Microtonality and spectralism

Tristan Murail: Gondwana (1980)

This orchestral work creates a really interesting soundscape.  One of its defining features is a kind of ebb and flow in the dynamics, which I think fits with the geological process the piece is meant to evoke.  There are discordant clashes in the music right from the beginning; the piece is scored for electronics as well as orchestra and the synthesised bell sounds with the intentional unusual harmonics are very evocative of something strange happening.  I was expecting to find the electronic component of the music to stick out but actually it blended in quite successfully to the extent that I wasn’t even always aware of it. Percussion is especially noticeable, both tuned and untuned.  I also noticed some microtonal pitches high up in the strings about half way through (the mood is especially dark and eerie at this point), as well as in the trombone part.

Gerard Grisey: Les Espaces Acoustiques (1974-1985)

I listened to extracts of each of the six pieces in this cycle.  The first, for solo viola, has lots of open space in it at the beginning, but I found the raw harshness of the sound as well as the microtonal pitches very unpleasant to listen to.  Later on this piece contains frantic glissandos and even harsher, brutal sounds.  In the second piece more instruments are added, and they slide around pitches towards and away from each other in a very unsettling way.  The remaining tracks are effective in setting an eerie, chilling atmosphere – particularly his use of rumbling sounds in the bass, high pitched string harmonics and percussion.  Good horror film material.  Although I didn’t exactly enjoy listening to any of it, I found the parts of the music where the texture dropped to just a few instruments unexpectedly gripping – it created a kind of tension which needed to be resolved.

Tristan Murail: Allegories (1989)

I didn’t particularly enjoy listening to this piece, the flute and piccolo parts are very shrill and the strings very scratchy.  The electronics added an interesting dimension however; as in the Gondwana piece I thought they blended in with the acoustic instruments quite effectively while providing an unusual sound.  Towards the end there is a sort of shimmering, ephemeral effect, and a series of single notes which gradually morph into harmonies with microtonal qualities.  All of these pieces evoke supernatural associations for me, it’s interesting how departing from the standard Western scales that we are so used to immediately creates this effect.


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