Vol. 39 Issue 3 Reviews
Marilyn Nonken: The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age

Hardcover, 2014: ISBN 978-1-107-01854-9: 978-0-520-26838-8; 207 pages, US$90.00; six chapters, including newly translated contributory chapter by Hugues Dufourt, discography, bibliography, and index; available from Cambridge University Press, University Printing House, Cambridge CB2 8BS, UK; telephone +44 1223 358331, web: www.cambridge.org.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Trevino
Northfield, Minnesota, USA

Nonken Book CoverIn The Spectral Piano, one of many intriguing new volumes in Arnold Whittall’s “Music since 1900” series, Marilyn Nonken traces the computer’s impact on performance and composition for the piano:

 “This book presents a story about how composing for, listening to, and playing the piano changed radically over the course of the twentieth century. Throughout, however, the reader will find references to another instrument of inestimable import: the computer. It, not the piano, is the defining instrument of our age. The computer has changed how we listen to music. It has changed how composers write music. Spectral analysis and digital synthesis…have altered what is known about the piano’s unique tone color and the myriad elements that contribute to our perceptions of instrumental timbre. The technology of the computer has changed how we conceive of sound in an aesthetic sense almost as dramatically as it has altered what is known about human musical perception and performance (p. 13).”

The ensuing discussion focuses this technological project on the aesthetic implications of Mathews’ and Risset’s research at Bell Labs (p. 17) and aims the arrow of history squarely at spectral music composed in Paris and the United States during the last four decades. The author provides a brief autobiography as context in a first chapter and then offers a birds-eye view of history that grafts “the spectral attitude” (p. 13) onto Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy, the last of whom in turn yields the first generation of spectral composers in Paris in the late 1960s via Olivier Messiaen. Nonken then draws distinctions between this first Parisian generation of spectral composers and both a second and third generation of international spectral composers that succeed them. Along the way, Nonken offers illuminating analyses, from the performer’s perspective, of works for solo piano and piano with electronics by Tristan Murail, Hugues Dufourt, Joshua Fineberg, Jonathan Harvey, and Edmund Campion, illustrated with numerous score examples. Spectral composer and music theorist Dufourt contributes the final chapter of the book, an essay entitled “Spectral music and its pianistic expression,” conceived originally as a preface to the volume and translated masterfully from the French by composer and memoirist Joshua Cody.

In the first, introductory chapter, “An intimate history,” Nonken outlines the book’s unique project: written from the perspective of the author’s experiences as a pianist, this “admittedly biased” (p. 1) account of the author’s repertoire and composer-performer collaborations describes relationships between theory, technology, composition, and performance while traversing a quasi-memoir path, along which the reader is offered numerous fascinating historical tidbits. Allowing for a tying together of seemingly disparate strands of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century musical history. This chapter’s short autobiography frames the author’s experience with the spectral repertoire and positions three performances of spectral work in New York City (performances accompanying the Guggenheim New York’s “Rendezvous: Masterpieces from the Centre Georges Pompidou and Guggenheim Museums” in 1998; “IRCAM@Columbia” in 1999; and “Sounds French” in 2003) and the time period from 1998-2003 as crucial to the author’s engagement with this repertoire. Borrowing Goethe’s (borrowed) scientific metaphor of “elective affinities,” the chapter concludes by laying out several projects of the text: to suggest a model for how compositional and performance traditions evolve, to attempt to show the fruitful interaction of art and science, and to reveal the ways that the ostensibly novel aesthetic agendas of spectral composers depart from late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century piano music.

Although not explicitly enumerated as a project at the chapter’s end, the first chapter also exposes a recurring theme of the book: that spectral music and aesthetics align with an ecological model of music in which psychological processes of listening in time become central materials of the artistic work.

“After touring with the complete piano music of Boulez and a portrait recital of the compositions of Finnissy, I was shocked to discover a repertoire that so organically considered the physical processes of the performer and instrument, as well as the psychological processes of the performer and listener” (p. 11). 

These works also provide satisfying answers to a question the author previously asked of the new complexity repertoire in a 1991 dissertation: 

Finally, if the perception of these more complex works can be shown to possess distinguishing characteristics, can the musical experience…be modeled in a precise manner reflective of psychological reality and the aesthetic experience?” (p. 4, ellipse is Nonken’s).

Chapter 2, “Itinerary,” sketches each of the text’s chapters and provides a useful social context for the ensuing discussion by summarizing the rise of computer music research and music perception research in the 1970s. The author dutifully acknowledges similarities between the ideas of spectral composers and those of the New York School composers, after which non-Parisian spectral composers (Clarence Barlow, Peter Eötvös, Johannes Fritsch, Mesias Maiguascha, Claude Vivier, Horatiu Radulescu, Stefan Niculescu, Iancu Dumitrescu, and James Tenney) must sadly leave the stage (pp. 20-21). Similar narrative casualties include Frédéric Chopin, whose works were apparently too lyrical to become retroactively spectral (p. 14) and Maurice Ravel, who cared too much for thematic development (p. 28) to be a spectralist. This narrative’s spectralism, Nonken admits with candor, remains a matter of discussion between Paris, New York City, and Berkeley. The author continues to identify timbre, time, process, and perception as fundamental spectral concerns and provides a useful summary of the way in which writing on spectralism emigrated from the French-speaking world to the United States in the early 2000s.

The discussion then connects the development of spectral analysis technologies with spectral aesthetics, which sets off a seemingly unending series of positivist claims from composers who have seen and continue to see the essence, inner nature, naked backside, etc. of sound itself:

“What spectral techniques do is allow composers to seize on some aspect of sound itself as an organizing principle; and it is likely that in some corresponding way — large or small — this moves the composer away from handling the traditional elements of musical notation as organizing principles. Tristan, very simply, put it like this; “Why do we always have to think of music in terms of notes? We work with sounds, for which notes are simply symbols … notes and sounds are not the same thing.” (Keith Moore, quoted on p. 23)

To be sure, notes and sound are not the same thing. However, the reviewer fails to see why this entails a zero-sum equation between sound and notation, especially when these artists nonetheless create and interpose graphic artifacts between themselves and performing musicians. As Nonken points out in the text’s analysis of Tristan Murail’s Territoires de l'oubli (1977), it is the composer’s savvy use of indeterminate notation that countenances the work’s intimate feedback between performance and listening in time (p. 79). But this realization does not prevent other zero-sum assertions, like the description of spectral music as “musical flow liberated from the constraints of notation” (p. 32). Since when did notation, a tool upon which all spectral composers ultimately depend and through which they think, become such a horribly oppressive technology? Since computer-generated spectrograms, I suppose one might answer. Later, we hear none other than Claude Debussy contemplate the possibility of graphically representing the “breathing“ piano (p. 53).

The chapter concludes with an ecological application of the “spectral attitude” to the acts of performing and listening, in which Nonken successfully leverages her earlier forays into music cognition and perceptual psychology literature to propose a common substance underlying these activities.
Chapter 3 grafts spectral preoccupations onto composers of the past with varying degrees of success, in order to substantiate Chapter 2’s assertion that Alexander Scriabin, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy should be regarded as intellectually contiguous with the later spectral composers. Scriabin is compellingly described via his investigation of scientific texts (pp. 40-42). In the case of Liszt, the reader is provided with Charles Rosen’s argument that romantic composers made music more about the nature of sound itself (pp. 33-34). Debussy’s sensuous attention to timbre comes through (he had a Blüthner piano with aliquot strings on the top three octaves for added resonance, after all) as one would expect of the composer who famously declared pleasure to be the only rule in music. However, when it comes to providing a parallel with the analytic project that fascinated later spectral composers, the author provides only the dangling, awkwardly speculative information that scholars remain unsure if Debussy was, or was not, aware of Hermann von Helmholtz’s research (p. 54).

Olivier Messiaen functions in the narrative as a kind of missing link between Debussy and his spectralist students, and the discussion of his pedagogical practice reveals fascinating details of his harmony teaching at the Paris conservatory, where he regaled his students with histories of single chords that traveled freely through various periods and styles of the past and present (p. 56). (One hears echoes of this teaching technique in comments from his students, for example, when Gérard Grisey explains his work Vortex Temporum as “a history of the arpeggio in time and space”). The narrative focuses on developments in Messiaen’s music during the early 1960s, the time period when he began to conflate concepts of harmony and timbre, and contrasts Messiaen’s integrated, multidimensional musical thought with a one-dimensional portrait of Darmstadt as monolithically discrete and parametric (p. 60).

The reviewer notes a curious omission given the text’s emphasis on the interaction between electronic music technologies and spectral music: Messiaen tried his hand at musique concrète in 1952 with Pierre Schaeffer (Murray, 2010), but these electronic experiments, which arguably played a substantial role in the development of the composer’s practice, go unmentioned in the chapter’s discussion. Perhaps the scope of the book demands that only computational technologies impinge on the world of acoustic performance and composition, but it seems to be relevant to the book’s central focus on the intersection of new technologies and acoustic music.

Chapter 4, “The first generation,” begins with a brief history of spectral analysis, continues to describe the cultural milieu of 1960s Paris, and provides analyses of several canonic spectral works from this time period. After a review of Milton Meltfessel’s Phonophotography in Folk Music (1928) and Charles Seeger’s Instantaneous Music Notator, the fast Fourier transform shows sound “as heard, arguably liberated from any kind of notational bias” (pp. 66). One wonders what it is about this notation of sound that suddenly occupies a neutral, objective, and unmediated position relative to other sound representation technologies, but the author does not elaborate.

The author moves on to contextualize the first-generation spectral ensemble l’Itineraire as the scrappy underdog to Boulez’s more established Domaine Musicale (p. 73-74) and assures the reader that, despite these composers’ participation in the student uprisings of 1968, there exists no political content to be found in this music (pp. 98).

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to the analysis of key spectral works with score examples. In a provocative interpretation of Murail’s Territoires de l'oubli (1977), Nonken reads against the composer’s own derogatory pronouncements on the work of John Cage (p. 82) to reveal fundamental similarities between the two composers, especially their interest in notation and listened contingency, and applies Cage’s idea of “disciplined action” to the experience of performing spectral works at the piano.

After a brief introduction to an ecological approach to perceptual psychology, Nonken turns to a discussion of the theorist-composer Hugues Dufourt’s Erlkönig (2006), with special emphasis on the way that pianistic technique becomes a material in this composer’s work, via a fascinating discussion of “cursed mediacy” in the works of Cassirer, Sontag, Kant, and Thom. A misfired attempt to compare Marc-André Hamelin’s work of the same name with Dufourt’s ends in a ham-fisted metaphoric reading of Dufourt’s work that leaves Hamelin’s work seeming, unintentionally, the richer of the two (p. 107).

Chapter 5 focuses on the second and third generation of spectral composers, with score examples and discussion of piano works by Joshua Fineberg, Edmund Campion, and Jonathan Harvey. As in previous discussions of the work, Nonken’s experience performing this repertoire lends uniquely specific, detailed concreteness to the discussion, and previously explained ecological analysis of music prevents the discussion from falling into typical traps associated with modernist ontologies of the musical work that locate musical content in the score (despite some discussion of “strict adherence to the score” (p. 29) that seems to locate the primary content of the work in the notation rather than the ecological act of performance in feedback with the text). However, Nonken’s acumen, unfortunately, must frame a collection of artist quotations rife with sanctimonious neutrality, essentiality, and positivism.

In a first section, entitled, “How does one write for the piano today?,” we learn that, for spectral composers, not all technologies are created equal when it comes to experimentation.

“Has [the piano] survived the array of tortures inflicted upon it by the end of the twentieth century? After the clusters of Henry Cowell, the preparations of John Cage, the ornithological percussions of Messiaen, the electrified mantras of Stockhausen, and the various scrapings and punchings of strings, what space is left to the imagination? … My response…has been to return to the true essence of the piano, to its acoustic realities, and to ignore the trivialities of fashion as well as the weight of history” (Murail, 2005, quoted on p. 112).

As heroic as these words sound, their presence in a discussion of the impact of computational advances on acoustic music reveals a fundamental inconsistency: how can a composer valorize experimental uses of the computer but dismiss experimental uses of the piano? By Murail’s conservative logic, Max Mathews would have bravely computed census results rather than musical sound.

The author goes to great lengths to add nuance to other similarly unconsidered self-hagiographies but occasionally seems to endorse quoted composers' self-aggrandizing claims of naturalism. Nonken describes a second generation of spectralists who take an interest in relatively less “neutral” materials, and Philippe Hurel describes his mission to introduce and contain “impure” musical elements (p. 114). In a contradictory analysis of Fineberg’s Veils (2001), the author points to “neutral” materials and refers to the “true reality” of the piano, immediately after which the reader learns that the listener should also engage the work through a “metaphorical level of interpretation” (p. 121). The author then blames those pesky avant-gardists for challenging the spectralists’ heroic claims to neutrality (p. 125). Nonken provides a taxonomy of the three generations of spectral composers, the first characterized by neutral material, the second by polluted material, and the third by a historical engagement with the first generation. Accordingly, Nonken christens the music of Fineberg as more authentically spectral due to a kind of historical performance practice of composition (p. 125).

Despite its ideological fumbles, this chapter offers two concise successes: Nonken crafts an elegant, sympathetic summary of Milton Babbitt’s Who Cares If You Listen, as an introduction to Fineberg’s essay Classical Music: Why Bother? And Campion contributes a pithy summary of his experiences in Paris in the 1980s, a time when different institutions stood for different modes of musical production and composers found themselves torn between the conservatory, the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), and Centre d’Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu). Campion views spectralism as the conservatory composers’ reaction to the new prominence of electronic music institutions (p. 132). This chapter concludes with an insightful analysis of Campion’s A Complete Wealth of Time and Jonathan Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen, including score excerpts, with special attention placed on the interpretation of the works through utilization of ecological models. A chapter coda introduces the contemplative, corresponsive, and imaginative modes of experience underlying spectral-ecological attitudes toward composition, listening, and performance.

The sixth and final chapter of the book consists of Cody’s translation of Dufourt’s essay, “Spectral music and its pianistic expression,” intended originally as a preface. It is here that the reader finds the most nuanced and historically contextualized discussion of spectral aesthetics. In place of the realist boilerplate that plagues much of Nonken’s otherwise revealing discussion, Dufourt presents a richly contradictory set of aesthetic motivations and historical links between trends in art and technology in the early 1970s.

In Dufourt’s analysis, spectralism was as much a particular interpretation of serial repertoire as it was a reaction against the codified form of its aesthetic principles. Although he begins his discussion by framing spectralism as a reaction against serial aesthetics, in particular the lack of fluid rhythmic motion in jerky, mechanical serial music (p. 161), spectralism later owes a debt to cybernetics in its focus on the simulation and representation of processes. This becomes most apparent when Dufourt summarizes spectralism as “the functional analysis of formative processes” in service of a project that aims to unify the entire domain of sound via gradual transition (p. 164). Suddenly this totalizing, symbolic, and analytic approach to musical process seems scandalously close to serialism’s approaches to musical objects. It then comes as little surprise that Dufourt continues to enumerate a revealing serial-spectral legacy of works composed between 1969 and 1979 that includes works by Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and to propose three “principle ideas of spectral doctrine,” among which one finds the enigmatically computational principle of the “feedback circuit” (p. 164). He even goes so far as to interpret Stockhausen’s second cycle of piano studies as a missing link between series and timbre that leads to his interpretation of Murail’s Territoires as a study in “continuum dynamics,” and one that accomplishes an abandoned timbral project of Stockhausen’s at that (p. 166). In this fundamentally computational mindset of process simulation, Dufourt proclaims, unsurprisingly by this final chapter, that the “sense of hearing was perfected and multiplied by the computer” (p. 162) and that “spectral music has abandoned the obsession with the dream of absolute artistic freedom in favor of a real commitment to questions of sensation and perception” (p. 162).

This chapter also contains the most concrete and fascinating insights into the way that spectral analysis influenced the acoustic music discussed in the text, and Dufourt links Jean-Claude Risset’s timbral research to the concepts of “flux of becoming” and “pure genesis” (p. 162). He explains how the concept of timbre, in response to Risset’s spectral analysis research, had to be redefined as the distribution of energy in a temporal field (p. 164) and ascribes Gérard Grisey’s obsession with multiple worlds and simultaneous timescales to the composer’s experience with Risset’s work (pp. 166-7).

But Dufourt’s dream persists. Spectral analysis makes data, not music, and the creative act is no less arbitrary for it. Although this text presents some lucid discussion of the way that spectral analysis influenced composers’ aesthetic priorities and compositional ideas, a lack of technical detail allows the author to hide this arbitrariness beneath composers’ hubristic claims of technologically enabled yet seemingly unmediated access to true and natural sonic material. Beyond the generalized explanations of Fourier analysis and frequency modulation synthesis to be found here, a plain description of the affordances and resistances of the particular spectral analysis software systems that these composers used would have fostered an appreciation of the mountains of numbers that these artists ingeniously repurposed, remapped, and artfully manipulated in the creation of their scores, often with the aid of technical assistants who go unsung here. Were such a discussion to pull the mask of naturalism to the side, it would become possible to see that both the logocentric, dialectic commitments of serialism and the spectral obsession with data-driven naturalism (two aesthetic commitments repeatedly dichotomized in Nonken’s chapters but provocatively fused in Dufourt’s narrative) prop up technologically augmented, rationalist claims in front of the ultimately arbitrary nature of aesthetic allegiance and decision.

The author attempts to convince the reader that “spectralism is an attitude, not a dogma” (p. 113). While the diversity of score examples, historical time periods, and geographic locations introduced in the text successfully communicates the variety of practices and orientations within the spectral attitude, the discourse surrounding these examples in all but the final chapter uncritically propagates a reheated spectral dogma that artists of the present might question more rigorously in the future.