Claude Ballif was born in 1924. His musical training was set back both by the family situation (following the military postings of his father, a superior officer, notably in Madagascar and in Bordeaux) and by the course of history (the Second World War). The basis of his general culture and his understanding of music were formed when, after preliminary, thorough, music studies at the Bordeaux Conservatory between 1942 and 1948, he entered the Paris Conservatory in 1948 (notably studying composition with Tony Aubin and musical analysis with Olivier Messiaen). In 1951, already utterly smitten with his freedom, he left without the slightest diploma. From 1954 to 1959, he was profitably settled in Germany; thanks to a bursary from the DAAD he studied at the Berlin Conservatory with Boris Blacher and Josef Rufer. He then took part in the Darmstadt summer classes for three years running where he met Berio, Maderna, Nono and Stockhausen. It was, finally, at this time that he completed a theoretical study of his own musical language, metatonality.
On his return to France, Claude Ballif worked with Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales of the ORTF. He subsequently began an eminent career as a teacher, first at the National Reims Conservatory, then at the Paris Conservatory, where, from 1971 to 1990, he was the successor to Olivier Messiaen in the analysis class. During the final years of his life, up to his death in 2004, he had been entrusted by the Venezuelan state with a fundamental renovation of its musical life.
Wishing to distance himself from the different movements – innovative or conservative – that have marked the history of Western music since 1945, Claude Ballif, as a conscious heir to Debussy and Varèse, based his style entirely on sound. For him, this sound, anterior to any kind of musical language, forms the basis of the human being and its relationship to Nature. Formulated with an openness to oral and extraEuropean musical cultures no less than to Pierre Schaeffer, this poetic drew substance from metatonality, which, going beyond the domains of tonality and atonality, thrives on the possibilities afforded by micro-intervals.
As someone whose curiosity was never assuaged, and with a rich sense of self-irony, Claude Ballif was modest enough to honour performers of his chamber music not with servility but with the elevation of their hidden aptitudes; his series of Solfegietti (an equivalent to the Sequenze of Berio) and of Passe-temps are an indication of this (as are his Notes et Menottes for children). His ensemble, orchestral and stage works reveal an inventor (throughout his life he refused to call himself a creator) of considerable spiritual stature, such that sound is communication and leads to space.
Frank Langlois translation Jeremy Drake