Bernard Holland has a funny piece in today’s Times about setting out to listen to Marc-André Dalvavie’s new CD and getting mugged instead by an roving gang of French musical poseurs.  A couple of choice bon mots

So breathless were the revelations contained in this essay, called “Space, Line, Color,” it seemed for a moment the music could wait. Expounding on hearing, space and your stereo system, it reads: “while right/left movement can be recreated, front/back movement is replaced by a sensation of sound advancing or receding.” So it’s true that sound is softer when it is farther away than when it is in front of you. That will be useful the next time I come across a marching band going down the street.

Here is another verbal space walk: “Hence some of” Mr. Dalbavie’s “works do not limit their musical space to the concert platform, but extend to the entire hall,” he writes. “The defocalisation thus achieved calls into question the spatial hierarchy resulting from any frontal presentation of the music.”

I sure wish Gabrieli had thought about that 450 years ago; imagine the antiphonal music he could have written, with sound flying from every direction at people standing in the middle of his church.

13 thoughts on “Sex, Existentialism and the Modern Spectralist”
  1. Eric,

    Just a general comment on the composers I recall from my student days – kids who would proudly declare that they knew nothing about serialism or minimalism (this was the 80s/90s). Most of these kids are most likely not involved in music anymore, at least not to my knowledge. You can only go so long with the blinders on, before you dry out! I agree with you, living a ‘life stuffed full of new music’ is the way to learn what’s out there. My little story about Phil Corner is that he, as a student (and afterwards), must have learned what was there and then made a conscious, informed decision on his musical direction.

  2. Anthony, just to clarify – which youngish, college-age composers are you referring to? Trevor’s quote above implies that they’re already on the “spectral bandwagon.”
    For the record, I’m 49 and have lived a life stuffed full of new music.

  3. Well, I don’t think anyone here is saying “convert or die,” Eric. At least I hope I don’t come off sounding that way. But I’m always shocked at how many youngish, college-age composers don’t have a good knowledge of all compositional trends around them. Learn about them, and then decide whether you like it or not.

    Once, I was having a discussion with Phil Corner. We got onto Stockhausen and serialism, and I suddenly realized that Phil really knew what he was talking about. His music, for those of you who don’t know, is very 60s/experimental, influenced by the downtown scene of that time. Yet, here we were, having an informed discussion about something that was diametrically opposed to what he does. It was certainly inspirational to me.

  4. And Pierre Boulez, in the 1950s, said that anyone who didn’t feel the Necessity of 12-tone music would be completely marginalized.
    I think I’ll survive this too, should it turn out that I still don’t “get it” after reading Anthony’s work and listening to (yes) my latest Murail CD.

  5. A lot of the university composers I know under 25 are heavily influenced by spectral music. If you’re mocking it now, I think you might feel lost in a couple years.

  6. Listen, I’ll be the first to admit that a LOT of spectral writing is obtuse. It seems to try to make the music more mysterious, more scientific, more of everything. But, let’s take that commentary with a grain of salt, or at least a cafe au lait.
    Sometimes Americans can be a little naive when it comes to other cultures and ideas. We seem to still have this imperialist mentality that says “Oh, look how cute! They have their own music, and religion, and political system! Isn’t that sweet? Now if they can just forget about that silly stuff and get up with the times, everything will be okay.”

  7. Eric wrote: isn’t ALL MUSIC about creating something from acoustic phenomena?

    No, all music’s concerned with creating something with sound, which is very different. Often the traditional music-creating techniques work more with material that’s already a complex accretion of cultural signifiers and stereotypes.

    Spectralism went back past that cultural accretion and observed structures and tendencies within basic sound phenomena, then invented ways that these could be brought back into the traditional musical world as harmonic, temporal, timbral and formal material.

    …And why poetic metaphor? How about dramatic metaphor? Or psychological metaphor? And why metaphor? Why not parallels? Symbols? Signs? Signifiers? Complexes of consciousness?

    Some of the alternatives you give are close, some completely inappropriate. “Metaphor” seems closest to what’s happening. Instead of finding ways that something’s like something else, we conjure up ways that something is something else. Which is strictly impossible, and also why it’s poetic. To quote part of one of the standard definitions:

    Poetry often uses particular forms and conventions to expand the literal meaning of the words, or to evoke emotional or sensual responses.

    Replacing “meaning” with “life” and “words” with “sounds”, I can’t think of a much better description of what the spectralist was attempting.

  8. I didn’t take the article as snide about spectralism per se (though I look forward to seeing Anthony’s clear description, because so far I find its bark louder than its bite), but rather about that ridiculous, generally French, style of liner-note writing, marked by the following traits:

    1. The thing being written about is the greatest!
    2. It’s also underappreciated, or undeserving of its obscurity or current level of popular esteem;
    3. It’s so fabulous that even its ordinary things are breathtaking – the loudness! The softness! The way one instrument plays a note and then another instrument somewhere else plays a different note! The sound! The silence!
    4. It’s unprecedented!
    5. All of the above is described in echt deconstructionist language – or in such generalities that can’t be countered. For example, Steve’s last sentence above – isn’t ALL MUSIC about creating something from acoustic phenomena? And why poetic metaphor? How about dramatic metaphor? Or psychological metaphor? And why metaphor? Why not parallels? Symbols? Signs? Signifiers? Complexes of consciousness? Within some limits, it doesn’t matter what words I use here. They’re all so rhetorically indirect that every reader will take their own meaning, which means I’ve not really said anything.
    Plenty of European CDs have awful gobbledegook like that in their liner notes. It’s like the Foucault edition of Mad Libs.

  9. I think much of Holland’s gripe with these particular notes is reasonably justified, but the tone throughout is lamely smug. A couple of his points are even made at the expense of perfectly intelligible (though maybe initially unfamiliar) concepts or phrases. Worse is his snide use of quotations every time he mentions spectralism as a stylistic label. Would he write that Stravinsky was a “neoclassicist” or Glass a “minimalist”?

    Spectralism is a long-established school; long enough to have grown, flowered and be somewhere past its prime by now. Understand or not, like or dislike, but the movement is fully historical.

    His point that “Science in music exists so that the person listening doesn’t know it’s there” is perfectly true — in the same way it would be if we replaced the word “science” with “theory” and applied it to any period. Spectralism isn’t really “about” science; if anything it’s about creating poetic metaphor from acoustic phenomena.

  10. Bill,

    EXACTLY!! I thought it was almost meant to turn people off from the matter, not to enlighten people about a trend that is quite popular in a lot of countries.

  11. Speaking as someone with 0% knowledge of spectral music, the article had the opposite than intended effect on me. I’m looking forward to finding out a lot more.
    Vive le France :^)

  12. I don’t think that the Dalbavie is a good place to start if you’re not familiar with Spectral music. Although I think Dalbavie is okay (I’m not a huge fan, but he’s got some good pieces), it seems to me that he holds the intellectual concepts in a much higher regard than the resulting music. I’m all for having a clear concept behind the piece, but it has to show through in some ways in the music! Some of Grisey’s pieces (Modulations, for instance) do this wonderfully well. You can hear it as a piece in which changes slowly emerge. Reading an essay about it certainly sheds more light on the subject and allows the listener to discover more about the piece; however, one can listen without reading all this stuff.

    Holland kind of misses the point with Spectralism – that it’s all about process (and that, by the way, is what LeLong means in his third point about spectralism, quoted in the article). I emailed him about this (no prize, by the way!), and offered for him to read my dissertation about the history of spectral music. If anyone’s interested, it’s on my website (, under “writings.” Many people have commented that at the time it was written (2000), it was the clearest explanation of spectral music in English.

  13. The review at the NY times website is really funny and worth checking out, Holland cuts through the obscurantism with good humor.

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