Below are the titles and abstracts for a number of essays I wrote during my time as a music theory graduate student at McGill University. If you would like to read the full essays I would be very happy to share them. Feel free to send me an email, available through my contact page.
Acoustical Resources for Music Analysis and Scale Formation
Acoustical concepts have served a central function in music theory since at least the 18th century. Generally speaking, the kinds of acoustical concepts music theorists have made use of have been those associated with what Robert Lindsay calls the production of sound. In this thesis, I explore how concepts related to a second strand of acoustical thought—the propagation of sound—may be applied in the analysis of contemporary musical works as well as in the composition of novel musical scales. I begin by analyzing Eliane Radigue’s recent composition Naldjorlak for cello and two basset horns. My analysis shows not only how acoustical phenomena take center stage in Radigue’s piece but also how similar phenomena may be used in the analysis of the work itself. Central to my analysis is Wayne Slawson’s theory of sound color and, specifically, his analytical application of vowel formant patterns. Following this, I will demonstrate how room resonances can be used to create scales and, in the process, survey three methods for identifying them. The efficacy of these scales, constructed with both a resonant and consonant function in mind, will be demonstrated by presenting a musical passage of my own composing. To conclude, I examine how Frances Dyson uses acoustical language in her book The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology and contrast this with the way Radigue employs similar concepts in Naldjorlak. By examining the relationship of music and acoustical concepts related to the propagation of sound, this thesis reveals how acoustical concepts are powerful tools capable of shaping philosophical, analytical, and compositional thought.
'People Aren’t Sounds, Are They?’: Spectral Techniques, Afrological Improvisation, and Liminality in the Music of Steve Lehman
American composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman has garnered considerable critical acclaim for his blend of spectral techniques and Afrological improvisation. Most discussions of Lehman’s music conceptualize his project as a synthesis of two different compositional/improvisational paradigms; in doing so, however, they necessarily exclude important characteristics of each that would otherwise be incompatible. To maintain the integrity of each paradigm and better understand their reciprocal effect, this paper replaces this synthetic analysis of Lehman’s music with a liminal vantage: a perspective which takes into account the thresholds between divergent paradigms.
In his dissertation, Lehman claims that liminality constitutes the most significant link between spectral techniques and Afrological improvisation. I contend that this notion misidentifies the function of liminality in Afrological improvisation and engenders a false sense of compatibility between these two musical practices. Drawing on the research of George Lewis, Vijay Iyer, and Gérard Grisey, I will argue that a consideration of their differences is essential for a productive interpretation of Lehman’s music, an interpretation that defines spectral music and Afrological improvisation as two distinct entities. Lehman’s music inhabits the threshold (limen) between these entities. The potential of this liminal analytical perspective will be demonstrated through an analysis of Lehman’s use of spectral scales as a basis for improvisation in the piece “No Neighborhood Rough Enough.” I conclude that an analysis of Lehman’s complex approach to improvisation requires a perspective that recognizes his music as always situated on a threshold between spectral music and Afrological improvisation.
Mostly Dissonant: A Characteristic Dissonance Measure of mm. 43- 50 of Xenakis’s Ergma
The compositions of Iannis Xenakis provide an interesting, if somewhat intimidating, repertoire for testing a number of analytical tools developed in contemporary music-theoretical literature. Xenakis, an engineer possessed of considerable mathematical skill, frequently used compositional processes of immense complexity and algorithmic sophistication. Attempts to reverse engineer a work by Xenakis will likely face insurmountable difficulties. Not only does the task seem futile, it also seems to miss the point. Speaking of his stochastic works, Xenakis says, “So the question was as follows: how to create, figuratively speaking, a ‘black box’ which has music at the other end, and not just music, but interesting music?" The point being that even in compositional scenarios of nearly total formalization, there remained a stage of personal evaluation the criteria for which was not mathematical but musical—specifically (and simply), that the music be interesting. And so the task of analyzing Xenakis with but the theorist’s own tools may actually capture a layer of compositional intent retracing the steps of an algorithm cannot. In what follows, I will present an analysis of a passage from Xenakis’s string quartet Ergma beginning with a brief set-theoretic analysis before moving on to an analysis via similarity relations. The intention of my analysis is to answer a personal intuition that the passage is bound together by a particular form of continuity. I conclude that this sense of continuity cannot be answered by set theory or similarity relations alone but requires a new type of analytical tool that can bridge the gap between abstract unordered pitch collections and the musical surface. This tool, which I call a Characteristic Dissonance Measure (CDM), locates the position of dissonances within a sonority and determines their quality in relation to critical bands within the human ear. Sets can be shown to be similar not just by virtue of their intervallic content but by the quality of their constituent dissonances realized within a particular musical context.
Perhaps due to their many unique and fascinating features—issues of ceremony, spatialization, instrumental incorporation—Andrea Gabrieli’s polychoral works have received little analytical treatment. Similarly, the sixteenth-century motet, due to its numerous and complex manifestations, lacks a precise and comprehensive description. In an effort to rectify this, some studies have approached the task of defining a genre by compiling and analyzing its component subgenres. In an effort to better understand the polychoral music of Gabrieli as well as its relation to the sixteenth-century motet at large, the following study will frame the polychoral concerti and motetti of Gabrieli as a subgenre of the sixteenth-century motet. Gabrieli’s polychoral concerti and motetti possess all the necessary features of a subgenre; their musical attributes, texts, and functions all represent subtle developments of the sixteenth century motet. David Bryant has claimed that, because they were composed for such dissimilar and occasional events, Gabrieli’s concerti display a minimum of stylistic continuity. Gabrieli’s polychoral concerti and motetti, in particular, have been described mostly in negative terms, in contrast with the much simpler Salmi spezzati. In order to situate the polychoral concerti and motetti of Gabrieli within a well defined motet subgenre, this paper will challenge the notion that they exhibit little stylistic unity and provide a positive, analytical description of their musical features. This will be achieved through an analysis of Gabrieli's ten eight-voice polychoral concerti and the development of analytical tools for describing interchoir exchange; in so doing, it will provide a positive description of the polychoral motet’s features and thereby situate it within a well-defined subgenre of the sixteenth century motet.