In 1960, François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau founded a collective comprised of writers and mathematicians, whose singular objective was to reinvigorate literary forms. This collective, called Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature), has been the source of audacious and thought-provoking works such as Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961) and Perec’s A Void (1969); it continues to exist today.

From Oulipo’s very inception, François Le Lionnais also imagined extending the scope of its approach to various other disciplines. In this spirit, he founded several other Ouxpo workshops: Oupeinpo (as in ‘Potential Painting’), Oumathpo, Oucinépo… Music was very much included in Le Lionnais’ scope, and several Oumupo groups did coexist (in a rather informal way) over the next few decades. It was not until 2011, however, that an actual, established Ouvroir de Musique Potentielle did take place; while still resolutely part of this tradition, it remains an active and constantly evolving group.

Ouxpo groups are concerned with inventing new structures and forms: their experiments may however vary in scale, from macroscopic structural constraints to a more minute level where they may be led to reinvent the very language through which their art is expressed. For example, a writer that forbids the use of certain letters or patterns of letters is then forced to express herself within a restricted subset of the normally-available lexicon. Oumupo is not only to reevaluate purely musical constructs (harmony, rhythm, melody, timbre) but also to draw parallels between these devices and other areas of study: texts or words, graphic arts, but also mathematical objects — automata, geometry, and numbers.

Ouxpian games and inventions

As early as 1962, Le Lionnais laid out some useful ground rules in a text later known as the First Oulipo Manifesto, detailing the group’s orientation and modus operandi1. Oulipo members were aiming to conceive a seemingly-scientific method from the ground up, deriving new “potential” structures and constraints from existing works, as well as from not-yet-existing works. Interweaving the study of past art with the creation of entirely new material (the “analytical” and the “synthetical” approach) remains one of Oulipo’s most decisive choices — one that resonated with both artistic audacity (the group co-opted Marcel Duchamp as one of its very first corresponding members, which he gladly accepted) and the modernity of a society yet to come: it would be decades before “remix” even became a word.


Describe a well-known song without telling what it is. The next player in round is to sing a new piece that fits the description.

This game is a part of Oumupo article. See it there for full context.

This two-pronged approach (dubbed respectively “anoulipism” and “synthoulipism”) is still found today in every Ouxpo group in existence; it has grown much richer precisely due to the increased diversity in “potential” disciplines and languages. For example, the pictée (“pictation”), a game originally proposed by Oupeinpo and therefore relevant only to graphical expression (the game consists of describing an existing artwork to somebody who then produces a new drawing based only on the given clues), was adapted by Oulipo as the textée (“textation”), and more recently by Oumupo as the chansonnée (“singtation”), where it becomes even more amusing.

Many literary forms can be straightforwardly transposed to the musical realm. A palindrome, as a literary (and possibly religious) practice, dates back at least to ancient Rome, but was applied to music at least as early as the 14th century. Not all constraints are as easily converted into musical exercises. At least as old (if not older) as the palindrome, is the well-known “lipogram”: a text written without using one or more letters of the given alphabet. The obvious musical equivalent would be the “liponote”, whereby one is prevented from using a specific pitch (or a degree of the scale), but it quickly proves to be of limited interest. Not only does liponote hardly make sense in atonal music, but even in classical music one can write around the missing pitch.

Dragon Curve

We all know the simple game of folding a slip of paper n times in the same direction and then unfolding the paper to see the final form. The complexity of the exercise increases according to the number of folds. This “Dragon Curve”2 possesses several interesting properties (fractal, self-similar, symmetric but non-periodic, etc.). The curve can also be read as a series of melodic movements: for each “bump” in the paper, go up one note; for each dip in the
paper, go down by one note.

One can hardly fail to notice that for every extra fold, the melody becomes more and more complex, but also more and more maze-like and mysterious — even more so if a specific, non-standard scale has been chosen in the first place: for example a modal scale such as C D♯ E F G A♭ B, for a somewhat exotic effect. This goes to illustrate the tension stated above between freedom and determinism: different composers will make different choices, and therefore get different musical outcomes.

This recreational game was the basis of a piece written by Tom Johnson in 1979 for a student orchestra, Dragons in A. The simplicity of its procedural engine allows children to understand the experiment, reproduce it and possibly make it their own, which highlights an essential aspect of Oumupo’s pedagogical subtext: by demystifying musical composition and turning it into an accessible game that is both logical and playful, we hope to reconcile the broadest, most diverse audience with contemporary artistic creation. The Dragon Curve has been happily adopted by several other Oumupo contributors in new, unforeseen ways.

Final remarks

Much like Oulipo does not define itself as a literary movement, all Oumupo members pursue a creative career of their own by taking inspiration from our collective reflection on constraint-based writing, and in turn influence ongoing projects with their own research field and interests. Far from being felt as limiting, these constraints are a source of freedom and artistic courage. To paraphrase Georges Perec: “At the end of the day, I give myself constraints in order to be entirely liberated.”

The text above is authored by M. Andreatta, M. Granger, T. Johnson and V. Villenave, here adapted by removing significant portions and changing sections. Available in full at http://oumupo.org/wiki/Fichier:Oumupo_sandbox_chronicles_2017.pdf
The text is also annotated with: "Like all Oumupo collective publications, this article may be reproduced and built upon under the terms of the Free Art License (http://artlibre.org/licence/lal/en/)."

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