Spectral music: long-term perspectives

In his article “Did you say spectral?”, written for the Contemporary music review, Grisey explained the spectral music is not so much a definitive technics as an attitude. I think :Talking about spectral music makes sense if one does not confine oneself to the use of the spectra , an entity that integrates both harmony and timbre. The spetra is only one aspect of the “attitude” that Grisey described and, paradoxically, does not necessarily interest the composers who work with the spectral technics. It would be interesting to see what is left of this experiment today, and to observ how the composers react on meeting this music. I think : More than the harmonic problems of the spectra, the “stretched” or “contracted” time, the problem of microphony or macrophony, or the “threshold” that were all Grisey’s hallmarks, I think it’s the melodic, rhythmic and formal consequence of the spectral adventure that excite the young composers today. In his article “Did you say spectral?”, Gérard Grisey made out a table of all the consequences of spectralism. In the paragraph “Formal consequences” we read the following sentence : the use of neutral, flexible sound archetypes that facilitate perception and memorisation of the processes. Here, it seems to me, is a point on which the young inheritors of the spectral movement diverge. The neutrality of the material (which facilitate the perception of the processes) is not a particularity of spectral music. It is also an aspect htat is shard by repetitive musicians (Reich) but also by artists in other frames. I thinks for example to the BMPT movement, and particularly to Daniel Buren who upholds) this viewpoint. The 8.7 cm tapes that are common to all his works have allowed him, first : to organise the form without putting the material at the forefront, and as a consequence, to work in the geographic context and to create his works in situ. Without assimilating all the arts, this minimalism can be considered as being close to the work that Grisey made in a piece like Vortex Temporum. Why ?. It is completely based on a gestalt taken from a motif from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, namely the “Lever du jour”. Here the neutrality of the material is all the more apparent. In fact the motif is a simple “arpège, of which there will later remain nothing but the outline, an “enveloppe” that contains all the work. So in the first movement, Grisey was able to assimilate this motif successively to a sine wave, a square wave and a saw-toothed wave. We an easily imagine that such neutral material allows for numerous operations that are both flexible and perceptually efficient.

This procedure is very rich of course, but the neutrality of the material inevitably engenders an identical perception of the melodic and rhythmical figuration. Exept the complex processes, we only hear the scalar movements– long notes, scales, arpeggios, and bariolages “batteries” – which, for many younger composers, are not distinctive enough. The music of young composers far from being minimalist, is full of pregnant materials which is both varied and heterogeneous, and this is where they fundamentally diverge from Griseyan spectralism. In fact the young composers search and use a connoted material in order to corrupt it, since (car) melodic and rhythmical references are no longer a problem for them. In fact, they are now part of the game. Today the aim is to built the coherence with many different or contradictory elements. The problem is no longer how to organize the passage from microphony to macrophony, from timbre to melody, for example, but rather from a culturally recognisable element to a more global structure, or from a quotation from the existing repertoire to a personal argument, to constraint the “impure” element, neutralising it by the strategies of the composition, and allowing it to cohabit with the other elements of the score. I think this form of dialectics goes beyond the spirit of spectralism.

Nevertheless, the lessons drawn from spectralism during composition are still of use, the global attitude remains the same. The objectivity of the argument, in Goethe’s sense, remains, while futile gestures generated by techniques of obsolete development give way to clearer procedures as a result of limiting operations. And there also remains the search for “the necessary and sufficient”, as well as the rejection of all justification outside music. Grisey would surely have approved of such Goethian anti-romanticism. But the material has changed, and that is an important point, because in trying to become more “significant” it fortunately succeeds in breaking up form. Besides, in the history of spectral music, this evolution took place quite rapidly. Composers of my generation who were in fact very soon marked by spectralism also claimed repetition for their own – repetition of motifs, musical situations and re-exposition of sections; it is no coincidence that the formal changment was made at the same time that the comosers tried to reject the idea of neutral material. On the one hand, they wanted to break with the “hypnosis of slowness” and the absence of a return to the start on account of “the obsession with continuity”, while on the other, the more distinctive materals that they used could be repeated more perceptibly. So while Grisey could reiterate an object several times and slowly transform it, without ever going back, composers of my generation would inject repetitions, loops and returns into the long linear procedures, and this was diametrically opposed to the spectral spirit of the time. Concerning my own works, it was in Pour l’Image (1986–87) that I began to deal with this problem, and it is particularly in Six Miniatures en trompe-l’œil and Flashback that I tried to resolve the dichotomy between linear process and repetition. Grisey came round to the way of thinking of younger composers rather later, and one has only to listen to Vortex temporum (1996) and the “re-exposition” at the start of the piece in the third movement. This section works because the re-exposed motif is still sufficiently harmonically and rhythmically distinctive –to be easily recognised. (despite its melodic neutrality)

These considerations about the material and the form now lead us to put more precise questions as to rhythm, one of the major problems that young composers have to tackle. But to return for a moment to Grisey, we may read in the paragraph on “temporal consequences” :

The exploration of the “threshold” between rhythm and duration The word “threshold” is very important here, for it defines the essence of spectral music, and particularly that of Grisey, who himself described it as “liminal” (from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold). The idea of exploring thresholds is present in his music at other levels than purely rhythmic, such as the passage from macrophony to microphony, from harmonicity to inharmonicity, from fusion to diffraction and from the continuous to the discontinuous. One could say that with Grisey, rhythm appears only as the result of the operations carried out on timbre, containing its own inner pulse, and that it is therefore merely a consequence of having crossed the threshold.

But here again, the new generation takes a different way, generally using macrophonic rhythmic models that often have a recognisable cultural connotation. This model could be a rhythmic structure that has resulted from natural or “concrete” movements of the objects that surround us (Philippe Leroux who worked at Grm), or a structure that could have been borrowed from non-European music (Benjamin de la Fuente) or from a work of the repertory or a rythmic structure from a computer-generated model with ethnic overtones (Mauro Lanza) or from the world of music influenced by jazz and rock. What binds (ce qui relie)these few composers to the spectral attitude is the reference to an acoustic model. It is no longer a question of calculating the durations to organize the rhythm from the spectra)but of starting with clearly recognisable rhythmic situations --- and this situations are anything but neutral.

The same goes for the melody which, as I underlined above, no longer appears with the younger composers in the most neutral scalar form, but rather already composed, in the form of a reference to a pre-existing model, or as a metaphor for this model. in the same text Grisey noted about this subject:

Setting up new scales and – in the long term – melodic reinvention. The words “in the long term” refer to how Grisey thought about the future, and what awaits young composers today. Grisey’s own time was cut tragically short. In fact it can be seen that melody for him was often organised scales of harmonics, as demonstrated by the various instrumental solos in Talea or Vortex temporum. In these pieces we can see that Grisey was searching for a new way to envisage melody, but it remains too much the servant of harmony and timbre to find its full autonomy. But yet in Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil a new approach to melody can be discerned, notably in the “Berceuse” where the voice part and the flute part take such an individual line that the other instruments seem to harmonise it. So it seems today that melody, having long been sidelined by the avant-garde, then neutralised by spectral or repetitive musicians, has still not made enough of a come-back to be genuinely revived by young composers. It may be remarked that using material with cultural connotations leads young composers to reject a separation of the parameters. While Grisey was returning to the notions of consonance/dissonance and modulation, young composers today try to re-establish the links (relations) between melody, rhythm and harmony.. It’s still difficult to find some good solutions in the frame of the melody but let us wait for the long term. ! To return to Grisey’s article. In the paragraph “Consequences: harmony and timbre”, we find the words discarding the tempered system So what about the micro-intervals today? It would seem that for several young composers, writing in quartertones was considered as obligated passage for those influenced by ambient spectralism. Many then abandoned it, at the same time simplifying their music and escaping to a disappointingly old-fashioned style. For those younger composers who have inherited the spirit of the spectral adventure, micro-intervals and non-tempered scales remain an important field of research. The use of quartertones and eighth-tones, however, is not systematic in their work as it was for their elders. Since composition uses material that may be macrophonic, it is therefore not necessary to write in a non-tempered style. Moreover, since rhythm is no longer the result of the observation of timbre or of the manipulations of the timbre, the composer is in no way obliged to make systematic use of micro-intervals. A new and free way of using them then appears: one section dominated by polyphonic and rhythmic complexity will gain nothing from the use of quartertones, while another, more harmonic and microphonic section, could not begin to exist without them. Such a contrast between different writing techniques is part of today’s composition and, as I indicated before, it is important to build the “coherence”, a coherent musical world despite the contradictions. The new-found freedom for younger composers allows them to play on wider contrasts than the simple harmonic-inharmonic or sine wave/noise opposition. This stance, far from opposing spectralism, in fact corroborates it, since it widens the field of thresholds to be crossed, so that from now on the passage from tempered to non-tempered must be effected without any stylistic hiatus.

It would need another long article to list the latest extensions to spectral music, but one would soon notice that they are based on the same aim of constraint and unification of the most contradictory elements. This is a normal reaction from a generation that has been led to believe that cohesion must exist from the start, from the conception of the material. While we may remark that the new generation does not hesitate to use heterogeneous elements and techniques, nor to borrow from models with cultural connotations, we will also notice that this new music can only be post-modern (and the last time we met even Grisey realised this, describing his own Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil as post-modern!). And post-modern it is, in the etymological sense of the term, insofar as the new generation, while taking part in the research and development of new writing techniques, at the same time refuses to take up the “historicist” position of their elders. And yet this music can in no way be considered as neo-classical or nostalgic since it resolutely faces the future, profiting from the consequences that result from recent experiments. Faced with the multiplicity of musical expression, young composers are ready to open their ears and constraint all types of material to their demands. More than anything else, the spectral attitude – devoid of dogma, and open to the world and to sound – enables composers to follow this m usical xay

by Philippe Hurel


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