Spectral music

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The spectral music ( Musique spectrale ) has over the 1970 years in Paris in the context of the Ensemble l'Itinéraire emerged. The most important representatives of this musical style are the composers Gérard Grisey , Tristan Murail , Georg Friedrich Haas , Philippe Manoury , Michaël Levinas and Hugues Dufourt . Spectral music is not based on the mathematical sequence of (tone) parameters of serial music or the free construction of atonal musicMusic is shaped but is based on the overtones of the sounds. Giacinto Scelsi , Ravel and Messiaen were the forerunners of this compositional process . The name “ L'Itinéraire ” ( French : The Way) shows that the group set out to get back to sound from non-musical influences. The physical-acoustic characteristics of the sound alone were scientifically investigated and formed the basis of a new composition based primarily on fine modifications of the timbres. In this way “a tone becomes a timbre, a chord becomes a spectral complex and a rhythmto a wave of unpredictable durations ”(after Gérard Grisey). The second generation of spectral music composers include Magnus Lindberg , Philippe Hurel , Thierry Blondeau , Jean-Luc Hervé , Georg Friedrich Haas , Ivan Fedele and Marco Stroppa .

Types of spectra

There are two types of spectra: harmonics and inharmonic spectra. A harmonic spectrum is based on the overtone series . An inharmonic spectrum is understood to mean all types of spectra on which, for example, noises are based. An example of the composition of a harmonic spectrum is the beginning of the work Partiels by Gérard Grisey or the work In Vain by Georg Friedrich Haas . An inharmonic spectrum can be, for example, a computer analysis with Audiosculpt or Spear of a sound. An example of inharmonic spectra is the work Winter Fragments by Tristan Murail . This is a fanfare -Schlag synthesized and via MIDI -Keyboard as sample retrieved and instrumented. This analyzed spectrum can then be harmonized or synthesized, for example, so it can be played by an ensemble or orchestra as well as by a synthesizer . In general, spectral composers use approximations to the spectrum in which they notate quarter or eighth tones. In the field of string instruments, retuning (" scordatura ") are often used to achieve these tunings. Another principle of spectral music is the transfer of principles from acoustic physics to instrumental music. This includes, for example, the setting of Shepard scales or the instrumentation of harmonic spectra. The use of Shepard scales goes back to the French composer Jean Claude Risset. But the use of principles from the electronic studio, such as tape loops (“memoire, erosion”) is also used in spectral music. A famous work of the second generation of spectral music is the work Deus Cantando (God, singing) by the Austrian composer Peter Ablinger . Here, a computer-controlled piano is brought closer to the sound spectrum of the human voice.

Extended time

An important characteristic of spectral music is the aspect of "stretched time". Here, a sound is not understood as pitch and chord in time, but rather as a ratio of frequency to time , as in electroacoustic music . The pitches are therefore frequencies and must be treated like them, using microtonality and the approximation of quarters, eighth tones and other subdivisions. A whole sound process in relation to frequency to time is analyzed with the help of the computer and Fast Fourier Analysis. These frequency structures are rasterized so that they can be played by conventional musical instruments, for example an ensemble or a symphony orchestra. Since an orchestra can never cover the full spectrum of a sound file in the computer, the end result is only a limited approximation. Through a synthesis with e.g. Csound it is possible to simulate the real sound with synthetic sounds. The end result is therefore closer to the spectrum of the original sound than an instrumented spectral analysis . Spectral composers have not only instrumented, but also musically worked on the material using conventional methods ( motif , sequence , variation ). In general, spectral composers do not speak of pitches, but of frequencies. Often sounds are structured graphically, comparable to Study 2 by Karlheinz Stockhausen , where the relationship between frequency and time is shown graphically. A structogram of a spectral analysis could look like this:

Course of processing a spectral analysis as a structogram
Sound becomes audio file Analysis with Audiosculpt / Spear of the audio file OpenMusic / Patchwork / PWGL Analysis and processing, e.g. interpolation or harmonic enrichment Orchestration or synthesis

Computer programs for Fourier analysis and its evaluation

Overview of computer programs for spectral analysis and processing
Open Music Software from IRCAM for the further processing of an SDIF file and synthesis and algorithmic composition.
Max / MSP Developed at IRCAM and currently distributed by Cycling '74 . In the field of spectral composition, Max / MSP is suitable for spectral analysis and further processing of a sound file in SDIF format.
Audio sculpt Developed and distributed by IRCAM for spectral analysis. Exports data in SDIF format.
SPEAR Freeware from Michael Klingbeil. Exports data in SDIF format. Synthesis is also possible in combination with Open Music .
Csound Csound is a software synthesizer that can be used to generate sound compositions entirely from source text. Open Music can export data, e.g. spectrum analyzes , to Csound .
Pd Pure Data (abbreviation: Pd ) is a data stream-oriented programming language and development environment that uses visual programming. It is mainly used to create interactive multimedia software, such as software synthesizers in electronic music. Suitable for spectral analysis and its synthesis.
PWGL PWGL is a free visual programming language based on Common Lisp and used for computer-aided composition and sound synthesis. It is programmed with the LispWorks programming environment.
Patchwork PatchWork is a tool for computer-aided composition. At the time of writing, PatchWork had more than 200 registered users. These included people with very different musical and aesthetic backgrounds, including Jean Baptiste Barrière , Marc-André Dalbavie , Brian Ferneyhough , Paavo Heininen , Magnus Lindberg , Tristan Murail and Kaija Saariaho . PatchWork has been replaced by languages ​​like PWGL and Open Music . Many concepts of Open Music today can be traced back to PatchWork .


Electroacoustic compositions are often found in spectral music. The software synthesizer Csound is particularly used, for example in the compositions Liber Fulguralis and Winter Fragments by Tristan Murail . Electronic sounds are generated from source text. Sounds analyzed by Audiosculpt are analyzed and processed with Open Music. The m-final synthesis is created in C-Sound. Further processing is carried out in the sequencer or via a midi keyboard.


The history of spectral music is also closely linked to the history of the Paris research institute IRCAM . In the early 1980s, the French composers of the l'Itinéraire group took the computer music course at IRCAM in Paris. Here it was possible for the first time to research spectra apart from harmonic spectra. The Music V software was used for this purpose in the 1980s. This was developed by Max Mathews at Bell Labs in 1957. MUSIC was the first computer program with which digital audio waveforms could be generated by direct synthesis. Syntheses about C-Sound, CMusic, MaxMsp, Pure Data and Super Collider followed later. The synthesis could be controlled via programs such as PatchWork and later Open Music.

Spectral music composers (selection)


György Ligeti , Wolfgang von Schweinitz , Karlheinz Stockhausen


Jonathan Harvey


Magnus Lindberg , Kaija Saariaho


Franck Bedrossian , Hugues Dufourt , Gérard Grisey , Jean-Luc Hervé , Philippe Hurel , Michaël Levinas , Fabien Lévy , Tristan Murail


Peter Ablinger , Georg Friedrich Haas


Ana-Maria Avram , Iancu Dumitrescu , Horațiu Rădulescu

United States

Carl Christian Bettendorf , Aaron Einstond , Joshua Fineberg , James Tenney , La Monte Young

Important works of spectral music

See also