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.

Modern Choral Work

I have listened to and sung quite a few of John Rutter’s works, so for this part of my research I listened to two composers I wasn’t previously familiar with.

Eric Whitacre: Cloudburst (2008)

What struck me the most about this very evocative piece from the beginning was the harmony – Whitacre uses lots of close harmonies, unresolved suspensions and also even tone clusters, which are technically dissonances but don’t sound unpleasant in the context of the soft choral lines.  I like the contrast between the held chords and simultaneously spoken lines in which the consonants (particularly the s’s) are very clearly audible. Around six minutes into the piece, percussion instruments are introduced – the backdrop of suspended cymbals and wind chimes creates an atmospheric and almost magical sound before a very effective thunder clap; finger snaps and claps are then used to create the illusion of raindrops which works remarkably well.  This style of composing is known as aleatoric, as each performance is inevitably slightly different.

Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium (1994)

Interestingly, I found this on Spotify on an album entitled ‘So you think you don’t like classical music?’, alongside composers such as Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and also coincidentally Eric Whitacre.  This style of contemporary music is certainly one of the most accessible.  This particular piece for unaccompanied choir has a gentle feel, appropriate for the religious text it is a setting of. The vocal lines move slowly and often together in a chordal style.  Dissonances are carefully placed and then resolved, which heightens the intensity of the music.

New Complexity

Brian Ferneyhough: Mnemosyne (1986)

This piece by the British composer is written for bass flute and electronics, and I was able to follow along with the score here.  I can easily see why the genre has been labelled ‘New Complexity’ – the score is almost incomprehensible to me, full of strange symbols and notations that I have never come across before.  The time signature changes every bar, and the piece includes some very unusual time signatures such as 5/10.  It is also jam packed full of dynamic markings.  The prerecorded electronic sounds create a backdrop for the flute, which is played in very unusual ways such as flutter tongue and percussive key pressing.  It creates an atmospheric soundscape, the sounds from the bass flute remind me of primitive or aboriginal cultures.  There are no really distinguishable melodies or rhythms though, and I do wonder what the purpose of variable meter and strange time signatures is in a piece like this – it seems to me to be complexity for its own sake rather than enhancing the music in any way.


I have already listened to some of Steve Reich’s music (see my earlier blog post), so for this part of my research I focused on two composers I was less familiar with.

Terry Riley: In C (1964)

Riley’s composition is considered to be a seminal piece in the minimalist genre.  It has been recorded many times with different instrumentations – I listened to a remastered version of the original, and also extracts of some later recordings.  I think the instrumentation makes a big difference to how I respond to it: one of the more electronic sounding recordings turned me off very quickly, but I found myself initially quite absorbed by the original  version which mostly features woodwind instruments, a marimba and a vibraphone.  A number of short phrases are played concurrently throughout the piece, and my ear was drawn to different instruments as they came in and out.  I like the way that almost imperceptible changes gradually build up and create quite different sounds and textures.  Although the piece starts out very definitely in C major, later on the tonality shifts as notes outside the major triad are introduced.  The rhythm also shifts and the melodic fragments become rhythmically displaced from each other which creates a chaotic effect I found quite unpleasant to listen to – almost headache inducing!

Philip Glass: Glassworks (1981)

The opening of this piece, played on the piano, has a very melancholy mood.  It features cross rhythms (3 against 2) played on repeated sequences of chords.  The later tracks use woodwind and string instruments as well as a synthesizer.  Many of them use a characteristic alternation between minor and major chords, and the repeated sequences can be hypnotic.  Unlike Riley’s piece, the melodic fragments in this work tend to be longer and the texture similar for longer periods of time.  It is also more rhythmically cohesive, and the different voices seem to work with each other rather than against each other, but I tend to find the ‘sameness’ of the music a little uninspiring.

Holy Minimalism

John Tavener: The Lamb

This is a very eerie sounding carol.  The simple opening phrase in G major is sung in unison; this is then repeated but now with a new melody sung at the same time creating a chilling augmented Eb triad, and with a brief dissonance just before the two parts come to rest together on G.  The use of unison and octave singing fits well with the simple words of the carol, and I think it is a beautifully atmospheric piece.

Arvo Part: Spiegel im Spiegel

I listened to the original version of this well known piece, composed for violin and piano. It is very simply constructed; the piano playing slow broken triads and the violin slow scale passages.  The word ‘spiegel’ means ‘mirror’, which could be a reference to the violin part’s alternating rising and falling scales throughout the piece.  Although it is in F major, the emotion it conveys to me is one of sorrow.  It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why – I think partly it is just the absolute stillness of the slow melody and the sparseness of the piano accompaniment.  I think the focus of the tonic triad in second inversion also contributes to the effect: placing the dominant note at the root of the chord means it never sounds completely resolved.

Gorecki: Symphony no. 3

This piece is also known as the ‘Symphony of sorrowful songs’, and it is easy to see why. It starts with a slow, melancholy melody in E minor played by the double basses.  A second double bass line is then added (in canon form), creating initially quite a muddy sound; this is followed by two cello entries, two viola entries and finally two violin entries. The texture is very similar throughout this section of the symphony and there are no sudden changes – it’s the sort of music that you can let simply wash over you.  Later on the movement features a soprano voice; combined with the strings, slow progressions and modal harmonies it creates a pure, almost religious sound, and the climax is spine tingling.

I was surprised to hear the second movement (again featuring a soprano voice and strings) was already very familiar to me – I have often heard it played on the radio.  After reading a bit about it I learnt that a recording of this symphony was released in 1992 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.  The music clearly portrays sorrow even without any associations however.  The movement is marked ‘tranquillissimo’ and is very still throughout, the last (minor) chord held by the strings for over a minute. The orchestration of solo voice and strings reminds me of Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man’, which was written to commemorate victims of war.

Contemporary classical music

I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to performances by the Scottish Ensemble (a string chamber group) several times a year, and their concerts often feature music by contemporary composers. Through them I have been introduced to music by Dobrinka Tabakova, Arvo Part, Sofia Gubaidulina and Wojciech Kilar.  I also went to a concert given by a string quartet earlier this year which included music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich – notes on this experience can be found on my blog post: Minimal: American Classics.  I really enjoy listening to live performances of contemporary music, although I think the pieces are chosen very carefully to appeal to their audience.  Much of the repertoire I have heard in this context has been minimalist in nature, which I think works well in live performances as it can be very atmospheric.

The most recent concert I went to included a composition by Kilar, a Polish composer who wrote a lot of film music (he died in 2013).

Wojciech Kilar: Orawa

This piece starts with just the violins playing a repeated phrase based on the notes in an F# minor triad, and then shifts down a semitone to a similar phrase based on an F major triad.  These two phrases form the basis for the whole piece, in minimalist style.  The first time through the opening phrase is played nine times, but as the piece progresses the transitions between the two phrases happen more quickly.  The rhythm takes you by surprise occasionally through the use of variable metre and starting the next phrase before you expect it.  The piece contains lots of drama – sudden contrasts in dynamics,  glissandos and sometimes a biting, scratchy effect from the strings as they are played close to the bridge.  There is also a moment of calm in the second half of the piece, with quiet, very high sustained notes in the violin parts.  Like a lot of minimalist music it is quite hypnotic to listen to.


Getting to know the brass section

Hummel: Trumpet Concerto

A typically ‘Classical’ sounding piece, Hummel composed this concerto in 1803.  It contains quite a few fanfare style phrases, very appropriately as it was written to mark a celebration and first performed on New Year’s Day in 1804.  The associations it creates for me are those of a serious and important occasion.  The first movement contains lots of detached arpeggios and highly articulated phrasing, which the sound of the trumpet seems well suited to as the onset of a tongued note is very clearly audible.  The second, slower movement is in a minor key and is played in a much more fluid, legato style that is less commonly associated with this instrument, but is nevertheless very effective and expressive.  The final movement is probably the most well known: the staccato phrasing and fast repeated notes are evocative of an important announcement being made.

Nino Rota: ‘Love Theme’ from the Godfather

This is a powerful theme tune written for a highly dramatic film, and the trumpet is perfectly suited to it.  The sound made by a trumpet is rich in harmonics, especially when played loudly in its middle register, giving the instrument a unique, full and resonant sound.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Trombone Concerto

As well as being a musician, Rimsky-Korsakov had a career in the Russian military and wrote this celebratory sounding concerto for a fellow officer.  The first movement is very short (only two and a half minutes), playing the role of an announcement: rising arpeggios on the trombone, ending with a drum roll.  The middle movement is marked ‘Andante cantabile’, and the lyrical, legato style does indeed resemble singing.  The accompaniment to this concerto is played by a military band (no strings), so the overall sound is quite bright and resonant.  The second movement leads straight into the finale, which features several trumpets at the start and percussion later on – reminiscent of a marching band.  A solo cadenza part way through the movement has the trombone playing extremely low notes (definitely tuba territory!), much lower than I would have thought possible on this instrument.  It goes on to demonstrate some almost equally impressive high notes, and also features multiphonics.  The cadenza was interesting to listen to from a technical standpoint, but musically I didn’t find the piece as a whole particularly inspiring.

Christian Lindberg: Mandrake in the Corner

This composer was previously unknown to me; he is a Swedish trombonist and his compositions have been mostly focused on this instrument.  This piece is written for trombone and symphony orchestra, in three movements.  The first movement is in a minor key and features off beat rhythms and sudden dynamic changes.  It creates a very dramatic mood, considerably helped by heavy use of the timpani and the strings suddenly cutting in with short phrases.  The mood of the second, slower movement starts off as one of suspense – slow crescendos in the strings and some dissonant harmonies.  It becomes more intense and powerful as it builds up, and the brass section is particularly noticeable in the climaxes.  The final Vivace movement is nothing less than chaotic – very fast articulated notes on the trombone , scalic passages in the accompanying strings and brass.  Lindberg also uses occasional general pauses which create a dramatic effect.  I like the syncopation and cross rhythms, and the piece ends with some characteristic trombone slides.