On Two Generations of Essential Composers
Something is killing spectral composers. Gérard Grisey, the pioneer of the genre, died of a stroke at age 52, immediately following the completion of his funereal work “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil.” Claude Vivier, the Quebecois Jonathan van Ness of new music, was murdered at 34 by a man he picked up in a gay bar, after writing “Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele,” a piece that seemed to predict the circumstances of the crime. The Italian Fausto Romitelli, whose work is tinged with distorted electric guitar and LSD, succumbed to cancer at 41. The Romanian Ana-Maria Avram passed away at 55, the Spaniard Francisco Guerrero Marín at 49. (Bob Gilmore, the musicologist who wrote groundbreaking biographies of Vivier and Harry Partch, died in 2015 at 54.) Besides a premature death, there is something else that ties each of these composers together—not necessarily their adherence to “spectralism,” which involves material drawn from the harmonic series, but the combination of intellectual rigor and passionate hedonism in their work.
Composers joke that they need to die before they can get famous, but that calculus hasn’t worked so well for spectralists. The music, particularly of Grisey and Vivier, is performed occasionally, but largely as a special event or topic at festivals. One morning in June, I visited the groundbreaking microtonal composer Giacinto Scelsi’s apartment, which overlooks the Roman Forum. His Ondiola still works, but informed visitors are relatively rare. Elderly Romans pay the 10 euro donation to the Fondazione Isabella Scelsi just to see the view, said Fabienne Vicari, who gave me a guided tour. Two recent surveys of the new music landscape, by Justin Davidson in Vulture and Alex Ross in the New Yorker, make no mention of the spectralists. The music seems to have lost its place in the conversation.
For me, spectral music is new music. I first heard Grisey in college. It was a time when I had reached a low point in my own composing. I would listen or, rather, attempt to study Boulez and Stockhausen, and could neither understand how it was made nor find emotion in the work. Steve Reich came for a masterclass, and I found myself turned off by his militant rejection of anything European. Endless extreme-register atonal quintuplets or endless major triad triplets. It didn’t seem like much of a choice to me. Spectralism, though its early practitioners disavowed the term, was neither. It was emotional, overwhelming, at times static or barren, like a prairie landscape. I fell in love.
Contemporary music has fractured into many varied fields. The spectral composers were among the first to break away from the main division between rigorously serial or tonal; they were both disdained by Pierre Boulez and ignored by the American minimalists. It’s eye-opening to reread Kyle Gann’s 1998 essay about divisions in the New York scene. The Uptowners were uptight, academic, frightened; the Downtowners were free, experimental, groovy, like “a field of intransigent daisies breaking up through the concrete of the Euro-classical establishment.” Gann wrote, “Quite often, Downtown composers are lacking in skills that a European conservatory would consider essential to a composer’s education: orchestration, counterpoint, 12-tone set manipulation. Downtowners, however, have their own sets of skills—just intonation, sound processing, South Indian rhythmic cycles—that are more intimately relevant to the music they’re trying to create.” Often spectralists had access to both sets of skills. Grisey was steeped in tradition, a precise writer and hearer who was also at home with early spectral analysis technology and scientific astrology. At the time of Gann’s article, many spectral masterpieces had already been written. They were completely outside his artificial binary. Grisey’s “Les espaces acoustiques” (1985) is lush, engulfing, and physical. Claude Vivier’s “Lonely Child,” influenced by a trip to southeast Asia, is ritualistic and mysterious, with a gorgeous melody. Romitelli’s trippy “Professor Bad Trip: Lesson I,” was written in the same year as Gann’s essay, and was far cooler than the music being produced in Village lofts.
Why do so few people seem to care? Part of the problem is bad luck. The first two generations of spectralists were decimated. They never quite reached the level of renown required to be commissioned and performed by mainstream institutions like major orchestras and opera houses. Without that seal of approval, even highly-regarded composers are stuck with the relative prestige of the new music scene. Many people who have heard multiple pieces by Jörg Widmann likely have never heard anything by Romitelli, whose surreal “Dead City Radio” (2003) would make a perfect orchestral concert opener at 15 minutes long. Same with Guerrero Marín’s adrenaline-soaked “Sahara.”
The spectralists were spread across Europe and, in the case of Joshua Fineberg, Boston. (He now lives in Berlin.) For Europeans, they didn’t represent a single national scene, and their musics were hard to categorize. For Americans, they were active at a time when all European composition summoned small-scale artistic traumas. In a 2012 followup to his essay, Gann wrote that “many composers are fleeing New York and making virtual careers in the ether.” The spectralists were active in that “ether,” which of course just meant cities that were not New York: Paris, Madrid, Cologne, Bucharest. (In New York, the Argento Chamber Ensemble has been quietly playing this music with brilliance for years.)
Among the fragmented factions of new music, spectral music is not particularly zeitgeist-y, making it a hard sell in the press. Spectralism engages more with the nature of sound and perception than with the vagaries of our society, for example. (A positive trait, in my ears.) It doesn’t make use of pop influences, and because of demands for microtonal accuracy, doesn’t make for easy collaboration with conventional bands or orchestras. It’s also probably not plastic enough for film—underneath which Philip Glass’s music bubbles contentedly—though Georg Friedrich Haas once apparently rejected an offer to write for the director Michael Haneke. Haas’s career, in fact, is a sign that vigorously microtonal composers can have mainstream success, with Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Opera commissions; but it’s surprising that Haas, who moved to New York in 2013, doesn’t appear in Justin Davidson’s survey. Lera Auerbach does. Her music—including a frankly cringeworthy Violin Sonata No. 2, Op 63, “September 11”—is mediocrely tonal, but fits into a recognizable American tradition. Spectral music is always other.
Spectral music is sometimes spoken of as a bygone trend, a phenomenon whose expressive potential has dried up. These days, far more words are spent on “indie classical.” But unlike that genre, which sometimes feels like its inexorable destination is the depressingly banal keyboard meanderings of Nils Frahm and Max Richter, the potential in the basic ideas of spectralism is nowhere near exhausted. The noun “spectrum” derives from the Proto-Indo-European root spek, “to observe,” and spectral music carefully observes the nature of sound and the way humans hear. Much fascinating work is being made in that vein. Fineberg has been a tireless advocate who writes highly sophisticated music that carefully considers how to move an audience. Hugues Dufourt has composed several masterpieces, of which a personal favorite is “L’Afrique d’après Tiepolo” (2005). It sounds like it was written by an alternate-dimension Messiaen who believed in a vengeful tribal, rather than the Catholic, God. Tristan Murail’s “Les Sept Paroles” for orchestra (2009) is a wonderfully immersive, hour-long work that practically begs its audience to get high beforehand.
From 2011 to 2013, I studied with Georg Friedrich Haas at the conservatory in Basel, Switzerland. There I met a group of young composers whose music will carry the spectral tradition into the 21st century. With few living role models, they formed their own aesthetic. It draws heavily from spectral thought, extended instrumental technique, psychoacoustics, and intuitive approaches to form, length and the element of surprise. Michael Pisaro, Alvin Lucier, and Jay Schwartz are as influential in the group as the music of the core spectralists. Listen to the music that was made in Basel and afterwards, and the continuing association of European avant-garde music with what Davidson calls “squeak-fart earnestness” becomes ridiculous.
Ryan Beppel, who is from a suburb of Philadelphia and discovered spectral music while on an athletic scholarship at Columbia, composes music with a rare energy. (He has also performed as a singer/songwriter and DJ.) “Voiando la Caja” (2012), for three percussionists, patters like drops of rain, if rain could somehow fall at multiple speeds at once. “Sterbetourismus,” from 2013, is pleasingly slippery. Melodic intervals rise and fall, given texture by their microtonal neighbors. The precise proportions of the piece are thoroughly satisfying, like those of a well-made song. Unlike so much new music, Beppel’s carries you irresistibly in its current.
Arash Yazdani grew up in Iran. He played double bass in the Tehran Symphony Orchestra and Iran National Orchestra, and studied composition in Sweden before moving to Basel. (He now lives in Estonia, where he’s the artistic director of the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn.) His music is apocalyptic, diamond-hard and at times ear-splitting. He favors high microtonal clusters and long journeys across registers. “of that which is” (2018) follows minutes of joyful pain with refined overtone worlds reminiscent of Horatiu Radulescu. “Aphorism” (2016) begins quietly, with heart-pounding tension, before reaching a moment of static, climactic repetition. Yazdani is the Wagner of the Basel group, daring his listeners to go along with him and rewarding them with transcendence when they do.
William Dougherty, a VAN contributor, studied composition at Temple University at Philadelphia before coming to Basel in 2012. His “Three Formants” for five trombones (2014) is like a more concentrated version of Stockhausen’s “Stimmung,” heavy on vocal sounds, haptic tremolos, stereophonic motion and gorgeous chords. “hyper electric” for two electric guitars and two double basses (2018) is fragile and pensive, shot through with feedback and noise. Dougherty is maybe the obvious heir to Grisey in the Basel group, putting broad academic knowledge and compositional rigor to the service of stunning sounds.
Yair Klartag grew up outside Tel Aviv and, after serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, studied computer science and composition. I heard the premiere of his “Con Forza Di Gravità” at its premiere with the Munich Chamber Orchestra in 2014. It was easily my favorite piece on a program that included Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2. Sounds flow down and outwards; gravity becomes a playful, unpredictable force. Klartag has players rub superballs on the surface of their instruments. Halfway through the work, basses thud underneath a unison, a dramatic moment worthy of Scelsi. “A Villa In The Jungle” (2015) is similarly gripping, seizing you within the first 45 seconds and bringing you into a kind of painful tenderness.
Like the first two generations of spectralists, the Basel group is now spread out. Klartag is back in Tel Aviv after several years in New York; Dougherty is at IRCAM in Paris; Yazdani is in Tallinn; Beppel is in Brooklyn. Sometimes I worry that this means the group will never be recognized as such in the press. They have no (Le) Poisson Rouge or New Amsterdam Records. The strength of the music is such that it should be recognized, but the same was true of their predecessors too.
I like to think back to the days after our studies were over. We would find ourselves in the same cities in different constellations. We’d argue, listen to each others’ new work, and occasionally dance and drink and sweat for hours at smoky techno parties. The musicologist Bob Gilmore recounted an anecdote about Grisey and Vivier wandering around discontentedly in Darmstadt: they “amused themselves by incessantly imitating the vocal overtone sonorities of ‘Stimmung’ as they walked around the town or on trams, much to the annoyance of one particular driver who threatened to throw them off if they didn’t stop.” Shared moments of musical joy and abandon are indelible, and as impermanent as sound itself. ¶