of his need for electronic resources. “Répons” is in most respects inferior to “Éclat/Multiples” ….Nor does it begin to rival the orchestral virtuosity displayed in the arrangements of his early piano cycle “Notations.”

    It sort of makes IRCAM look even more irrelevant

  • Gerald Martin says:

    Well, I don’t know– it could be true. Belock Instruments Corporation, the parent of Everest Records, made underwater microphones for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines. They even bragged about it on the back of their record jackets.

    • Sixtus says:

      And wasn’t Decca’s ffrr (full frequency range recording) an outgrowth of technology used to record noises made by Nazi submarines? If so, I wonder if such recordings still exist.

  • Randolph Pitts says:

    In an attempt to be polite, let me state simply that I disagree strongly with most of the opinions expressed in this article.

  • Dirk Fischer says:

    I don’t know if it is relevant to this article, but it is no secret that several countries developed acoustical weapons that were set to the resonance frequency of the human body. It would not surprise me if a research facility for sound would have been involved.

  • Andrey says:

    So where is the music of the future?
    ICRAM and avant-garde al large – taxpayers’ money well wasted.

    • Christopher Culver says:

      The music of the future is on nearly everyone’s record shelves or seen and heard in concert venues. Pop music over the last couple of decades has drawn on so much technology and software that was first developed at IRCAM, such as the software Max, or the hyperinstruments that Tod Machover developed that have been taken up by artists like Prince.

    • Gary Carpenter says:

      All of the money that is allegedly wasted: if it wasn’t wasted on this, what would it have been wasted on? There seems to be a fantasy world, very popular in the UK at the moment, that if money weren’t spent ‘there’, it would be spent ‘here’ (you can nominate where ‘here’ and ‘there’ are as you will). But the chances are it won’t and wouldn’t be and no-one knows anyway. Maybe another Trident in the UK – or another chateau for a French politico or his/her lover; who knows? Perhaps a bigger bonus for the captains of industry with government contracts; wider subsidy for the arms industry or financial sector perhaps? With the political world as it is, the chances of even the tiniest proportion of all the money allegedly mis-spent on anything you might happen to disagree being redirected to the common good is really remote.

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    Penultimate line: ‘disagree with’ – missed out the ‘with’!