François-Xavier Féron

Le son d’une voix (1964) by François-Bernard Mâche: the introduction of the Sona-Graph in the composer’s workshop

Just before World War II, American researchers started to develop a new device intended to visualize the internal structure of sounds. Because of related war interests it was given official rating as a war project, and progressed significantly during the war period. This device originally named “Visible speech” was brought to public attention in 1945 [1] and was commercialized in 1951 as the Sona-Graph by Electric Kay Company. This automatic system aimed to translate sound into patterns which could be readily interpreted by the eye: these patterns called sound spectrograms are visual representations of the spectrum of frequencies of the signal as they vary with time. At this time, inventors underlined that the possible uses of this device were numerous but they did not suspect that it would impact the history of music.

Spectralism is an influent musical movement developed in France at the beginning of the 1970s. It is based, in part, on transcriptions of sound spectrograms. But before the emergence of this movement, François-Bernard Mâche was the first composer to resort to a Sona-Graph for composing music. In 1964, thanks to this device, he analysed the sound of his voice and transcribed the data into musical notes: Le son d’une voix for 15 instruments prefigures the spectral movement. Despite its pioneer dimension, this piece was never released as a recording and little is known about the creative process. How could Mâche have access to a Sona-Graph at a time where only few scientific laboratories could afford to buy such an expensive device? How did he recite the poem Poésie ininterrompue II by Paul Eluard and how did he proceed in releasing the spectrograms knowing that the Sona-Graph could theoretically only analyse 2,45 seconds of sound. Which elements of the spectrograms were transcribed? Did he only translate the frequencies or did he also consider rhythmic articulations and dynamics fluctuations?

To address these questions, we consulted Mâche’s writings [2, 3, 4, 5] and realised that the composer never really detailed the compositional processes. He only gave in the last edition of the book Musique – Mythe – Nature [4] a table indicating how vowels and consonant were attributed to different instrumental sounds. Therefore we conducted a long interview with the composer at his domicile in Paris during which he explained how he conducted his first spectral analysis in a zoology laboratory before using the Sona-Graph of the Groupe de Recherche Musicale founded by Pierre Schaeffer. He also detailed the creative process of this piece building on the score and an original audio recording.

During our presentation, we will first review Mâche’s first artisanal attempts to transcribe voice into music in Safous Mélê (1958-59) and La Peau du silence (1962). Then, we will bring together our original data to decipher the creative process of Le Son d’une voix, underlining how the composer resorted for the first time in the history of music to a Sonagraph in order to refine his spectral analysis and open the door to the world of instrumental resynthesis [6, 7].



[1] Ralph K. Potter, “Visible patterns of sound”, Science, 102(2654), 1945, p.463-470

[2] François-Bernard Mâche, Cent opus et leurs échos, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012

[3] François-Bernard Mâche, Entre l’observatoire et l’atelier, Paris: Kimé, 1998

[4] François-Bernard Mâche, Musique – Mythe – Nature, Aedam Musicae (5e ed.), 2015

[5] François-Bernard Mâche, Le sonore et l’universel: écrits au tournant du XXIe siècle, Paris: éditions des archives contemporaines, 2018

[6] Nicolas Donin, “Sonic Imprints: Instrumental Resynthesis in Contemporary Composition”. In Gianmario Borio (ed.) Musical Listening in the Age of Technological Reproducibility, Farnham/Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014

[7] James O’Callaghan, “Mimetic Instrumental Resynthesis”, Organised Sound 20(2), 2015, p.231–240


STMS – CNRS, IRCAM, Sorbonne University, France

Has a Master’s degree (university Paris VI) in musical acoustics and a PhD in musicology (university Paris IV). He then joined the team Analyse des Pratiques Musicales at Ircam as a postdoctoral fellow within the MuTeC project (2009-2011) – which aims to study the creative process in music –, then the GEMME project (2012- 2015) – which examines the use of gestures in contemporary music. Since 2013, he has been a tenured researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He worked at the Laboratoire Bordelais de Recherche en Informatique and the Studio de Cre!ation et de Recherche en Informatique et Musiques Expe!rimentales (LaBRI-SCRIME, UMR 5800, Bordeaux University) before coming back in 2018 to the team Analyse des Pratiques Musicales (STMS-Ircam, UMR 9912, Sorbonne University). Since 2015 he is also member of the CIRMMT.