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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

Jean-Claude Risset (b. 1938), a French composer and mathematician, received his training under Mathews at Bell Labs between 1964 and 1969 and went on to become the first computer chef at Boulez's IRCAM (1975–79). His research specialty was the matching and manipulation of recorded instrumental and natural sounds as a way of bridging the gap between the two mutually antagonistic worlds of early electronic music as described in chapter 4: the world of musique concrète, which made collages of “real” sounds, and that of the “tape studio,” where only electronically produced sounds were used. The computer offered a way of combining the rich sonic resources of the one and the precise composerly control of the other.

A Risset composition of 1968, “Fall,” from Music for Little Boy (a suite from an incidental score to a play about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima), gave an impressive inkling of that potential. Having made a thorough study of the overtone structures of instrumental timbres and their relationship to perceived pitch, Risset was able to create in sounds the analogue to a nightmare in which a character imagines that he is the bomb itself, falling through space until the dreamer awakens. “This fall,” Mathews wrote in a note accompanying a recording of the piece, “is psychological and never reaches any bottom.”58 By changing the relative strength of the overtones in the complex timbre of a descending glissando, the computer interferes with the listener's perception of register. When a “subjective” octave is reached, the original pitch is actually restored so that an uncanny illusion of endlessly descending pitch is produced.

Experiments like these were musically rudimentary but vastly suggestive. In fact a whole “school” of French composers arose in the mid-1970s in response to music produced, like Risset's, on the basis of computer analyses and transformations of timbre. What is particularly interesting about these composers—most prominently Gérard Grisey (1946–98) and Tristan Murail (b. 1947)—is that their musique spectrale (“spectral” or “spectralist” music) is not “computer music.” It is neither (necessarily) composed nor performed with the aid of a computer and does not (necessarily) use electronic media. It is, rather, an approach to musical form, and particularly to orchestration, that not only was inspired by the precedent of computer music but would have been inconceivable without that precedent—a preliminary inkling of how pervasive the influence of computers has been on music since the 1970s.

In spectral music “the material derives from the natural growth of sonority,” Grisey told an audience at Darmstadt in 1978. “In other words there is no Grundgestalt (no melodic cell, no complex of notes or note-values).”59 Rather than an arbitrary basis in the composer's imagination, spectral music finds a natural grounding in the physical qualities of sound, its “spectrum” of overtones as objectively analyzed by an unprejudiced machine. Grisey's Les espaces acoustiques (“Acoustic spaces”), a cycle of five pieces ranging in size from solo viola with an optional “electro-acoustical environment” (Prologue, 1976) to full orchestra (Epilogue, 1985), derives its material from a sonogram, or computer analysis, of the relative amplitude or prominence of sixty-six overtones arising from a low E (41.2 cycles per second), produced as a trombone “pedal” or as the fourth string of a double bass when played in various ways (arco, pizzicato, sul ponticello, etc.).

Chord progressions are produced by variously sampling the upper partials. Bass lines are often the product of combination or difference tones. “Dissonance” is introduced by transposing some of the upper partials so that they become “inharmonic” (i.e., they no longer resonate as integral multiples of the fundamental frequency). In Partiels (1975), for eighteen players, the third item in Les espaces acoustiques, the overall trajectory is from harmonicity through inharmonicity to disintegration, ending in silences, rustling percussion and isolated bass clarinet moans. In the fourth piece, Modulations (1977), the formal progression is from harmonicity to inharmonicity and back again to the pure spectrum of E, but the overtone series is inverted (the large intervals now coming at the top and proceeding downward in ever decreasing increments), and the harmonies reflect the spectra produced on a trombone timbre by the use of various mutes, which act as filters. Four such spectra are set in counterpoint by an orchestration that separates the ensemble into four antiphonal groups.

Inharmonicity is emphasized in the scoring by increasing the “roughness” of sound with nonpitched percussion, string ponticello, wind overblowing, and the like, and returning to smoother sounds when inharmonicity “resolves” to harmonicity. Since the natural overtone series has no “tempering,” spectral harmony is an unusual idiom in which tempered “inharmonic” intervals actually resolve to microtonal but acoustically pure “harmonic” ones. But since spectral music is played not by overtone-free sine-wave generators (as it might be in the computer lab) but by instruments that have their own harmonic spectra, the objective of spectral music is not to reconstitute or reproduce the timbre of the sonority analyzed in the sonogram, but rather to orchestrate unique timbre complexes—and “beautiful” ones at that, orchestration being the area in which the composer exercises subjective choice in manipulating the raw sonogram material.

Thus there is in spectralism, as in any composed music, an arbitrarily shaped component that reflects the composer's tastes and preferences. But that component inhabits the realm of timbre rather than the more traditional realm of rhythmicized pitches and intervals. In this, some have seen a continuing French (or “impressionist”) predilection. In any case, it was not surprising that after a period of teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, Grisey should have been hired by the Paris Conservatory as a professor of orchestration, only later being given a composition class.

Spectral music resembles earlier electronically influenced instrumental music, like Penderecki's “sonorist” scores or especially Ligeti's Atmosphères, with which it shares a predilection for long, slowly-changing sounds. Like all “high-tech” music of its period, it depended on privileged access to rare and expensive equipment housed in elite research institutions like industrial labs, universities, and state-subsidized endowments such as IRCAM. Paul Lansky (b. 1944), a veteran of Winham's Princeton seminar, estimated that “by 1979 you could probably get a good computer-music studio for $250,000, if you could raise it.”60 After twenty years, in other words, it was still something only institutions could afford, and therefore a place to which entry was limited both by available time and by social barriers like mandatory professional affiliation.


(58) M. V. Mathews, liner note to Voice of the Computer, Decca Records DL 710180 (1977).

(59) Gérard Grisey (trans. A. Laude), liner note to G. Grisey, Partiels, Dérives, Erato Stereo STU 71157 (1981).

(60) Paul Lansky, “It's about Time: Some Next Perspectives (Part One),” Perspectives of New Music XXVII, no. 2 (summer 1989): 271.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010011.xml