I proposed the following paper to the Society for Music Theory’s 2018 national conference but it wasn’t accepted. Because I did do quite a bit of reading and creating/staring at spectrograms for it, I thought I’d share it here for anyone else who’s interested in studying timbre. It’s a very nascent analysis, so feedback and thoughts are welcome!

A formal analysis of Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal achieved through the spectral identification of timbral structures

Taking the recorded object as the basis for analysis, I capture and analyze spectrograms from Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal in order to characterize its spectral profile, develop a method for functional interpretation based on this profile, and elucidate the piece’s formal structure. This undertaking will provide answers to some of the questions that Saariaho herself poses in her writings about the ability of timbre to carry formal structure. I use Megan Lavengood’s methodology as the basis for my timbral analysis of Du Cristal. Lavengood’s use of contextual oppositions (as opposed to a priori oppositions) to define markedness and unmarkedness particularly suits my purpose.

I pair Lavengood’s methodology with Saariaho’s theory of spectral form, which posits that timbre meets the criteria for “form-bearing elements in music” (ICMC 1985) and that there exists the possibility for directional musical tension along a “sound/noise axis” (CRM 1987). In her writings from the 1980s Saariaho seems concerned with creating a hierarchy of timbre; this is where she and I part ways. My study focuses not on attempting to discern hierarchical classifications of Du Cristal’s timbral structures but rather on oppositions (a concept used by both Lavengood and Saariaho) and interpreting the piece’s unmarked and marked structures within its own sound world.

Within the sound world of 1980s pop music Lavengood posits the timbral profile of a clean electric guitar as being unmarked. For Du Cristal’s sound world I define unmarkedness by the overall timbral profile of the piece: “noise” (per Sarraiaho, diffuse and rough) is unmarked and “sound” is marked (pure and smooth). I refine these terms by layering onto them the specificity of Lavengood’s definitions for the noisy/pure sustain opposition, and add into my analysis her soft/percussive attack opposition and rich/sparse pitch opposition. Each of the terms to the left of the slash represent the unmarked sound of Du Cristal.

Example 1 is an annotated spectrogram of 8:25-10:30 of Du Cristal, in which I label the spectral characteristics present. This section, while containing for the most part the unmarked qualities of noisy and rich, is marked by a series of percussive attacks, whose rate of occurrence increases into a period of extreme richness and amplitude. The opening transition is characterized by the amplitude of the frequencies moving downward, while the closing transition is characterized by the reverse.

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Example 2 is an annotated spectrogram of 11:30-12:50 of Du Cristal. It is unmarked by its noisy sustain and soft attacks, but contains several marked moments of sparseness. Similar to Example 1, the rate of occurrence of the unmarked quality increases into a loud and rich apex. The opening transition is characterized by relatively pure sustain ending abruptly in relative sparseness, while the closing transition is an extended moment of stasis, characterized by the disappearance of the sparse moments.

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I analyze the entire piece in this manner, i.e., by locating patterns in marked timbral events and extrapolating small and large-scale patterns therefrom. This enables me to perform an interpretation of the overall form of Du Cristal.

Works cited

Stephen McAdams and Kaija Saariaho (1985) “Qualities and Functions of Musical Timbre,” Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, 367­­-374

Kaija Saariaho (1987) “Timbre and harmony: Interpolations of timbral structures,”

Contemporary Music Review, 2:1, 93-133

Megan Lavengood (2017) A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre, diss., The City University of New York

 

Matthew created this sound palette by pulling out the stops only partially, to a very precise measurement (hence the yellow measuring tape on the console). He then had me press the keys down only partway, which is why I’m wearing gloves in the first two sections because maintaining the partial-pressing of the keys meant gripping them in a way that would wear out my hands without the cushioning of the gloves. They also helped me to stop myself from accidentally pressing the keys down all the way! In the middle sections I’m pressing the keys down all the way, doing a partial recreation of Brahms’ organ chorale prelude No. 4, a piece I’ve been playing since the early 2000s. My first few practice sessions with Herzlich I had to stop myself from recreating Brahms’ “romantic” phrasing. I was really impressed with how Matthew approached writing for a tracker organ, and I love that every time I play it I hear new sounds, wonderfully multifaceted, pulsing sounds. Thanks for my piece, Matthew!

 

Music composed for a deep listening that fixes you in the present has fascinated me for well over a decade now. As someone who is constantly thinking of the past or the future, I find it incredibly challenging to stay with the present. When I do manage to rise to the challenge I always find it transformative, and I’ve never risen to that challenge without the help of present-focused music.

We Who Walk Again by Ghost Ensemble—released on May 18th—is full of such music. Indeed, the ensemble “takes as a common touchstone the Deep Listening practice of Pauline Oliveros,” whose work Angels and Demons is featured. Beautifully performed and recorded, these unique pieces get their full due on this album.

60 Degree Mirrors by Sky Macklay (also the oboist on this recording)

After an abrupt full-ensemble pulsation, shards of high, biting clusters cut through sparser moments and the occasional swooping scalar motion, evoking the kaleidoscope implied by the title. Towards the middle of the piece these high clusters take over the texture, the piercing sounds demanding your attention without ever moving you forward in time; that is, keeping you in the present. This section transforms into a texture that incorporates lower sounds and a rhythmic lick that recurs unpredictably. The piece ends again in the high register, with slow-moving clusters.

Angels and Demons by Pauline Oliveros

Dyads and intricate, denser chords float in and out of the air against a backdrop of quiet cymbal scraping. Suddenly a growling contrabass line interjects into the gossamer texture, which then begins to swell in volume, growing into a body-felt sound mass. Skittering blocks and a tumbling rhythm give way to breathy grunting and accented harp chords. The sound mass returns, enveloping, pulsing, and eventually dissipating. A frenetic wind line cuts through a low-resonance foundation just before the piece fades to silence.

Wind People by Ben Richter (also the accordionist on this recording and the ensemble’s founder)

The piece emerges out of a hushed stasis, the contrabass lines repeating two notes in unpredictable rhythmic patterns amid an almost drone-like sustaining texture. Subtle, deep moaning gestures appear after about 4 minutes, effecting an eventual transformation of the drone-like texture into something more unsettled. The descending gestures persist, seemingly pulling ever-deeper even as the volume subtly increases. Winds and accordion pierce through this around minute 8, but the pull into the deep continues. Three minutes later the piercing sounds return, raising the volume considerably. Deeper and more resonant the piece continues, in a multifaceted texture that evokes the primeval. As the end approaches, the entire ensemble focuses in on one note, swelling loud and soft, before diminishing by nano-decibels over several minutes into silence.

I’m listening to: conductor Barbara Hannigan. Here she is conducting and singing a Stravinsky aria:

Throwback Thursday to electronic composer Glynis Jones. Here’s her haunting “Veils and Mirrors”:

I’m listening to: composer Rosephanye Powell. Here’s her “Non nobis, Domine”:

Throwback Thursday to composer Elinor Remick Warren. Here’s her “Crystal Lake”: