Rambling on the ‘spectral’ condition on counterpoint

I’m in the process of beginning to write a short piece for soprano sax and Eb clarinet as part of my set of miniatures ‘Material Fantasies’ some of which will be premiered at the Kupka’s Piano concert on November 29. The set builds on my last 4 ‘Etudes’ which were attempts to liberate local materials from the abstract formal plottings that I had strangled them with in previous pieces. In general ‘Material Fantasies’ are fledgling attempts to intuitively write a counterpoint under the conditions of 21st century musical material – or at least to write an intuitive counterpoint with somewhat updated materials from my Etudes. Baby steps. It’s largely a question of technique.

In this current piece I want to make a small attempt at thinking of what counterpoint could be written today keeping in mind the ‘spectral’ revolution of the 70s and its development over the next few decades. I’m finding the initial stage of this immensely challenging. Initially it seemed impossible, but I am starting to make some headway. Nonetheless, I want to attempt to clarify on a conceptual level my relationship to spectralism, and clarify what spectralism means for counterpoint today – with the hope that this will help direct the composing.

To begin with the intuition: the majority of ideas that I imagine for the piece strike me as kitsch. They tend to be too sonorous, too lyrical, too mystical, etc… On the one hand they tend much too much towards a vertical integration and a fetishisation of simple sound effects (sustained diads of a tone and a quarter, multiphonics with added notes), on the other hand, when attempting to make something contrapuntal, too often the lines are these slow moving lyrical entities that apart from the quartertones are immensely dull and aren’t too far off a kind of neo-romanticism. The counterpoint degenerates into this whimsical free-flowing panorama, all taking place in a guaranteed space of the spectral ‘aura’.

Yet, despite all of these potential traps, I am convinced a composer can’t just ignore the spectral perspective. As I have said it is one of the conditions under which a new counterpoint would need to be constructed.

I think this tension is precisely because spectralism is a contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand it continues the modernist trend of liberation of music from tradition – that is, it is in line with the progression towards musical autonomy. Yet on the other hand, it does this by critiquing culture in an abstract way and rather than autonomy of music from the social delivering more freedom it delivers more constraint. Out of a legitimate desire to de-reify the abstract pitch, it abandons the terrain of modernism insofar as modernism – after the breakdown of tonality and tonal forms – accepts no external authority over itself, whereas spectral music operates in a guaranteed space (the space of the ‘fundamental’, the space of periodicity, the space of the phenomenological listening subject).

In terms of negativity, John Croft sums it up very well in his article ‘The Spectral Legacy’ (2010):

What strikes one about Grisey’s stance towards musical material is its essential negativity. He says that ‘the material derives from the natural growth of the sonority, from the macrostructure and not the other way around. In other words there is no basic material (no melodic cell, no complex of notes or note-values).’ And it is this act of negation, more than in the techniques for manipulation of harmonic and inharmonic series, that the real historical significance of spectral music lies. In fact, there is something circular about this characterization: the sonic material is derived from nothing but its own properties. In the harmonic series we find the tabula rasa that some had sought in another kind of series. Musical culture is used up, so only ‘nature’ … can help us. [emphasis added] Spectralism is more an end than a beginning: the final stage of modernity’s progressive demystification of musical material. [emphasis added] The Row, we now understand was still theological; the spectrum is nothing other than it is. (p. 195)

I think this Croft paragraph very adequately sums up the problem of the negativity – the abstract negativity – of spectralism. There is a vulgar materialist (or in fact idealist) ideology at play here: demystification of culture can only be done in the name of ‘nature’. The problem is that nature as such is not a category separate from the social, it is mediated by the social, and what appears as natural in the production of ideology tends often towards affirmation of the status quo (‘harmony’, ‘stasis’), or a rejection of all human culture in favour of some abstract and in fact fictitious ‘nature’ that in fact comes to be equated with pure negativity.

This negativity crucially rears its head in the ‘neutrality’ of musical materials – the emphasis on simple periodicity, materials that don’t imply continuation, materials that submit themselves absolutely to mechanical process (and idealism of form where the materials do not speak, have no internal intention).

But what does spectralism mean for counterpoint today? Of course this question can only be resolved practically. Nonetheless, it is good to clarify some basic issues.

Insofar as spectralism is conceived of as a de-reification of the pitch, it has the anti-contrapuntal tendency of vertical integration (sound synthesis). As Grisey says: “Due to a veritable mania for sonic fusion, could one not go so far as to speak of regression?” (‘Did you say spectral?’, p. 2). Insofar as spectralism is conceived primarily as a different relationship to time (as Grisey asserts), it has the anti-contrapuntal tendency of emphasising periodicity and simple processes. Even the vertical layering of different times that Grisey often speaks of could go in different ways – it could lead towards a genuine contrapuntal element – or it could lead to a pre-modern ‘harmony of the spheres’ or ‘discordia concours’ – an integration of all elements of the work into a vast, ordered totality.

Yet there are a number of aspects of spectralism that cannot be left, since serialism’s abstract treatment of parameters required the spectral correction…

Gerard Grisey’s trajectory is very important to keep in mind: rather than more and more neutrality and negativity, he tried to develop, from within spectralism itself, the coordinates of a music liberated from spectralism. A liberation from the liberation, or (concrete) negation of the (abstract) negation. In his ‘Did you say spectral’, he outlines a number of ‘consequences’ of the spectral event. Many of which are pertinent for the development of counterpoint today. In another post I will go into them, in relation to the pieces I’m composing. For now just a few thoughts.

In general the consequences of spectralism for Grisey have to do with the threshold, Grisey in fact ended up preferring to call himself a ‘liminal’ composer, and I think this is the basic lesson to take for counterpoint today. The threshold between a ‘supple metric’ and ametrical construction, the threshold between harmonic articulation or function and undifferentiated continuity, the threshold between lines as parts of a sonically (and rhythmically) integrated whole and as independent logics, the threshold between one frame of perception and another (cf. Ferneyhough’s ‘Il Tempo’). Importantly the threshold between the threshold itself considered as balance of opposite forces (part and whole, particular and universal), and the attempt to make a music that is singular and articulated.

This is the construction, in fact, of a fluctuating negative space, not one dominated by ‘nature’, but nor one dominated by rational abstraction. This is a space to construct and construct within, yet it remains a negative one.