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  • The Breath of Sound
  • Tatiana Catanzaro (bio)

In the late sixties, Jean-Claude Risset and Max V. Mathews established through their computer synthesis studies of a trumpet tone that "temporal changes bear strongly on tone quality." This discovery revolutionized our understanding of timbre, discarding once and for all the assumption that "tone quality is associated solely with the frequency spectrum of the wave shape" (Risset and Mathews 1969, 24).

Risset and Mathews teach us that the breath of sound lies in its evolution over time. My obsession as a composer is to transfer this idea back to the field of composition: I aim to inscribe the flow of time into the structure of my music. Metaphorically, this phenomenon represents the constitution of life itself to me—the body as shaped by the flow of time.

But how can we approach time? How can we grasp it? How can a composer dramatize it or transform it into musical material that can be manipulated in a concrete fashion? How can we engrave the very breath of sound into a score? These questions have absorbed me since the first day I [End Page 165] began composing, but my initial way of approaching them was completely empirical. After some years, it became the object of deep intellectual and aesthetic research, something that has absorbed me for the last 15 years of my life. To understand how I tackled these questions, it is first of all necessary to understand the main differences between conceptions of timbre—and, consequently, of time—before and after Risset and Mathews published their research.

Some Historical Remarks

Frame of Reference

According to the French astrophysicist Marc Lachièze-Rey, our intuitive understanding of time corresponds, to a great extent, to the definition proposed by Isaac Newton in his Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1995, 81–82). Newton states that there is an "absolute, true, and mathematical time" that "flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration," and a "relative, apparent, and common time" that measures duration in an accurate or unequable way by "means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year" ([1687] 1846, 77).

In creating this bifurcation, Newton asserts the existence of a true time in opposition to a common time.1 In fact, as the French physicist Étienne Klein has observed, Newton's merit is to have understood that physical time has none of the properties that common language attributes to it; or, in other words, that his virtue is to have known how to strip time of its multiplicity of meanings that includes things as diverse as succession, simultaneity, duration, change, becoming, and aging (2013). These meanings only signal the phenomenological consequences that the passage of time has on our lives but do not say anything about time in itself. For Newton, on the contrary, "time is the only thing in the universe that does not change, since it does not change its way of being the time" (Klein 2009, 25). It is this characteristic that will enable the establishment of a true or absolute time, that "flows [End Page 166] equably without regard to anything external," and the later foundation of classical mechanics.

Although his definition revolutionized modern science, Newton did not produce his theory without precedent. The formalization of the concept of a mathematical time was only possible thanks to the work of other scientists—most notably Galileo and René Descartes. The first step toward this shift in our conception of time (from a guideline for citizens in the social world—a common time—to the concept of an absolute time) was in fact taken by Galileo. Although he still identifies time as a parameter deeply connected to the knowledge of bodies materialized by a sense of motion, in a 1604 letter to Italian scientist Paolo Sarpi he was able, through the problem of falling bodies, to understand that

the spaces passed by natural motion are in double proportion to the times, and consequently the spaces passed in equal times are as the odd numbers from one, and...


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