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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

68. Contemporary Voices, Part II – The New Complexity and Spectral Music

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Back in December, I brought you my first article in a four-part series called CONTEMPORARY VOICES. That article was concerned with a group of contemporary composers which I feel constitutes a New Symphonic Schoola group which makes use of the Modernist vocabulary but more significantly seeks some kind of restoration or reinvention of symphonic form. The second group of composers whose music I shall discuss momentarily has, in contrast, continued the search for new vocabularies that began at the outset of the twentieth century and reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s. The composers of this unit are in a sense Modernists working amid the Post-Modern era, although much of the angst that accompanied so much Modernism has vanished as has the once prevailing notion that something can in fact be completely new.

The present article addresses two perspectives on moving forward with the Modernist adventure. I have purposefully excluded from this article another, related perspectivethe Old Complexitieswhich would have addressed the later careers of composers who were active during Modernism’s heyday. Instead, the first facet I address is THE NEW COMPLEXITY, a term which is applied primarily to a group of British composers who saw the most radical music created by their Modernist predecessors as a natural starting point even after many of the original innovators themselves had as of the 1970s begun to backtrack. The British composer Brian Ferneyhough has been the primary representative of the New Complexity as far as my listening has been concerned. Ferneyhough began writing his first representative works in the late 1960s and had his major breakthrough in 1974; he is still quite active today. Others associated with the New Complexity include James Dillon, Michael Finnissy, and Richard Barrett. Meanwhile, Iannis Xenakis, Elliott Carter, and Harrison Birtwistle have been among their ideological allies, although their own music is more associated with the Old Complexities.

Like the New Complexity, SPECTRAL MUSIC or SPECTRALISM also first came to prominence in the mid-1970s. This is music organized neither by traditional scales (as in tonal and modal systems) nor chromatic rows (as in serialism) but according to sound spectra which can be plotted by computers. Although the music relies on electronic means for its composition, most spectral music is written for acoustic instruments, and these instruments are only sometimes aided by sounds generated electronically. This introduction might seem complex, but the music itself is quite listenable. Spectral music was first created in France by a group of young composers based at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) which had been constructed on behalf of Pierre Boulez for the creation of his own, quite different type of music. Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail were among the original proponents of spectral music, although its influence has now been felt around the world perhaps to even as wide an extent as minimalismthe other major aesthetic to emerge in art music in the late twentieth century.

Like tonality and serialism, spectralism is essentially an attitude or mindset which does not demand one particular aesthetic from those who choose to apply its innovations. Composers as wide-ranging as the Canadian Claude Vivier and the Finns Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg all spent time working with or at least near the first spectralists, developing their own idioms—what might be called POST-SPECTRALISMS, should we feel so inclined. Vivier’s music incorporates eastern influences from places like Bali and Japan whereas Saariaho’s music takes inspiration from extra-musical subjects ranging from various phenomena of light, visions of space, poetry, and theatre. Saariaho, I believe, has also taken up Grisey's quest to reimagine melody within a spectral context—his intended final task before his untimely death in 1998. Meanwhile, Lindberg has combined spectral harmonies with what he learned in his studies with Ferneyhough, and in his earliest compositions there was a certain radicalism as informed by this and his interest in punk rock. (Saariaho also studied with Ferneyhough, but the British composer’s influence is not as apparent in her music as it is in Lindberg’s work.)

These six composersFerneyhough, Grisey, Murail, Vivier, Saariaho, and Lindberghave been the core figures in my recent listening, and I feel they are likewise the core figures in their respective movements. Browse the list below for an introduction to some of my favorite new discoveries!

BRIAN FERNEYHOUGH (*1943): TERRAIN (1992). The music of British-American composer Brian Ferneyhough is difficult to listen to and, I would imagine, even more difficult to play. Yet, its intensity, energy, and dramatic flair all make it worth the listen. Terrain for solo violin and chamber ensemble is one of several “mini-concerti” included on my first-ever CD of Ferneyhough’s music. Four of the five works on this CD are short works featuring a soloist backed by a small chamber ensemble. This genre has apparently become a bit of a specialty for Ferneyhough. So far, Ferneyhough’s music reminds me most of Carter’s, and Carter likewise has at least two mini-concerti I am aware of: Dialogues with solo pianist and Mosaic with solo harpist.

HARRISON BIRTWISTLE (*1934): THE MINOTAUR (2008). Although Birtwistle is part of the Old Complexities I claimed I would not cover in this article, I also listened to and watched his opera The Minotaur for the first time earlier this month and felt it was worth including here. Highly-recommended! Great music, excellent staging by the Royal Opera House, and a thought-provoking plot which considers the two-part nature of the minotaur as both man and beast.

GÉRARD GRISEY (1946-1998): LES ESPACES ACOUSTIQUES (1974-85). Les espaces acoustiques rests at the very foundation of spectral music: this is where Grisey explored many of the new approach’s essential concepts and first won a following for the ideas of he and his colleagues. The complete eighty-minute composition developed gradually, beginning in 1974 with Périodes for mixed septet. Over the years as Grisey added another five movements, Périodes became the second movement preceded by a Prologue for solo viola and adding instruments with every successive movement. Its Epilogue is for large orchestra and four solo horns, and was added in 1985 as a way of concluding a process of augmentation that Grisey felt could theoretically go on forever. As the ensembles became larger, Grisey was naturally able to create larger spectra. Les espaces acoustiques is an immensely beautiful work that seems almost drawn from nature with its huge, gradually shifting landscapes of pure sound.

TRISTAN MURAIL (*1947): DÉSINTÉGRATIONS (1982-83). Tristan Murail along with fellow composers Hugues Dufourt and Michaël Levinas were friends and colleagues of Grisey: all four were participants in the first performance of Périodes and active in the creation spectral music. Besides Grisey, Murail was the other spectral composer I have considered in my recent listening. Désintégrations for seventeen instruments and magnetic tape provides a nice contrast to Les espaces acoustiques which is almost exclusively without electronics. In Désintégrations, electronic sounds lead the acoustic instruments through the same sort of spectra Grisey was concurrently exploring in his magnum opus.

CLAUDE VIVIER (1948-1983): LONELY CHILD (1980). Vivier had already absorbed some spectral thinking before ever arriving in Paris and befriending Grisey and the others. Studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1970s as well as travels to southeast Asia also shaped what this Canadian was to compose in his short career. Although unfinished as a whole, his opera about Marco Polo and this Italian’s journeys yielded some interesting fragments, presumably complete in and of themselves. Lonely Child for soprano and chamber orchestra is one of these and is at once a lullaby, love song, and prayer. The slowly shifting landscape of spectral music is now the orchestral backdrop for a heart-wrenching soprano aria. The omnipresent gong is just one of the elements which contributes to the Asian feeling of this haunting piece.

KAIJA SAARIAHO (*1952): LICHTBOGEN (1986). Grawemeyer Award-winning composer Kaija Saariaho is one of today’s most impressive composers in my opinion. Her music is thoroughly engaging, finding the perfect balance between the Modernist vocabulary and more traditional aesthetic considerations. Additionally, although her compositional language is unmistakably her own, there is a huge variety among the pieces she creates and most of what I have heard is immediately distinguishable from other pieces of hers. Lichtbogen for orchestra is an early work which beautifully depicts the Northern Lights. The spectral landscapes of her predecessors Grisey and Murail are still present, but no longer are they abstract sound experiments thanks to the natural phenomenon Saariaho has painted in music.

KAIJA SAARIAHO (*1952): NYMPHÉA REFLECTION (2001). Saariaho's Nymphéa Reflection for string orchestra is inspired by an earlier composition of hers for string quartet from which it draws some of its material. The original was a musical recreation of Claude Monet’s lilies, and I think that still comes across at times in the new piece. Although Nymphéa Reflection is for a fairly standard ensemble (i.e. string orchestra), Saariaho’s textures sound totally alien at times. Another marvelous creation!

KAIJA SAARIAHO (*1952): NOTES ON LIGHT (2006). Notes on Light is a concerto for cello and orchestra set in five movements, each of which depicts a different aspect of light. It’s a fascinating work which so far I have enjoyed more than her better-known violin concerto Graal théâtre. The second movement titled On fire is particularly thrilling and reminds me of a similarly exciting movement in Alfred Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 1 which I had shared in my previous article on the New Symphonic School.

MAGNUS LINDBERG (*1958): KRAFT (1983-85). I have found Lindberg’s music significantly more difficult to comprehend than Saariaho’s; that is neither a good nor a bad thing necessarily, but I feel I will need to keep listening before I really feel comfortable speaking of his music as a whole. Two pieces that have stood out to me so far are Kraft and Marea. Kraft is essentially a percussion concerto, although the soloist group also includes clarinet and cello in addition to its imposing percussive battery of everything from traditional percussion instruments to sheets of scrap metal. In my recording, Lindberg himself is one of the soloists, playing piano and percussion; the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is also part of the group. This was Lindberg’s breakthrough work and rightfully so: it is loud and powerful according to his desired aesthetic at the time that “only the extreme is interesting.” Kraft required Lindberg to program many of the complicated rhythms and spectral harmonies at the computer; he also encourages performers to visit the local junkyard to find interesting objects to add to the percussion lineup. I have found that the colors of the soloist group help me to distinguish this work from the others I have only recently encountered by Lindberg.

MAGNUS LINDBERG (*1958): MAREA (1990). Lindberg wrote Marea for orchestra only a few years after Kraft, but already it is a much calmer work. Lindberg apparently chose the name Marea (which has to do with the tides) because this work metaphorically goes through the same process as the tide of exposing and obscuring things located underneath. The musical elements I occasionally hear exposed are from Stravinsky: most prominently brief moments from his Symphony in C and The Rite of Spring.


LEARN MORE! Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After is again a valuable resource: Griffiths actually has one whole chapter devoted to each the New Complexity and to spectral music. He does not, however, discuss Saariaho or Lindberg much probably because they have only become recognized as major voices in the last fifteen years or so. For these two, the program notes that come with the Ondine releases I purchased are really quite good and have helped give context to my listening. The websites of Tristan Murail and Kaija Saariaho are also quite informative. Part III – Beyond Minimalism is next in my series on Contemporary Voices!

JSH 16.03.25

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College—Louisiana’s designated honors college located on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. While there, Jackson completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Louisiana, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, blogs at MusicCentral, and continues to study other aspects of music in his spare time. His four-movement Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 at Abendmusik Alexandria.

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