The metaphor of exploration is often referenced in describing contemporary music and various phenomena within it, as composers drill down into dimensions of interest – artists with a scientific approach, if you will. This metaphor is particularly apt with respect to what is known as ‘spectral music’, which emerged in the late 1970s pioneered by Gérard Grisey (1946–1998) and Tristan Murail. The research aspect of this genre of music is as obvious as it is essential, because the very composition process began with computer analysis of tones and how they can be modified by exploiting the overtone series. Having said that, we should note that even though the compositional process underlying the works resembles the scientific process, the end result is often music that is evocative, colourful and sensuous.
Murail’s Désintégrations for tape and 17 musicians was completed in 1982–1983 and is an early spectral work. All the tones analysed by computer were produced by actual instruments, even though for the purposes of spectral music any sounds could be used as the starting point. The tape part makes no attempt to imitate instruments, yet it blends seamlessly with the orchestra (or vice versa), creating a single, consistent sound world.
The work is divided into 11 sections with varying characters. Murail applied various types of spectral processing to create a varied, multi-stage dramaturgical progression. The work opens with a slow, floating spatial texture with echoing booms that seem detached from gravity. We go through sections ranging from translucent fragility to powerful, even threatening sounds. Murail himself describes light and shadow, increasing and subsiding passion, and rhythms that build up and collapse. Perhaps the most prominent conclusion is the incisive toccata-like structure in the seventh section that speeds up and slows down in turn.