Spectral music

Spectral music (or spectralism) is a compositional technique developed in the 1970s, using computer analysis of the quality of timbre in acoustic music or artificial timbres derived from synthesis.

Defined in technical language, spectral music is an acoustic musical practice where compositional decisions are often informed by sonographic representations and mathematical analysis of sound spectra, or by mathematically generated spectra. The spectral approach focuses on manipulating the spectral features, interconnecting them, and transforming them. In this formulation, computer-based sound analysis and representations of audio signals are treated as being analogous to a timbral representation of sound.

The (acoustic-composition) spectral approach originated in France in the early 1970s, and techniques were developed, and later refined, primarily at IRCAM, Paris, with the Ensemble l'Itinéraire, by composers such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Murail has described spectral music as an aesthetic rather than a style, not so much a set of techniques as an attitude; as Joshua Fineberg puts it, a recognition that "music is ultimately sound evolving in time".[1] Julian Anderson indicates that a number of major composers associated with spectralism consider the term inappropriate, misleading, and reductive.[2] The Istanbul Spectral Music Conference of 2003 suggested a redefinition of the term "spectral music" to encompass any music that foregrounds timbre as an important element of structure or 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 and composer, was the author of several important articles on spectral music.

The term was initially associated with composers of the French Ensemble 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. Features of spectralism are also seen independently in the contemporary work of Romanian composers Ştefan Niculescu, Horațiu Rădulescu, and Iancu Dumitrescu.[5]

More recent composers who have built on the spectral idea include Julian Anderson, Ana-Maria Avram, Joshua Fineberg, Georg Friedrich Haas, Jonathan Harvey, Fabien Lévy, Magnus Lindberg, and Kaija Saariaho. Jazz saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman has introduced spectral techniques into the domain of jazz.[6]


Proto-spectral composers include Claude Debussy, Edgard Varèse, Giacinto Scelsi, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.[7] Theoretical predecessors include some of the composers mentioned and Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Paul Hindemith.[8]

Romanian folk music, as collected by Béla Bartók (1904–1918), with its acoustic scales derived directly from resonance and natural wind instruments like "buciume", "tulnice", and "cimpoi" inspired several spectral composers: Vieru, Stroe, Niculescu, Dumitrescu and Nemescu.[9]

Spectral music represented an alternative to the prestige of the serialists and post-serialists as the vanguard of serious musical composition and compositional technique.[10]

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".[11]

A further development is the emergence of hyper-spectralism in the works of Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram.[12][13]

Compositional technique

The "panoply of methods and techniques" used are secondary, being only "the means of achieving a sonic end".[1]

Formal concepts important in spectral music include process, though "significantly different from those of minimalist music" in that all musical parameters may be affected. These processes most often achieve a smooth transition through interpolation.[14]

The Romanian spectral tradition focuses more on the study of how sound itself behaves in a "live" environment. Sound work is not restricted to harmonic spectra but includes transitory aspects of timbre and non-harmonic musical components (e.g., rhythm, tempo, dynamics). Furthermore, sound is treated phenomenologically as a dynamic presence to be encountered in listening (rather than as an object of scientific study). 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".[15]

Notable works

Characteristic spectral pieces include Gérard Grisey's Partiels, Tristan Murail's Gondwana and Georg Friedrich Haas's In Vain.[16] John Chowning's Stria (1977)[17] and Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco (1980) are examples of electronic music that embraces spectral techniques.[18]

See also


  1. 1 2 Fineberg 2000a, 2.
  2. Anderson 2000, 7.
  3. Reigle 2008
  4. Dufourt 1981; Dufourt 1991, 289–93.
  5. Anderson 2001.
  6. Anon. 2009.
  7. Rose 1996, 6; Moscovich 1997, 21–22
  8. Anderson 2000, 8–13.
  9. Halbreich 1992, 13–14
  10. "... 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).
  11. Anderson 2000, 14.
  12. Halbreich 1992, 50
  13. Teodorescu-Ciocanea 2004, 144
  14. Fineberg 2000a, 107.
  15. Reigle 2008, 16.
  16. Fineberg 2000a, 128.
  17. Chowning, John. "The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation" (PDF).
  18. Joos 2002; Sykes 2003.


External links

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