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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Hearing timbre-harmony in spectral music Gainey, Christopher


Spectral music is a repertoire that emerges from a compositional attitude that consistently conflates timbre and harmony. The means by which composers of spectral music achieve such conflation are varied, and their music dramatizes the liminality of timbral- harmonic perception in different ways. Despite their aesthetic and technical diversity, these composers assemble and organize harmonies in their music in deference to the psychoacoustic foundations of timbral perception. To foster an appreciation for spectral music and, more generally, the enchantingly abstruse nature of timbral-harmonic perception, I build upon similar foundations in this project to generate analytical accounts of spectral music informed by, but distinct from, the methods used to compose them. The automatic cognitive processes that afford us a sense of timbre for complex sounds (such as those of musical instruments) also affect how we hear sounds in combination. Our sense of a sound’s timbre partly correlates to the distribution of its component partials—subordinate component frequencies often aurally inseparable in the sound that emerges from their combination. Similarly, the identities of notes in a chord can be subsumed, to some extent, by that chord’s emergent holistic identity. This is especially true of complex sonorities wherein the number of component pitches overwhelms our ability to aurally distinguish them. Such complex sonorities are staples of spectral music. As in non-spectral works that feature a similarly saturated harmonic language (such as Ligeti’s Atmospheres), individual pitches are often buried in larger masses of sound. What distinguishes spectral music, however, is that the complex chords tend to approximate assemblages of partials acoustically correlated with certain timbral percepts. Using such correlations as a model for harmony allows otherwise saturated harmonies to express unique gestalt timbres.In analyses of music by Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, Kaija Saariaho, Jonathan Harvey, Claude Vivier, and Magnus Lindberg, I demonstrate how the timbres expressed by complex chords help the listener to distinguish between them and hear them as expressing different levels of timbral-harmonic tension. Then I show how these contrasts support the formation hierarchical timbral-harmonic structures, and how these structures relate to the dramatic arc of the music.

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