Feeling Machines: Immersion, Expression, and Technological Embodiment in Electroacoustic Music of the French Spectral School

This dissertation considers the music and technical practice of composers affiliated with French spectralism, including Hugues Dufourt, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Jean-Claude Risset, and Kaija Saariaho. They regularly described their work, which was attuned to the transformative experiences that technologies of electronic sound production and reproduction could inspire in listeners, using metaphoric appeals to construction: to designing new sounds or exploring new illusory aural phenomena. To navigate a nascent but fast-expanding world of electronic and computer music, the spectralists appealed to physical musical attributes including gesture, space, and source-cause identification. Fascinated by gradual timbral transformations, they structured some of their pieces to invite speculative causal listening even while seeking to push it to expressive extremes.

I hypothesize that, much as the immersive technology of the cinema can create the illusory feeling of flight in viewers, electronic music can inspire listeners to have experiences in excess of their physical capabilities. Those feelings are possible because listening can be understood as empathetic and embodied, drawing on a listener’s embodied and ecological sensorimotor knowledge and musical imagery alongside referential, semiotic, and cultural aspects of music. One way that listeners can engage with sounds is by imagining how they would create them: what objects would be used, what kind of gestures would they perform, how much exertion would be required, what space would they inhabit. I cite recent research in psychoacoustics to argue that timbre indexes material, gesture, and affect in music listening. Technologies of sound production and reproduction allow for the manipulation of these tendencies by enabling composers to craft timbres that mimic, stretch, or subvert the timbres of real objects. Those electronic technologies also suggest manipulations to composers, by virtue of their design affordances, and perform an epistemological broadening by providing insight into the malleability of human perceptual modes. I illustrate these claims with analytic examples from Murail’s Ethers (1978), Saariaho’s Verblendungen (1984), and Grisey’s Les Chants de l’Amour (1984), relating an embodied and corporeal account of my hearing and linking it to compositional and technological features of spectral music.

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