France is one of the few countries with a solid tradition of contemporary music, that is to say, music that fits into modernity as it ended in the 20th century and which is not only “contemporary” in the chronological sense. Certainly, modernity did not impose itself on it without fighting – let’s think only of the neoclassicism of the inter-war period (of which France was the herald) which established a “gap” between Debussy’s innovations and the generation ferocious moderns born in the 1920s. However, since around 1950, contemporary music, more than in any other country, has won many battles there, which perhaps explains why we have come to talk about it today ” of modernist academicism ”- the struggles of the ancestors have given rise to“ privileges ”, to use terminology that still speaks in France. Anyone who wants to understand the recent situation should, therefore, start by drawing up a list of these ancestors, a task which can only be schematized here in the extreme in the form of four trends which are themselves simplified.
The first, by far the most important, cover the entire century and includes several generations. It focuses on sound, sound presence and fullness: with it, the composition of sound gradually replaces composition with sounds. Inaugurated in a way by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the French initiator of modernity, this trend was radicalized with Edgar Varèse (1883—1965) who, as we know, had to wait until the 1950s to obtain a beginning of recognition in France. It established itself durably from the 1950s with Iannis Xenakis (born in 1922) as well as the birth of concrete music around Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) and Pierre Henry (1927). It continues with composers like Luc Ferrari (1929), François Bayle (1932) or François-Bernard Mâche (1935). It took on a new impetus with the research on the synthesis of sound carried out by Jean-Claude Risset (1938), which is not unrelated to its most recent manifestation, which will be discussed later, so-called “spectral” music. Note that this tradition has benefited from the Far Eastern contributions of a Jean-Claude Eloy (1938) or a Yoshihisa Taïra (1938).
A second tendency is centred on the contrary on the decomposition of sound into “parameters” and on the search for “structures”, on absence, on the “Figure of the Negative”. These are serialism – introduced in France by René Leibowitz (1913-1972) – and post-serialism, embodied by Pierre Boulez (1925), Jean Barraqué (1928-73), Gilbert Amy (1936) and, more recently, Emmanuel Nunes (1941). We know that serialism was posed in the 1950s as a “universal language”; if we also think of the intense public activity of Boulez (activity to which we will return), we will understand why this trend, although a minority, has long been presented as the mainstream contemporary music in France.
A third current would include the libertarian overtures of the years 1960-1970, born from the problematic of “open work” and having or not evolved towards musical theatre and/or improvisation. The restoration that followed was ruthless, few names have survived. However, let us mention André Boucourechliev (1925-1997) or Vinko Globokar (1934).
Finally, the last trend is defined by a desire to reconcile modernity with tradition. It manifests itself in multiple ways through the works of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Maurice Ohana (1914-1992), Henri Dutilleux (1916) or Claude Ballif (1924).