Tuesday, May 01, 2012


The idea of composing with timbre isn't new.  Wayne Slawson wrote a book, Sound Color, back in 1985 which details previous attempts at composing in timbre, and his own theory of how timbre composition should work.  Schoenberg's piece – Farben, op. 16 no. 3 – is perhaps the most famous, and the one that gives us the delightfully pretentious title of Farbenmelodie to describe any "melody of timbres."  Check out the Youtube video below, with some very good analysis by F. Nicolas included.

I like Elliot Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet, particularly the third and seventh etudes that focus on timbre.  Etude 3 (first video, at 2:40) isn't as effective, because I was distracted by the bassoon's movement between notes, though I could still hear the shifts in timbre.  But in Etude 7 (second video, at 3:00), with the hairpin dynamics to suddenly bring in or out various sounds on the single note, there was real motion, a journey of emotion.

Penderecki came up with an organized theory of timbre, based on the types of materials used to make the sound.  However, this theory could not accommodate wind instruments or voices.  Crumb creates some very imaginative timbres, but it isn't the only focus of his compositions.

I want to compose some pieces that attune the ear to very subtle changes in timbre.  I was inspired by reading Tim Rutherford Johnson's latest article on NewMusicBox.  In it, he describes Kunsu Shim's expanding space in limited time.  
 In one two-hour performance of the piece, Pisaro reports, it was 20 minutes before he could make out any sound at all; after which his sense of hearing had become so attuned that those sounds that were produced began to take on an extraordinary richness.
 I want to create that degree of sensitivity, but I don't want to take 20 minutes of the audience's time to do it.  My goal is for the listeners to be engaged, not annoyed.  Is that asking too much?


Lisa Hirsch said...

The whole "spectralist" school (Murail, Grisey, to an extent Saariaho) is based on composing with timbre and taking advantage of the overtone series, to wildly oversimplify. I heard one movement of Grisey's "Acoustic Spaces" last week at SFS - beautiful and interesting music.

The particular performance Tim mentions sound pretty darned engaging to me, and the concert report doesn't mention audience annoyance. So I'm not sure how audience annoyance plays into your thinking about this: the compositional choices about the time scale of what you compose are entirely yours. I myself would not find the 20 minutes to audibility annoying.

Feldman's Second String Quartet seems like a piece that makes significant demands on the audience, as do lots of works that are nothing like it.

Scott said...

I am thinking more from my own desires, something I would want to hear, and that I will want to perform. You are right, I need to take ownership of that.

Yes, good point about the spectralists. I need to listen to more of their works, especially Grisey.

John Chittum said...

you should check out some of the books on electroacoustic music, or sound art. about 99% of academic electronic music is composed around timbre. Even if you are working without electronics, i feel like studying how EA composers structure using timbre aids in orchestration. The nuance involve at times continues to baffle me, even though I write that sort of music myself. LOL. Some books to check out are

The Language of Electrnoacoustic Music (ed. Simon Emmerson, Macmillan, 1986)

Analytical Methods in Electroacoustic Music (ed. Mary Simoni, Routledge, 2006)

On Sonic Art (Trevor Wishart, Imagineering Press, 1996)

Music Electronic Media and Culture (ed. Simon Emmerson, Ashgate, 2000)

"Timbral Hiearchies" Contemporary Music Review 2 (1987) 135-160, Fred Lerdahl

any of Paul Rudy's articles

and you can check out anything by Dennis Smalley (he's in the books Emmerson and Simoni books).

And i should send you my paper. Or you can grab it from Dr. Balensuela, as it delves directly into the idea of analysis through timbre. I'm going to work over the summer and do an analysis or two using the methodology i put together in my paper on analyzing timbre and improvisational pieces.

And i think Toru Takemitsu and Gyrogi Ligeti make fine use of timbre as structure...somewhere i've got a write up on Takemitsu's "From me flows what you call time" with orchestration being the main structuring point.

Oh, and i'll have a piece coming out this summer on a record label that's one of those 24 minute timbre journeys. I've got whole CD lists of the music to, but i'll stop cluttering your blog

Lisa Hirsch said...

Whoa, thank you! (This isn't my blog, so not speaking for Elaine, but that's great. I'd totally put a list of CDs on my own blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight.

Daniel Wolf said...

The two most important (and very different) books on timbre for me are Robert Erickson's Sound Structure in Music and William Sethares's Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale.

Scott said...

John and Daniel, thanks for the suggestions. I've read Erickson and Sethares, though it's been a while, so I will revisit those. I will look at all of your reading list, John, and I'd welcome the listening list as well. Shoot me your paper, I'm on sabbatical so I don't see Balensuela much right now.

John Chittum said...

ask and ye shall receive. I've made a very short list and posted it on my blog


as for the paper Scott, I'll send it your way soon. The file is quite large, so it'll prolly by wetransfer or something. There are a bunch of images in the back end that i didn't feel like compressing.

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Peter said...

Timbre is such an eerie style, or at least Farben is. I like it though!