Down the Spectral Rabbit Hole

lehman-travail-pi-recordingsI love sfSound Radio. It’s a continual shuffle-play of experimental and improvised music, from fully scripted modern classical to spontaneous noise. And during work, it’s a great way to shake the cobwebs and bring some avant-garde street cred to my desk.

Like any good radio, it’s also a way to discover new sounds. And so it was that I recently heard a sparse strings piece that I liked, which pulled me into the world of spectral music and made me reconsider Steve Lehman’s recent octet albums.

grisey-espacesThe piece was the introductory movement of Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques — solo viola, it turns out. That led me to give the complete album-length composition a listen. As with minimalism, Grisey’s music is a rethinking of what the orchestra can do. Les Esapces is a roiling sea of sound, not so much divided into discrete events (like waves on a beach) as presenting continuous shades of emotion. Abstractness aside, it does feel like a narrative, one full of unsettling emotions.

I’m not sure what to make of the Epilogue, where a pair of horns lash out on composed unison phrases, almost playfully. Behind them, the orchestra maintains a sparkling sheen hinting at heavy thoughts and universal mysteries. But as the piece ends, the sheen drops — we’re left with the horns and a drum. The contrast feels like it’s meant to be a silly touch at the end of this epic piece, but that seems out of character. It can’t be that simple.

Only after doing all this listening did I look up Grisey and learn that he’s the composer tied to the idea of spectral music — compositions that use the lingering harmonics of notes to create the “spectral” sheen that sounded so special to me. (Grisey did not coin the term “spectral” and apparently didn’t like it.)

I’d heard of spectral music before. It made jazz headlines thanks to the Steve Lehman Octet.

But when Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009) was released, I gave it only a cursory listen, to see what this “spectral” stuff was about. And I didn’t immediately get it. I think I was expecting some overtly complex or ugly musical language, something brutally obvious as with microtonal music. The albums were good, but I didn’t feel “spectralized.”

The problem is that I paid too much attention to Lehman’s angular saxophone soloing. It’s fantastic, but he does that all over his other albums. What I should have noticed was the sheen, that uncomfortable rustling built out of subtle, off-kilter harmonies. After sitting with Grisey for so long, it was so obvious.

In contrast to Grisey’s overhang of impending doom, Lehman’s spectral sheen is bright, like sunlight bouncing off glass. Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the foundation, and it’s necessarily complemented by the horns to create a dissonant and lingering effect. You hear it right out of the gate on Travail, with “Echoes,” combining a ringing vibraphone chord with a combination of horns sounding a bright but slightly “off” harmonies.


On a track like “Segregated and Sequential” (from Mise en Abîme, Pi Recordings, 2014), the sheen is more implied, spoken in horn fragments while the vibraphone — a custom microtonal version, still played by Dingman — chimes away at a different tempo. “Autumn Interlude,” also from Mise, is based on a snappy theme and rhythm but intentionally drags itself down — both in tempo and mood — through the use of what sound like microtones on the trombone.

Tristan Murail is another composer strongly tied to spectral composition, and it turns out I’ve already enjoyed his piece “Winter Fragments” in my collection. Before, it just sounded nice; now it sounds all “spectral” to me. It’s interesting how much we can influence our own musical experiences. It makes a difference when you know what you’re listening for.

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