Vol. 34 Issue 2 Reviews

Robert Reigle and Paul Whitehead (Editors). Spectral World Musics: Proceedings of the Istanbul Spectral Music Conference

Softcover, two CD-Audio discs, 2008, ISBN 978-9944-396-27-1, 457 pages; Pan Yay?nc?l?k, Barbaros Bulvar?, 18/4 Be?ikta? 3435 ?stanbul, Turkey; telephone (+90) 212-2275675; fax (+90) 212-2275674; electronic mail pankitap@pankitap.com; Web pankitap.com/.

Reviewed by Ian Whalley
Hamilton, New Zealand

CoverThis collection is an outcome of the Spectral Musics Conference held at Istanbul Technical University, 18-23 November 2003, organized by Michael Ellison, Robert Reigle, and Pieter Snapper.  In welcoming delegates to the University, the co-directors of the Dr. Erol Üçer Center for Advanced Research inMusic, Professor Kamran Ince and Cihat A?k?n noted that hosting the first international conference on spectral music was a long-term goal of the faculty (p. xi).
A quick internet search of the title gave the sense that proceedings have been distributed to various international music journals, but there have been few reviews to date; and, there seems to be limited additional copies of the collection now available. Without the benefit of attending the conference, this review is of the published material alone.

The proceedings open with track listings for the two audio discs included, followed by written notes of uneven length and quality about each track. The 17 tracks on CD One relate to the paper presentations, and are primarily extracts rather than full works. The second disc, with eight tracks, has complete works from conference concerts.

Paper abstracts in Turkish are provided at the beginning of the text without an English translation, and no abstracts are given at the beginning of each paper.  Papers are divided into sections: Introductory Talk; Interdisciplinary Panel Discussion; Spectral Ideas; Ethnomusicological Perspectives; Composers Discuss their Music; Spectral Compositions; Performance Perspectives; and Improvisation with Spectra. Transcriptions of questions and answers sometimes follow each paper presentation.

With no index apart from page references to track listings on CD One, no signposting in the body of the text as to section divisions, and no English abstracts, the collection becomes something of a detective novel to navigate for the uninitiated.

Computer Music Journal readers will probably be aware of spectral synthesis techniques, or the process of manipulating spectral data with physical modelling synthesis packages. More generally, for those unfamiliar with the field of spectral music, two issues of Contemporary Music Review  (19/2 and 19/3, 2000), edited by Joshua Fineberg, are worthwhile reading as a primer. In addition, William A. Sethares’ Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale (MIT Press, 2004) provides an interesting technical perspective.

For the benefit of lay people, spectral music is a compositional approach through which decisions are made based on the analysis of sound spectra. While acknowledging that definitions in the field seem to be partly problematic, spectral music is more an attitude to sound, rather than an aesthetic. One approach to spectral compositional originated in France in the early 1970s at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) and the Ensemble l'Itinéraire, particularly through the work of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. In contrast to this structural approach, the Romanian spectral tradition is more concerned with looking at sound in performance, so includes the transitory aspects of timbre and non-harmonic components—focusing on the subjective sense of sound as dynamic experience rather than grounding work in the scientific study of sound.  To put the focus of the two perspectives crudely, the French approach uses spectra to make the structure of the work, extending the sound, as it were; and the Romanian approach arrives at structure through transformations of spectra. 
The Spectral Musics Conference extended the term through a broader definition to include all music that foregrounds timbre as either an important element of structure or musical language, allowing aspects of world music to be included and discussed along with “art music.”
This inclusive approach brought together a variety of perspectives that may not otherwise meet, and also engaged a range of people in an ongoing interest in continuing academic work that might otherwise be left to languish in isolated aspects of academia. The diversity of the outcomes is evident in the grouping of offerings under different sections. It is refreshing to see an event attended by composers, musicians, and theoreticians drawn from such different aesthetics, and part of the charm of the collection is the sheer juxtaposition of approaches and cultural diversity brought to bear, even if some of the offerings seem to share little interest in exploring commonality in approaches and perspectives.

Of course, the danger in this type of situation is that juxtaposition leads to little else, leaving readers to make sense out of it all in terms of commonalities. Some of the more interesting papers presented are then those that attempt to combine differing perspectives, regardless of how successful the outcomes might be.

Robert Reigle’s concise introductory talk gives the intent of the inclusive nature taken by the conference organizers, placing the work not only in specialist domains but in the wider field of music making, and noting the importance of timbre as a common concern in music-making. Also noted is how the spectral schools from France and Romania as major aesthetic movements are allowed to lead dialogue, by acting as a conduit for dialogue across disciplines.
Interdisciplinary Panel transcripts on spectral music follow Mr. Reigle’s introduction, including analytical, ethnomusicological, and phemonological perspectives. Moderated by Joshua Fineberg, the conversation includes many leading exponents in the field: Ana-Maria Avarm, Iancu Dumitrescu, Cornelia Fales, and Tristan Murail. The wide-ranging discussion covers influences on composers’ works, sources and perspectives drawn on, and the significance of spectral music in relationship to broad scholarly work. Despite the seeming lack of focus at times, there are keen insights here, such as practitioners’ concepts of spectral music being mainly focused on how you get it rather than the outcome, and how in a subjective sense, spectral work is grounded in a primitive force that provides a counterpoint to abstraction and artificiality in art music composition. This section is then a tantalizing taste of things to come.

The Spectral Ideas section includes six papers, beginning from a keynote address by Joshua Fineberg. “What’s in a name” is a solid introduction to some of the history, perspectives, and practices that the term now includes, and it is here that he reiterates the notion of spectral music being primarily an attitude, and also notes how a spectral element in music is something universal that all people instinctively respond to (p. 41). Bert Van Nerck follows with “Spectralism: From Historical Embedment to New Perspectives,” a short paper on Western music concerns; and Mine Do?antan-Dack delivers “Timbre as an Expressive Dimension in Music,” an insightful offering, particularly her comments on electroacoustic music (p. 68) and musical character (p. 70).  John Dack’s “Spectral Music and Schaefferian Methodology” will be useful for those looking for a method of analysis and composition; and the final two papers by David Gerard Matthew  (“Spectral Music and High School Students”),  and Tildy Bayar (“Music Inside Out: Spectral Music’s Chords of Nature”) are useful examples of the application of spectral techniques in Western music.

Ethnomusicolgical Perpective, the title of the second collection of papers, is a fitting contrast in context, starting with an engrossing keynote address by Cornelia Fales titled “The Implicitness of Timbre: Attitudes Towards Timbre in Barundian and Western Art Musics.” Other papers are Nilgün Dogrusöz’ short but fine-grained study “The Architecture of Turkish Vocal Music: Münir Nurettin Selçuk;” Eve McPherson’s “Vocal Timbre in Islamic Calls to Prayer Across Cultures;”  Robert Reigles’ “The Timbre of Ancestral Spirits in a New Guinean Village,” which seems to beg for extension;  and finally Kathryn Woodward’s “Evoking Traditional Sounds through Timbral Innovations,” an exploratory work well  illustrated by musical examples on tracks four and five of CD One. While of differing lengths, the papers are well written and detailed, and the insertion of questions/answers at the end of papers captures the sense of audience engagement.
In the third section, Composers Discuss Their Music, seven offerings encompass many of the most significant practitioners in the field. While papers are again of  varying lengths and quality, the range of offerings is notable. Many are also referenced to audio examples on the first CD. Papers include Ana-Maria Avam’s “Sound Alchemy,” Xavier Dayer’s “Poetry, Painting, History and Consciousness,”   Ianu Dumitrescu’s “The Irradiant Force of Sound,”  Joshua Fineberg’s “Memory and Process,” Tristan Murail’s “Time and Form in Spectral Music.” “Notes on Dictionary of War” was given by Mehmet Can Özer, and last but not certainly not least, Curtis Roads presented “The Path to Half-life.” While the CD examples are worthwhile here, it would have been useful to hear more of the works referred to. Access to composer insights is invaluable for those wanting to know something of the compositional techniques of spectral music, and there are many delights to be found here.

The next section collects views on practitioners’ work, and fits well in terms of the sequence of proceedings. This analytical grouping includes five papers: Rozalie Hirs’ “Compositional Techniques in the Music of Tristan Murail;” Tolga Tüzünwith “An Analysis of Tristain Murail’s Winter Fragments;”“The Music of Sound: An Analysis of Partiels by Gérard Grisey” written by Chris Arrell; “The Music of Phill Niblock” by Michele  Rusconi; and “North American Spectralism: The Music of James Tenney” by Robert A. Wannamaker. Overall, the papers are carefully considered and well written, again with a good spread of material that will engage readers.
The section on Performance Perspectives includes: “Spectral Flute Techniques Workshop” by Helen Bledsoe (a transcription of a workshop); “Hyperion Ensemble Workshop” by Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram, a transcription of discussions; “New Experiments in Advanced Montage: Experiences in Music Video Production” by Brian O’Reilly, a brief talk and discussion; and finally, “The Musical Mechanics of Mysticism: A performance Analysis of Messiaen’s  Abîme des oiseaux” by Tamara Raatz, an extensive paper that adds to the depth of this section.
The final section, Improvisation With Spectra, includes only two papers. “…of one sinuous spreading… An Exploration of Timbre, Structure, and Musical Choice” by Paula Mattusen is related to a substantial excerpt on track 15 of CD One. “Techniques and Structures in Piano Improvisation” by Matthew Goodheart, again connects with an extended musical example on CD One. It seems a pity that more contributions could not have been added to this section.
A Postlude includes impressions of the event by Matthew Goodheart titled “Surreal Days in Istanbul,” adapted from an online posting made to an improvisation discussion group on 23 November 2003 while at the conference. The Appendix has transcripts of radio interviews with Ana-Maria Avram, Iancu Dumitrescu, and Tamra Raatz, providing outtakes from the conference. Paper contributors’ biographies conclude the written text.

Of the CDs, as noted, the examples on the first disc relate mainly to the illustrative talks given in the papers. While interesting in terms of the range of genres involved, and with some standout moments, the quality of composition is not always consistent here. The second disc, compiled from concerts at the conference, has complete works that are as stylistically diverse as the paper offerings. This includes Pieter Snapper’s  Wrong, Uzak by Ihsan Özgen, Eray Alt?nbüken’s Kumdaki Kan, Onur Türken’s Kar??lama, Dimitrie Cantemir’s Sipihr Pe?revi, Improvisation by  Kani Karaca and Kinan Azmeh, Michael Ellison’s Elif, and Robert Reigle’s [Sphere].  It is difficult to single out works here for particular mention, given the range of aesthetic and cultural approaches taken. The joy is one of appreciating both the diversity and points of commonality in the material.

On the downside, for the uninitiated, the lack of standard ways to navigate the proceedings might hinder finding a wider audience for the work. In addition, writing quality throughout is uneven, and some of the “Facebook”-type dialogues lack focus. The labyrinth of formal offerings and captured conversation may give the impression of entering a combination of a bric-a-brac shop and a general store, or a  type of nonlinear story with plots and subplots that are both intentional and reveal themselves by happening to be in the same space. Without the benefit of  some sort of background in the field then, the proceedings seem more suited to specialists at first blush, but will also be able to engage musically intelligent lay readers who have time to explore and dwell on the material presented.

For the initiated, the collection is a treasure chest that juxtaposes the old and new, the superfluous and essential, structured and spontaneous, East and West, popular and academic, exotic and familiar, sacred and profane, refined and crude, casual and formal, usual and extraordinary, theoretical and pragmatic. Given the range of aesthetic and academic interests, and the similarities and differences, lines of enquiry are then best left to readers to decide. For those who persevere, there are many delights to be had in the sheer diversity and quality of material that is presented, and the collection is well worth tracking down.  

The conference organizers and hosts are to be commended on this courageous venture, providing a platform for further exploration of the broad approach taken. And it was very fitting to hold the event in a city that stands at the gateway of East and West.