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Spectralism in Music


    The most conventional way of composing music begins with a motif that includes melody, harmony, and rhythm. This motif then evolves into a phrase, and subsequently a period. Oftentimes, a phrase or period is repeated in various ways to form a larger structure that constitutes the entire piece. 

    As time progresses, there have been significant changes in the treatment of each musical element. However, the core concept of combining materials and transforming them remains unchanged. 

    Spectral music is particularly distinctive in this context. It focuses more on the acoustic properties of sound rather than the other musical elements mentioned above. It starts with the analysis of sound spectra, as the primary material used in spectral music is the overtones of a sound. Yet, the use of overtones alone does not define spectral music. Composers such as Béla Bartók, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who are not typically considered spectralists, also employed overtones in their compositions. However, in their works, overtones are treated as pitch material, in contrast to their use for creating timbre in spectral music. Spectralists are more interested in generating sounds with timbral diversity, which can be achieved by adjusting the amplitude of each partial of a sound. 

    Musicologist Viviana Moscovich describes the aspects of spectral music as follows: 

 In Spectral music, the spectrum—or group of spectra—replace harmony, melody, rhythm, orchestration and form. The spectrum is always in motion, and the composition is based on spectra developing through time and exerting an influence on rhythm and formal processes. (Moscovich 22)

    In other words, all components of music are inherent in the spectrum, or sound itself. The progression of music with a variety of colors is the composers’ task. 

    Spectral music, like other genres, was influenced by preceding music. The term "spectral music" was coined by Hugues Dufourt in 1979 (Anderson, “Spectral Music”), marking the beginning of a trend in the early 1970s in France of analyzing sound with spectrograms or sonograms and integrating complex tones into music composition. Alongside Dufourt, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and Michaël Lévinas were key figures in this movement. 

    By the early 1970s, when spectralism began to emerge, serialism was the mainstream in Europe. Attempts to move away from serialism began in the mid-1960s, leading to minimalism, aleatoricism, and dadaism. Spectral music also appeared as part of this opposition to serialism. Spectral composers of the time believed that serial music was too strict and abstract, its unpredictability ignoring the listener's perception, as well as sonority and timbre (Lepany). Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish spectral composer, criticizes how serial music neglects the actual sounding result, resembling more an intellectual game (Hamilton). Grisey described serialism as lacking in focus and "harmonically gray" (Cornicello 47). 

    Despite strong resistance, the dominance of serialism remained strong. Even Messiaen, considered one of the influences of spectral music and interested in the color of music, required his students to write serial music (Murail 181). 

     In January 1973, when the Ensemble l'Itinéraire was organized by spectral composers, spectral music was more actively promoted to the public. Subsequently, in Germany, a group of composers associated with Stockhausen’s students formed a group called Feedback. Romanian composers like Horațiu Rădulescu and Ștefan Niculescu shortly joined the movement. These three groups played a pivotal role in the early spectral movement. 

    Spectral music has its own unique characteristics, distinct from its contemporaries. Generally, there is no noticeable melody and strong pulse providing a sense of meter, and the harmonic progression is very slow. Yet, the music sounds coherent and organized (Cornicello 1). Grisey defines spectralism as follows: 

Spectralism is not a system. It's 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. (Bündler)

    The French institute IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) naturally became a hub for spectralists. This is because spectralists were also invested in electronic music, as many techniques used for spectral composition are based on those in electronic music; for example, various synthesis techniques used in electronic music to create original sounds are applied to acoustic instruments in spectral music. Hence, it was essential for spectralists to have a background in electronic music, and IRCAM, which is dedicated to the research of electroacoustics, attracted their attention. 

    There are forerunners of spectral music, dating back to the 17th century. The beginning of the Prelude from Das Rheingold (1854) by Richard Wagner is said to contain characteristics of spectral music. The first measure starts with Eb1, the fundamental tone, and Eb2, the second partial, on the basses. This octave doubling from measure 1 is held until measure 157 as a pedal point. From measure 5, bassoons play Bb2 and Bb3, which are the third and sixth partials respectively. 


Score 1. Das Rheingold, mm.1-16

    Then, from measure 17 to measure 21, the Horn 8—there are 8 French horns used in total—plays the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, and 10th partials in order. 



Score 2. Das Rheingold, mm.17-21

     This four-measure "phrase" is repeated on 7 other horns one by one, then on other instruments, while undergoing a slow and gradual change in its rhythmic pattern. Although there is no change in harmony until measure 157, it feels like there is one. The changes in rhythm and timbre induce a change in color, giving an illusion of harmonic change. This acoustic aspect of the piece is associated with spectralism, not the extensive usage of the overtone series as the main material itself. 

    It is also reasonable to say Claude Debussy, one of the representative figures of French Impressionism, is one of the forerunners of spectral music in that he focused more on color and texture in his music. Not only did he break away from the traditional harmonic system based on major and minor with the use of different modes, but he also achieved timbral diversity with his new harmonic language that intentionally deviates from the strict rules of traditional harmony. For example, at the very beginning of his piece … La Cathédrale engloutie (Sunken Cathedral, 1910) from Préludes Book 1, he omits the third of the first chord and uses consecutive fourths, fifths, and octaves for color, which are all strictly prohibited in traditional harmony. 



Score 3. … La Cathédrale engloutie from Préludes Book 1, mm.1-3

    Arnold Schönberg as a forerunner of spectral music might raise questions, as spectralism was born in opposition to serialism, although it was not the only motivation. However, during his second period featuring free atonality, he invented a technique called Klangfarbenmelodie. This technique dissects the melody and distributes it among several instruments for timbral diversity. 

    It is well represented in the third piece, Farben, in his 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op.16 (1909). For example, in measures 13 and 14, when only looking at the notes, the same chord is repeated twice. However, Schönberg keeps changing the assignment of instruments to the notes. The score below is the 2 piano version of this piece, arranged by Anton Webern. It looks dull and static, lacking the timbral effect that Schönberg designed. The ever-changing orchestration of Klangfarbenmelodie is what makes the piece colorful and dynamic in timbre. 


Score 4. Farben from 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op.16, mm.13-16

    Edgard Varèse was enthusiastic about discovering new sounds and timbres. In this regard, most of his instrumentation deviates from what is known as conventional. For example, his piece Ionisation (1931), written for 13 percussionists, employs 38 percussion instruments in total; and this type of percussion-exclusive instrumentation did not exist before Varèse. 

    For new acoustics, he also incorporates electronic instruments like Ondes Martenot and Theremin, which are found in his pieces Amériques and Ecuatorial. He spoke about spectralism as follows, forecasting its arrival:

Not only will the harmonic possibilities of the overtones be revealed in all their splendor but the use of certain interferences created by the partials will represent an appreciable contribution. The never before thought if use of the inferior resultants and of the differential and additional sounds may also be expected. An entirely new magic of sound! (Varese and Wen-chung 12)

    Olivier Messiaen taught the first generation of spectralists, including Murail, Grisey, and Lévinas, as well as exerting his own influence on spectral music. His "Chord of Resonance," which consists of notes extracted from certain overtone series. In his book The Technique of My Musical Language, he mentions the effects of resonance as effects of pure fantasy (Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language 51). These can be found in many of his pieces, including Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941). 

    His interest in birds also relates to spectralism. He said that bird sound is comprised of chords, but it is also a combination of various sounds that is no longer a chord (Messiaen, Conference de Notre Dame La Musique Sacree 8–9). This suggests the unification of chord and timbre, which directly influenced the first generation of spectralists. 

    Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced numerous musical genres such as serialism, musique concrète, electronic music, aleatoricism, and spectralism. His piece Stimmung (1967), which is a spectral composition itself, was a direct influence on spectral composers (Anderson, “A Provisional History of Spectral Music” 7). Stockhausen achieved timbral diversity by changing performers' mouth shapes and tongue positions, generating different formants. 

    Another piece of his, Mantra (1970), written for 2 pianos and live electronics, also greatly influenced the spectralists. The techniques used in this piece—formula technique, sound synthesis, and ring modulation—inspired early spectral composers like Claude Vivier, Johannes Fritsch, and Peter Eötvös and the German spectralist group Feedback (Anderson, “A Provisional History of Spectral Music” 13). 

    Giacinto Scelsi found his inspiration in spectralism while suffering from a mental disorder. After his mental breakdown, he turned to improvisation, finding that repeating one note on the piano brought him emotional stability (Anderson, “La Note Juste. Julian Anderson Appraises the Work of the Enigmatic Giacinto Scelsi”). Then, he began composing with the idea of a single pitch with varied timbres. Pitch, once considered indispensable by contemporary composers or even by Scelsi himself, became less important. His pieces Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola (1959) and Quartetto No. 4 (1964) feature the new paradigm he was advocating. 

    György Ligeti focused on textures with micropolyphony, tone cluster, and sound mass techniques, especially in his pieces Apparitions (1959), Atmosphères (1961), and Lontano (1967). His approach to tone clusters is different than just a number of notes played at once; he adjusted the pacing of each voice so that the texture keeps changing. Given that the small changes within the cluster replace melody, rhythm, and pulse, his music already resembled spectral composition. 

    Besides Grisey and Murail, the first generation of spectralists, there are second-generation spectralists who are continuing their tradition while seeking their original style of composition. One of them is Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish composer who studied with both Grisey and Murail. Her inspiration for spectralism comes from the same place as the first generation of spectralists, as she states:

It was the first time I had heard about spectral music, and it was fantastic compared to the post-serial aesthetics that were dominant everywhere, and which didn’t really suit my ideas. When all my fellow students in Freiburg saw fantastically complicated systems on the blackboard, I didn’t see any of that or hear anything in the music, so I didn’t like this approach at all. I wanted to make music for the ears, and when I first heard Gerard’s and Tristan’s music it seemed so fresh. (Beyer 4)

    Her piece Lichtbogen (1986) incorporates the concept of “sound axis,” which originally comes from Grisey, in her own creative way. The following figure shows the gradual timbral change of the piece. This process happens very slowly, and all kinds of techniques on instruments are being exploited meanwhile. 


Figure 1. Illustration of sound axis in Lichtbogen

    Vers le blanc, a piece composed during her period at IRCAM, also shows a simple but innovative process. Over the duration of 15 minutes, the first chord shown in figure 2 gradually glides to the following cluster.


Figure 2. The “harmonic” progression in Vers le blanc (Pousset et al. 71)

    Another Finnish spectralist, Magnus Lindberg, attempts bolder changes in spectralism. He uses pitches and rhythms derived from pitch-class sets in his spectral compositions (Anderson, “The Spectral Sounds of Magnus Lindberg. Julian Anderson Introduces One of Scandinavia’s Leading Composers” 565). Although this might seem contrary to the core concept of spectralism, the identity of spectral music that features color and timbre is perfectly preserved. 

    Philippe Hurel, a French spectralist, incorporates fractals in his piece Optic (1984). For example, consider a succession of notes a b c d e f g b a d c f. When emphasizing its elements periodically in order, it will create a higher level "pattern" that corresponds to the original succession: A b c d e f g B a d c f a b C d e f g b a D c f a b c d E f g b a d c F a b c d e f G b a d c f a B c d e f g b A d c f a b c D e f g b a d C f a b c d e F g b a d c f (Pousset et al. 108). This resembles the isorhythm technique from the 13th century, but Hurel’s process only deals with melody that exactly forms a fractal. Given this process is based on a gradual change and shapes the structure of the piece, it can be considered an aspect of spectralism. 

    Spectralism, with roots in the experiments of composers like Wagner and Debussy, really took off in the 1970s, thanks to advancements in computer and audio technology. These tools allowed composers to analyze and manipulate sound in ways that were previously impossible, leading to the creation of new musical textures and structures. The ability to examine the spectrum of sounds and overtones opened up new possibilities for composition, marking a significant shift in how music could be conceptualized and produced.

    As technology continues to advance, it's likely that spectral music will evolve even further. Innovations in digital analysis and synthesis tools, including artificial intelligence, could lead to new methods for creating and understanding music. The increasing accessibility of music production technology also means that more people can explore the principles of spectralism, potentially leading to a wider range of musical expressions within this genre.

    The future of spectral music is closely tied to technological development. As these tools become more sophisticated, they will provide composers with new ways to explore the nature of sound, allowing spectral music to remain a dynamic and evolving form of artistic expression.



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