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.


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.


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


Last year I posted an interview with Ekmeles director Jeffrey Gavett, which included a clip of a recording made by Ekmeles of the first movement of Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams. A reader promptly emailed me to ask why I hadn’t gone into any detail about the Saariaho piece, as it was a challenging listen for her. Well, here’s my very belated response to that reader!

Background info: Kaija Saariaho is an internationally acclaimed Finnish composer, born in 1952; you can get a quick rundown of her life and work on her wiki page. From what I can gather on Google–and please, readers, correct me if I get something wrong here–From the Grammar of Dreams began as a five movement work for two sopranos, written in 1988 (you can see a page of the score here). It has since developed into a sort of mini-opera, with the original five movement work at the heart of a larger work that also involves instruments and electronics (see this track listing for example).

Back to the original 1988 work. The texts come from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar as well as her poem Paralytic; Saariaho has fragmented these texts and distributed the fragments between the two soprano lines in an arcane manner.

Yes, Meg, but why does it sound like that? my reader seems to ask. Well, without having studied the score, I can say from listening to Grammar that it seems like Saariaho is channeling the troubled mind of her author, Sylvia Plath, in two ways: 1. Fragmentation: I especially like that she’s not only fragmented the text, but she’s fragmented the voice itself by splitting the text between two different sopranos, and 2. Extended Techniques: Saariaho is exploring the capabilities of the human voice beyond what is traditionally considered “singing.” My guess is that Saariaho, as a composer, wanted to challenge herself and the performers to come up with some unique sounds, and that the Plath texts served as a kind of springboard for this challenge. The extended vocal techniques Saariaho uses in this piece definitely bring to my mind the oppressive psychoses that Esther endures in Bell Jar.

Enough of my speculation, what do you think? Here’s the clip again:

By the way, you can hear Ekmeles perform live at NYU on Feb. 4  They are definitely worth the trip.