The Primer: Spectral Composition

November 22, 2003

Sound as a physical phenomenon has dominated the imagination of avant garde composers during

the later 20th century. None has been more obsessed by it than the school of spectral composers. ‘Spectrality’, according to one of its founders, Romanian pioneer Horatiu Radulescu, is not about composers with an interest in the occult or who like dressing up as spooks, but instead involves searching out the "deep structure of sound" revealed in its harmonic spectrum. The search for "Music... older than music", as one of Radulescu's titles has it, was anticipated by Xenakis and Stockhausen, among others. Until this point, Western composition had long spoken the language of tones, defined through melody, harmony and rhythm – music which leaves the inner nature of sound unexplored. It's this conception which spectralism challenges. Essentially, the spectralist idea is that one single sound is also a resonant acoustic complex.

 

During the 60s, avantgarde composers were rejecting the straitjacket of serialist complexity – giving rise, in America, to the minimalism of Reich, Riley and Glass. In Europe, Stockhausen's search for the inner nature of sound influenced a group of composers intent on analysing the sound spectrum. By the mid-70s, Radulescu, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail were producing the style of music which became known as ‘spectralism’. Connotations of spectres and apparitions are unfortunate; this music works with the harmonic spectrum, and it can be strident as well as ghostly or numinous. Like the minimalists, spectral composers came to reject the mathematical abstractions of serialism. Kaija Saariaho was struck by how "[Grisey's] music, and Tristan Murail's, sounded completely different to the serial harmonic structures which were based more on abstraction, or some intellectual game, than the actual sounding result". Minimalism and spectralism both neutralised their materials, notably melody, in order to make the form transparent, but in other ways couldn't be more opposed. Spectralists wanted to advance the modernist project, an alien concern for minimalists. And although spectralism began as a reaction against serialist complexity, most listeners would regard it as in many ways just as complex.

 

Like minimalists, spectralists – not only second generation figures such as Saariaho and Jonathan

Harvey, but also the founders themselves – have moved away from the pure original vision. But what exactly is that vision? Hugues Dufourt wrote an article that referred to "musique spectrale", and the label was picked up by writers and journalists. But artists hate labels, and spectral composers are no exception. Radulescu refers to the "spectral technique of composition" rather than "spectral music", and Grisey maintained that "Spectralism is not a system... like serial music or even tonal music. It's an attitude. It considers sounds, not as dead objects that you can easily and arbitrarily permutate in all directions, but as being like living objects with a birth, lifetime and death." Grisey insisted that the basic unit of music should be the sound, not the note on the page.

 

What does it mean to treat sounds as ‘living objects’ – what Radulescu referred to as "sound plasma"? There's an echo of John Cage's desire to let sounds be themselves, but though intuition must take over, spectralists are equally concerned with the science of sound itself. Radulescu described spectral techniques as "a conceptual reply (2000 years later) to Pythagoras, and a realisation of the intuitions of both Hindu and Byzantine music, which were closest to natural resonance".

 

The Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras investigated the physical properties of vibrating strings, and discovered that its natural harmonics divide into mathematical proportions. Thus the ratios of the first three overtones of the harmonic series – the main intervals of the musical scale, the octave, fifth and fourth – were discovered. Pythagoras unified the scientific and the spiritual, and the notion of music reflecting the divine harmonic structure of the universe was taken for granted by thinkers from Plato to Isaac Newton. But musical authorities debated whether in tuning systems, Pythagoras's holy purity of the numbers was paramount, or the judgment of the human ear.

 

Spectralism isn't alone in seeking this paradoxical union of ancient/primitive and modern. Xenakis's

exploration of microtones and sliding sound masses is echoed in spectralism, but neither his "texture music", nor Ligeti's – also cited by spectralists – is based systematically on the harmonic spectrum. What microtonal composition, proponents of different tuning systems such as Just Intonation, and spectralism have in common is a modification or rejection of equal temperament which underlies not only the tonal system of major and minor keys, but also the serial system which attempted to supplant it. Equal temperament is an artificial system which divides the octave into 12 equal semitones – the white and black keys on a conventionally-tuned piano - and distorts the intervals a little to make changes of key possible. Spectral composers want to turn back to something closer to the natural harmonic series. Every note or tone is the fundamental, or lowest tone, of its own harmonic series or spectrum of overtones, which equal temperament distorts in its drive to uniformity. In a sense, spectral composers are reversing Schoenberg's atonal revolution through a return to fundamental tones – paradoxically, spectralism can echo tonal music's pull towards a key centre, if not its modulation through different keys.

 

Spectralists find serialism too abstract, and also too conservative in limiting itself to the 12 tones of

the tempered scale. Composers such as Harry Partch and Lou Harrison (and perhaps Terry Riley),

who use microtonal inflections, would agree with Grisey's commitment to "the nature of sound, which is basically not tempered". Just Intonation is a tuning system used by the likes of La Monte Young and Lou Harrison which attemp ted to follow the natural harmonic series. But spectralism's interest in microtonality concerns timbre rather than tuning systems. Melody is downplayed in favour of a fascination with the tiny intervals in the higher overtones.

 

French composers such as Debussy, Varèse, Messiaen and Boulez deployed colour intuitively, and

spectralists seek to systematise this approach. But the most crucial influence was Edgard Varèse,

whom Grisey described as "the grandfather of us all". Although Varèse did not diverge from

equal temperament in his use of conventional orchestral instruments, he used batteries of percussion, including sirens which allowed him to create glissandos, in order to subvert traditional orchestral sonority, anticipating the electronic instruments he pioneered in the 1950s compositions Déserts and Poème Électronique. Varèse's music embodies the spectralist principles that ‘harmony = timbre’, and ‘melody = rhythm’. Colour or timbre is seen as a combination of various pitches; electronically, rhythms can be sped up to produce coloured tones, so rhythm is timbre too. But spectralists are not interested only in the harmonic spectrum; they analyse noise – resulting in an inharmonic spectrum – as well as musical tones. As Jonathan Harvey commented: "A lot of

spectralists use... distorted notes, or noises, made of complex overtones. You get them in percussion instruments and most of the sounds of daily life... So there's no longer a sharp division between 'noise' and 'musical tone'."

 

A lesser but still significant influence was the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, whose mature style,

evolved during the 1950s, breaks down the single note, focusing on the smallest variations of pitch, rhythm and dynamics – apparently he cured himself of depression while in a psychiatric hospital by playing the piano for hours on end, striking a single note and letting it fade away. But a more immediate precursor is Stockhausen. The classics of electronic music which Stockhausen composed in the 1950s and 60s showed vividly how what we hear as one harmonious sound – a struck note on the piano, for instance – can be deconstructed into a set of individual overtones. In the vocal composition Stimmung from 1968 Stockhausen used overtones up to the ninth partial. It's a one-off in his output, but the founders of spectralism took note.

 

In his electronic music Stockhausen pursued the analysis of sound, and spectralism is often allied with electronic composition – frequencies can be measured with absolute precision, and the spectrum built up very precisely. "You don't need to be interested in computers and electronics to be a spectral composer", Kaija Saariaho has commented. "But it's true, they often go together, because you're interested in creating new kinds of sounds..." Paradoxically, though, spectralism's two founders, Grisey and Radulescu, almost entirely avoid electronics. Grisey believed that for composers, the built-in obsolescence of electronic instruments creates almost insuperable difficulties, describing how "if you write a piece for electronics, you're constantly forced to renew the system to make it still available for the concert hall" – for instance, the once ubiquitous Yamaha DX-7 is already outdated and will soon disappear completely. But like Xenakis, Grisey's orchestra sounds "electronic", and he wrote that he "applied principles originating in electroacoustic studios to instrumental writing".

 

You might wonder whether the nature of sound is something that scientists rather than composers should investigate – early spectral compositions by Grisey's L'Itinéraire group have an air of the research lab. More contentiously, why does the insistence on the ‘natural’ offer a guarantee of artistic virtue, let alone interest? In practice, however, the scientific ideal has been muted in various ways. Spectralists have extended equal temperament rather than abandoning it, often using the nearest quartertone or sixthtone approximation to the ideal pure pitch; Grisey, Murail and even Radulescu use tempered approximations of pure intervals as much as actual pure intervals. And as already noted, the harmonic series is only part of spectralism; these composers are also concerned with distorted spectra, and inharmonic spectra (noise). The spectral approach continues to offer a fundamental resource for the avant garde in contemporary composition. The music of major figures not usually thought of as spectralists – composers such as George Benjamin, Magnus Lindberg and James Dillon – is informed by spectralism, while younger adherents such as British composer Julian Anderson, whose debut disc is slated to appear on Argo, continue to draw on its insights.

 

Edgard Varèse

The Complete Works

DECCA 460208 2XCD 1918-61, recorded 1992-8

"I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new

world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm". Edgard

Varèse (1883-1965) pursued his dream in the face of hostility and indifference, eventually realising it in the 1950s with the advent of relatively primitive electronic technology. Varèse's early compositions, before his emigration to the US in 1915, belonged to tradition of Debussy and Ravel;

they were destroyed in a fire, or maybe, as Pierre Boulez has suggested, by the composer

himself. Most of the subsequent small but massively influential output was for conventional forces,

supplemented by batteries of unusual percussion and with complements of brass in place of strings. Finally, in 1953 Varèse received an Ampex tape recorder from an anonymous donor, and began collecting material for the tape parts for the orchestral composition Déserts. His elemental power is alien to the classical orchestra, but for Decca’s digitally recorded double set, on Amériques, Arcana and Déserts conductor Riccardo Chailly forces it from The Concertgebouw Orchestra: never have the progressive, cataclysmic eruptions of Amériques sounded more shattering. No doubt the taped electronic interludes of Déserts have lost some impact against the orchestral passages, but this hardly justifies Pierre Boulez's perverse decision to omit them entirely from his recent recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Chailly's set is the most complete and definitive edition of Varèse for this generation at least.

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