Spectral Music


Sunday, 14 April 2024






Said about Spectral music:

"Spectral music is music that is concerned with timbral structures, especially when decisions about timbre are informed by a mathematical analysis known as a Fast Fourier Transform. FFTs can be used to provide graphs that illustrate details about the timbral structure of a sound, which might not be initially apparent to the ear. FFTs can also be used in creating sounds with computers, in order to transform the timbre of a sound in various ways, such as creating hybrid timbres through a collection of processes known as cross-synthesis, or applying a room reverberation to a sound through a process known as convolution."

"Spectral music was initially associated with French composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. More recently the movement has broadened out into one of the most important contemporary compositional trends. The music of Joshua Fineberg, Phillippe Leroux, and Phillippe Hurel is of particular note. As was the case with impressionism and many other labels for musical style, those composers whose music has been called "spectral music" do not generally accept the label."

"Murail is the leading figure of spectral music, the only visible new movement in Europe to make inroads against postserialism, and in some ways a reaction against it. Spectral music, as it's been explained to me and as I can see from scores, uses harmonies derived from the overtone series, and sometimes takes computer-graphed waveforms of natural sounds as models. Thus the composer fills in the sound-envelope with pitches, overtones, and volume fluctuations derived from real sound samples, making spectral music the latest "natural" model in opposition to the artificiality of 12-tone-row-based serialism."

"S"Spectral music," growled the guy sitting next to me (actually, he is a famous composer, so I won't reveal his name, but it rhymes with "Prederic Pzewski"), "always sounds like Debussy." And it's true—if you take the first 10 overtones you get a Debussyan ninth chord, and the horns played quite a few of these in Terra d'Ombre's background. But the piece was harmonically heterogenous and extremely elaborate in its overall form, interesting in detail but difficult to keep in memory once it was over. Of course, American microtonal composers have been basing harmonies on the overtone series too, since Harry Partch dabbled with it in 1928, but they never came up with a great PR term like spectral music. Say it—it sounds so impressive: spectral music."

"Spectral music is written with a deeper understanding of how the human mind processes music. It is surprising how little information the human mind needs to make a decision!"

"Spectral music was first associated with France and especially with the music of Girard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Phillippe Leroux, and Phillippe Hurel."

"Spectral music is sometimes described as though the listener were a participant in a music perception experiment, the aim of which is to discover whether a preserved auditory principle (in the spectral case, the mimetic implications of the relations between partials) will function audibly under new conditions. The North American phenomenological school has produced many pieces that might be described in this way; e.g., Steve Reich's Come Out (1966); Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting in a Room (1969); and James Tenney's Critical Band (1988). These compositions conflate auditory principle and musical context, existing ontologically in a border region between "piece" and "experiment". The expressive content of, for example, Critical Band is data; all other parameters, including the traditionally expressive dimensions (articulation, volume) function as background texture. This extreme reduction in context produces music that is clearly mimetic. But where data is presented within a metaphoric framework, as in much spectral music, does the preserved auditory principle still function? "

"Spectral music opens up new musical languages for filmmakers that can delight the audience's ears in subtle or explicit ways."

"To our knowledge, François Evans is the only composer in the world to use spectral composition techniques in film music."


HISTORY (Istanbul):

Istanbul International Spectral Music Conference

Center for Advanced Musical Research (MIAM) Istanbul Technical University, Istanbul, Turkey
November 18-23, 2003

Originally a stylistic and ideological trend spearheaded by the composers and performers associated with L'Itineraire in Paris in the early 1970s, today spectral music and the insights it has spawned are important areas of discourse for ethnomusicologists, theorists, systematic musicologists, composers, and performers.

We take as the central idea of this conference, the exploration of music that demonstrates a special concern for timbre. In keeping with the expansive viewpoint prevalent among leaders of the Spectral movement, the conference will provide a forum for musicians and researchers to present their work, debate current issues, and explore the confluence of timbral perspectives across disciplines.

We are planning a series of spectral music concerts, performance workshops, panels, and individual paper presentations, and intend to publish the proceedings in book and multimedia format. The concerts will feature world premieres written for this conference alongside works exploring the historic and ethnomusicological roots of spectral music.

The Conference is open to everyone interested in music. Istanbul's unique location, spanning two continents, provides the ideal setting to explore spectral music. Attendees will have the opportunity to hear a variety of Turkish musics in one of the world's great multi-cultural centers. Registration by August 1 will be $60 general, or $25 for students; after August 1 it will be $100/$35. Payments will be collected upon arrival.

Call for Papers

We encourage submissions on spectral music or timbral issues across a wide range of disciplines, including compositional practice, ethnomusicology, music theory, systematic musicology, performance, acoustics, computer music, music cognition, aesthetics, and musicology. Paper presentations will be twenty minutes plus ten minutes for discussion. Please submit an abstract, panel proposal, or idea for a performance demonstration by 15 July.


Despite all the talk about world music influences, intermingling of pop and classical, and all other manners of stylistic crossovers, there still exists distinctive nationalistic cultures of music-making. In French music, the most significant movement in the last century was impressionism, as formulated by Debussy and Ravel. The enormous influence of this music even extends into the work of modernists such as Messiaen and Boulez, and well into our time. The latest incarnation of this linear heritage is known as spectral music, which, familiarly, emphasizes color, lyricism and sensuality. This weekend, the Prism Quartet will present a full program of spectral music they are calling "Le Saxophone Spectral, New Music from Paris." Five works in a variety of voices will be heard, including a quartet from one of the granpapas of the movement, the late Gérard Grisey, and concluding with an homage to Grisey by his onetime student Fabien Lévy, in an American premiere performance.

Sat., Feb. 26, 8 p.m., $10-$20, Trinity Center for Urban Life, 22nd and Spruce sts., 215-569-9700


Tristan Murail, one of the founders of spectral music, is the featured guest composer on the next New Music New Haven concert on Thursday, November 18 at 8pm in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall. Spectral music, the musical style that developed in France in the 1970s and depends heavily on both timbre and technology. The November 18 program includes Mr. Murail’s major work "Désintégrations" for 17 instruments and tape.




Fineberg, Joshua, ed. 2000. Spectral Music: Aesthetics and Music. Contemporary Music Review 19:3.

Julian Anderson, "A Provisional History of Spectral Music," Contemporary Music Review 19/2, pp. 7-22.

Joshua Fineberg, "Guide to the Basic Concepts and Techniques of Spectral Music," Contemporary Music Review 19/2, pp. 81-113.




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