Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort will premiere Joshua Fineberg’s Counterfactual during the Spectral Summer Professional Performance workshop at Boston University’s CFA School of Music on Sunday, June 5 at 8pm. The event is free and no tickets are required.
In this unique interview, Matthias Röder converses with Artistic Director Stephen Drury and Composer-in-Residence Joshua Fineberg about Spectral Music: what it is exactly, and what sounds are to be expected at the culminating concert on Sunday, June 5.
Matthias Röder: This year’s Spectral Summer workshop at Boston University is coming up soon. The workshop consists of classes and a final concert. Tell us a little bit about what the courses will look like.
Steve Drury: Learning by doing! The courses are basically rehearsals: we will prepare a range of music from very early, “pre-spectral” repertoires to a most recent work by Josh Fineberg especially written for us to play at this event. The workshop program includes Grisey’s Echanges, his first published work, written when spectralism was barely a gleam in his eye (he was 22 at the time) as well as a fascinating work by Murail which uses two pianists with one playing exclusively inside the instrument, accompanied by a single bass fiddle. We will also work on more familiar compositions such as Murail’s Feuilles à travers les cloches (“Leaves across the Bells”), a tribute to Debussy’s prelude Bells across the Leaves as well as completely unfamiliar music by Grisey and Levy for solo saxophone. The performers are players of the Callithumpian Consort, serving as faculty/mentors playing alongside some younger adventurous musicians.
MR: Some of our readers may wonder, what is spectral music? Is this a new kind of music?
Joshua Fineberg: Spectral Music, is a trend that dates back to the mid 1970’s. It is not exactly a new kind of music, but it has represented an important shift in attitude towards composing. In the visual arts in the nineteenth century, most painters would have said they painted pictures of things, but the impressionists came along and said they were painting light, texture and shadow. In the same way, many early 20th century composers viewed music as being constructed of pitches, rhythms, motives, counterpoint, etc. but spectral composer’s viewed music as being sound evolving in time as perceived by a listener. This flipping of subject and object sounds trivial, but has enormous implications for all aspects of art making.
In particular, viewing sound as the starting point, not the end result, means that many of the innovations from modern acoustics and psychoacoustics can directly inform the musical possibilities and music can be created that requires less of an explicit historical context to be appreciated. This music as sound attitude has now become so ubiquitous that it can be easy to forget what a foreign idea it was even 20 years ago.
MR: What are some of the challenges in performing spectral music?
SD: First of all: reading the notation! The music is frequently written in “space=time” notation rather than in conventional quarter-notes as you would expect. Then it is quite difficult for young performers to adjust to playing in new tuning systems. Many of the pitches in spectral music fall “between the cracks” on the piano. But most important is listening, which is true for all music, but in this case the notes of various players frequently combine to create a kind of composite cloud-sound; you imagine hearing a new instrument which doesn’t really exist but kind of floats in the air above the players.
MR: (to Joshua Fineberg) the Spectral Summer Workshop ends with the premiere of your newest piece, Counterfactual, a composition that is based on what you call the “central gesture” of Giacinto Scelsi’s Okanagon. Will it be possible for the listeners to hear that connection or is this something that is present only in the inaudible super structure of the composition?
JF: No it is not only audible, but evident that the very unique trio from Okanagon (amplified tam-tam, harp and double bass) will be present in the middle of the stage to create a sort of touch-stone ‘original’ that opens the door to a ‘fictional’ world built around it.
MR: Throughout the history of music, making reference or commenting on the music of others has been an important artistic strategy for composers. Do you think that creating connections and relating to music that exists next to a particular composition or style is especially important in today’s fragmented music culture?
JF: For me it was really about that remarkable sonic object. As Proust found that astounding color in the wall of a Vermeer painting that led to a whole beautiful passage, the sound at the heart of Okanagon was uniquely and powerfully evocative to me and I wanted to see what it could become in my world of transformation and illusion as opposed to Scelsi’s world of repetition and ritual.
— Matthias Röder