A Note on Mario Davidovsky’s “Space-Farbenmelodien”

Matthew Greenbaum

Mario Davidovsky (b. 1934) is regarded as an important pioneer of electronic music. He is best known for his twelve Synchronisms (1962-present) in which acoustic instruments are paired with fixed electronic sound. Davidovsky’s innovations are essentially musical rather than technical: he has created a personal language made up of hybrid electronic and instrumental sound elements, creating ‘meta-instruments,’ and characterized by constant shifts in time/spatial perspective, timbre, and narrative continuity.  This language characterizes Synchronisms #10 (1992) for guitar and pre-recorded electronic sound.

Born in Medanos, Argentina, March 4, 1934, Mario Davidovsky is the son of immigrant Polish-Jewish parents who arrived in Argentina at the turn of the century. Aaron Copland invited Davidovsky as a Fellow to Tanglewood for a performance of his Noneto in 1958. Working closely with Copland, Davidovsky met Milton Babbitt, and in 1960 he returned to the United States under a succession of Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He has remained there since. Davidovsky is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He is the former Director of the Columbia/Princeton Electronic Music Center. Synchronisms No. 6 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1971.

The title “Synchronisms” refers to the integration of electronic and acoustic sound, to the synchronization of the player and prerecorded sound by means of a carefully notated score, and to the interpenetration of different temporal levels active throughout each piece.

There are excellent recordings of many of the Synchronisms; but recordings can’t replace the experience of live performances of these works because the composer’s manipulation of acoustical space is an essential part of their composition, and this physical space can’t be captured in a recording studio. Davidovsky remarked:  “I started to think about space in the same way that Schoenberg taught me about klangfarbenmelodie. I was thinking about ‘spacefarbenmelodie,’ with space being almost like a color.” This spatial manipulation recalls Edgard Varèse’s concept of sound projection, where different sound strata are projected by dynamics, envelope and concentration of frequencies, so that events are heard “in front of” each other as well as superimposed on each other.  With the addition of stereo space, a composer can not only place electronic sound in a particular location, but also move it at any speed across the stereo spectrum.

The creation of “meta-instruments” is another of the most salient features of the Synchronisms.  In Synchronisms No. 6 for piano, he writes, “In this particular piece, the electronic sounds in many instances modulate the acoustical characteristics of the piano by affecting its decay and attack characteristics. The electronic segment should perhaps not be viewed as an independent polyphonic line, but rather as if it were inlaid into the piano part.”

Disjunction is a characteristic feature of Davidovsky’s music for purely acoustic instruments as well as electronic music; indeed, much of his instrumental music draws on ideas he developed in the electronic medium. Dramatic registral, timbral and dynamic shifts project the pitch structure.  Davidovsky thinks of each of his works as a multiple narrative, as he explains in the following remarks:

I will begin the piece, more often than not, with a statement like a motive. I try to make a statement in a similar manner to how Beethoven would present a theme in a symphony–very consistent and cohesive and natural and elegant. In my case, I will construct that kind of statement out of motives that are essentially very different from each other. You could say that each of those motives have their own implied rhythm, their own implied harmony, even their own character. Then what I do, more or less looking back at Beethoven, is to take those motives, and actually generate a different piece of music. Instead of constructing voice leading, I will develop strata. You could say that Carter does stratification, but the difference is that Elliott seems to talk about each instrument as a different person. In a way, my case involves one person telling four stories–the one person is the remnant of the voice leading. What I like to think I do is that each of those motives develops their own trajectory. It’s almost like super-glorified voices that develop a simultaneous story. Even though they might seem completely unrelated, eventually the four voices come together. Let’s go back to the bunch of motives that I have in my theme, one is sweet, etc… As the process of the piece begins, take the sweet guy, rework the material in such a way that it becomes bitter. The next time, go back and make it dancing and funny. What I like to do expressively is take all of these motives that have a certain character and make them imitate every character that exists in the commedia dell’arte so to speak. To a certain extent, when you get to the end of the piece, all the motives equal one, like very different types of brick building materials that are capable of transfiguration. In that context, all the materials are mastered and twisted, and by the end they are very at peace with each other. I use this approach as a way to compensate for the fact that I have chosen not to use triadic harmony.

Despite all this, Mario’s music is essentially lyrical, with constant veiled references to the Classical tradition, especially the Beethoven Quartets. The 10th Synchronism is clearly an homage, if not to the Flamenco tradition itself, then to some characteristic features of Flamenco guitar technique.


The 10th Synchronism is an excellent introduction to Davidovsky’s musical world.

The electronic portion of the work is unusual in that it is partially made from pre-recorded acoustic material, including highly modified guitar samples; while previous Synchronisms had been created in a “classical” electronic music studio, by recording and splicing electronically generated sound.

The guitar is alone for more or less the first two-fifths of the piece. In its opening measures it introduces motives that will dominate both domains (See A, Example 1.)  Each idea in this solo passage has an analogue and development in the electronic sound component. In fact, the guitar itself functions as a kind of “natural” electronic music studio. Its sudden timbral and dynamic shifts (See B, C, Example 1) can be heard as projecting certain sounds toward the listener.  The guitar part is made up of “sound objects” to the degree that  a first-time listener might mistakenly believe that the electronic sound has entered before it actually appears. Since the electronic sound enters al niente, this confusion will not be resolved until it reaches the same dynamic level as the guitar

Example 1: Synchronisms #10 mm. 1-18. Motives; sudden dynamic and timbral shifts

The connection between the sonic shapes of the guitar solo and the electronic sound is not completely evident until the electronic part becomes more active, where disruptive guitar punctuations, now linked to electronic sounds, seem to project into stereo space, as in the climactic passage below:

Example 2: Synchronisms #10 mm. 122-124

These marked distinctions in dynamic levels create different levels of spatial projection, magnified by the electronic sound.

A number of features common to all the Synchronisms appear in this passage, each making use of the specific acoustical problem of its acoustical instrument:

    • The modification of the attack and decay characteristics of the guitar by the electronic sound: note the sustained electronic pitches in the beginning of this example, which form the decay of the tremolo figure and also the attack and decay of the secco event. (‘meta-instruments’)
    • Voice passing, especially in the last two measures
    • The amalgam of fast-paced acoustical and electronic ideas
    • The exchange of color and function between the guitar and electronic sound, where the guitar becomes a “generator” of characteristic electronic sound, while the electronic sound takes on guitar-like qualities.

The characteristic eloquence of Davidovsky’s Synchronism is built on dramatic gesture, humor, nostalgia and many unnamable qualities.  They would remain integral to this music even without Davidovsky’s interest in “’space’-farbenmelodie.” But these qualities are magnified and animated by his concern to place every gesture in a distinct spatial location, relative to the other events surrounding them. To trace a musical line through its spatial dimension is one of the characteristic pleasures of the Synchronisms.