Monday, February 27, 2012


The topic of spectral music came up in class today, and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about it.

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.

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.
Some points of particular interest are:
  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. Some composers associated with spectralism consider the term misleading, which suggests to me that different composers define the term differently; and
  4. 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).
If the idea of composing music in which colour is an important organizing principle appeals to you, then I encourage you to give it a try.  You are free to define spectralism in whatever way you wish, be it the more "scientific," computer sound analysis model, or the more open-ended, ISMC redefinition, or even some other definition of your own making.

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)

John ChowningStria (1977)

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.


Olivia Budd said...

Surprisingly, I quite like this type of music (as usually I'm partial to things that are closer to the "normal" end of compositional techniques). I like the fact that the parts are united by their sound (ie. when the strings are plucking, the piano also becomes very sparse and staccato). I never really considered the possibility of that being a technique to try before.

Bekah Simms said...

Thanks for the videos - they are some lovely examples of this type of music. I think we often get too caught up in having something to 'sing in our heads'; experiencing music doesn't just have to be about hearing tunes, but enjoying a shifting soundscape.

Joe said...

I'd be interested to hear about (successful) music that was composed due to a complete misunderstanding of its own attempted aesthetic.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

Is it just me, or does it seem that every time a musician or musicians come along that end up essentially defining a genre, they reject the label!? So strange. Either way great blog post! I love this kind of music, and have actually been diving into a lot of music that has tone colours as it's primary focus for a few years now. Although, I had never heard the term spectralism exactly which is why I was drawn to this blog post. I think it kind of goes without saying that I believe music does not necessarily need to have a melody or driving pulse in order to feel "structured", but I often feel that timbre is something integral and just as important as melody or rhythm in any piece. It seems to sometimes be that one thing that makes a certain piece successful that you can't put your finger on!

Anyways I may be writing a lot for a comment, and I have some new composers to check out now!

Mitchell wxhao said...

Something I find about spectralism is that there is an electronic component to picking the content of your music that I find too much to get a hold of. What I mean is that I find the technology to be an obstacle, because I am someone who finds it difficult to learn to use technology to its greatest advantage. I find the aesthetic very fascinating, but the technique intimidating.

Luke said...

I recently downloaded an app released by Oxford wave research that uses my iPhone's microphone to capture spectrograms. I find myself exploring new sound scapes, looking at overtones that crowds create, it might be applause in a concert hall, the radio in my car, or a walk downtown. It gives valuable insight into the "music" that we hear everywhere in today's busy world. Thinking about creating spectral music is very interesting, and seems quite easy to get the desired effect. The relationship between physical music and mathematics have always interested me, things like proportions and symmetry. This is certainly an idea work exploring.

Andre McEvenue said...

I was very recently introduced to this genre of music. Dr. Staniland lent me a Tristan Murail CD. I really enjoyed the music, and though I wasn't aware that spectralism was a style, I had the impression from listening that this music was more about creating an organism that moves as naturally as possible. To me it seems that though there is no clear melody, all the parts move and are initiated by events. These events are triggering sympathetic ripples in the sound that just continue on. To me, the way it interacts with itself resembles more closely something you would hear or see in nature than any music I have heard before. A very interesting aesthetic.

Robert Humber said...

Spectralism was introduced to me as "music that is based on the overtone series." Now if that's not vague I don't know what is. But I will say that it is a genre or 'aesthetic' that I am very curious about. I really enjoyed the Murail piece, and loved Andre's comment^^ about his interpretation of spectralism.

I'll leave this link to a scrolling score-video of the first "spectral" piece that blew me away: Gerard Grisey - Vortex Temporum

Like Andre said, it's impossible not to hear the "cause-and-effect" temperament of the this music, and the "ripples of sound" are obvious, especially in the opening.

Even if you don't plan on writing purely spectral music, you can learn so much about the possibilities of timbre by studying scores or even just listening to these pieces. An excellent way to expand your "composer's toolbox."