in: News & Features

March 20, 2011

Sound Icon Debuts with Spectral Masterpiece


An Interview with Joshua Fineberg

Gérard Grisey, composer

Gérard Grisey’s Prologue, Périodes, and Partiels, the first half of his magnum opus, Les Espaces Acoustiques, were completed between 1974 and 1976, yet in Boston in the 35 years since, they have never been performed continuously, as intended.  That will change on Saturday, March 26 when Sound Icon, a new Boston-based, sinfonietta sized ensemble, presents its inaugural concert at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts Concert Hall. The group, led by conductor Jeffrey Means, will also perform Joshua Fineberg’s Recueil de Pierre et de Sable, written for six instruments and two harps tuned a quarter tone apart and acting as something like a giant micro-tonal harp. In Paris and at Columbia University during the 1990s, Fineberg spent several years studying composition with Tristan Murail and produced several recordings of his music. Fineberg, now associate professor of Composition and director of the Electronic Music Studio, is considered a leading expert on spectral music.

In a recent interview with BMInt, Fineberg discussed the spectral attitude towards composition, misunderstandings about so-called spectral composers, and some of the ways he both utilizes and deviates from the approaches pioneered by Grisey and Murail. He tells BMInt some of the techniques that define the spectral attitude towards composition, misunderstandings about so-called spectral composers, and some of the ways he both utilizes and deviates from the approaches pioneered by Grisey and Murail.

Joshua Fineberg, composer

DD: In Julian Anderson’s article, “A Provisional History of Spectral Music,” in Contemporary Music Review, he points out that the attempt to relate music to “natural laws of acoustics has been a mainstay of musical theory since the time of the Greeks.” He traces this tendency in the West from treatises by Mersenne and Rameau in the 16th and 17th century, to the work of 20th-century composers from Partch to Stockhausen. Anderson also writes that the word spectral “is regarded by virtually every major practitioner of the trend as inappropriate, misleadingly simplistic and extremely reductive.” How do you define “spectral music,” and what are some of the features that link composers associated with the term?

JF: One important point is that the overtone series and harmonic spectra are actually very marginal phenomena in what gets called spectral music. In a certain sense it is a misnomer. There are a lot of people who are much more interested in the harmonic series than spectral composers. Composers like James Tenney, Harry Partch, or the Boston Microtonal Society composers are all more interested in the overtone series than we are. For us, the harmonic spectrum is just one kind of sonic “spectrum.” What we are interested in are all the different internal architectures of sound that fuse together into timbres. So in a certain sense what we’re interested in are “sonic models” of fusion, of which the harmonic spectrum is one.  But for us it is not even a privileged one, whereas I think for most people who are really interested in the harmonic series as an object, it is the privileged model.

For us, harmonic devices are about making harmony perceptually and formally relevant — functional — and letting harmony become intrinsically tied to the musical discourse and musical movement. By contrast, most music that is fundamentally about the harmonic series and overtones, even pieces like (Stockhausen’s) Stimmung, are fundamentally static, from a harmonic perspective. They are about exploring a rich and beautiful particular space, rather than about finding ways of reestablishing movement, hierarchy, tension and resolution. For those of us who are called spectral, that is what it is all about. Grisey didn’t want to call it “spectral music”; he wanted to call it “liminal music” — music that explores transitions, the moment where something changes from this into that. For him it was about reestablishing directionality, transition, modulation, and the ability to have harmonic change that was musically meaningful and directly perceptible.

Regarding Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques, and the first three movements which we’ll hear at the upcoming Sound Icon concert, were the pieces originally intended to be standalone works, or did Grisey always envision them as part of a six-piece continuous cycle?

They were intended to be both, but they were always meant to be part of a cycle.  He wrote Périodes first, and I don’t know if when he was writing it he had entirely conceived of the whole thing, but I think by the end of it he had seen what he really wanted to do. He then wrote Partiels, and at that point he mapped out the whole cycle. He went back and wrote Prologue, and then he wrote the last three parts over nearly another decade. It took almost fifteen years from start to finish, a long road because he was doing lots of other things. When you see the cycle all the way through, you understand. The listener must enter that world. It pulls them into a listening mode where the rules of time and attention are slightly altered, one’s sense of scale and space and event are all reconstructed; and to do this Grisey needed this vast architectural canvas. Another important aspect is the way that the compositional language matures as your ability to hear and process it matures, since you’ve been living with it for the duration of the piece. I believe this is because, with the exception of Prologue, it was largely written chronologically. As when one reads Proust or other masterworks that took so long to create, and also take a long time to experience, the audience has a maturation process that echoes the process of evolution within the work.

Grisey wrote “the vehicle is less important than the journey traveled in it. The objet sonore does not exist anymore in itself. It is subsumed into pure development.” How is it manifested in his music?

When you look at Grisey’s formal graphs from the 1970s, you see that his music is all about “up and down arrows.” Grisey never wrote a static state in his life. He never said “and now in this section I have ‘this’ going on …” Grisey was sort of a ‘70s guy. He would talk about the “becoming” of music. For him, everything is about its “arrow” — what it is pointing towards, not what it is. His music, especially in those days, tended to go between noise and pure harmonic sound, things that would happen at the apex or the nadir of a curve, just things that you touch on for a moment, articulating extreme points of a continuous process that is almost always somewhere between the two.

In the program notes to Shards, your trio for flute, clarinet and cello, you said that you were inspired by broken fragments of archaeological objects in a museum. It seems in that piece you do highlight and make fetishes of sonic objects, allowing them to exist in and of themselves. Is this one way that you have departed from the formal aesthetics of Murail and Grisey’s music? It seems like you are more comfortable with isolated objects or events outside of a process.

I’m definitely less concerned with complete musical continuity. I want there to be a meta-continuity, but I think the richest way to get that is by allowing a lot of discontinuities to become part of a higher level language. I think the idea that “things are just moments in a continuous musical discourse” is very powerful in establishing musical directionality and building musical rhetoric. The problem is it cuts you off from memory because units entirely embedded within a discourse are very hard to hold onto. The context wraps them so much that if you divorce them from the context you might not even recognize them.

It’s not necessarily that I want to give up full continuity, but I also want that specificity that comes from allowing an object to become deeply memorable, and for that to happen it has to be segmented. Our mental segmentation process is deeply tied to memory. You have to be able to perceive things as individual units, and not just a fragment of a whole. So my goal is to be able to allow segmentation, continuity and process to find ways of co-existing.

It also seems that some of these writings that say that the objet sonore does not exist anymore in that music are a little more rhetoric than reality. It seems more like a stated goal rather than the actual perception one might have of the music.

Well some of those pieces from the ‘70s never stop. They never landed on anything. In that sense it really is true. On the other hand, the opening of Partiels — everyone who has ever heard that piece remembers it as an isolated thing.

I think it is one of the most memorable moments I’ve heard! In both Partiels and Périodes so many specific moments stick after the experience.

And I think “Thank God!” because if there was nothing delineated at all you might have had an amazing experience, but you would retain nothing. I think the quote from Grisey is an exaggeration, but the frame around everything is a little blurry. There is never going to be something completely, neatly delineated.

So in what way is your current work, for example the music we’ll hear on the Sound Icon concert, still informed by Grisey and Murail? Is it part of that continuum?

That’s a tricky question for me to answer. There probably isn’t a technique, not one, that Grisey used that I use. When Grisey was writing those pieces he didn’t have computers. And even in his last piece when he did use the computer a bit, his calculations were very simple. When he used curves he drew them on graph paper. He didn’t calculate them because he didn’t have tools to do so. Even his sonogram wasn’t a sonogram where he had detailed specific data. You got a paper printout and it was analog. The harmonic rhythm is very slow because it was very hard for him to model faster harmonic rhythm.

All of those things are fundamentally different, but we share the idea that process helps create a matrix of directionality, the way that tonal harmony did 150 years ago. We also share the idea that sound, and the perception of sound, is the basic material out of which musical moments are made. Ultimately, what we share most are our attitudes towards what it means to compose, more than any specifics of how we compose.

How do you achieve directionality through processes in Recueil?

Well, …  it’s not the ‘70s anymore! I don’t necessarily want you to hear the process. Just as when you hear Wagner, the way that the tonal key relations work make you feel the direction of the music and whether we are approaching the end, but you can’t necessarily say why. It’s at a more sublimated level.  How tense is my gut? Very often I have processes on processes on processes.

Some of the processes are fairly obvious though. For example, what the harp plays has repercussions in the ensemble and causes harmonies or dynamics to modify. Sometimes the harmonic underpinning is almost like walking on sand. As the harps play, everything shifts around them into new configurations. That causality gives you directionality; one thing causes another and thus creates a directional arrow for time.

In the ‘60s, Stockhausen specifically wanted “moment forms.” His idea was that this moment could be before that moment or after that moment. It doesn’t matter. Each moment is, to a certain extent, distinct in a non-hierarchical network. I want exactly the opposite. I really want my moments to be linked in a hierarchical network where moving one thing would destroy what I’m building. I don’t want you to be able to predict what’s going to happen next, but I want you to have some idea of what the choices might be so that when it happens it will feel right. In an ideal world what I want is a sense of retrospective inevitability. Once it happens you feel it had to happen that way, but before it happens you couldn’t possibly predict what would happen. To me that’s the ideal.

That sounds like another link to tonal music.

Absolutely. For me, a lot of the choices of the ‘60s — and this is maybe where my attitude ties in with Grisey or Murail — the choices of the ‘60s were false ones. For example: either you reject everything about tonal music or you take the neo-Romantic approach and say “the only way to get these things is the way they were gotten historically.” I think you can still embrace the modernist ideal of inventing new languages and discovery, while saying those new languages, in fact, can try to accomplish many of the things the old languages did, but do them in new and startling ways. To change the means doesn’t necessarily mean changing the end.

Sound Icon will perform Prologue, Périodes, and Partiels from Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques, as well as Joshua Fineberg’s Recueil de Pierre et de Sable on Saturday, March 26, at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts Concert Hall

David Dominique is a composer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.  He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

1 Comment

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.