Spectral Music & the Commencements Bell

With thanks to Michael Murray, Noel McCann and Tony Dalton.

Spectral music is based around the idea that “music is ultimately sound evolving in time”. Often this involves the computer aided analysis of a particular sound, a Bb on a clarinet for example, followed by the metaphorical re-synthesis of this sound using an orchestra. In the picture shown above, the image on the left is a spectrogram of a single strike of the commencements bell in the Campanile in Trinity College. One the right, is an early draft of an orchestral chord (just synthesized using samples and MIDI for now), which attempts to instrumentally recreate this unique timbre. In an earlier post I mentioned the call-and-response as the most fundamental forms of spatial music. So, as long as the temperamental gods of Irish weather are on our side, a call-and-response between this bell and the orchestra will open the 3rd and final movement of this new piece, entitled From Within, From Without.

While the bell’s spectrum informed the harmonic language of all three movements of this work, the rhythmic structure of the orchestral movement was inspired by the synthesis technique of granulation, and some other techniques developed by composers such as Earle Brown [1926-2002]and Henry Brant [1913-2008]. Brant was a prolific composer of spatial music, writing 76 spatial works (and 57 non-spatial works) over the course of his long career. For Brant, the only way to really exploit space was to ensure that each musician, at each distinct location in space, performed material that was as differentiated as possible from every other part. So, although the entrance of each musician or group of musicians might be cued, they would then proceed independently at their own speed, rhythm, and in their own key. This is very similar in lots of ways to the concept of blocks of music developed by Earle Brown, and later Henry Vega, in which the start and end point of each block are tightly synchronized, but the individual musical lines inside each block are left entirely unsynchronized. This technique results in an interestingly complex texture and neatly avoids the issue of maintaining synchronization between spatially distributed musicians. The opening of Brant’s 1954 composition Millenium II illustrates this approach as ten trombones and ten trumpets, positioned along the side walls of the hall, enter one-by-one, each playing different melodies, in different keys.


Fig. 1 Stage Layout for Henry Brant’s Millenium II (1954) [Harley, 1997]

While Brant’s approach is very effective at highlighting the spatial distribution of the instruments, it does inevitably result in very dissonant harmonies and textures. With this new work I wanted to explore this type of approach, but with melodic lines that are rhythmically independent, but much closer in terms of the harmonic language. As such, the independent lines overlap in ways that are sometimes consonant, and sometimes dissonant. In some respects this results in a texture that is reminiscent of granulation; the electronic processing technique in which many fragments (or grains) of the original sound are layered over each other, and particularly when long grain durations are used. This is particularly prominent in the middle section of From Without, From Within as five trumpets and two trombones, all of which are distributed around the audience, play very similar melodies that are deliberately desynchronized, resulting in a complex texture that shifts between consonance and dissonance and results in some interesting spatial effects.

If you’d like to know more about the specific details (“let’s talk quartertones!”) of this movement, and indeed the other two movements of this work, I’ll be giving a  free, public talk on the project as part of the Music at Trinity Series in the Long Room Hub, March 21st, at 6.15 pm.

Also, if you’d like to come to the performance on April 8th, tickets are now available from this link (this is a free event, but tickets are required to reserve a seat).

[Harley, 1997] Harley, M. A., “An American in Space: Henry Brant’s “Spatial
Music”, American Music, Vol. 15(1), pp. 70-92, 1997.

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