Doctoral Student Continues Legacy of Professor's Spectral Music

July 2, 2009Bookmark and Share

In the late 1970s, French composers Tristan Murail, a Columbia professor, and Gérard Grisey developed a new approach to music that is influencing the next generation of composers. Spectral music, as their invention is known, is a method of composition in which individual notes are analyzed, often by a computer program, to expose a wellspring of micro-sounds that can become building blocks for harmony, melody and rhythm.

Until recently, spectral techniques have only been used in orchestral and chamber music. Now for the first time, a young composer is applying them to jazz. And Murail, the Francis Goelet Professor of Music at Columbia, is applauding the effort—led by one of his students.

Stephen Lehman [Image credit: Dominik Huber and Nick Zlonis]
Stephen Lehman
Image credit: Dominik Huber and Nick Zlonis

Stephen Lehman, a 30-year-old alto saxophonist and doctoral candidate in music composition at Columbia, has won over critics with his new form of improvised music, which makes frequent use of spectral harmony. Last month Lehman’s new album, Travail, Transformation and Flow, which he recorded with an acoustic octet, earned an immediate spot in The New York Times Playlist column. The album’s release concert, held June 9 at Le Poisson Rouge, in Greenwich Village, earned equal praise from Times critic Nate Chinen. (Listen to Lehman’s “Echoes” here.)

“Steve's use of spectral techniques in jazz-inspired music is quite unprecedented,” says Murail. Such fusion “can sound clumsy or strained, but Steve's music sounds very natural...very special, very personal.”

Spectral music is based on the physical properties of sound, also known as timbre. To understand the concept behind it, think of a single note—an oboe note, for example—as a large bag of marbles, and imagine what would happen if the bag were snipped open. The marbles that pour out represent micro-sounds that make that oboe note distinguishable from another, like a clarinet note. Spectral artists play around with the information inside each note to create an infinite number of harmonic combinations.

Lehman, a Brooklyn native, has performed professionally for 10 years and recorded 10 albums. Critics say he is both structurally scrupulous and artistically innovative, able to merge new constructs with established musical formulas. Most of his works are rhythmic, for example, but avoid traditional repetitions, blending modern jazz with contemporary-classical music and experimental hip-hop.

“I try to write music that’s always evolving and avoids repetition,” says Lehman, who studied with saxophone-greats Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. “I want it to take me somewhere, but at the same time, I want it to be physical, rooted, visceral.”

In his piece “No Neighborhood Rough Enough,” Lehman analyzed a piano note with a computer and synthesized its different properties to create harmonies and melodies.

None of Lehman's innovations would have been possible had Murail not laid the groundwork. Since developing spectral music in the 1970s with Grisey, Murail has produced several influential compositions. His 1984 piece “Vampyr!” is a classical work written for electric guitar, and his 1995 “Partage des Eaux” combines chamber music with the sound of water flowing against rocks. Earlier this year, his seminal 1980 piece “Gondwana” was given its New York premiere by the New York Philharmonic, earning high praise from New York Times critic Steve Smith. (Listen to “Gondwana” here.)

Murail’s student is grateful for his teacher’s leadership and inspiration. "Tristan has established a totally personal musical universe, rooted in his astonishing gifts as an orchestrator and his deep understanding of music perception,” said Lehman. “He’s helped me critically examine ideas about harmony, orchestration and compositional form, which has allowed me to think about my own music in new ways."

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