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Timbre as a form-building property in the music of Kaija Saariaho

Extracts from this essay...

Introduction

Timbre as a form-building property in the music of Kaija Saariaho Candidate number: 22025865 MUS335 Individual Research Topic MMus Contemporary Music Studies Abstract This essay outlines the evolution of Kaija Saariaho's working methods from the 1980s to the present, with particular reference to her own research on timbre and form. Relatively recent music research began to address the need for new formal possibilities to suit the requirements of avant-garde composition. The main focus of this essay is on timbre as a form-building element in Saariaho's music, and her association with psychoacoustics, which examines the ways in which timbral form can be apprehended. The essay commences with a summary of the historical background to Saariaho's interest in timbre and its relation to "spectral" music. After investigating her work in this field, the essay then examines Saariaho's violin concerto Graal Théâtre (1994) in more detail, to show how the composer's working methods and range of expression have expanded, with a subtle shift of emphasis from timbral concerns towards more linear, melody-led compositions. Throughout the essay, the author locates Saariaho's music in its historical context and circumstances, and looks at her music's relationship to its surroundings, canonic origins and influences. The essay concludes with some critical thoughts on the nature of timbre as a form building element in music. Contents Page 4: Introduction and acknowledgements. Page 6: The evolution of timbre as a form-building element. Page 19: Form, perception and the sound/noise axis. Page 33: Graal Théâtre. Page 64: Comments. Page 66: Bibliography and discography. Page 70: Appendix A: Biography of Kaija Saariaho. Page 72: Appendix B: Instrumentation in Graal Théâtre. Introduction and Acknowledgements My interest in the music of Kaija Saariaho (b.1952) originated from a SOCRATES foreign exchange to Finland in 1998 that I took part in while at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. This involved a stay of four months in Tampere, in Finland's worst winter for fifty years.

Middle

can produce an effect of polyphony; and changing the perception of 'vertical' organisation involving, for example, the fusion of different instrumental timbres, can create new sounds which function structurally rather than colouristically. This Saariaho called the 'sound/noise axis', where sound and noise act as a hierarchical substitution for consonance and dissonance. Using this system, harmony and timbre can be controlled along parallel lines, as shown by the following adaptation of Julian Anderson's illustration of Saariaho's 'sound/noise axis' (Figure 1; Anderson 1992: 617). Figure 1: The sound/noise axis. Within the sound/noise axis, 'noise' is a form of dissonance pushed to the extreme on a 'scale' of degrees of graininess or roughness of texture, while pure, 'clean' tone equates with consonance in the same way. This is best illustrated by a quotation from McAdams and Daniel Pressnitzer: Roughness was originally defined by [Hermann von] Helmholtz [1821-1894] to provide a sensory basis for musical consonance. A basic feature of Western tonal harmony is to distinguish within the ensemble of possible intervals obtainable with the chromatic scale those which are considered consonant from those that are considered dissonant. This distinction is of course by no means rigid, as shown by the progressive shift from dissonance to consonance of some intervals throughout the history of music. However, as has been noted since Pythagoras, intervals made of simple integer ratios are situated at one extreme of the scale (consonant) whereas the more complex ratios are considered dissonant. Numerous theories have been proposed to account for this enigma, and Helmholtz provides one of them: as the ratio between two sounds involves more complex integers, more partials will be "mistuned" and create roughness. Since the dissonance of Western tonal intervals corresponds to their roughness, this attribute may well be proposed as a sensory basis upon which the complex rules of harmony were built. (McAdams and Pressnitzer 1997: 2). Dissonance in music contributes to directed motion and the creation of tension and release: important form-building factors.

Conclusion

Timbre as a conveyor of musical form relies upon culturally specific subjects in the same way that the form building properties of tonality are culturally acquired. The notion that timbre could carry form, and the subsequent research into this possibility has very particular sociological origins. If we take Saariaho's work at IRCAM as an example: the work environment encompasses a culturally specific section of society: primarily modernist, avant garde, Western (American/European), mostly male, working around the Western perception of musical hierarchy with Western musical instruments. The works produced there are shaped by their culture. Understanding Saariaho's music relies upon the establishment of a context in which we can understand it, by exploiting culturally acquired meanings from another era. Any professions of formalism or of distance from possible social obligation, engaging in a composition purely for its own sake, are undermined by our sociological inability to separate her music from the Western, modernist, elitist, classical tradition within which her music is situated. Graal Théâtre, it could be said, has intrinsic social meaning encoded within itself; its tensions, oppositions, contrasts and the sound/noise hierarchy are all adapted from the inherent characteristics of traditional Western acquired notions of composition, meaning the work is therefore culturally mediated. The framework itself, that which enables the listener to attribute functional meaning to her music, is formed by, and relies upon, prior musical experience on the part of listener and composer alike. Bibliography 1. Primary sources Score editions Kaija Saariaho, Aile du Songe (London: Chester Music, 2001). Amers (London: Chester Music, 1992). Château de l'Âme (London: Chester Music, 1995). Graal Théâtre, (London: Chester Music, 1995). Laconisme de l'aile (Helsinki: Jasemusikki, 1983). L'amour de loin (London: Chester Music, 2000). Lichtbogen (Helsinki: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1985-88). Nocturne (London: Chester Music, 1994). Nymphea (Helsinki: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1987). Petals (Helsinki: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1988). ...sah den Vögeln (Helsinki: Finnish Music Information Centre, 1982). Verblendungen (Helsinki: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1984). Arnold Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, opus 16 (Frankfurt, London, New York: Peters Edition, 1950) 2.

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