AN INTRODUCTION TO SPECTRAL MUSIC In the early 1970s, a group of young French composers1 was writing pieces starkly different from the music of most of their contemporaries. The music of the young French composers was based on slow harmonic development, and was devoid of a prominent melody or a strong sense of pulse. The music was not, however, lacking in either focus or coherence.These composers were interested in the developing field of computer music as well as in acoustical research, and their music reflected these interests. In general, they were greatly interested in the fundamental nature of sound, in particular, the overtone series. Rather than creating works based on chord progressions or tone rows, these composers wrote pieces that were constructed on thedevelopment of a sound spectrum,2 working with harmonic spectra. Many of the ideas utilized by these composers were inspired by electronic music (especially its technology), leading the young French composers to rich and exotic sounds. Instead of writing works based predominantly on pitch relationships (tonal or otherwise), these composers were writing music that was focused on the sonorous nature ofmusic. By the late 1970s, there was a large enough body of works that writers attempted to codify the music. Hugues Dufourt gave the emerging style a name when wrote an article in
These composers include Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, Hugues Dufourt, Michael Levinas, and Mesias Maiguashca, according to Viviana Moscovich, “French Spectral Music: an Introduction” Tempo 200 (April, 1997):21. A soundspectrum is a time-varying analysis of a sonic event. Most often, the sonic event is a musical instrument playing a note. The analysis will reveal the presence or absence of partials in the harmonic series. Each partial will have a unique presence in the sound, which is what gives the sound its characteristic. See Appendix I for a reproduction of the harmonic series.
2 1979 entitled“Spectral Music.” He spoke of the tendency of the music to focus on the microstructure of sound, the ever-changing relationships between the pitches of a sound’s overtone structure as it develops in time.3 Dufourt and many other writers observed that spectral music is based on the development of a spectrum, or a group of spectra. Since the spectra are in a constant state of evolution, the spectra canpotentially have an impact on harmonic motion. The spectra can also influence orchestration, as the relative amplitudes of certain instruments might well reflect the relative amplitudes of the pitches in a particular overtone series.4 For example, the orchestration conceivably could have a particular sonority appropriate the characteristics of a low piano note. Moreover, if that harmonic series werebased on an electronic modification of a sound, the results might be quite unusual. Various writers have remarked how spectral music eschews traditional melody and counterpoint. The musical surface of a typical spectral work does reveal occasional fragments of melody, but the main focus is the overall timbre. Moscovich suggested that the spectrum ‘replaces’ the elements of “harmony, melody,rhythm, orchestration, and form.”5 ‘Replace’ may be an inappropriate word for the result of spectral processes and conception. Composer Tristan Murail speaks of the fusion of harmony and timbre into a single sound-object, which becomes the basis for his music.6 Dufort’s description of spectral music mentioned the constant evolution of a sound’s spectrum; if a spectral composer were to reproduce thiseffect, harmony and timbre would be in constant motion. It would even be possible to create rhythmic structures based on the durations of selected partials. The shape of a work, then, might be generated by the protracted evolution of a
Peter Szendy, “Spectra and Spectres et musique spectrale,” [Spectres and spectral music], in “L’identité du son: Notes croisées sur Jonathan Harvey et...