Encoding Post-Spectral Sound: Kaija Saariaho’s Early Electronic Works at IRCAM, 1982–87

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Landon Morrison


This article examines early computer-based music (ca. 1982–87) created by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. A detailed account of archival materials for an early étude in voice synthesis, Vers le blanc (1982), demonstrates the music-theoretical import of software to Saariaho’s development of a robust compositional method that resonated with the emergent aesthetics of a post-spectral milieu. Subsequent analyses of two later works from this period—Jardin secret II (1984–86) for harpsichord and tape, and IO (1987) for large ensemble and electronics—serve to illustrate Saariaho’s extension of this method into instrumental settings. Specific techniques highlighted include the use of interpolation systems to create continuous processes of transformation, the organization of individual musical parameters into multidimensional formal networks, and the exploration of harmonic structures based on the analysis of timbral phenomena. Relating these techniques to the affordances of contemporaneous IRCAM technologies, including CHANT, FORMES, and Saariaho’s own customized program, “transkaija,” the author argues for an approach to archival research that is responsive to the diverse media artifacts associated with computer-based composition.

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