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Spectro-morphological Diatonicism: Unlocking Style and Tonality in the Works of Denis Smalley Through Aural Analysis.

Published in the Journal SEAMUS, Spring 2003.
Reprinted with permission


When I listen to the works of Denis Smalley, his use of pitch centers, and indeed, tonality leap out of the beautifully crafted textured layers of sound. At the same time I am invited to listen with my 19th century ears, I am also challenged to listen beyond obvious pitch centers to complex relationships of recognizable, abstract, pitched, and non-pitched sounds. Spectromorphological Diatonicism: Unlocking Style and Tonality in the Works of Denis Smalley Through Aural Analysis will explore the use of tonal structures in two of the composers works Pente (1974) and Empty Vessels (1997). These works will form the point of departure for discussing Smalley’s unique and unified style based on inherent qualities of the sounds he has chosen for his body of works. Since we are fortunate to have the composer present, he will be diffusing the works after I present some analytical observations.

I. Introduction

I find it enlightening that Smalley puts forth the following definition of Spectro-morphology: “…an approach to sound materials and musical structures which concentrates on the spectrum of available pitches and their shaping in time.” (Smalley, 1986: p. 61) That Smalley would use the term “pitches” (a perceptual description) to refer to the shaping of spectrum over time, rather than frequencies (a scientific description) is telling. This seems a bit dangerous given the baggage associated with the term pitches, and yet, at a fundamental level, audible, sing-able pitches permeate all of Smalley’s works. Further, by qualifying “pitches” with the term “available”, he infers that each sound has a spectro-morphological fingerprint, giving it a unique sense of pitch space (tonality?). In short: he has embraced the inherited sense of pitch structure in each source, while at a deeper level mapping these notions into the uncharted territory of structuring through inherent spectro-morphological identity. Much of the analytical terminology and concepts used today are taken directly from Smalley’s writings on electroacoustic music to aid in the discovery of structural relationships in the works being analyzed (without consulting the composer I might add).

II. Large Scale Structure: Pentes [in F major/minor?]

Large scale structure in Pentes is framed within a tonality derived from “available pitches” and differentiated by gesture and texture juxtapositions.  A gesture-carried structure is growth oriented, forward moving, and carried by external impetus: in short, gestural structures move to and from goals by focusing on the onset or termination of events. In texture-carried structures the focus is on the internal behavior patterns which act without external stimulus by focusing on the “continuant” phase of sounds. (Smalley, 1986: p. 83)  Here are two examples from Pentes illustrating these concepts. Example 1 is the opening gesture-carried structure:

Sound Example 1: Pentes, 0:00 to 0:25 (gesture-carried structure)

Example 2 is the first major texture carried structure overlapping with, and transitioning back to a gestural structure:

Sound Example 2: Pentes, 3:08-4:15 (texture-carried structure to gesture)

Of particular importance is how, in a gesture-carried structure our attention is drawn to event beginnings and their successions (horizontal scrutiny), while in a texture-carried structure, our attention is drawn away from attacks, and more towards the inner life, morphology and changing spectra of a sound event (towards vertical scrutiny). These two opposed structural functions help propel the listeners attention through the first half of the work.

The most significant texture-carried structure in Pentes is the famous, and perhaps enigmatic, Northumbrian bagpipe passage entering about 3/4 of the way through. The pipes emerge out of a droning C/F texture.

Sound Example 3: Pentes, 9:15-9:50 (texture carried bagpipe passage)

From my first listening, this passage, illustrating Smalley’s exquisite mixing technique, has always had a feeling of rightness, or destiny to it, the reasons for which I have only recently understood. The question is: how does Smalley traverse the distance between the abstract gestural material in the opening to the traditional bagpipe tune, and make it work? The answer lies on two levels. The first is the diatonic tonality presented, expanded and developed by spectro-morphological means.

An outline of the tonal structure (which indicates all of the pitched material) shows how the pipe section has been forecast from the very beginning of the work through a dominant/tonic relationship:

Figure 1: Denis Smalley, Pentes harmonic plan

As Smalley admits, the chord progression itself (not a term often used in electroacoustic music mind you), is not the main carrier of interest, and yet, it is a handle upon which we grasp as the complex work unfolds.

The opening sound, bathed in reverb is a pitched C (0:00). The C is followed shortly by an F, high in the frequency spectrum at 30 seconds into the work. These pitch features are well hidden, however! Because of the nature of the gesture-carried material, our focus is drawn more towards how events connect, than to the inner characteristics which only subconsciously reveal the tonality of the work from the very outset through this dominant/tonic relationship.

Sound Example 4/5: Pentes, 0:00 (C) and 0:30 (F)

Coupled with the forecasting of tonality, is Smalley’s use of a gesture/texture duality. The opening C, because of the instability of gesture-carried structures, supports the notion of C as “dominant” (i.e. moving toward something). The F, on the other hand is presented through a texture-carried structure, more stable by definition, supporting the notion of F as “tonic” (or, having arrived somewhere). In this way, Smalley plants the seeds from the very beginning for the entrance of the drone and bagpipes later in the work, and forms the initial contract with the listener by providing the map through which this particular work can be navigated.

From this initial framework, Smalley sets out on the long progression from abstract gesture-carried passages to recognizable texture-carried material. The significance of this spectro-morphological development is in what Smalley calls an “indicative shift.”

In Pentes, the opening gestures are completely abstract (i.e. no mimetic reference in the human realm) while the bagpipes, upon entry, shift the listeners point of reference to human produced sound, quite the opposite of the opening material. Here you can see the gesture/texture relationships leading to this indicative shift:


Figure 2: Pentes indicative shift

One of the compositional devices Smalley uses to bridge gestural and textural structures is the “inharmonic spectral type.” A spectra with inharmonicity (or nodal as Smalley calls it) easily moves along the continuum between harmonic (or pitched) spectra and noise. (Smalley, 1986: p. 67) Roughly in the middle of the work, a passage beautifully illustrates the pliability of inharmonic spectra. At 6:07 the inharmonic texture supports gestural noise material while transitioning to the sustained C/F drone.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Pentes noise, node, note progression

Sound Example 6: Pentes, 6:07-7:25

The crux of Pentes comes, after this drone, when the bagpipes enter. At this point, Smalley, through the careful preparation already pointed out, injects the abstract, un-identifiable sound material with a human presence. The spectro-morphological link (the inharmonic transition to the C/F drone), paves the way for this drastic shift from non-human to human by giving us familiar stable, pitched material.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Pentes noise, reinterpretation

When the gestural material returns after the bagpipes, their perceived function is drastically changed: the gestural material is now heard (or reinterpreted) in light of human utterance. Smalley reinforces this reinterpretation through constant superimposition and intertwining of gesture-carried structures over textural structures to the end. As a result, the gestural, abstract sounds, take on a new human character and cause a re-evaluation of possible source.

Sound Example 7: Pentes, 11:07-11:38

The pulsed sustained sound in this example functions throughout Pentes as an additional structural link.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Pentes noise, pulse morphologies

It is this sound, in my opinion that signifies a “main theme” which is developed throughout: appearing in varying registers and at varying speeds, but always with a high spectral component. This high spectral component is its morphological fingerprint relating directly to the high frequency components giving the bagpipes their distinctive sound. This sound delivers the opening F (shown earlier), links sections of the work, announces the bagpipe entry, and is the last sound we hear, present for the most of the last 3:48.

Here are examples of this pulse theme in Pentes: 1) high amplitude modulated buzzing; 2) amplitude modulated gestural material; and 3) no pulse, but morphologically evolving similar spectral components (without AM).

Sound Examples 8-10: 3 high spectral links

8) 9:09-0:25

9) 2:22-2:31

10) 7:55-8:09

If F is the pitch tonality of the work, then this high pulsed sound is the tonic morphology.

Figure 6: Pentes noise, “framed feedback” structure

The structure of Pentes, then, is what I would call a framed “feedback” structure. The frame consists of the inherent tonality, and the textural/gestural duality. Feedback happens when the listener is forced to adjust their mode of perception upon the injection of the human element, causing a re-examination of all the related material that comes after, and all that has come before: both materials and contextual identity.

And thus, we arrive back at the beginning with Smalley’s concept of morphological “available pitches.”

Figure 7: Pentes noise, “abstracted structure”

Inherent spectro-morphological qualities of the bagpipe and other material, determine the structural relationships of the work. Emmerson refers to this approach as “abstracted syntax” (derived from the material), rather than “abstract syntax” formed by superimposing a pre-determined structure over the material (i.e. sonata form, etc.). (Emmerson, 1986: pp. 20-24)

Sound Examples 11: Pentes (diffused by the composer)

Obviously one entire dimension of structure, missing from my analytical approach, is the one you have just heard: diffusion, or the interaction of the work within the space it is presented. Unfortunately, that discussion is well beyond the scope of this current study, so will be left to take up at SEAMUS 2003. Suffice it to say, that proper diffusion by a competent performer reinforces, highlights, and even contributes additional new elements to the above structural relationships pointed out.

III. Phrase structures: Empty Vessels in D Minor/Major?

Empty Vessels (1997) has similar tonal, as well as texture/gesture relationships with Pentes. The work opens with a D/A, and D is reinforced as a reference pitch throughout. At 8:21 seconds there is even an authentic cadence: A to D. Empty Vessels contains much less gestural material than Pentes, however, and focuses more on the morphology of phrase structures through unfolding textures. Another significant difference from Pentes is a greater reliance on recognizable, unprocessed source material. In Pentes a single human utterance through instrumental gesture plays a crucial role in the unfolding of the structure, while in Empty Vessels there is much more concern with the intersection of composed (and thus performed!) gesture with environmental texture.

Here are two examples illustrating these two differing types of material. The first example is an organic morphology of two natural texture carried structures.

Sound Example 12: Empty Vessels 3:20-3:40

The second example is a morphology caused by a human gestural impetus (i.e. composer imposed change). Incidentally, this is the authentic cadence from A to D mentioned earlier.

Sound Example 13: Empty Vessels 8:15-:30

These examples illustrate the primary sound source types in Empty Vessels.

The human presence is never far away. Percussive sounds, that you just heard, while not identifiable as a specific instrument source, still carry a causal human initiation. Another prominent recurring sound is that of a jet flying over head. Herein lies the irony and perhaps the profundity of the work. In short, the human element (in addition to the mentioned causal gestures) is manifest in a jet aircraft (or “full vessel”) rather than an empty one. The pitched noise quality, filtered by natural (as opposed to studio imposed) doppler effect, reinforces the confined nature of these full vessels.

Two concepts are important here: one Smalley calls indicative fields of surrogacy, and the other he refers to as transcontextual interpretation. Indicative fields deal primarily with source identifiability, while transcontextual interpretation deals with the meaning of a particular source within a context.

First order surrogacy refers to sound that is human produced and gesture oriented (i.e. instrumental music and singing). Second order surrogacy maintains some identity with human produced gestural activity, but extends spectro-morphological components beyond instrumental identification. Remote surrogacy is defined by the inability of a sound to be linked either with human production or any recognizable source. (Smalley, 1992: p. 524) In Pentes, for example, the pre-bagpipe material is remotely surrogate. The bagpipe entrance, however, shifts our recognition to one of first order surrogacy precipitating the previously mentioned indicative shift.

In Empty Vessels, there is much more fluidity between second order and remote surrogacy: the sounds exist on a continuum from recognizable to unrecognizable, with periodic composer control over some of the material through created (or performed!) gesture, requiring continual transcontextual [re]interpretation throughout the work. (Smalley, 1992: p. 538-544)

The opening of the work serves as a perfect example of this concept. It begins with a chord (sound source unknown, but could be two hands pounding the lower strings of a piano), which proceeds through a series of seamless transformations into environmental sounds, arriving in Smalley’s garden (hints of human voices, birds, bees, etc.). The exposition ends with a jet flying overhead. This entire passage, in second order surrogacy, outlines the two main contexts of the work: natural environment contexts (outdoor sounds), and human created gesture, both mediated by human intervention (the jet).

Figure 8
Figure 8: opening of Empty Vessels (0:00 to 1:10)

In the opening, Smalley creates a dual meaning: 1) the recognizable context of the environmental sounds (i.e. garden, olive jars, outside, etc.) and: 2) the jet flying overhead, which seems to contradict the notion of “empty vessel.” This juxtaposition creates the specific meaning carried by the dichotomy of “empty” versus “full.” Also notice how he connects the concept of “flying” with a bee sound present as the jet sound enters.

Sound Example 14: Empty Vessels 0:00-1:10

This dichotomy unfolds throughout the rest of the work. This pitch shifted jet sound, even though further developed, always maintains a human link as a result of the spectro-morphological fingerprint (descending glissando pitched noise) presented in the opening jet sound. Here is an example of a created sounds which we link to the jet morphological fingerprint.

Sound Example 15: Empty Vessels (13:45-14:09)

At many points throughout textures interact with the spatial morphology of the empty vessel sound.  Transcontextual meaning is furthered through spatialization when Smalley places sound material into the empty vessel space through convolution or some similar method. The original material, still recognizable (and contextually identifiable), is extended by a composer created “musical” context through the combining of these spatial and morphological qualities. In other words, Smalley creates the connection of the jet (or “full vessel”) with the concept of “empty vessel” by filling these vessels with environmental and recognizable sound types. In this way, the spatialization of sounds becomes a key structural element in the unfolding of the work.

To illustrate this, I will play four examples:

First you will hear the “empty vessel” sound, characterized by static pitched noise. Notice the other environmental context appearing to sound OUTSIDE the vessel space.

Sound Example 16: Empty Vessels 2:58-3:11

Next you will hear the jet sound appearing to sound confined within the vessel space, but still with environmental sounds outside the vessel.

Sound Example 17: Empty Vessels 7:45-8:05

Other sounds also appear confined within the empty vessels, further establishing the aura link with the full vessel of the jet. First you will hear the rain/fire texture which appears to coexist outside the vessel, then you will hear the rain/fire texture contained within the vessel (with other environmental sounds outside the space).

Sound Example 18a and 18b: Empty Vessels 3:34-3:45 and 9:01-9:15

And thus, Smalley creates “meaning” in Empty Vessels, by calling into question the very nature of empty. Is anything ever really empty as long as there is sound? Perhaps he even equates sound with substance.

Smalley knows how to chose his material well. In both Pentes and Empty Vessels, rich, spectrally saturated sounds allow maximum travel from focused spectra (pitched) to unfocused (noise) and anything harmonic or inharmonic in between. This spectral richness gives him the maximum possible terrain of available pitches to draw tonal, modal (as in perceptual), spectro-morphological, spatial, and transcontextual connections between material and events. And, shifting context has become the vehicle through which meaning can be ascribed differently by each listener I might add.

Space, and again, diffusion, in addition to all of the other previously mentioned elements, become a major structural devices, and additive component to the indicative shifts lending to transcontextual meaning.

At this point, I would like to ask Denis to perform Empty Vessels.

Sound Example 19: Empty Vessels (in its entirety with the composer diffusing)

Smalley has said: “Today it is ironically necessary to reassert the primacy of the aural experience in music; perceptual acuity and experience are often more reliable and valuable in this search than formal research.” (Smalley, 1986 pp. 62-3). It is this primacy of the aural experience that initially drew me to Smalley’s work, and indeed, all of electroacoustic music. As a result, listening with a pitch pipe in hand has become my primary method of analyzing his music. It also means that analysis, defined broadly as the explanation of something, which Emmerson says leads from prescription to description, and thus to prediction (Emmerson 1986: p. 2, 21), is completely turned on end. Aural analysis results not in a fixed product (a score, graphic or otherwise, for example in EA music) although it can lead to that, but rather to an understanding which constantly unfolds over time and repeated exposure to a work, and may even change with experience and maturity of the listener. Certainly principles can be extrapolated, but by and large, aural analysis of one work is not systematically transferable to an entire genre. In the analysis of Electectroacoustic music, it is not the product that is meaningful, but rather the process of the analysis. In the end, it is a journey of discovery, much as the Ursatz in Schenkerian analysis are insignificant compared with what one has discovered along the way about a particular work. And, just as the nature of works such as Pentes deny applicable global understanding (but rather promote individual perception and understanding), so do the structures and relationships discovered during the analytical process.

In conclusion, Smalley states that: “Prior to electroacoustic era…the listener could automatically assume that music would be rooted in the instrumental gesture or in human utterance” model (for example: music played by humans on instruments, or sung). With the availability of all sounds in a musical context, it is incumbent upon the listener to assume a greater sense of adventure (and open-mindedness) (Smalley, 1992: p. 544-5), and, I might add, for the composer to provide the map through a work. The specific navigation through any given work and its meaning, however, is up to each individual listener, making the receptive process equally as individual, and valid, as the creative process. In this invitation, I think Smalley’s music succeeds to an extremely high degree.


Emmerson, Simon “The Releationship of Language to Materials” in The Language of Electroacoustic Music, Simon Emmerson, ed.. (New York: Harwood, 1986) pp. 17-40.

Rudy, Paul, “Scenes/Sources” Denis Smalley CD review, Diffusion Sonic Arts Network. (London: August, 2001).

Smalley, Denis. Impact intérieurs, Montréal: IMED-9209-CD.

Smalley, Denis. “The Listening Imagination: Listening in the Electro-acoustic Era” in Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought, J. Paynter, R. Orton et al. eds., Vol. 1. (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 514-554.

Smalley, Denis. Sources/Scènes, Montréal: IMED-0054.

Smalley, Denis “Spectro-Morphology and Structuring Processes” in The Language of Electroacoustic Music, Simon Emmerson, ed.. (New York: Harwood, 1986), pp. 17-40.

Wishart, Trevor. On Sonic Art, (York: Imagineering Press, 1985).

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