Let's start by listening to an excerpt from "La Barque Mystique" by Tristan Murail, chosen in part because the instrumentation is very similar to that of the ensemble some of you are writing for (second project, W2012). This may also give you ideas for textures and roles of the instruments to use in your own composition.
You may have noticed that there appears to be no melody. The texture changes frequently, but at no point do we get anything that might be described as melody with accompaniment, or homophony. The instruments often play different material from one another, some of it linear, but it doesn't appear to be contrapuntal in sense of intertwining relatively independent melodic lines.
Instead, we hear a succession of sonorities for the most part, often begun in the piano, with other instruments contributing pitches to the piano's, thereby changing the overall musical colour. Many of the sonorities are sustained, but there is sections with short bursts of activity, particularly in the piano.
To me, the effect is of many "splashes" of sound colour.
You also may not have heard anything resembling a regular pulse here; it may well be that the performers are feeling a pulse that helps keep them together, but it does not sound like metrically predictable music in any way.
And so, with no melody and no regular pulse, we might well ask, what is it that holds this music together? The answer is that it uses timbre (sound colour) as its primary organizing principle; it is an example of spectral music. An even clearer example of this is Gérard Grisey's Partiels, which can be found at the end of this blog. Have a listen to it now if you like.
From Wikipedia (accessed today; disregard the fact that the second sentence is not a sentence):
Spectral music (or spectralism) is musical composition practice where compositional decisions are often informed by the analysis of sound spectra. Computer-based sound spectrum analysis using tools like DFT, FFT, and spectrograms. The spectral approach focuses on manipulating the features identified through this analysis, interconnecting them, and transforming them.Some points of particular interest are:
The spectral approach originated in France in the early 1970s, and techniques were developed, and later refined, primarily at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique [IRCAM], Paris, with the Ensemble l'Itinéraire, by composers such as Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Murail has described spectral music as an aesthetic rather than a style, not so much a set of techniques as an attitude – that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time". Julian Anderson indicates that a number of major composers associated with spectralism consider the term inappropriate, misleading, and reductive. More recently (2003) the Istanbul Spectral Music Conference redefined the term "spectral music" to encompass any music that foregrounds timbre as an important element of structure or musical language.
- Murail describes spectralism as an aesthetic, rather than a style, which I take to mean that he regards it as a principle or value within his compositional philosophy;
- Murail's statement that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time" makes me think of light passing through a slowly turning prism or crystal, changing colour gradually and beautifully;
- Some composers associated with spectralism consider the term misleading, which suggests to me that different composers define the term differently; and
- The Istanbul Spectral Music Conference (ISMC; 2003) definition of spectral music encompasses any music in which timbre is an important element of structure or musical language; this seems significantly more open-ended than the definition found at the beginning of the Wikepedia article (compositional decisions … often informed by the (computer) analysis of sound spectra).
One of the wonderful freedoms in composing is that you can define terms relating to your compositional practice in any way that is meaningful for you. Your understanding of these concepts may be spot on, or seriously flawed, but ultimately it doesn't matter as long as you compose good music. Good music can grow out of an idiosyncratic or even inaccurate understanding of a term or concept, such as spectralism, polystylism, minimalism, etc.
I think it is important for composers, even experienced ones, to constantly find ways to increase our compositional vocabulary (knowledge of techniques, devices, and styles), and trying a variety of compositional approaches such as spectralism, polystylism, etc., in whatever way we understand these terms, are ways of doing this.
Below are more videos of what could be considered to be spectral music (the first might not be considered spectral by some, but it is certainly an example of #4 above):
Schoenberg — Farben (#3 of Five Pieces for Orchestra, also called "Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colours"; 1908)
Iancu Dumitrescu - Cogito/Trompe l'Oeil (part 2/2)
Want to learn more? Read Introduction to the Pitch Organization of French Spectral Music, by François Rose, in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp. 6-39.