Composing With The Nature Of Sound

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Gerard Grisey, one of the godfathers of the spectral school, had an almost tactile relationship to sound, saying "I start more with the physical aspect of things, the physical aspect of sound, the quality of spectrums" before composing. This week on Hammered! we try to understand what the heck that actually means with a deep dive into the music of the spectral school.

It seems like commentators are always getting into trouble with spectral composers for attempting to define their compositional approach. So to explain, here's one of the major proponents of spectral music, the extraordinary and fastidious, Tristan Murail:

There are techniques which are shared by a number of composers. These techniques form an attempt to rebuild a coherent sound world, which was destroyed due to many many destructive [aesthetic] experiences. The challenge was to create a new harmonic system which would be coherent. We came up with and developed fully the idea to use sound itself as a model for musical structure. This is what we could call spectral techniques - the way that we use sounds as models.

Murail and the spectralists aimed to create a new musical language based on the properties of sound itself. With the help of spectrographic analysis and ingenious aesthetic intuitions, they explored the rich gradient of sound based on the timbral nuances of the overtones series, devised novel structural schemes, and, for the school's most vehement supporters, reframed the way we perceive and process sound.

Whatever your take, the music from the spectral school is unlike anything being written and often feels like you're caught in some alternative, unearthly sonic universe.

Tune in this week for a complete survey of Murail's piano music, played by the incomparable Marilyn Nonken (including the epic Territoires de l'oubli on Monday, which is performed entirely with the sustain pedal down to induce sympathetic overtone vibrations), along with other giants of the spectral school like Grisey, Claude Vivier, Kaija Saariaho, Julian Anderson, Giacinto Scelsi and more. We'll even delve into "proto-spectralists" Olivier Messiaen, Claude Debussy and Bela Bartok.