Thoughts on Spectralism and (Bonus) My Love/Hate Relationship with Computers

Would that the sound of the bell might go beyond our earth,
And be heard even by all in the darkness outside the cakravala;
Would that, their organ of hearing become pure, beings might
attain perfect infusion of the senses,
So that every one of them might come finally to the realization
of supreme enlightenment.

-bell gatha (or prayer) enchanted after reading the Samantamukha-Parivarta

I placed this quote at the beginning of one of my recent compositions – “Resonances” for metallic percussion and interactive electronics. In the program note I explain that the piece is entirely based on the physical phenomena of resonance and the compositional interest stems from the Zen/Buddhist philosophy that a bell’s ringing, or resonance, represents the fabric of eternity. Now that about a year has passed I’m beginning to find that this gatha is beginning to describe the esthetic roots of what I would call my “spectral phase.”

I would not want to echo Boulez’s famous ‘inutile’ when he described those not acquainted with serialism; nevertheless, I find those composers working today who are completely untouched by spectralism are at least less interesting.

-Jonathan Harvey (“Spectralism,” Contemporary Music Review 19.3 (2001) 11-14)

…let me state, in my turn, that any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but truly experienced – the necessity of dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time.

-Pierre Boulez (from “Éventuellement…,”La Revue Musicale 212 (1952), 117-48)

When recently reading the Jonathan Harvey article I almost “laugh(ed) mad” at the polite British manner in which he actually does echo Boulez’s (in)famous serialism quote. This is because it resonates so well with my own thoughts.

About five years ago – after I was first exposed to set class theory, dodecaphony, and integral serialism – I was utterly smitten with the composition freedom that such restrictions fostered and instantly entered what I call my “twelve-tone phase.” This phase lasted about four months and produced one horrible work for piano and quadraphonic tape (ironically titled, in the style of Frank Zappa, “The Hypothetical Broken Arm of the Tyrant”) and the abandoned initial version of my string quartet.

Despite its shortcomings, I be would lying if I stated that this “twelve-tone phase” did not help my compositional approach. Afterwards I found my compositional thoughts far more directed, my structural designs both more refined and flexible, and my understanding of the ambiguity of tonal centers in all musics much clearer. In addition, all of a sudden, the second Viennese school and many of the post-serialists began to make a lot more sense.

In contrast, my arrival at spectralism has been far more gradual. My first exposure was about six years ago when the piece “Partiels” by Gérard Grisey was on the listening list for my first-year composition class. The effect of the orchestra resynthesizing the low E of the bass trombone and the pure concentration on the nature of sound got me hooked. The next year I saved up to purchase a five CD box set of Boulez conducting contemporary works just because it was the only CD in print at the time with a work of Grisey (“Modulations”) that I hadn’t heard before. Also, in retrospect, I find that the way I structurally use glissandi harmonics in my string quartet shows a predilection towards “post-spectral” thought.

Four years passed and it wasn’t until I moved to Montréal that I was able to become fully immersed in studying spectral composition and thought. I remember the excitement I felt when I first came to Montréal for a piano audition and found out about the Montréal 2004 Musi-March festival which featured many works by Grisey. Also, last year, I had the unspeakable pleasure of studying the score while attending every rehearsal for Grisey’s “Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil” and becoming familiar with the works of numerous french spectral composers such as Philippe Hurel, Tristan Murail, Marc-André Dalbavie, and Philippe Leroux.

I’m currently hard at work on my most spectrally alligned work to date – “Time Fixtures.” To facilitate writing the piece I’ve been using the program OpenMusic to derive harmonies (which, for the first time in my music, utilize quarter tones), do spectral analysis to derive the resonant frequencies of a few structural phantom bells (which I also did for “Resonances”), and create sound files with AudioSculpt for the four-minute “timbral abyss” which occurs in the middle of the work. The final of these tasks has been giving me unspeakable trouble. The problem is that the documentation for the OpenMusic to AudioSculpt LISP library is from 1998 and doesn’t appear to be compatible with the current version of AudioSculpt. (Things like this are common when working with software in the IRCAM forum.) In many things I would usually just shrug my shoulders and move on to trying some other approach; however, the problem is that I find the musical results of my recent endeavors so musically engaging. So I press on…

Also, on a somewhat related note, this week I’ll be having a few lessons with the noted French composer Philippe Leroux. I am overjoyed because I really admire his music and thought, but also a nervous wreck for the same reasons.

Hmm, maybe I should get back to composing…

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