SOPHIE and the Spectralists

In her first-ever TV interview, Scottish-born electronica producer SOPHIE reclines gracefully, clad in a skin-tight, boldly patterned dress, with one elbow propped atop a plush white duvet, and explains the inspirations and ambitions of her music, which strives towards “hyperreal” musical environments that “cartoonize and exaggerate” the sounds of the natural world. 

By way of example, she conjures the image of a piano the size of a mountain, asking what the sound of the massive strings therein may be. “You have the possibility with electronic music to generate any texture, in theory, and any sounds,” she says. “So why would any musician want to limit themselves [to acoustic instruments]?”

The interview is a fitting and revealing peek into PC Music, the London-based avant-pop collective to which she is a central affiliate. It’s not only a glimpse behind the software-curtain, but also is a rare chance to even see the producer, with her now-iconic red pixie cut and cheekbones in their high, sharp glory, and offers a rare insight into how someone would start with a blank file in a digital synthesizer and produce tracks built around the enticing, ear-bending, speaker-busting—and indeed hyper-real—sounds that have come to typify the PC Music style.

I first encountered SOPHIE without even realizing it—her production undergirds catchy mainstream tracks like Madonna’s“Bitch I’m Madonna” feat. Nicki Minaj—but when I finally came across her avant-garde side, tracks like “LEMONADE,” “HARD,” and  “VYZEE,” I felt like I was finally hearing music that was unabashedly and even unapologetically pop, but still imaginative and even revelatory in a way I couldn’t at the time articulate. Hearing the progressive voice of the artist unleashed, I could tell she was thinking about the sounds that surrounded (and sometimes saturated) my adolescence: the plastic bubble-gum beats and synthesized accompaniments of the late ‘90s and early aughts. In the hands of SOPHIE, the plastic, super-polished sounds which propelled (usually women) pop singers to the top of the charts with hits like Spice Girls’ “Wanna Be” and Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over” take on a new, avant-garde life, invigorated through exaggeration and experimentation.   

Much has been said about the way PC Music artists appropriate the familiar sounds of pop music that inhabits the Billboard charts by bending, stretching and distorting its beats and textures to create their new sonic terrain. After spending a not insignificant part of my life studying and trying to make contemporary classical music (what we in the classical music business ourselves sometimes annoyingly call “art” or “serious” music), I find myself often thinking about how certain popular musicians, especially those in the PC Music orbit, accomplish genuinely artistic, communicative, important—in other words, “serious”—innovations in music. But for a number of reasons you could probably imagine, as well as more arcane ones1,musicians like SOPHIE would probably not be considered “serious” in the classical music world. Nonetheless, sound is sound, regardless of the source or whether it’s heard in concert halls or underground dance halls, and I can’t help but feel that PC Music is up to something serious, something that my world has been hard at work at for decades.  

Spectralism, like PC Music, makes for a nebulous genre. It can be controversial to apply this label to certain composers or pieces, but it became an important and central aesthetic in classical music, especially in Europe, in the late twentieth century. It emerged as a response to the dominance of Serialism (what some refer to still as the “dark ages”), the angular, crunchy aesthetic of Schoenberg and Weber that tends to elicit strong and rarely positive reactions from current-day listeners. Spectralist composers, on the other hand, thought that interesting and pioneering music could still be pleasurable, and were especially preoccupied with natural sounds and organic forms. But the name itself derives from the spectrum of sound, which composers and acousticians were by the 1970s better able to analyze and document via spectrographs, revealing the frequency content of sounds, the different elements that combined to give a sound, such as a guitar pluck or a brass chord, its specific quality.  A low C and a high C on the piano might sound like the same note in different registers to most listeners2, but the Spectralists realized these were entirely different notes with very different spectra, and should be treated as such. 

This focus on the spectra of sound and effort to emulate and embrace natural forms led French composer Gérard Grisey (1946-1998) to compose the landmark Spectralist piece Partiels in 1975. This piece uses eighteen orchestral instruments to emulate the spectrum of a trombone playing a low register E, using careful and nuanced adjustments to each instrumental part to approximate the depth of sound all contained by this single fundamental pitch. The resulting music is intensely dramatic and undergoes beautiful transformations, from the harshly brutal beginning of the piece to a biting yet sweet high register interlude. It remains hugely influential for composers today, revealing rich potentials in orchestration, form, narrative, and idea. Crucially, Grisey worked with acoustic means, and likely would today even with the advent of so much synthesizer potential. Answering SOPHIE’S aforementioned question, many composers and classical musicians believe there is something vital about live acoustic performance that digital means will never capture.

Still, hearing SOPHIE describe her process, her imagining of a giant, mountain-sized piano, I immediately thought of Partiels. Of course, her aims and Grisey’s aims are starkly different, and the reasons that largely preclude PC Music and other popular genres from “serious” academic discourse admittedly make these styles of music categorically distinct (the reliance on digital means likely one of them). But it certainly seems that they overlap in a key area, concerning the way these musicians think about sound: not in terms of simply melody and harmony, jaunty string melodies with woodwinds accompaniments, or catchy tunes over serviceable beats whipped up on an 808. PC Music and Spectralism both show a deep understanding of the true nature of sound, and design music based on a sensitivity to the full quality and nuance of their instruments (whether acoustic or software). 

One of the primary revelations of Spectralism is that the timbre, or quality of a sound, is actually itself a harmony, composed of a specific combination of frequencies, similar to a chord. It was this revelation that enabled Grisey to design Partiels, through assigning certain pitches across the instrumentation to approximate the timbre of the trombone. This mode of thinking seems likewise to motivate SOPHIE, who’s production often focuses as much on pitch as it does on the quality of sounds themselves. Calling upon our cultural memory of the saccharine, plastic sounds of bubble-gum pop, SOPHIE bends and twists both bass and treble sounds in her 2015 song “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” to produce an ethereal soundscape that feels like being submerged in a whole vat of bubble-gum music. The sculpted, upper-register reverb feels like an extension of the percussive melodic hits, through which the pitched-up vocals glide. The simple pitch content of the song repeated again and again, over the shifting timbers of the synthesizer hits, feels to me like telescoping deeper and deeper into a single moment of a plastic, catchy, ‘90s-era pop song.

Along with experimenting and innovating with sound itself, composers of “serious” music also innovate with form, the overall structure of a work of music, and the Spectralists were especially interested in forms governed by some sort of process. Rather than the classic rounded “curve” of the Sonata form3, Spectralists pursued forms that took new shapes, such as linear developments from point A to B, allowing the listener to hear a transformation or development of a sound take place over the course of the music. The “sonata” form is fundamental not only to classical music but to nearly all popular music as well, and throughout my life nearly all the music I’d hear on the radio or at parties was dictated by the verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure. Unsurprisingly, PC Music can’t be contained by this rigid structure, finding a spiritual ally in the Spectralists in the pursuit of innovation not just in sound but in form, too.

In “Is it Cold in the Water,” SOPHIE explores a linear form that resists the temptations for chorus and bridge structure, for a rounded form that neatly fits out expectations of a pop track. The bubbling and pulsing texture of synthesized elements rises gradually but steadily through a filter sweep4, emerging from background to foreground as the vocal line, almost mystically, floats above it all. As the track progresses, layers of bass and treble emerge and the music seems to crystalize before us. Yet most importantly, both this and “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” deny us one of the most ubiquitous features of electronica: the drop. Instead, both these tracks offer constant buildup, constant expectation, but never fulfillment. SOPHIE cleverly induces a tension and drama not through complicated structures, but through the negation of expectation, leaving a deeper impression than she would have with just another buildup-to-drop track. These twin precepts—experimenting with form and negating expectation—are common tools of sophisticated “serious” classical music. SOPHIE proves they can be deployed across aesthetics, even used to elevate plastic pop sounds to something more.

This result of SOPHIE’s output is starkly different from Partiels or any other Spectralist work as an overall musical experience, and I would be pretty surprised to hear that SOPHIE has Gérard Grisey in mind when she’s at work on a new track. But the efforts by SOPHIE and PC Music dovetail with the efforts of the Spectralists in terms of sonic imagination, in how a musician conceives of sound and its design when they start on a new project. The shift from hearing pitch and rhythm as distinct elements in music to hearing the whole of a sound itself – to consider the spectrogram – developed in well-documented steps for classical music in the latter half of the 20th century; it has since emerged, bubbling up from the underground, as a potent and exciting trend for electronica and hip hop artists willing to push boundaries and experiment in avant-garde terrain, to break away from the formula of Billboard pop (while appropriating and deconstructing its sounds). 

This is probably emphasized and accelerated by the technology at the disposal of artists like SOPHIE (technology for sound production that likely originated from IRCAM in Paris5, the same institution that fostered the growth of Spectralism). Increasingly sophisticated tools for sound production and design enables musicians to essentially use spectrograms to create sounds, designing the shapes and contours of synthesizer instruments to match the “hyper-real” sounds of their imagination. While Spectralists largely used acoustic means (occasionally deploying the more rudimentary electro-acoustic tools at their disposal), PC Music producers have the entire conceivable world of synthesized sound at their fingertips, able to replicate not just low trombone notes but the supernatural effects–the mountain-sized pianos–that they haven’t even truly heard before. 

For someone who studies classical music and listens to almost everything, I am deeply excited by what I’m hearing from PC Music, and how the pursuits of artists like SOPHIE intersect with the aesthetic achievements of the greats in the Western canon of recent decades. Maybe most of all, I’m inspired and excited that people as popular and fundamentally cool as SOPHIE and her colleagues in PC Music are interested in the same things that interest my admittedly niche world. The results surely sound different, and the audiences and vibes don’t share too much in common. But I’m glad to hear people from inside and outside the academy looking for new ways to stretch our imaginations and re-conceive of sound, to in essence return magic back into a world so increasingly saturated by the rigid, the plastic, the machine. ▩

Footnotes

1 A big one being that PC Music, like most popular music, tends to have a firm, predictable beat, which has been a sort of taboo for Western composers for a few decades.
2 The “equivalence” of notes in different registers is an implicit axiom of Serialism.
3 A beginning, a middle that develops the beginning material somehow, and an ending that recalls the beginning (the “recapitulation”).
4 A sound engineering effect that gradually enables more and more of the spectra of a sound to become audible.
5 Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique.

Adam Strawbridge is pursuing a doctorate in music composition and theory at UC Davis.

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