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Boulez and the Spectralists between Descartes and Rameau: Who Said What about Whom?

Author(s): Jonathan Goldman

Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 48, No. 2 (SUMMER 2010), pp. 208-232
Published by: Perspectives of New Music
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Accessed: 03-01-2017 21:24 UTC

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Boulez and the
Spectralists between Descartes
and rameau:
Who Said What about Whom?

Jonathan Goldman

In musique)
1976, IRCAM
its recherche
The et de coordination
famous Parisian acoustique/
institute founded by
Pierre Boulez was to be devoted to building bridges between the sci
ence of acoustics and musical art, facilitated through the burgeoning
field of computer music. It was natural for its directors to call upon the
young members of the Ensemble Itinraire, who would later become
associated with the so-called 'spectral' school, to collaborate on its
projects. Indeed, members of this collective of composers and perform
ers (formed in Paris in 1973) went through IRCAM over the following
decade. Many of the composers among them participated in workshops
on computer-assisted composition, and most composed at least one

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Boulez and the Specialists between Descartes and Rameau

work at the famed Parisian institution, of which Tristan Murail's Ds

intgrations (1982-1983) and Gerard Grisey's Les Chants de l'Amour
(1982-1984) are but two examples. Nevertheless, the musicians of
l'Itinraire became subsequently somewhat alienated from the institute
as well as from its founder. Although Boulez continued to conduct
certain spectral works by Grisey or Murail, over the course of the
1980s and 1990s, the spectral composers became less frequently
involved in IRCAM's projects; in a telling irony, the very musicians
who founded their musical language on a coordination between acous
tics and music were little involved in an institution which had this very
goal as its mission. This article proposes a modest contribution to the
historiography of this period by trying to come to grips with the ideo
logical sources of this aesthetic schism which would have major
consequences for the subsequent development of contemporary music
in France.1 After a brief historical introduction, I will first examine
those writings by Boulez from the early period (pre-1965) which make
referencehowever obliqueto spectra or the decomposition of
sound, and then the lesser-known and mostly untranslated texts from
the later period (post-1975), which refer specifically to spectralist com
posers or techniques. Then, after briefly examining the rhetoric of
spectral composers, the final portion of this paper will discuss a num
ber of examples which illustrate ways in which spectral composers
apply techniques which could be construed as being in the spirit of
Boulez's thought, and conversely, how seemingly spectral techniques
can be discerned in Boulez's own compositional production from the
late 1970s onwards. Although Boulez's more or less explicit views on
spectral music turn out to be by and large dismissive, it is not certain
that the objectives and theoretical frameworks of Boulez on the one
hand and the spectralists on the other, are as aesthetically divergent as
is sometimes thought.
The Ensemble Itinraire, made up mostly of graduates of the Paris
Conservatoire, and specifically of pupils in Messiaen's famous analysis
class, was founded by composers Tristan Murail, Michael Lvinas, and
Roger Tessierall around thirty years old at the timefollowed
shortly thereafter by Grard Grisey and Hugues Dufourt.2 The group
also included renowned performers such as the flautist Pierre-Yves
Artaud. The composers, who began writing specifically for this
ensemble, often required the musicians to perform micro-intervals
which correspond to fair approximations of the frequencies of the
harmonic series, and came to be grouped together as "spectral"
composersa term coined by Dufourt,3 the theoretician of the group,
who in addition to being a composer, also later held a senior research

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210 Perspectives of New Music

position in philosophy sponsored by the CNRS ( Centr

recherche scientifique), the French research umbrella orga
Despite the diversity of the productions associated wit
spectral composers shared a number of basic opera
These composers were interested in microscopic fluctu
observable through its graphic three-dimensional repre
form of a spectrogram (a graph which represents fre
vertical axis and time on the horizontal, with the relat
the overtones represented with lines of different shad
spectralists used these representations as the inspir
orchestrations, as Hugues Dufourt explained in his
"Musique spectrale" (1979), the "techniques of optical
of sound . . . allow us to intervene precisely on th
acoustic wave and make slight modifications to it."4 At
spectralists took their inspiration from technique
processing of sound, from phase deformation a
modulation to the use of filters, resonators, and the li
most of these composers had experimented with mus
Pierre Schaeffer's Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM
in the Radio France headquarters, where they were con
were then known as black boxes: circuitry (encased
which modified the sound in various ways when a sou
patched through it. Inspired by the ways these e
modified sound, they went on to compose music for
imitated these processes in various ingeneous ways.5 In
composers shared an interest in what they termed
articulation of musical form through the metamorpho
into another through the incremental modification of
has been claimed by some that spectralism constituted
transfer of acoustic research already underway in the
1960s.6 Indeed John Chowning's work (1973) on spe
through frequency modulation and French compos
Risset (who had been a researcher at the American Be
since 1964) also exerted an influence through comp
Mutations I (1969), which was a clear precursor to
exploring as it did the evolution of timbre, sound syn
compositional possibilities of the spectrum.
"We are musicians and our model is sound, not litera
not mathematics; sound, not theatre, visual arts, quan
geology, astrology or acupuncture,"7 famously pro
Grisey in his spectralist manifesto. Grisey's Parti
orchestra, composed nine years earlier, had giv

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Boulez and the Specialists between Descartes and Rameau 21 I

demonstration of the ways in which the evolution of sound could be

used as the basis for a musical composition. In this work, something of
a locus classicus of the spectralist aesthetic, Grisey began by examining a
spectrogram representing the sound of a trombone intoning a low E.
The opening of the piece is an instrumental rendering of the
spectrogram of this trombone note, performed initially by the solo
trombone itself (doubled with a double-bass playing with extreme bow
pressure, presumably in imitation of the rough sputterings of the first
fractions of a second of a musical attack), and followed by a projection
of the other partais of the trombone's sound onto the rest of the
orchestral palette. Over the first few minutes of the piece, this
harmonic spectrum is replaced by an inharmonic one, through the
octave displacement of overtone frequencies, as well as the use of
unstable playing techniques. As Grisey explained,

At the beginning of Partiels. . . the harmonic spectrum contained

virtually in the Es of the double-bass and trombone are realized by
the eighteen instruments. This natural spectrum deviates with
each repetition towards a spectrum with inharmonic partais. The
formant zone, progressively moved lower, is colored by frequen
cies which are increasingly inharmonic.8

In the opening of the piece, the instruments respect both the relative
intensities of the partais of the trombone's note as well as their
staggered entrances, which are performed in slow motion, since the
ensemble performs in some ten seconds what nature accomplishes in
two-tenths of a second. Grisey considered this technique of orchestral
mapping of spectra, what he christened "instrumental synthesis," to be
a major contribution to the composer's arsenal, as he explained in a
program note to the work:

Many sequences of Partiels herald a new technique, that of instru

mental synthesis. Analogous to the additive synthesis used in digi
tal electronic music programs, it uses musical instruments (micro
synthesis) to express different component parts of sound and to
elaborate global sound form (macrosynthesis). This technique
[traitement] has the result for our perception that the different
instrumental sound sources disappear in favor of a totally invented
synthetic timbre. This different fusions allow for the articulation
and organization of a whole range of timbres going from har
monic spectra to white noise, and including all sorts of spectra
with harmonic partais.9

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212 Perspectives of New Music

Instrumental synthesis was also employed in such pionee

works as Murail's Gondwana (1980), in which sounds o
trumpets are modeled, and went on to be used in countl
French and non-French composers since.10 It remains bu
the most characteristic (and later, manneristic11)of man
which Grisey and several of his peers employed, either by
properties of natural sounds made visible through electro
else by imitating on acoustic instruments techniques
sound processing such as ring modulation and tape feedb
Grisey summarized the procedures at work in his early sp
in a previously unpublished short text written in 1979:

It would be too long to discuss the technical aspects of

ing here, which synthesizes spectra of different complex
lates their transients, plays on sliding imperceptibly f
Gestalt to another, emphasizing the resultant tones (the
shadows of the sound), takes beating phenomena as a rh
source, dephasings as a melodic source and filtering eff
sort of micro-traveling shot in which the microscope r
zooming effect of the camera.13

For spectralists like Grisey and Murail, the important

instrumental synthesis was not so much the possibility of
the sounds of musical instruments, but rather the fact
liminal experience: one in which harmony and timb
indistinguishable. As Tristan Murail wrote in a progra

Therefore all fossilized categories must be abandoned. Why try to

distinguish the concept of harmony from that of timbre? The only
reason is our cultural conditioning. It is perfectly easy to perceive
many distinct frequencies in a single sound (e.g. a low cello note):
conversely, we can also perceive a single sound that results from
the addition of many frequencies: this is the principle exploited by
organ stops. One can progressively separate timbres to create the
effect of a harmony and, conversely, progressively fuse harmonic
relations until they create a timbrai effect. . . . Therefore there is a
harmony-timbre continuum.14

When one sound can be transformed imperceptibly into another by

slowly altering its timbrai ingredients, musical form becomes a
trajectory from one spectrum to the next, which was soon to become a
basic characteristic of music of spectralist allegiance.

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Boulez and the Spectralists between Descartes and Rameau

To whom then did the spectralists trace their ancestry? They

regarded as precursors those avant-garde composers who were
interested in exploring the compositional parameter of timbre, which
included Giacinto Scelsi, particularly his Quattro pezzi (su una nota
sola) (1959), Gyrgy Ligeti, particularly of his 'cloudy' period (in
works such as Atmosphres (1961) and Lontano (1967)), the
Stockhausen of Stimmung (1968), or the Messiaen of Couleurs de la
cit cleste (1963). Another major inspiration was Edgard Varse, who
was known to 'organize sound' according to acoustic rather than
'musical' considerations in a way which surely places him in the
position of spectralist precursor. A testimony by composer Henri
Barraud, written before the establishment of l'Itinraire, so that it
could not be suspected of being a case of a retrospectively
manufactured pedigree, attests to the affinity between Varse's
approach and that of the spectralists:

Around the year 1933, I had the opportunity of passing an

evening with Varese and the conductor Mitropoulos. I can still see
all three of us huddled over the score of a work by Varese entitled
Amriques, which we examined page by page while following the
author's commentaries. What was surprising about these commen
taries, and what was unexpected for me, was that they seemed
much more like the comments of an acoustic engineer than of a
composer. Varse explained his entire work as a series of sound
phenomena which he decomposed for us by analyzing the inter
ferences caused by a certain similarity of timbres, some agglomera
tion of sounds, by calculating the high frequencies which were
added to the ensemble by the participation of some instrument or
cymbal, and so forth.15

In contrast, the name of Pierre Boulez, surely the most influential

French musician of his time, rarely figures among spectral composers'
avowed immediate influences, an unsurprising fact, since, even well
into the 1970s, Boulez was considered an intransigent defender of
serial music, which was precisely that against which spectral music was
in the process of defining itself.16 Of course, the musical language of
Pierre Boulez was far from serial in the narrow sense of the term at this
stage, but the reception of his musical thought suffered from a time
lag.17 The burst of theoretical activity (and publications), which began
at the beginning of the 1950s giving rise notably to Boulez's
monograph Penser la musique aujourd'hui (1964) (published as
"Boulez on Music Today"), came to a temporary close around 1965,

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214 Perspectives of New Music

the year in which Boulez wrote the evasive and inconclusive

"Priforme."18 It is probably as a result of Boulez's conducting career,
which was flourishing in the decade between 1966 and 1976, that he
found little time to write any sustained theoretical texts on music. In
any event, the fact remains that the spectralists were developing their
musical idiom in a period in which Boulez was notably absent from
France. When the Ensemble Itinraire presented its first concerts in
Paris in 1972, Pierre Boulez was abroad conducting concerts at the
helm of the New York Philharmonic, the BBC Orchestra, as well as
other of the world's most prestigious ensembles. Boulez's dramatic
return to France only came later in the 1970s, when he unveiled the
project which, through the initiative of president Georges Pompidou,
would become IRCAM. Boulez only began to devote himself to
theoretical writings after this decade-long hiatus in 1976, the year in
which he was named to the chair of "Invention, technique and
language in music" at the Collge de France, the prestigious French
research institution. In the interim, Boulez had distanced himself from
his earlier precipitous pronouncements in which he had frequently
proclaimed an immoderate attachment to the principle of the series (of
which the notoriously truculent remark expressed in his essay
"Possibly. . ." (1952) had become emblematic: "Any musician who
has not experiencedI do not say understood, but truly experienced
the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire
work brings him up short of the needs of his time."19) Even though
Pierre Boulez's music, at least since Pli selon pli (1957-1962) no
longer adhered dogmatically to serial strictures (in one of his later
writings he claims that a compositional system is a mere "crutch for the
imagination"20), Boulez was perceived, at least until the middle of the
1970s, as the paragon and spokesman for serial music in its most
exacting form. This is to say that the absence of theoretical texts in the
decade before 1976 (and the lack of English translations for most of
the post-1976 texts to this day21) tended to confer an image of a
composer frozen in 1963, the year in which Penser was published, a
book which itself suffered from a significant time-lag: the monograph
came out of lectures which Boulez had delivered in Darmstadt in the
late 1950s. In a context in which Boulez's name was so closely linked
to the most dogmatic reading possible of serialism, it is clear that a
musical movement which explicitly defined itself in opposition to serial
music could not but deplore Boulez's aesthetic positions, or at least
those he had espoused before 1965.
As a result, Boulez's name is rarely invoked by these spectralist
founders in any other capacity than that in opposition to which they

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Boulez and the Spectralists between Descartes and Rameau 215

wish to situate their own aesthetic principles, since, as we have seen,

Boulez's name remainedrightly or wronglysynonymous with
serialism during this period. To put it bluntly, when Grard Grisey
proclaimed that "our model is sound," he was implying that his model
was not the series. More explicitly, in a text which came out of a 1980
Darmstadt lecture on the subject of musical time, Grisey dismissed the
Boulezian distinction between smooth and striated time as overly

The notion of smooth (unmeasured) and striated (measured) time

described by Pierre Boulez (1968, 1971) is merely the invention
of a conductor bereft of any phenomenological awareness. Who
perceives the difference between time divided up periodically by a
meter (see Igor Stravinsky's definition, 1942)or, if one prefers,
by a virtual pulse maintained by the composer/musiciansand
smooth time, without a pulse, if the rhythms which overlay it are
there precisely to destroy all feeling of periodicity?22

Elsewhere, Grisey expresses his skepticism with respect to Boulez and

Messiaen's rhythmic languages, claiming that their conception "shows
the level of contempt for or misunderstanding of perception at which
our elders had arrived."23 Tristan Murail, for his part, rarely if ever
mentions Boulez in his writings, except in a passing (ironic) reference
to "budding Boulezes," i.e., serialist epigones.24 It was Hugues
Dufourt, the veritable theoretician of the spectralists, who, in his
aforementioned essay "Musique spectrale" (1979), explicitly opposed
the spectral to the serial: "We arrive then, at the heart of this perspec
tive, at a reversal of the positions of serial aesthetics."25 Dufourt goes
on to explore this theme of the distinction between serial and what
would become known as spectral music:

Serial composition is based on a fundamental violence because it

must reduce and mix systems which are concurrent and constrain
ing . . . This is why the unity of a serial work derives from an order
of conditions which are situated outside of the modes of exposi
tion which it articulates. . . . But in contrast to serial aesthetics, we
conceive of the musical work as a synthetic totality whose articula
tions, order of events and style of temporality derive from essential

If to be spectral was to be non-serial, Boulez, hotly discussed by

everyone else, was passed over in relative silence by the spectralists.

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21 6 Perspectives of New Music

Another reason, of course, for the specialists' search f

elsewhere than in Boulez's writings lies in the rather s
that Boulez had little to say in his writings from the fir
is, from approximately 1948 to 1965about the overto
the decomposition of sound into its constituent parts g
absence is striking since Boulez expressed at this time
ted aspiration to erect a musical system from first prin
at writing a kind of Cartesian 'Discourse on Method,' a
most famously yielded his monograph Penser la musiqu
His project could quite literally be termed 'Cartesian
consciously took Descartes as his model, as a letter h
Karlheinz Stockhausen in December 1959 clearly demons

As a matter of fact, I have been giving much thought i

the foundations of today's music. It will be the th
course at Darmstadt: six lectures on a new musical me
In preparation, I am rereading Descartes; and I am stru
much our musical reasoning is in general inconsistent
peremptory logic. We have to try to give our thought
rigor which it is far from possessing.27

Boulez is dreaming of a Cartesian musical project, one w

with universal doubt and goes on to deduce everything f
basic elementary principles. In order to achieve this
particularly in Penser la musique aujourd'huito th
mathematicians and logicians in vogue at the time s
Rougier, Moritz Pasch and Lon Brillouin in order t
found a veritable deductive system of music.28
Indeed, Boulez's writings on music make prodigiou
concept of deduction, even if the term remains som
defined. When Boulez does come around to specifying w
mean by it, however, he avoids defining it in terms of the
decomposition of sounds into partais. But still, it might seem odd that
an author who is trying so ardently to 'think' music in a rigorous
manner, does not found his system on the physical and acoustic
characteristics of sound, and specifically on the harmonic spectrum. In
other words, why does Boulez follow the method of Descartes but not
of Rameau? Unlike the latter, not only does Boulez not found his
theory of music on the harmonic spectrum, he rejects the idea
outright, as he says in Penser la musique aujourd'hui, "We might as
well state that the era of Rameau and his 'natural' principals is
definitively abolished."29

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Boulez and the Spectralists between Descartes and Rameau

The explanation of this aversion surely lies in the fundamentally

structuralist premises of Boulez's thought, which favor an internally
consistent system to justification in any putative 'laws of nature.'
Boulez has always been profoundly skeptical of arguments founded on
physical laws, which is unsurprising when one considers that nature is
customarily invoked to justify the enduring validity of the tonal system,
while Boulez, like all atonalists, stakes his entire project on the
historical situatedness of common-practice tonality. He consistently
lashes out against transhistoric arguments based on natural principles
laid out in the spirit of Rameau or d'Alembert:

You have only to read d'Alembert to discover that the tonal sys
tem is adapted from the laws of acoustics as formulated in his day,
an adaptation involving a formidable number of approximations,
as we know. Neither the minor triad nor equal temperament are
'natural' so much as familiar to our ears. . . . The theory of tonal
ity is in fact both natural and artificial and simply demonstrates the
character of the eighteenth-century scientific imagination.30

Boulez's strongest and most unequivocal indictment of musical

arguments ex natura came in 1965, over the course of a partially
extemporized lecture he gave at Darmstadt, as part of a congress on
musical form which included participants such as Carl Dahlhaus,
Theodor W. Adorno, Gyrgy Ligeti and Earle Brown:

Personally, I have an extreme aversion to these comparisons which

refer to nature, because you can find whatever you like in
nature. . . . Nature is good, evil, conservative, progressive. Nature
is economy and the lack of economy. In short, nature is some
thing to which we cannot appeal, because in the end it surpasses
our understanding to such an extent that it is rather difficult to
make it our law.31

Clearly, in his own reflections on the foundations of music, Boulez

opts for an inductive, rather than an empirical approach, another
reason why he would find himself at odds with spectralists prerogatives
ten years down the line. Part of the explanation for this surely lies in
Boulez's conviction that when compared to the dialectical possibilities
of pitch and duration, the barely-'striatable' continua of intensity and
timbre constitute "secondary categories."32 Since Boulez is committed
to thinking about music in terms of oppositional categories, he
evidently did not believe that timbre, and by extension spectra,

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21 8 Perspectives of New Music

constituted a promising basis for the construction of a

musical system.
It is also possible that Boulez's aversion to musical i
natural principles was an expression of his disagre
arguments which were forcefully advanced by Claude L
most eminent spokesperson of structuralist thought. Th
substantial space which the most prominent intellectua
the time devoted to an acerbic critique of serial and con
the famous "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked33 (s
work devoted to the rites and customs of South Ameri
groups) had the effect, in the eyes of significant portions o
intelligentsia at least, of calling into question the very f
the European avant-garde musical project of the time,
situated at the international summer courses at Darmsta
ified in such figures as Boulez and Stockhausen.34 Lvi-S
that the musical movement of the serialists (as well as
musique conerete whose chief spokesman was Pierre Sc
fundamentally different from other natural or cult
"Musique concrte may be intoxicated with the illusion t
something; in fact, it is floundering in non-signification
according to Lvi-Strauss, serial music could only be "i
compared to true language, since "unlike articulate spee
inseparable from its physiological or even physical fou
system adrift, after cutting the cables by which it was
appealing to the analogy with natural language, Lv
aligned himself with the anti-serialist (and anti-electron
Boulez went on to elaborate a musical system which ma
to nature, relying as we have seen solely on formal/logic
Despite this formalistic approach which eschewed appe
rare passages in Boulez's writings from the early period
not to spectra as such, but nevertheless to a spectr
metaphor. One example occurs in the essay "Forme"
which Boulez considers mobile form, that is, the structu
work, best exemplified in his Third Piano Sonata which
into 'movements' but into five so-called 'formants':

The ensemble of these criteria of selection may be called the for

mants of an overall structure. We know what acoustic formants are
selected and 'privileged' frequencies that give a fundamental its
character by means of its related harmonics. The criterion of den
sity will play something like the role of the intensity of each of the
frequencies that constitute the 'formant.' None of this, of course,

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Boulez and the Specialists between Descartes and Rameau 219

must be regarded as anything more than an analogy between a

concrete structure and a mass of abstract notions.37

Now, a formant is defined in acoustics as one of a set of invariant

regions of frequencies in which the spectrum of a sound is relatively
amplified. It is the formants which are responsible in large part for the
characteristic timbre of a soundwhether a note on a violin or a
certain vowel sound. When the fundamental frequency of a soun
changes, the formant regions remain fixed; it is this interplay betwee
the fixed formant regions and the moving overall pitch of the sound
which produces the recognizable timbrai quality. Of course, the use of
the word "formant" to describe the different movements of the Third

Sonata is purely metaphorical, the furthest thing from an application of

acoustic or electroacoustic methods to musical problems. Boulez also
occasionally alludes to sound spectra when discussing John Cage's
prepared piano pieces, seeing the interest of Cage's invention in its
capacity to deform familiar spectra. Despite these fleeting allusions, it is
clear that in Boulez's first period, Boulez rarely engages in sustained
reflection on the spectral decomposition of sound.
By contrast, the later period of Boulezian writings constitutes a kind
of second attempt at theorization, as Boulez became a regular lecturer
at the Collge de France (1976-1995).38 Boulez's thought undergoes
profound changes during this period, and Leons de musique (2005),
the collected College de France lectures, bears the stamp of a new
orientation which, in contrast to Penser la musiqtie aujourd'hui, gives
pride of place to the perception of music. This preoccupation, which
would remain a major concern in Boulez's writings for nearly two
decades, was undoubtedly the result of his experiences as a conductor
in direct contact with performers and also of his contact with scientific
research into psychoacoustics undertaken at IRCAM. As several com
mentators have pointed out, Boulez's compositional thought in this
period integrates the point of view of the listener.39
Needless to say, unlike the first period, this era coincides with the
establishment of what became known as the spectral school, and
although this would have to be the subject of its own article, many
institutional ties link Boulez to the spectralists: besides the obvious fact
of their common roots in Messiaen's analysis class at the Paris
Conservatoire, the Ensemble InterContemporain, founded by Boulez
in 1976, premiered Hugues Dufourt's Antiphysis in 1978. Over the
years, Boulez also conducted works by Grard Grisey, including the
most emblematic of spectral works, the aforementioned Partiels
(1975). What then does Boulez have to say about the spectralists in

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Perspectives of New Music

the writings from this period? Unfortunately, this is not easy to

ascertain, since, unsurprisingly, Boulez is far from expansive on the
subject. Pierre Boulez remains faithful in his writings to the musical
discoveries of his youth: when speaking about the music of others, the
names of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, or
Wagner return abundantly; allusions to his contemporaries, such as
Stockhausen, Berio, or Ligeti are much more rare, and references to
composers younger than he are scarce indeed, and often indirect or
vague. There is, for example, one of these oblique references in "Le
Systme et l'ide" (1986), in which Boulez observes the following:

Sometimes one adds considerations of an acoustic nature, follow

ing the example of Rameau, in order to give an at once physical
and natural justification to one's discourse and in order to be in
phase with the most recent practices, one uses inharmonic sounds
and spectral analysis. All of this produces works, of course, but the
system remains quite precarious. And one notices that over and
above a limited encounter in time, the system in question does not
succeed in nourishing invention, and is exhausted in an overly
constrained circle of possibilities.40

One senses here a reaction similar to that of his aforementioned 1965

Darmstadt lecture: an aversion to principles grounded in the laws of
nature. Elsewhere, in the same article, Boulez passes an irremediably
negative judgment on compositional systems which take the spectra of
acoustic resonance as their model:

With [acoustic proportions], one often becomes disillusioned for

two types of reasons. The first is that they are incapable of form
ing figures other than transcribed portions of the resonance; the
second is that this transcription takes place without truly taking
the phenomenon of fusion that is timbre into account. What is
reproduced is certainly not the phenomenon itself, but an abstract
relationship which leaves aside the fluctuations of the component
parts with respect to each other. In the most rudimentary cases, you
end up with dominant seventh and ninth chords which, even when
they are incomplete, involve very strong stylistic connotations, and
divert our attention towards the notion of style and the appropri
ateness of this style to the harmonic functions which govern the

The first thing to be said about this passage is that Boulez is being
somewhat disingenuous in his criticism; after all, seventh and ninth

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chords are far from being the norm in music of spectralist allegiance,
since these composers normally employ partais that go well beyond
the ninth (and sometimes into the hundreds). Nevertheless, this
passage has the virtue of making Boulez's position on the subject
abundantly clear. As for these dominant ninth chords, Boulez could
very well be alluding to the chords which begin Partiels, in which, as
we saw, the resonance of trombone's low E is modeled by the
ensemble, sounding out first the frequencies of a harmonic spectrum
(Boulez's 'seventh chord') and then progressively substituting these
frequencies for inharmonic ones in ten subsequent repetitions. Of
course, it is wildly reductive to reduce this multifaceted work to the
'seventh' chord with which it begins, but it does seem to demonstrate
that Boulez's view, however reductive, is irremediably dismissive with
respect to the spectral approach to composition. Boulez seems
unwilling to attribute the use of spectral decomposition in the
compositions of these composers as anything other than a literal
minded substitute for 'invention', whereas its use could also be seen as
metaphorical or poetic, as is implied by the title of the important
anthology of texts written by early IRCAM composers, "Timbre as a
metaphor for composition." Indeed in an interview with Philippe
Albera from 2003, Boulez recalls:

I remember a composer who worked at IRCAM on the construc

tion of spectra which he then reconstituted with musical instru
ments: I pointed out to him that the instruments added their own
spectra and that the original spectra could not be reconstituted in
this way! One cannot reconstruct a spectrum out of sine waves,
because you must add extremely complex, unpredictable phenom

Boulez might very well have been speaking about Grard Grisey
himself, who, as was mentioned, had worked at IRCAM on the
composition of his choral work Les Chants de l'amour (1982-1984),
even if it is of course unfair to claim that Grisey did not take the fluc
tuating envelopes of sounds into account in his practice of instru
mental synthesis. By contrast, certain remarks by Boulez converge with
spectralist considerations, notably with respect to the way he conceives
of the role of timbre:

Between the real domain, which is discontinuous, of the instru

mental realm, and the possible domain, which is continuous, of
the electronic realm . . . there need to be perceptual markers

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[jalons]. This will allow us to predict the evolution of timbre, the

passage from one timbre to another, the thresholds of perception
with respect to similarity and difference.43

The reference in the above passage to the evolution of timbre, and the
recourse to the thresholds of perception converge so strikingly with
spectralist thought that it could almost have been taken from a page of
Grisey's writings. In fact, it might not be farfetched to imagine an
intersection between Boulez's thought from the later period and that
of the spectral school.
Certain ideas developed in Boulez's Collge de France lectures are in
a certain sense realized in various spectralist works. For example,
Boulez emphasizes in these lectures the notion of "responsibility," a
concept he had already appealed to abundantly in Penser la musique
aujourd'hui44 In a criticism of stochastic/chance music (presumably
of the Xenakian or Cageian varieties), he writes:

That is why it seems to me that when aleatorie elements were

introduced, and then pure chance, in the encounter of the sounds
themselves, in their manipulation, when the material was no
longer chosen but accepted from the outside, what was forgotten
was that fundamental fact about language which is the responsibil
ity of every element towards every other element in a coherent system.
To deduce a motif from another one, to deduce the Vertical
dimension from the horizontal, to deduce by an instantaneous
control one interval from another, these seem to me to be the
absolutely indispensable conditions for coherence, and therefore
for the necessity of language.45

Now, in a universe regulated neither by common-practice tonality nor

by the series, what does the "responsibility" of one note to its
neighbor effectively mean? The closest Boulez comes to answering this
in Leons de musique is by introducing the concept of "thematics," a
lengthy discussion of which occupies some 150 pages of the
transcribed lectures. A certain practice found in Grisey and other
spectralist composers, however, which exploits the acoustic principle of
sum and difference tones, offers what could be construed as an elegant
spectral response to the Boulezian principle of responsibility between
notes. In various passages in Grisey's compositions, particularly in the
six pieces which comprise the Espaces acoustiques (1974-1985)46
Grard Grisey develops a system of deduction based on frequency
modulation:47 a dyad with frequencies Fl and F2 is followed by its

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corresponding difference tone (F2-F1) or sum tone (F2+F1), or else

by one of the partais of any of these four frequencies.48 A composi
tional logic is thus laid out which makes current states responsible for
their successors. Of course, Grisey's treatment of frequency modu
lation is not at all in the spirit of Penser la musique aujourd'hui (nor, in
a deeper sense in the spirit of acoustic principles, since sum and
difference tones are normally inaudible, their use in a composition
amounting to little more than a compositional conceit or metaphor), it
testifies nevertheless to a desire to make notes accountable for what
comes after them; it is this desire which could qualify it as being rather
Boulezian in spirit.
Contrariwise, it is sometimes possible to glimpse aspects of Boulez's
compositional practice in later works which conform to a certain
spectral logic, understood in the broadest sense. In Memoriale
(. . . expo s ant e-fixe . . . originel) (1985), for solo flute and eight other
instruments (two horns and six strings), Boulez has explained that the
accompanying instruments in Memoriale had been chosen so as to
create a continuum between what might be termed a 'straight'
sonority (by which was meant a clean, focused, non vibrato sound) and
a more 'fuzzy' one (involving blurring or muffling effects such as
vibrato, tremolo, muting or flutter-tonguing).49 In six homophonic
passages which punctuate the work, the overall sound envelope follows
a trajectory from clean to blurry.50 The horns, according to this
schema, remain at one extreme of the clean sound, while the flute,
which for much of the piece plays trills or with flutter-tonguing
technique, occupies the other. Due to the variety of playing styles
available to it, the string group fluctuates between these two outer
limits, approaching the timbre of the horns when adopting a natural
and non-vibrato playing style, and the timbre of the flutter-tongued
flute when playing either tremolo sul tasto or trilled sul ponticello. Thus
through these passages the trajectory of the work describes a transition
through fine increments from one timbre to anothera distinctly
spectralist approach to musical form in all but name. Of course this is
timbrai analysis in a purely metaphorical sense, but the more precise
calculations involved in the preparation of scores by Murail or Grisey
should not blind us to the fact that their approach to timbre is equally
There are other aspects of Boulez's later compositional style which
could be compared with spectralist practices, such as his growing
tendency to create orchestrations constructed out of the horizontal
ization of a small number of basic harmonies. In Drive 1 (1984), for
example, Boulez limits himself to six chords, which he subjects to

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elaborate ornamentation.51 This type of harmonic approach to

composition is common among spectralist composers for whom, as
Murail noted in the passage quoted above, harmony and timbre tend
to fuse into a single compositional parameter. The electronic environ
ment of Anthmes 2 (1997), which gives pride of place to frequency
shifting and harmonizer effects, would not be out of place in an
analogous spectral work. Elsewhere, certain very dense chords moving
in parallel motion such as those found in the first of the Notations for
orchestra (1976-1980) recall the products of frequency modulation
found in the works of Murail or Grisey.52 Of course, these types of
procedures are hardly surprising in the founder of a research institute
devoted to the coordination of acoustics and music, but they serve to
repudiate the impression of a Manichean opposition between Boulez's
approach and that of Grisey, Murail or Dufourt.
Ironically enough, the conflict between Boulez and the spectralists
can appear as both incomprehensible and inevitable. As a typical case
of intergenerational conflict, it bears a dialectical aspect. While the
spectralists adopted a largely antagonistic position against the French
serial tradition, their music never rejects the exigencies of permuta
tional logic which is at the heart of serial thought.53 Although their
innovations in the use of the parameter of timbre could be inscribed in
the tradition of Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrete, their meticulously
composed scores replete with virtuosic part writing betray an
attachment to score-based music, indeed an attachment to criture
which is in the spirit of Boulez, and which distinguishes them, for
example, from the American counterpart to spectralism embodied in
such composers as James Tenney or Alvin Lucier. Despite the vitriolic
remarks launched on both sides of the ideological fray, there are
certain conspicuous affinities between Boulez's musical thought and
the concerns of the spectralists. The schism which opened up between
them doubtless had its roots more in the polemical excess of the heady
early days of l'Itinraire, and later by political quarrels and predictable
personality conflicts. Illustrating some points of contact between the
two aesthetic approaches can help to pull us out of the closed circuit of
this quarrel and into the heart of the musical issues raised by the music
of these composers.

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1. In so doing it will complement recent work on the rhetori

specialists by Eric Drott (2009).
2. See Cohen-Lvinas, ed. (1991, 11); on the origins and d
ment of spectral music, see Julian Anderson (2000).

3. Dufourt (1979).
4. Ibid., 290.
5. This account of the 'black boxes' is taken from an interview con
ducted by the author with French composer Allain Gaussin in
Paris, 20 May 2009. Gaussin (b. 1943) attended workshops at the
GRM in the 1960s alongside many of the Itinraire composers.

6. A comment made notably by Hugues Dufourt himself, in a private

conversation with the author in Barcelona, 28 November 2008.

7. Grisey (1982; in 2008, 53).

8. Ibid., 51; my translation.

9. Grisey, Program note to Partiels (1993-1998; in 2008, 137-8);

my translation.

10. A recent example can be found in the the multiphonic flute note
modeled by the ensemble in Philippe Hurel's Phonus (2004). I
wish to thank Mauro Lanza for bringing this passage to my atten

11. All the more manneristic with the passing of time, as today com
puter-assisted composition software like OpenMusic (produced by
IRCAM), can easily produce orchestrations of spectral chords, as
well as generate spectral processes of various kinds.

12. For example, in Murail's Mmoire/rosion (1976). See Humbert

claude (1987; in 1991, 114).
13. Grisey (1979; in 2008, 36). My translation.

14. Murail (1982; Eng. transi, in 2005, 138).

15. Barraud (1968, 153). My translation.

16. Even if, as Eric Drott points out, their discourse, which alternates
between manifesto-like calls to arms and quasi-positivistic scient
ism owes much to the prose of musical high modernists (2009,

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40-42); Boulez is of course the most emblematic of the latter cat


17. At least, his musical idiom was a far cry from the total serialism of
the oft-analyzed Structure la from Structures, Livre 1, for two
pianos (1951-1952). Elements of serial technique persist as kind
of second nature, even into the most recent of Boulez's pieces. See
for example Goldman (2009).

18. Reprinted in Boulez (1995, 397^103; Eng. transi, in 1986, 100

19. Boulez, "ventuellement" (1952), in Boulez (2005a), Eng.
transi., in Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship (1991, 113).

20. "Le systme et l'ide" (1986, in 2005b, 407).

21. An important exception being the English translation of Boulez's
important 1981 article, "L'criture du musicien: le regard d'un
sourd?" as "The Musician Writes: For the Eyes of the Deaf?" in
Arved Ashby's 2004 collection, The Pleasure of Modernist Music.

22. Grard Grisey, "Tempus ex Machina" (1980), in Eng. transi.

23. Ibid., 242.

24. Murail, "Spectra and Sprites" (1982), Eng. transi. (2005, 137).
25. Dufourt "Musique spectrale : pour une pratique des formes de
l'nergie" (1979, in 1991, 293). My translation.
26. Ibid., 292-293.

27. Cited in Albra (ed.) (2003, 78). My translation.

28. Significantly, one of Louis Rougier's books was entitled La Struc

ture des thories dductives; thorie nouvelle de la dduction (1921).
Franois Nicolas recently demonstrated that the mathematicians
Boulez mentioned in Penser were ones he could have learned
about from reading issues of the literary journal Nouvelle revue
franaise (NRF), suggesting that their presence in Penser is not the
proof of intense study on Boulez's part in the foundations of
mathematical logic (2010, 41-49).
29. Boulez (1963, in Eng. transi., 1973, 30).
30. Boulez, "L'Esthtique et les ftiches" (1961, Eng. transi., 1986,

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31. This passage comes from the extemporized second half of a lecture
whose first half was published as "Periforme" (see above). It was
transcribed and translated from a cassette tape of Boulez's lecture,
made available at the Boulez archive at the Faculty of Music of the
Universit de Montral (Goldman 2006, appendix A).

32. Boulez, (1963, in Eng. transi., 1973, 37).

33. On pages 21-26 of the English translation. Boulez discusses hav
ing read this book, like most intellectuals of his generation in an
interview published in Goldman, Nattiez and Nicolas (eds.) 2010,

34. Lvi-Strauss's quibbles with serialism are discussed at length in

Donin and Keck (2006), Nattiez (2008), and Goldman (2011 and

35. Lvi-Strauss (1964, Eng. transi., 1967, 23).

36. Ibid., 25.

37. "Forme" (1960), in Boulez (1995, 362).

38. During this period, Boulez also wrote a number of other impor
tant texts which were not destined for the Collge de France, but
which will be referred to in this section. These are "Le systme et
l'ide" published in the first volume of the IRCAM journal
InHarmoniques in 1986, and "L'criture du musicien; le regard
d'un sourd?", which appeared in the journal Critique in 1981.
39. For example Delige (1988) and (2003), Nattiez (1987) and
Goldman (2003).

40. Boulez, "Le systme et l'ide" (1986) in 2005b, 340. My transla


41. Ibid., 401-402. My translation and emphasis.

42. In Albra (ed.) (2003, 13). My translation.

43. Boulez, "Ide, ralisation, mtier" (1978, in 2005b, 98).

44. For example with respect to polyphony (Boulez 1963, 136, Eng.
transi., 1973), 132.

45. Ibid., 88-89; my translation and emphasis.

46. For example rehearsal numbers 12- 28 of Partiels (1975) and 23

31 of Modulations (1976-1977).

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47. See Grisey, "Structuration des timbres dans la musique instrumen

tale" (1991, in 2008, 103-105).

48. Laid out in Wilson (1989, 62-64).

49. Boulez discussed Memoriale in the course of a lecture delivered at
McGill University, Montreal on 23 May 1991. A cassette
recording of this presentation was obtained from the Pierre Boulez
Archive at the Universit de Montral. See Goldman (2009) for
more information.

50. Rehearsal numbers 3, 6, 10, 14, 18, and 29.

51. See Chapter 7 of Goldman (2011).

52. I thank my colleague Dniel Pter Bir for having suggesting this
to me. Of course, confusing the question of influence is the fact
that these figures also recall Boulez's well-known technique of
pitch-class set multiplication which itself is a kind of precursor to
techniques of frequency modulation in which one chord 'acts' on

53. The great exception to this antagonism is Hugues Dufourt's

elegaic "Pierre Boulez, musicien de l're industrielle" (1986), but
this has the effect of reinforcing the dialectical opposition: the
Hegelian terms in which Dufourt approaches music history in this
essay, and even more explicitly in "De Schnberg Boulez:
logique et dialectique de la cration musicale" (1981) serve to
reinforce the unstated claim that the musicians of l'Itinraire
succeeded Boulez's in the same way that a post-industrial era
followed up on an industrial one.

54. I render the untranslatable criture in the original French, in

keeping with composer Antoine Bonnet's usage in an analysis of
Boulez's Messagesquisse (1987: 209). In that article, Bonnet offers
a helpful definition of the concept of criture: "The French word
"criture" ... is not easily translated into a single English word.
Its meaning includes the act and product of notating one's
thoughts as well as a kind of symbolic reasoningto think a
composition starting from the manipulation of abstract and
discrete symbols."

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Albera, Philippe (ed.). 2003. Pli selon pli de Pierre Boulez. E

tudes. Geneva: Contrechamps.

Anderson, Julian. 2000. "A Provisional History of Spect

Contemporary Music Review, 19/2: 7-22.
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Barraud, Henry. 1968. Pour comprendre les musiques d'aujourd'hui.
Paris: Seuil.

Bonnet, Antoine. 1987. "criture and perception, on Messagesquisse by

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Bennett (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

. 1966. Relevs d'apprenti, edited by Paule Thvenin. Paris:

Seuil; Eng. transi., Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, translated by
Stephen Walsh, introduction by Robert Piencikowski (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1991).
. 1981; 1985. Points de repre. Jean-Jacques Nattiez (dir.),
Paris: Christian Bourgois/ Seuil.

. 1986. Orientations, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez, translated

by Martin Cooper. London: Faber.

. 1989. Jalons (pour une dcennie), edited by Jean-Jacques Nat

tiez. Paris: Bourgois. For expanded edition, see Boulez 2005b.

. 1995. Points de repre. I. Imaginer, edited by Jean-Jacques

Nattiez and Sophie Galaise. Paris: Bourgois.
. 2004. "The Musician Writes: For the Eyes of the Deaf?
(1981)" translated by Robert Samuels, in The Pleasure of Modernist
Music, edited by Arvcd Ashby, 197-222. Rochester: University of
Rochester Press.

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Jacques Nattiez and Sophie Galaise. Paris: Bourgois.
. 2005b. Leons de musique: Points de repres III, edited by Jean
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