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.


Soundscapes of Town and Gown

One of things I wanted to explore in this piece is the relationship between Trinity College and the rest of the city, both from a sociohistorical perspective, and in terms of the sonic attributes of these two, quite different spaces. During its long history Trinity’s relationship with Dublin, and indeed with the rest of the country, has often been difficult, complex, and even out rightly combative at times. While questions of religion and national identity were a significant factor, tensions between liberal and conservative voices, both from within and without, have also played their part in this complex relationship between “town and gown”. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the walls that surround Trinity were sometimes perceived as a barrier meant to keep people out! In Mary Muldowney’s fascinating book “Trinity and its Neighbours. An Oral History, many local residents employed by Trinity during the second half of the 20th century mention this perceived separateness of the university from the city (for many, their job interview was the first time they had been inside the college walls). As John McGahern puts it, “when I was young in this small country Trinity College was so far removed from our lives and expectations that it seems a complete elsewhere”.

While problems certainly remain, these days the Trinity campus is much more of a public space, and indeed is viewed by many as an oasis of calm and relative quiet in the midst of the bustling traffic and noise of Dublin city center. On a purely sensory level, the walls which surround the college could now perhaps therefore be viewed as more of a protective shell that provides some welcome respite from the incessant roar of city. From my own perspective, I have always been struck by a powerful, liminal transition from one distinct space into another whenever I pass through the narrow passageway of the front gate. This distinct sense of two different sonic spaces, and the specific sounds that reach and stretch across this notional and physical barrier, is the primary inspiration for this new composition of spatial music.

It is a fact that any outdoor performance in a city center will have to contend with the general ambiance of the city, police sirens and all! So, borrowing an (oblique) strategy from Brian Eno I decided to turn this unavoidable intrusion into a specific feature of the first movement of the piece, and deliberately project these outside city sounds inside, using multiple loudspeakers placed around the audience. This soundscape composition is constructed from field recordings made in, around and outside the boundaries of the university grounds. In this way sounds such as the traffic and roadworks on College Green, and the trains which bisect the north-eastern corner of the campus will be projected inside Front Square and manipulated and transformed into music. For the more technical among you, these field recordings were made using an interesting technique suggested by Augustine Leudar, based around multiple stereo recorders positioned to match the eventual placement of the reproducing loudspeakers.

Field Recording from in front of the Campanile, December, 2015


But what about the other direction? What kind of sounds does Trinity produce which might instead project outward? Well, a 30+ orchestra of brass, wind, percussion and electric guitars will be part of that, but the buildings too make their own sounds. Most obviously, the bells of the Campanile, which are sounded at different times during the year, and for different functions. The Campanile actually houses three bells in total; including the Commons bell which softly rings at noon, and an even softer, and little known bell which is used to mark the death of significant figures within the university. However, the largest and loudest of these three bells, and the one which will play the biggest part in this piece, is the commencements bell; rung on numerous occasions each year to summon graduating students to the commencements ceremony. There’s a beautiful, albeit somewhat mournful tone to this bell, and I decided pretty quickly that this would inform the harmonic language and writing for the entire piece.

This particular topic will be looked at in more detail in the next post.

So What Exactly is Spatial Music Anyway?


Spatial music is simply any form of music in which the placement or movement of sounds in space is a composed aspect of the work. While it is often associated with the development of electronic and electroacoustic music in the 20th century, spatial music is in fact much older. Call and-response patterns can be found throughout history in many different cultures and musical traditions, and this is of course by definition a rudimentary form of spatial music. In Europe, the antiphonal call-and-response of medieval church music developed into the increasingly elaborate polyphonic choral music of composers such as Adrian Willaert, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Orazio Benevoli. One notable example of this type of spatial music is Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Aliumwhich was composed in c. 1570 for forty separate vocal parts divided among eight choirs (the Spatial Music Collective had lots of fun creating an electronic realization of this piece for eight loudspeakers at the 2009 Dublin Electronic Arts Festival!).

In the twentieth century, composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Brant and Karlheinz Stockhausen composed numerous works of spatial music involving multiple orchestras (Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question (1908), Karlheinz Stockhausen – Gruppen (1955-57)), large numbers of loudspeakers (Iannis Xenakis – Hibiki-hana-ma (1970)), and in one case, the entire city center of Amsterdam (Henry Brant – Fire on the Amstel (1984)). So what exactly is it that motivated these different composers to write this type of music?

Well, one of the advantages of spatially separating different groups of musicians or loudspeakers is that multiple, independent lines or musical layers can be more easily perceived and followed. Composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Brant and Karlheinz Stockhausen often used a spatial distribution of musicians or loudspeakers to facilitate both the performance and the audience’s perception of music containing many, simultaneous and complex layers of independent and sometimes quite dissonant material (described beautifully by John Cage as the “co-existence of dissimilars”). Of course this spatial separation is a practical necessity when musicians are performing entirely independent material at different tempos and in different keys, and these practical performance issues are another important aspect of this type of music (something which this blog will return to at a later date).

For electronic music, the use of more than two loudspeakers is also beneficial in all sorts of ways. Surrounding the listener with loudspeakers allows you to put the listener inside a recorded or synthesized sound scene in a way which cannot be easily achieved using simple stereo. In addition, the ability to dynamically move sounds around the listening space can be a hugely expressive aspect of electronic music, and can provide a really strong sense of physicality and gesture in the invisible or acousmatic music for loudspeakers alone. I can still remember the first time I encountered this type of music and being immediately struck by just how different this was to the electronic music I had encountered before. It’s been a source of fascination ever since and the focus of much of my work since both as a composer and academic.



So spatial music is definitely not a new idea, however, what is new is the ability to record matching audio and video from all directions using 360 audio/video hardware, and virtual reality. Something which we’ll look at in the next post!