Based in Paris, Ensemble Intercontemporain is one of the leading performance organizations devoted to new music, and is closely associated with composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, a leader of the European avant-garde establishment. Boulez developed the idea of the Ensemble during the planning stages for IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique). IRCAM was established by the French government as an international center for experimental music, to pursue the explorations that Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Bruno Maderna, and Luciano Berio had been operating without government, broadcasting organization, or university assistance.
IRCAM was planned to have the latest in computer and electronic music technology, and to be located underneath the new Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. Boulez, whose public pronouncements concerning the present and future of music tend to be absolutist, concluded that the advances of the twentieth century called into question the nineteenth century institution of the symphony orchestra. He proposed establishng a more flexible structure designed to play new works, which are often variable in instrumentation. His suggestion, patterned on the recent success of the London Sinfonietta (founded in 1968 to play twentieth century music), was for an in-house ensemble. He decided on its size and instrumentation by referring to the works of Austrian composer Anton Webern. Accordingly, Boulez proposed a 31-member group containing all the instruments needed to perform the chamber works of Boulez, as well as important works by Igor Stravinsky, Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg.
In 1976, Michel Guy, the French Minister of Culture, approved the plan for the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the organization was quickly formed. Boulez, who has been in charge of the Ensemble since its inception, invited 31 players to make up the Ensemble. The Ensemble uses an innovative staffing plan where members sign to long-term contracts, but they are required only two-thirds of the normal working time. The rest of the time remains at the musicians' discretion, affording them the opportunity to refresh themselves with different musical activities that busy members of standard full-time orchestras often don't have time for. Ensemble members often function as a soloists with the group. Smaller sub-groups of the Ensemble are often billed as "Soloists of Ensemble Intercontemporain."
Organizationally, Ensemble Intercontemporain is not a part of IRCAM, although it usually performs there and is widely regarded as an IRCAM's group. In the first twenty years of its existence, the Ensemble performed over 1,400 different works, including 200 world premieres, of which 115 were specifically commissioned for the group.
The Ensemble's emphasis is on new works, but it saves a place in its schedule for works considered "classics" of the twentieth century. The Ensemble has recorded frequently, including works by iconoclastic American composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993), in an album called The Perfect Stranger, although Zappa complained that it was under-rehearsed and inaccurate. Other composers the group has championed and performed include Tristan Murail, Bruno Mantovani, Michael Jarrell, Luca Francesconi, Philippe Manoury, Marc-André Dalbavie, and Unsuk Chin.