On Electro-Acoustic Music: Grisey – Introducing Giverny McAndry – Part 1

There’s a new voice here on the blog.  Her name is Giverny McAndry, and she’ll be contributing some UK-based articles, reviews, and write-ups to The Box Is Empty.  By means of introduction to her and some of her thoughts on new music, she has put together a little exposé on some of her favorite electro-acoustic music: Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques III: Partiels (1974), Reich’s Three Tales Act III – Dolly (2002) and Risset’s Eight Sketches: Duet for one Pianist (1989).  I’ll let her take it form here…

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As Eric Salzman writes, “electronic music cannot be considered a movement.” Rather, it is organised sound which is conceived of, produced, recorded, reproduced or manipulated by electronic means; in its most simple components, this affects music in its pre-compositional state, the method of composition, and medium of performance. Despite the shortcomings of the term ‘movement’ within the context of twentieth-century music, Salzman’s denial of electronic music according to this description is wholly justifiable. The crux of the matter lies in the fact that, together, these three uses of electronics in music provide too broad a spectrum to be held under the umbrella term of a ‘movement’.

Composed between 1974-1985, Les Espaces Acoustiques is held as the most accurate realisation of Grisey’s musical style – often called Spectralism, a predominantly Eurpoean endeavour, which arose from the detailed study of the acoustical life and qualities of sound.[1] Partiels was composed via a technique called ‘Instrumental Synthesis’, as well as the instrumental simulation of ring modulation techniques to modulate the music away and back to the pure harmonic spectra.[2] These methods require detailed electric sonogram analysis of sound spectra, which include calculating the sum and difference tones (and their harmonics) and accounting for the combinations of frequencies that constitute particular timbres, so that the composer might use the resulting set of pitches for the instrumental harmony or to mimic selected sounds using particular groups of instruments.[3]

Partiels begins and is subsequently based around a trombone E2 (the fundamental), and the frequencies of its sound spectrum are exploited and reconstructed by an eighteen-strong ensemble via the assignment of instruments to specific partials (each partial approximated to the nearest quarter-tone)[4] – the logic of the instrument assignment is determined by how effectively their sound would harmonically model the characteristics of the original attack’s dynamic temporal evolution.[5] The original spectral analysis – detailed study of the acoustical properties of sound itself[6] – allows Grisey to purposefully reveal the wealth of subtle nuance in hidden tensions and natural dissonances that constitute an otherwise superficially stable sound, opening up new modes of multidimensional aural perception. The effect could not have been achieved without prior computer-based reduction of musical notes to their physical qualities, the findings of such analysis directly influencing the construction of the piece itself.  Though its performance is acoustic, such electronic means require that we view the piece as electronic in keeping with the definition above.

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Stay tuned for Giverny’s next post, where she’ll dig into aspects of the Reich and the Risset and offer some concluding thoughts on the twentieth century’s electronic music.

[1] Whittall, A., 1988. Music since the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.197.

[2] Sullivan, T. R., 2008. Polychrome: For Orchestra. Gerard Grisey’s “Quatre Chants Pour Franchir Le Seuil”: Spectral Music on the Threshold. PhD. University of Michigan. p.45.

[3]Anderson, J. “Spectral music.” Grove Music. [online]. Available through: Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/50982&gt;. [Accessed 12 January 2014]

[4] Fineberg, J., 2000. Spectral Music: History and Techniques. In: Contemporary Music Review. Vol.9 Part 2. Overseas Publishers Association, published by license under the Harwood Academic Publishers imprint. p.39.

[5]Ibid, p.116.

[6]Anderson, J. “Spectral music.” Grove Music. [online]. Available through: Oxford Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/50982&gt;. [Accessed 12 January 2014]

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