Spectral music

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Spectral music (or spectralism) is a musical composition practice where compositional decisions are often informed by the analysis of sound spectra. Computer based sound spectrum analysis using a Fast Fourier transform is one of the more common methods used in generating descriptive data. Using FFT analysis, features of a particular sound spectrum can be visualized using a spectrogram. Spectral composition focuses, then, on bringing out these features, interconnecting them, and transforming them. This analytical approach to spectral composition originated in France in the early 1970s and the techniques were primarily developed, and later refined, at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, Paris, and with the Ensemble l'Itinéraire, by composers such as Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. However, Murail has described Spectral music as an aesthetic rather than a style, an attitude towards composition rather than a set of techniques - the attitude being that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time" [1]. It has been suggested, however, that a number of major practitioners of this compositional method consider the term inappropriate, misleading, and reductive [2]. More recently (2003) the Istanbul Spectral Music Conference redefined 'spectral music' to encompass any music that foregrounds timbre as an important element of structure or musical language[3].



The term "spectral music" was coined by Hugues Dufourt in an article written in 1979 and first published two years later.[4] Dufourt, a trained philosopher as well as composer, was the author of several flagship articles associated with this movement. It was initially associated with composers of the French Groupe de l'Itinéraire including Dufourt, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and Michael Levinas, and the German Feedback group, principally Johannes Fritsch, Mesias Maiguashca, Peter Eötvös, Claude Vivier, and Clarence Barlow, as well as an independent form found in the work of Romanian composers Ştefan Niculescu, Călin Ioachimescu, Horatiu Radulescu, and Iancu Dumitrescu.[5] Among recent composers building on the spectral idea are Joshua Fineberg, Magnus Lindberg, Ana-Maria Avram, Kaija Saariaho, Phillippe Leroux, Phillippe Hurel, and Julian Anderson. The practice of spectral music has recently been extended outside the world of classical music into the realm of jazz through the work of Steve Lehman.[citation needed]


Early traces can be found in Hermann von Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music.[6] Early in the twentieth century, Ferruccio Busoni published in 1907 "Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst" (later translated as "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music"), describing (amongst other things) microtonal music.[7] Along similar lines, Henry Cowell published in 1930 New Musical Resources, establishing a relation between acoustics, perception and composition.[8]

Proto-spectral composers include Claude Debussy, Edgard Varèse, Giacinto Scelsi, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.[9] Theoretical predecessors include some of the composers mentioned and Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Paul Hindemith.[10]

Romanian Folk music, as collected by Béla Bartók (1904-1918), with its acoustic scales derived directly from resonance, with natural wind instruments like "buciume", "tulnice", "cimpoi", inspired such spectral composers as Vieru, Stroe, Niculescu, Dumitrescu and Nemescu [11].

This music began to emerge in the 1970s both in France amongst the composers of the Groupe de l'Itinéraire, influenced by work of composers such as Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen, in Germany amongst the members of the Feedback group in Cologne, and in Romania, with composers around Hyperion Ensemble, all of whom created harmonies and orchestrations based on the harmonic and inharmonic partials contained in complex sounds, such as multiple-stop organ tones, bell sounds, and bird song.

Spectral music represented an alternative to the prestige of the serialists and post-serialists as the vanguard of serious musical composition and compositional technique.[12]

Julian Anderson considers Danish composer Per Nørgård's Voyage into the Golden Screen for chamber orchestra (1968) to be the first "properly instrumental piece of spectral composition".[13]

A further development is the emergence of hyper-spectralism in the work of Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram[14][15].

Compositional technique

The "panoply of methods and techniques" used are secondary, being only "the means of achieving a sonic end" [1]. The composition of spectral music 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. If the music is to be performed by live musicians (as opposed to being played electronically via computer through speakers), then these novel effects must be translated into an extended traditional notation that can be read and executed by a human being with some additional training. The fine gradations of pitch are usually rounded off to the nearest quarter-tone or even eighth-tone—dividing the octave into 24 or 48 discrete pitches, instead of the usual twelve for Western music. Temporal aspects and dynamics are subject to similarly fine controls, creating additional notational hurdles.

Formal concepts important in spectral music include process, though "significantly different from those of minimalist music" in that all musical parameters may be affected [16]. These processes most often achieve a smooth transition through interpolation.[17]

In the Romanian spectral tradition, the accent is far less on structure and on mathematical analysis, far more on the study of how sound itself behaves in a 'live' situation. Sound work is not restricted to harmonic spectra but includes transitory aspects of timbre and non-harmonic components. Furthermore sound is treated phenomenologically, i.e. NOT as an object of scientific study but as a dynamic presence to be encountered in listening. This approach results in a transformational musical language in which continuous change of the material displaces the central role accorded to structure in spectralism of the 'French school'[18].

'Spectral music' is not to be confused with Spectratonal music, which is both a musical form and an approach to music-making that grows out of a heightened awareness of the natural harmonic series and other fundamental acoustic phenomena. Spectratonal music is acutely tonal and generally performed on acoustic instruments. It was developed by José A. Sotorrio and outlined in his book 'Tone-Spectra and the Natural Elements of Music' (2004).

Notable works

Characteristic spectral pieces include Gérard Grisey's Partiels, Tristan Murail's Gondwana [19], Stockhausen's Stimmung, and Jean-Claude Risset's Mutations (1969). John Chowning's Stria (1978), and Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco (1980), are examples of electronic pieces that embrace spectral techniques. The timbral and spectral explorations of the Romanian school might be represented by Iancu Dumitrescu's Cogito/Trompe l'Oeil, Ioachimescu's Concerto for Trombone, Contrabass, and Orchestra, Horatiu Radulescu's Clepsydra and Octavian Nemescu's Quinde cimor tuoram.


  1. ^ a b Fineberg 2000a, 2.
  2. ^ Anderson 2000, 7.
  3. ^ Reigle 2008
  4. ^ Dufourt 1981; Dufourt 1991, 289–93.
  5. ^ Anderson 2001.
  6. ^ Helmholtz 1863.
  7. ^ Busoni 1907.
  8. ^ Cowell 1930.
  9. ^ Rose 1996, 6; Moscovich 1997, 21–22
  10. ^ Anderson 2000, 8-13.
  11. ^ Halbreich 1992 p 13-14
  12. ^ "... the question of timbre, though it is rigorously tackled by Schönberg (in his theory of the 'melody of timbres') and above all by Webern, nevertheless has pre-serial origins, especially in Debussy—in this regard a 'founding father' of the same rank as Schönberg. [...] Later, it also provided the grounds for the break with Boulez's 'structural' orientations and the contestation of the legacy of serialism which was carried out by the French group L'Itinéraire (Gérard Grisey, Michaël Levinas, Tristan Murail ...)" (Badiou 2009, 82).
  13. ^ Anderson 2000, 14.
  14. ^ Halbreich 1992, p.50
  15. ^ Teodorescu-Ciocanea 2004, p. 144
  16. ^ Fineberg 2000a, 107
  17. ^ Fineberg 2000a, 107.
  18. ^ Reigle 2008, p16.
  19. ^ Fineberg 2000a, 128.

See also


  • Anderson, Julian. 2000. "A Provisional History of Spectral Music". Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 2 ("Spectral Music: History and Techniques): 7–22.
  • Anderson, Julian. 2001. "Spectral Music". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Badiou, Alain. 2009. Logics of Worlds: The Sequel to Being and Event, translated by Alberto Toscano. London, New York: Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-9470-2
  • Busoni, Ferruccio. 1907. "Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst". In Der mächtige Zauberer & Die Brautwahl: zwei Theaterdichtungen fur Musik; Entwurf einer neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst, by Ferruccio Busoni, Arthur, comte de Gobineau, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Triest: C. Schmidt. English edition as Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, translated from the German by Th. Baker. New York: G. Schirmer, 1911.
  • Cohen-Lévinas, Danielle. 1996. Création musicale et analyse aujourd'hui. Paris: Eska, 1996. ISBN 2-86911-510-5
  • Cornicello, Anthony. 2000 "Timbral Oranization in Tristan Murail's "Désintégrations. Ph.D. Dissertation, Brandeis University.
  • Cowell, Henry. 1930. New Musical Resources. New York & London: A. A. Knopf. Reprinted, with notes and an accompanying essay by David Nicholls. Cambridge [England] & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-521-49651-9 (cloth) ISBN 0-521-49974-7 (pbk.)
  • Dufourt, Hugues. 1981. "Musique spectrale: pour une pratique des formes de l'énergie". Bicéphale, no.3:85–89.
  • Dufourt, Hugues. 1991. Musique, pouvoir, écriture. Collection Musique/Passé/Présent. Paris: Christian Bourgois. ISBN 2-267-01023-2
  • Fineberg, Joshua (ed.). 2000a. Spectral Music: History and Techniques. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, published by license under the Harwood Academic Publishers imprint, ©2000. ISBN ISBN 90-5755-131-4. Constituting Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 3.
  • Fineberg, Joshua (ed.). 2000b. Spectral Music: Aesthetics and Music. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Overseas Publishers Association. ISBN 90-5755-132-2. Constituting Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 3.
  • Fineberg, Joshua. 2006. Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-97174-8, ISBN 978-0-415-97174-4. [Contains much of the same text as Fineberg 2000a and 2000b.
  • Grisey, Gérard. 1987. "Tempus ex machina: a Composer's Reflections on Musical Time." Contemporary Music Review 2, no. 1:238–75.
  • Halbreich, Harry. 1992 Roumanie, terre du neuvième ciel. Bucharest: Axis Mundi.
  • Helmholtz, Hermann von. 1863. Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn. Second edition 1865; third edition 1870; fourth revised edition 1877; fifth edition 1896; sixth edition, edited by Richard Wachsmuth, Braunschweig: A. Vieweg & Sohn, 1913 (Facsimile reprints, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968; Frankfurt am Main: Minerva, 1981; Hildesheim & New York: G. Olms, 1983, 2000 ISBN 3-487-01974-4; Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 2003 ISBN 3-487-11751-7; Saarbrücken: Müller, 2007 ISBN 3-8364-0606-3).
    • Translated from the third edition by Alexander John Ellis, as On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1875; second English edition, revised and corrected, conformable to the 4th German edition of 1877 (London and New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1885); third English edition 1895; fourth English edition 1912; reprint of the 1912 edition, with a new introduction by Henry Margenau, New York: Dover Books, 1954 ISBN 0-486-60753-4; reprint of the 1912 edition, Whitefish, Montana: Kellinger Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1-4191-7893-8
  • Humbertclaude, Eric. 1999. La Transcription dans Boulez et Murail: de l’oreille à l’éveil'. Paris: Harmattan. ISBN 273848042X.
  • Lévy, Fabien. 2004. "Le tournant des années 70: de la perception induite par la structure aux processus déduits de la perception". In Le temps de l'écoute: Gérard Grisey ou la beauté des ombres sonores, edited by Danièle Cohen-Levinas, 103–33. Paris: L'Harmattan/L'itinéraire. [Contains many typographical errors; corrected version online at: http://www.fabienlevy.net/Documents/pdf/tournant70.pdf.]
  • Moscovich, Viviana. 1997. "French Spectral Music: An Introduction". Tempo new series, no. 200 (April): 21–27.
  • Reigle, Robert. 2008. "Spectral Musics Old and New". In Spectral World Musics: Proceedings of the Istanbul Spectral Music Conference, edited by Robert Reigle and Paul Whitehead. Istanbul: Pan Yayincilik. ISBN 9944396273.
  • Rose, François. 1996. "Introduction to the Pitch Organization of French Spectral Music." Perspectives of New Music 34, no. 2 (Summer): 6–39.
  • Teodorescu-Ciocanea, Livia. 2004 Timbrul Muzical, Strategii de compoziţie. Bucharest: Editura Muzicală. ISBN 9734203444.

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Spectral music". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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