Smalley and timbre

It is clear that electroacoustic software tools (I use SuperCollider) have an inadequacy when it comes to timbre. The fact that it is not scorable, not measurable and not easily describable makes its a very difficult thing to pin down and control.

I suspect that this is why Granular Synthesis has had such longevity amongst electroacoustic composers. Granular Synthesis, a technique mostly pioneered by Xenakis, allows one to de-construct and re-construct recorded sounds, by chopping them up into tiny little blocks. The majority of the sounds I have used, in the past, use this technique. It is excellent for creating and manipulating timbre. But it is very difficult to bring accurate and controllable pitch to Granular Synthesis. I have now discarded Granular Synthesis as a technique because I am currently more interested in pitch and harmony. But that does not mean that I have discarded timbre. On the contrary. But I am working to bring timbre to pitch, instead of pitch to timbre.

Denis Smalley

Denis Smalley

Denis Smalley, a respected British  electroacoustic composer and writer, has defined a word precisely for the purpose of thinking about the quality of sounds in electroacoustic music.

That word is spectromorphology:

The two parts of the term refer to the interaction between sound spectra (spectro-) and the ways they change and are shaped through time (-morphology)… …Spectromorphology is not a compositional theory or method, but a descriptive tool based on aural perception. It is intended to aid listening, and seeks to help explain what can be apprehended in over four decades of electroacoustic repertory.

Smalley in ‘Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes’ Organised Sound 1997.

The word feels right in the sense that it isolates a very important relationship  … the relationship between time and frequency spectrum. However, there is still no real quantification of that relationship, and therefore no clear way to control how a sound might change its frequency spectrum in time.

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One Response to Smalley and timbre

  1. Pingback: On Volume. | Etienne Deleflie

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