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spectromorphology: explaining sound-shap

DENIS SMALLEY
Department of Music, city university,NorthamptonSquare, London EClv 'HB. uK

r. INTRODUCTION The art of music is no longer limited to the sounding models of instruments and voices. Electroacoustic music opens accessto all sounds, a bewildering sonic array ranging from the real to the surreal and beyond. For listeners the traditional links with physi_ cal sound-making are frequently ruptured: electro_ acoustic sound-shapes and qualities frquently do not indicate known sources and causes. Gone are the familiar articulations of instruments and vocal utter_ ance; gone is the stability of note and interval; gone too is the reference of beat and metre. Compsers also have problems: how to cut an aestheticpath and disc-over a stability in a wide_opensound world, how to develop appropriate sound_making methods, how to selecttechnologiesand software. How are we to explain and understand electro_ acoustic music? Music is not created from nothins. If a group of listeners finds a piece of electroacoustic music 'rewarding' it is becausethere is some shared experiential basis both inside and behind that music. We need to be able to discussmusical experiences, to describe the features we hear and explain how they work in the context of the music. 2. DEFINITIONS 2.1. Definition I have developed the concepts and terminology of spec,tromorphologyt as tools for describing and analysing listening experience.The two parts of the term refer to the interaction between sound spectra (spectro-) and the ways they change and are shaped through time (-morphotogy\. ffrJ ,p".tr* cannot exist without the -morphology and ,ir, ,rrro, ,o thing has to be shaped, and a shape must "_ have sonic content. Although spectral content and temporal shaping are indissolubly linked, we need conceptually tThis essay was.rst.,published in French in 1995, andhassince (Smalley in Italian 1995,1996). tt isanextensive rewrit_ llpelred 'Spectromorphology rng ot
my and structuring processes. in 7.e Languageof Etectroacoustic (s-"li;t l;8U). it. o"u.top_ ."Music ment of spectromorphological thinking *., ,oii"to pierre Schaeffer's Trairdesobjets musicaux lSihaefler 1966r.

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to be able to separatethem for discursive purposes_ we cannot in the same breath describewhai is shapeO and the shapesthemselves.The term may be rather jargonistic and it is perhaps an ungainly word, but I have not managed to invent an alternative which encapsulates the interactive components so acc_ ylafll. Each component of the term belongs to orher disciplines (visual, linguistic, biological, geologicall. which is fitting since musical e*periene radiates across disciplines. But the combination is unique: in music we often need words which are invented spec_ ially for defining sonic phenomena. A spectromorphologicalapproach setsout spectral and morphological models and processes, and provides a framework for underitanding structural relations and behaviours as experiencedin the temporal flux of the music. 2.2. The relationship to compositional method Spectromorphology is not a compositional theorl or method, but a descriptive tool based on aural perception. It is intended to aid listening, and seeksto help explain what can be apprehenAeO m over fbur decadesof electroacousticrepertory. How composers conceivemusical content and form_ their aims, mod_ els, systems,techniques, and structural plans_is not the same as what listeners perceive in that same music. What the composer has to say (in programme notes, talks, sleevenotes) is not unimporiant, and it undoubtedly influences (both helping and impedingl the listener's appreciation of musc and musrcal ideas, but it is not always perceptually informatrve or relevant. Although spectromorphology is not a composr_ _ tional theory, it can influence compositional methods since once the composer becomes conscious of con_ cggtsa1d words to diagnoseand describe,then compo_ sitional thinking can be influenced, as I am sure mv own composing has been.In the confusing, wide_open sound-world, composers need criteria ior selecting sound materials and understanding structural relationships. So descriptive and conJeptual tools which classify and relate sounds and structures can be valuable compositional aids. Spectromorphological

AND CONTEXTS

Organised Sound 2(2): 101 26 @ 1997 Cambridge University press. printed in the United Kingdom

Spectromorphology

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cannot tell the very moment when an onset passes into a continuant phase, nor when a continuant passes into the terminal phase. Nor do all three phaseshave to be present in the note-gesture.There are three important spectromorphological archetypes found in instrumental usage.In all three models spectral richness is assumed to be congruent with the dynamic shape of the morphology the louder, the more spectral energy, the brighter and/or richer the sound. These archetypesare: (l) The attack alone. This is a momentary energetic impulse. Two temporal phases are merged into one there is a sudden onset which is also the termination. We do not have sufficient time to hear any appreciable change in spectral energy as the sound moves rapidly to its termination. There is no continuant phase.Awarenessis focused on the attack-energy. A dry percussive aflack or a staccato sound (without resonance)are examples. (2) The attack-decay.The attack is extendedby a resonance. The onset and terminatory phases are present,and there may be a hint of the continuant if we feel that the sound is being prolonged at a consistentlevel before it decays.In this archetype an initial gesture is enough to set a spectromorphology in motion, after which there is no gestural intervention as the sound continues towards termination. A string pizzicato or a bell are examples. (3) The graduated continuant. In this archetype all three phasesare present. The onset starts gradually as if faded in, and the note terminates gradually as if faded out. In between, the note is sustained for a time. Examples are sustained string or wind sounds,where continuing energetic input (breath or gestural) is needed to sustain or prolong the sound. This is the most interventionist of the archetypesbecausewe are aware of the continuing imposition of gesture. It is therefore the most open to the development of variants. We can say that instrumental music is made up of strings of varianls of the above archetypes, and (in ensemblemusic) superpositionsand mergings as well. Variants are created by manipulating the durations and spectral energy of the three phases.For example, the graduated continuant archetype (which is rather idealised) could be varied in a number of ways: (l) By compressingthe onset so that it is swelled(less linear). More energy is thereby injected into the onset, giving a more pressured, pushing effect. We find this onset variant quite often in Baroque performancepractice. (2) BV lengthening the continuant phase, drawing attention away from the onset towards interest in the sound's continuity, which could be stable, or moie or less varied. orior to termination.

(3) BV increasing the spectral energy towards termination, leading towards, and creating the expectancy of, a new note-gesture.The continuant phase is lengthened and termination is avoided, or rather the onset of the new note-gesture is also the termination of the previous note. What the archetypes and their variants demonstrate is that the note trains us in spectomorphological expectation. We have a very wide experienceof the circumstances in which spectral changes occur, not just in single note-gesturesbut in the articulation of chains of note-gestureswithin the larger gestures of phrase-motion. Our acquired knowledge of the 'natucontexts of spectral change provides an almost not only for developing the wider, ral' reference-base more imaginative spectromorphological repertory into the third-order surrogacy of electroacoustic music, but for decoding patterns of expectation in musical form. We predict or try to predict the expectedtendenciesof spectral change. Electroacoustic music; even when deprived of known instrumental spectromorphologies and tonal harmonic language, still relies on culturally acquired expectation patterns.

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5. GESTURE AND TEXTURE PRINCIPLES

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The basic gesture of traditional instrumental music produces the note. In tonal music notes form a consistentlow-level unit, and are grouped into higher levelled gestural contours, into phraseological styles, which traditionally have been based on breathgroups. Singers and wind-players, after all, have to breathe. In electroacousticmusic the scale of gestural impetus is also variable, from the smallest attackmorphology to the broad sweep of a much longer gesture, continuous in its motion and flexible in its pacing. The notion of gesture as a forming principle is concerned with propelling time forwards, with moving away from one goal towards the next goal in the structure the energy of motion expressed through spectral and morphological change. Gestural music, then, is governed by a sense of forward motion, of linearity, of narrativity. The energymotion trajectory of gesture is therefore not only the history of an individual event, but can also be an approach to the psychology of time. If gesturesare weak, if they become too stretched out in time, or if they become too slowly evolving, we lose the human physicality. We seem to cross a blurred border between events on a human scale and events on a more worldly, environmental scale. At the same time there is a change of listening focus the slower the directed, gestural impetus, the more the ear seeksto concentrate on inner details (insofar as they exist). A music which is primarily textural,

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VII

Spectromorphology

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function until we know what comes afterwards.) Since we are always busy concentrating on the present, our attentions may be diverted before any final attribution can be completed - contexts slip away. And which levels of structure are we following anyway? How many levels can our attention and memory spans take in? Are we following each impending moment or broader

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likely or not, whether changeis likely to be concerned with gradual merging or sudden interruption, and so on. The ideas of onset (how something starts), continuant (how it continues) and termination (how it ends) can be expanded into a list of terms, some of them technical, some more metaphorical, which can be used to interpret the function-significance of an event or context. These functions can be applied at both higher and lower levels of musical structure, referring, for example, to a note, an object, a gesture, a texture, or a type of motion or growth process' depending on our focus of attention. The onset terms reflect varying degrees of abruptness. What they have in common is that they are moving out from or away from a starting-point, creating expectant tensions. The continuant terms vary. Some look forward, expressing betweenness('tran'passage');others are linked backwards to the sition', onset function ('prolongation','maintenance'), while 'statement' signals a more definitive, almost independent status. The terminations vary in their feelings 'Disappearance' is a weak termination of completion. 'resolution' and without much purpose, while 'release'have strong relaxant functions. 'Arrival' and 'plane' expressstructural goals achieved. The attribution of a function to a particular event or context is not a simple cognitive process: (l\ Function attribution is not normally a conscious We are not continually asking thought-process. ourselvesa reasoned seriesof function-questions resulting in function-decisions. Rather, function attribution is part of the intuitive expectationsof psychological time. (2) Function ettribution is a continuing, incomplete process) subject to revision. We make interim function attributions, and may change our minds in the continuing course of a context and after it has passed by. (We cannot finally attribute a

outlines? (3) Function attribution may be double or ambiguous. A context may have different, simultaneous functions. This is particularly so when events are overlapped or motion is continuous. For example, a contour which seems to resolve a motion could also form part of the anacrusis to a following peak - in this case the termination function is also an onset function on the same 1eve1. (4) There is no clear lemporal border between the lhree function-types. For example, the point at which we decide that an event has fully emergedand the point at which we decide that it has entered a transitional phase may not be a point but a processof evolving realisation.

8. MOTION

AND GROWTH PROCESSES

The metaphors of motion and growth are appropriate ways of considering a time-based art like electroacoustic music. Traditional concepts of rhythm are inadequate to describe the often dramatic contours of electroacousticgesture and the internal motion of texture which are expressedthrough a great variety of spectromorphologies. Quite often listeners are reminded of motion and growth processesoutside music and the tetms selectedare intended to evoke these kinds of connections. Since motion and growth have spectral contours, they are set in spectral space.

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rooted to a solid plane. Many spectromorphologies are inherently non-rooted becausethere is no bass anchor (fundamental note) to securethe texture. Thus analogieswith flight, drift and floating can be common. Motion towards a root could be implied in a spectral descenttowards termination, but a root may not be achieved if the motion 'in the air'. fades (2) Motion launching. The launching of motion varies. Some may be considered as self-contained pressuredonsets(drag, eventswith gesture-based, be thought of as could while others fling) throw, existed (flow, always had if they as emerging float, drift). (3) Contour energy and infiection the direction and energy of motion through spectral space. Some are inherently slow or evolving (flow, drift, float), while others needing time to establishthemselves, trajectories. motion rapid energy imply (4) Internql texturng continuity and discontinuity. Most of these motions imply a certain internal textural consistency in order that the type of motion may remain coherent (seebelow)' 9. TEXTURE MOTION Most of the bi/multidirectional motions imply internal textural change, but the other motion-groups can also be textured. Moreover, in terms of occupancy of spectral space they could vary in dimensions, and consist of more than one layer. As far as structural level is concerned, it is the motion as a whole which is the most significant perceptual unit. Texture motion does not necessarilyimply that it is possible to segment the texture into lowest-level units, although it might be possible to separateout one or more spectromorphological types. Figure 3 sets out several qualifiers of texture motion. The left column lists four ways in which the internal textural components may collaborate in 'behaviour' (see motion. That implies a type of below). Streaming refers to a combination of moving layers, and implies some way of differentiating between the layers, either through gaps in spectral space or becauseeach layer does not have the same spectromorphological content. Flocking describesthe

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loose but collective motion of micro- or small object elementswhose activity and changesin density need to be considered as a whole, as if moving in a flock. One can imagine flocking motion passing through a variety of multidirectional growth processes. The interior of a stream could be flocked, and a flock could be part of a streamed texture. Convolution (coiling or twisting) and turbulence (ittegulation fluctuation, possibly stormy) involve confused spectromorphological entwining, but nevertheless tend to concur in their chaos. Texture motion may vary in internal consistency. Continuous motion is sustained while discontinuous moion may be more or less fragmented. The continuity discontinuity continuum runs from sustained motion at one extreme to iterative motion at the other. If iterative repetitions become too widely spacedthen separateobjects will be heard. This tendency is possible with some of the multidirectional growth processes if the internal texture becomes sparser during fragmentation in the growth process. Granularity occupies an ambiguous mid-point since it could be considered either (roughly) sustained or iterative depending on how closely packed the grains are. Both continuity and discontinuity can move in a more or less periodic aperiodic/erratic manner' with internal fluctuations in tempi. Continuous/discontinuous texture motion may need to be considered as a totality, or may follow grouping patterns if contours, fluctuations or discontinuities are subject to repetitions, cycles or pauseswhich imply higher-level groupings. 10. BEHAVIOUR The metaphor of behaviour is used to elaborate relationships among the varied spectromorphologies acting within a musical context. I believe that listeners can intuitively diagnose behavioural relationships (or a lack of them) in electroacoustic music contexts and that this diagnosis affects the listener's interpretation of and reactions to the music. In this respect, behaviour is archetypal. We may be aware of behaviour in tonal instrumental and vocal music' although it is fairly circumscribed because of the nature of the harmonic system which brings with it

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