Dissertation Index

Author: Morrison, Landon

Title: "Sounds, Signals, Signs: Transductive Currents in Post-Spectral Music at IRCAM"

Institution: McGill University, Schulich School of Music

Begun: September 2013

Completed: January 2020


This dissertation examines the relationship between psychoacoustics, software development, and contemporary compositional practices in the context of post-spectral music created at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, France. The primary focus is on music by Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), and Philippe Leroux (b. 1959), all of whom have worked at the intersection of digital and acoustic media, inhabiting a creative space where sounds are regularly cross-mapped from one domain to another. A well-known instance of this kind of cross-mapping is instrumental synthesis, which takes additive synthesis techniques developed in the electronic studio as a metaphorical basis for orchestration with acoustic instruments. Having begun in the mid-seventies with the use of spectrograms to analyze sound into its constituent frequencies and transcribe the results into staff notation, recent developments in computer-assisted orchestration software have precipitated a shift toward music information retrieval (MIR) methods, which automatically index audio signals to a standardized set of semantic descriptions. Therefore, to study the evolution of instrumental synthesis techniques within an ongoing post-spectral milieu, I propose an analytic of transduction, drawing music theory into a dialogue with science and technology studies, media theory, and other fields currently rethinking the question of sound in light of new media practices. Central to the analytic presented here is an imperative to extend the scope of music analysis beyond notated scores, considering works and their attendant technologies as conjoined technical and aesthetic objects. Additionally, I argue that it is necessary to situate the genre of post-spectral music and its associated instrumentarium within a wider network of historical actors, encompassing research institutions like the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), telecommunications companies like Bell Laboratories, and more distant nineteenth-century theorists of sound like Hermann von Helmholtz. In support of this argument, I draw on extensive archival research conducted at IRCAM in Paris and the Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, with additional materials obtained via private correspondence with composers, technical assistants, and software developers. Reassembling the manuscripts, recordings, e-sketches, and other genetic artifacts scattered among these archival sites, and reconstructing the music-theoretical logic embedded within their media scripts, this dissertation develops a postdisciplinary approach to studying the complex interconnections that bind music’s sounding effects, its manifold representations, and its technocultural bases of production.

Keywords: contemporary music, spectralism, psychoacoustics, software studies, IRCAM, transduction, mediation, instrumental synthesis, archival research


Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: Transductive Currents in Post-Spectral Music at IRCAM

1. Beginnings: The Origin Story of French Spectralism
1.1. Receptions of Spectral Thought
1.2. Critiques of Reductivism and Canonization

2. The Case for a Post-Spectral Milieu at IRCAM
2.1. Tracing Associations: Post-Spectralism, IRCAM, and the Utopian Network

3. New Music, New Media: Towards an Analytic of Transduction
3.1. The Anatomy of a Musical Note
3.2. Analysis and Synthesis as a Generalized Model of Transduction

4. Analyzing Musical Media
4.1. Tracking the Creative Process in Computer-based Music
4.2. Chapter Overview

CHAPTER 1: Encoding Post-Spectral Thought: Kaija Saariaho’s Early Electronic Works at IRCAM, 1982–87

1. In Search of a Lost “Sound Synthesis Utopia”
1.1. The CHANT Program for Voice Synthesis
1.2. Saariaho’s Early Electronic Works at IRCAM
1.3. Finland to France: libre cours du souffle, esprit ouvert, recherche du nouveau

2. Creative Genesis of Vers le blanc (1982)
2.1. Mapping Multi-Dimensional Formal Networks
2.2. CHANT Parameter Files
2.3. CHANT Function Files
2.4. Filter-based Versus FOF-based Synthesis: A Brief History
2.5. Building “Phrases” with Phonemes
2.6. De-scripting the Code for Vers le blanc

3. Inventing “Transkaija”: A Program for Composing Musical Processes
3.1. Case Study 1: Jardin secret II (1985–86)
3.1.1. Analyzing of Harmonic and Rhythmic Interpolations
3.2. Case Study 2: IO (1987)
3.2.1. Nested Interpolations Inside of Larger Musical Processes

4. Concluding Thoughts on the Legacy of “Transkaija”

CHAPTER 2: From Bell-Boys to Speaking Orchestras: Spectral Models in the Music of Jonathan Harvey

1. Two Moments in the History of Voice Synthesis at IRCAM

2. Synthesis-By-Rules Methods in Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980)
2.1 Socio-Technical Mediation and the Distribution of Creativity
2.2. Basic Materials: Concrete Versus Synthetic Sound
2.3. A Bell-Shaped Musical Form
2.4. Chimeric Hybrids: The “Bell of Boys” and “Boy of Bells”
2.5. Later Developments in Harvey’s Use of Analysis and Synthesis Methods

3. Computer-Assisted Orchestration in Speakings (2007–08)
3.1. Two Approaches to Instrumental Synthesis
3.2. Warming up: Preliminary Sketches for Sprechgesang (2007)
3.3. Mvt. I, Pre-Linguistic Expressions: “Baby Scream”
3.4. Mvt. II, Entering into Dialogue: “Adult Chatter”
3.5. Mvt. II, Purification of Speech: “OM – AH – HUM”

4. Vocal Transduction Then and Now: Cross-Level Motion in the RL-Grid

CHAPTER 3: Transmedial Experiences, Technomorphic Transcriptions, and Synaesthetic Associations in Works by Philippe Leroux

1. Cross-Mapping Between Media, Senses, and Musical Settings

2. Technomorphic Transcriptions in M (1997), m’M (2003), and AMA (2009)
2.1. Comparison of Musical Forms
2.2. Section A: Analysis, Synthesis, and Interpolation
2.3. Section C: Sequenced Loops, Spatialization, and Reversed Morphologies

3. Synaesthetic Associations and Distributed Creativity in Quid sit musicus? (2014)
3.1. Creative Influences: A “Braided” Musical Form
3.2. Re-Writing History, Re-Wiring Senses: The pOM Interface

4. Energetics, Information, and Gestural Logic

EPILOGUE: Following the Transductive Paths of Sound in New Music

1. Reflections: Music After the “Sound Synthesis Utopia”?

2. Three Episodes in the History of Post-Spectral Music at IRCAM

3. Methodologies for an Analytic of Musical Transduction

4. Possible Avenues for Future Research



Landon Morrison
College Fellow in Music Theory, Harvard University
t. +1-617-495-3230

     Return to dissertations