updated 2 January 2014
© Alix Laveau

Marc-André Dalbavie

French composer born 10 February 1961 in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Marc-André Dalbavie was born in France in 1961 and studied at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMDP) with Marius Constant (orchestration) and Pierre Boulez (conducting).

From 1985 to 1990, he was a part of the musical research department of the IRCAM, where he explored digital synthesis and computer-assisted composition. The first work he created at the IRCAM, Diadèmes, brought him international attention, and is a regular feature in the touring repertoire of the Ensemble intercontemporain.

In 1992-1993 he traveled to Berlin on a fellowship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), and in 1995-1996, he was a resident of the Villa Médicis in Rome. He has taught orchestration at the Conservatoire de Paris since 1996.

Marc-André Dalbavie won the Composition Prize of the Salzburg Easter Festival and in 1998 was named “Best Young Composer of the Year” by USA Today. In 1998-99 he was a composer-in-residence with the Cleveland Orchestra, and in 2000, he was a composer-in-residence with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. For four seasons starting in 2001, he was a composer-in-residence with the Orchestre de Paris. He was the guest of honor of the Présences de Radio France Festival in 2005. In 2010, he was awarded the SACEM’s Grand Prix for symphonic music.

Dalbavie has successfully opened contemporary music in many different directions, and this has made him one of the most widely performed composers of his generation. He has received commissions from the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Orchestre de Paris, the BBC Symphony, the Montreal Symphony, and the Tokyo Philharmonic, and from musical institution such as Carnegie Hall, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, the London Proms, the Aspen Music Festival, the Marlboro Festival, and the the Cité de la musique in Paris.

Marc-André Dalbavie’s work is based on research into timbre and the phenomenon of sound as they are linked to electronics. Notably, he relies on the notion of process and spectral writing, which he seeks to develop and expand to other musical parameters. Space is another central preoccupation for him, and his compositions include a number of spatialized acoustic piecces that give the listener a sense of being immersed in a space that is in continuous transformation: in Non-lieu (1997), for example, the stage is empty, and the performers - four women’s choirs and an instrumental ensemble - are located throughout the hall, surrounding the audience. Some of his pieces are written specifically for the halls or venues in which they are premiered, and some of them are in situ works in the vein of the visual art of Daniel Buren, modifying the very context of the traditional concert. Thus, Mobiles (2001) for choir and orchestra was composed specifically for the performance space at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, while Rocks under the Water (2002) was written for the Peter Lewis residence in Cleveland, designed by the architect Frank O. Gehry.

In parallel to this approach, Dalbavie’s work seeks to exploit the full potential of the orchestra, from sonic diffraction to full orchestral sound, applying an overall principle of “morphing” to glide between the two. Pieces for orchestra include his Sinfonietta, which premiered at the Festival Présences in 2005, Variations orchestrales sur une œuvre de Janáček, which premiered at Century Hall in Tokyo in 2006, and La Source d’un regard, which premiered in a performance by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, conducted by George Benjamin, in 2007.

His innovative approach has allowed him to lift several modernist taboos, including a return to consonance and sounding rhythmic pulsation, which he redeployed in concertos such as Concerto for piano (2005) and Concerto for flûte (2006), and in certain chamber music pieces, such as Trio n°1 (2008) and Quatuor avec piano (2011), as well as to melodic fluidity in vocal performances, through a rethinking of the relationship between text and music. After Sonnets de Louise Labé for countertenor and orchestra (2008), he wrote his first opera, Gesualdo, which premiered in Zurich in 2010.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2011


  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Guy LELONG, Le son en tout sens, entretiens, Paris, Gérard Billaudot éditeur, 2005 ;
  • Marc-André Dalbavie, coll. « Les cahiers de l’Ircam, Compositeurs d’aujourd’hui » n°2, Ircam - Centre Pompidou, 1993 ;
  • France Musique ;
  • Médiathèque de la Cité de la musique.

By Philippe Lalitte

Marc-André Dalbavie’s education, at the Conservatoire de Paris (CNSMDP), was well-grounded and wide-ranging; he studied analysis with Betsy Jolas and Claude Ballif, composition with Michel Philippot, orchestration with Marius Constant, and electroacoustics with Guy Reibel), as well as composition with Franco Donatoni, computer music with Tristan Murail, and orchestral conducting with Pierre Boulez. When Dalbavie encountered spectral music in the early 1980s, the young composer saw a new landscape open up for him. Beyond new compositional techniques, working from a rational approach to sound, Grisey and Murail forged a new understanding of composition that focuses on sound phenomena. Dalbavie took up this understanding, approaching composition by placing “sound at the heart of the music, and perception at the summit of composers’ preoccupations1”. The influence of spectralism can be felt in his works from the 1980s, such as Les Paradis mécaniques (1981-83) for piano and ensemble, or Les Miroirs transparents (1985) for orchestra, in which Dalbavie experimented with the technique of instrumental synthesis and the notion of process. His time at IRCAM from 1985 to 1990 allowed him to explore computer-assisted composition and to closely investigate questions of formalization. Diadèmes, for processed solo viola, electronics, and instrumental ensemble (1986), is thus built on the opposition between sound materials of instrumental and electronic origin, as well as on attempts to bring these two worlds together using live processing of the soloist’s performance using a harmonizer, reverb, and echo effects.

While the theories of spectral music were Dalbavie’s starting point, he soon pushed beyond them. Also composed at IRCAM, Seuils for soprano, ensemble, and electronics (1991-1993) marked a key turning point in his evolution as a composer in this sense. With the help of Jan Vandenheede, he designed the electronic part of the score with the intent of forging a tight link between timbre and harmony. The acoustic signatures of the viola, piano, harp, gong, bell, and double bass were modelled to foster fusion between the piece’s instrumental and the electronic dimensions. By the same token, the integration of the vocal part into the harmonic material was accomplished meticulously, using an acoustical analysis of verses written by Guy Lelong. The piece also marked the beginning of Dalbavie’s work with spatialization, and each musical object was assigned a specific movement through space, based on its morphology. The composer also pushed much further with his polyphonic conception of process, which he had begun with Diadèmes. The interaction between localized processes and broader ones led him to create polyphonic or heterophonic layouts that made it possible for him to foster unpredictability where one would expect predictability. With Seuils, Dalbavie traced out the broad lines of the aesthetic path he would travel in the coming years.

Fictive acoustics

Dalbavie’s encounter with Jean-Marie Adrien, an acoustics expert at IRCAM, was another major turning point for the composer, leading him to an acute awareness that sound cannot exist without space. Indeed, an instrument’s timbral identity depends not only on its spectral and morphological traits, but also on the way its sound radiates and interacts with a space’s acoustics. From this, Dalbavie concluded that any form of spectral thinking requires spatial thinking, as well – a dimension neglected by most spectral composers. This led Dalbavie to try to transpose the continuity between timbre and space into the field of composition by simulating phenomena such as resonance, dispersion, reverberation, or echo. Resonance occurs when a system receives energy at a frequency close to its fundamental vibrational frequency (its resonance frequency). Greater or lesser amplification of the vibration occurs depending on the proximity of the frequency to the system’s resonance frequency. Dalbavie crafted a metaphorical expression of these phenomena by writing with polarities, which he refers to as the pole or the axis of resonance, which emerge from harmony and texture. The principle of the pole of resonance is not fully congruent with that of the tenor in modal music, the tonic in tonal music, or the pivot note in atonal music. It is not a simple, continuous sound, but rather a sound that interacts with its environment, similar to sympathetic string resonance. Poles of resonance thus exert a powerful attractive force, as in the opening of Concerto for violin and orchestra (1996), where one acts as a magnet for the soloist. These poles might be chosen “arbitrarily,” as they were in the concerto for orchestra The Dream of the Unified Space (1999), borrowed from the row Webern used in Konzert, Op. 24, or in Mobiles for 4 choirs of 4 vocalists and instrumental ensemble (2001), taken from a Pérotin organum. Poles may also be taken from the acoustics of a given space, such as those in Concertate il suono for orchestra (2000), which are derived from the resonance frequencies of Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. Such an approach drew Dalbavie beyond the opposition between tonality and atonality and toward a continuity that is part of the far vaster landscape of resonance. His music began to include moments he called “phenomena of coincidence”, in which material belonging to modal or tonal music emerges. This approach gives him permission to include a simple D minor triad, for example, in Color (2001) for orchestra; or to cite the Gesualdo madrigal “Beltà, poi che t’assenti” in Palimpseste (2002-2004) for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, viola, and cello; or to base his Offertoire (1995) for men’s choir and orchestra on a 9th-century Gregorian chant; or even to compose his Variations orchestrales sur une œuvre de Janáček (2006) on the fourth movement of Janáček’s piano cycle In the Mists.

Phenomena of sound propagation nourish the composer’s imagination, planting seeds from which he grew techniques for composition and orchestration. One also finds delay effects in his music that can thicken the sound or create spatialized echoes of brief motives, as well as sonic halos made of low-intensity echos, scales rotating in the space, resonances coagulating into harmonies, etc. The artifices he employs in his writing are not purely metaphorical, however, in that they are completely audible. The reverb and echo effects at the beginning of his Concerto for violin are a particularly convincing example. What makes such procedures interesting is the way they make it possible to push beyond the limits of acoustic reality to invent fictive spaces. In pieces such as The Dream of the Unified Space or Concertate il suono, several types of delay of varying length are layered over each other to create the impression of a multitude of more or less chaotic reflections. Definitively, Dalbavie’s orchestration has become “the writing of fictive acoustics2”. His vast knowledge of the orchestra (he is, at the time of this writing, professor of orchestration at the Paris Conservatory), combined with these techniques inspired by phenomena of sound propagation, have allowed him to take a radically different approach to orchestration that still honors its history.

Spatialized orchestra

After using quadriphonic spatialization in Seuils, Dalbavie turned his focus to the spatial arrangement of musicians to inject new life into the dramaturgy of the concerto. In his Concerto for violin, the musicians are divided into two orchestras, one on stage with the soloist and the other spread out around the audience in the first balcony, upending the visual and auditory focus on the soloist. While the first part of the piece hews to the “traditional” model of a concerto for soloist by calling on the stage performers only, in the second part, little by little, the instrumentalists in the hall begin to play. The typical finale, meant to showcase the soloist’s virtuosity, is abandoned here: instead, the soloist is progressively absorbed into the collective, using the performance space as a means to do so. For Dalbavie, when the frontal arrangement is altered, “the concerto’s own form dislocates itself3”. In very concrete terms, the composer has replaced the conventional struggle between soloist and orchestra with a struggle between the soloist and the space. The same happens in Antiphonie (1999), a double concerto for clarinet, basset horn, and two spatialized orchestras: during its first performance, by the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie conducted by Shao-Chia Lü at the Festhalle Zweibrücken, one orchestra with soloist was located in front of the audience, and the other behind. The spatial arrangement of the orchestra in Concertate il suono allowed Dalbavie to expand the principle of the concerto grosso. Indeed, the main concertino, which performs from the stage, is augmented by placing three other concertinos at different points around the audience. Additionally, four horns stationed around the audience echo the brass section of the ripieno. The dialogue among the different concertinos and the ripieno in the first part leads to the fusion of the concertinos in the second part. Dalbavie has even created in situ works, written specifically for certain spaces. Mobiles (2001), for sixteen voices and orchestra, was specially created for the concert hall of the Cité de la musique in Paris, and theoretically cannot be performed anywhere else, because the placement of the musicians makes use of the hall’s orchestra seats, balconies, and upper level. The Rocks under the Water (2002) was composed for the opening of the Peter B. Lewis Building of the Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio, designed by Frank O. Gehry. The composer’s aim was to follow Gehry’s architectural vision, which planned for the visitor’s progressive discovery of the place. He did so by placing different instrumental groupings throughout the building so that the audience could experience the music as they walked through it. There, too, the acoustic specificities of the space influenced the composition’s harmonic design.

This attention to spatialized concert music dominated Dalbavie’s approach in the 1990s. More recently, his music has returned to frontal layouts for both orchestral and chamber or vocal music. Dalbavie has become interested in “perspectivist” writing, in which he no longer seeks to burst open the orchestra, and rather explores the notion of depth, as one hears in works such as Color (Orchestre de Paris, 2001), Ciaccona (Hamburger Symphoniker, 2002), Sinfonietta (Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, 2004), Concerto for piano and orchestra (BBC Orchestra, 2005), Concerto for flute (Berlin Philharmoniker, 2006), Variations orchestrales sur une œuvre de Janáček (Tokyo Philharmonic, 2006), La Source d’un regard (Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 2007), or Sonnets de Louise Labé for counter-tenor and orchestra (Orchestre national de Lyon, 2008).

Process polyphony

Dalbavie first encountered the idea of composition by process in the music of Ligeti, and then in spectral music. Literature, however, and notably works such as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Claude Simon’s Leçons de choses, in which time and narration are tangled together, has had an even stronger influence in Dalbavie’s turn toward a polyphonic understanding of process. The basic principle of process – shared by minimalist and spectral composers – is the reiteration of a sound object undergoing continuous transformations. The composer can take advantage of repetition to facilitate memorization, even as the transformations alter the sound’s identity without necessarily destroying it. Often, Dalbavie adds a spatial dimension to harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic processes. Sound objects, as they are being transformed, also give the illusion of moving through space. Faithful to his principle of continuity between timbre and space, the composer pairs each process with a specific spatial behaviour that helps it to be identified each time it recurs. As a result, Dalbavie explains, “the sensation produced is not that of a simple sound set in motion, but rather that of a sound projected into space4”.

Dalbavie precisely manages the organization of nested processes in his compositions. The goal is not merely to control the emergence of a given process within an overall texture, as one would observe in the mixing of different recorded tracks, but rather to plan for their interactions. Moreover, as with counterpoint, the composer must establish rules that detail all possible relationships between any given process and another. Interactions between processes, whether simple or complex, give rise to phenomena of fusion, derivation, incrustation, contamination… which become the basis for the formal dramaturgy. This process polyphony makes it possible to play with layering lines of the sounding flux. This phenomenon has been widely studied in psychoacoustics and music psychology, notably by Albert Bregman5. Certain hints help the ear to pick out simultaneous or sequential groupings. Most of the time, these hints converge on a single solution. Occasionally, however, the hints are conflicting, creating an ambiguous sound image. What results are situations in which several interpretations are possible, giving rise to the emergence of auditory illusions. The interactions among different harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, dynamic, and spatial parameters, controlled by the score, allow Dalbavie to make the perceived result both richer and even more ambiguous. Taking advantage of the polyphonic dimension of process-based composition, Dalbavie has succeeded in creating conditions in which interactions, intersections, convergences, and coincidences become possible, producing strong perceptive and cognitive potential. “The more complex a work is in its perception-related functions,” he has said, “the more it allows for variety in relationships, both cognitive and aesthetic6”. Process polyphony, as well as all of the other innovations described above, make Dalbavie’s music among the most original in the contemporary music world. Thanks to the openness of his understanding of creation, he has succeeded in crossing aesthetic divides, as one perceives in his opera Gesualdo for eight voices and orchestra (2010), with a libretto by Richard Millet, or in his quartet for piano and strings (2011). This new modernity, similar to the work of Buren, has a sense of immediacy that in no way compromises complexity and refinement.

  1. Marc-André Dalbavie, Marc-André Dalbavie, texts collected by Danielle Cohen-Levinas and Risto Nieminen, Les cahiers de l’ircam, Compositeurs d’aujourd’hui, Ircam/Centre Georges Pompidou, 1993, p. 13.
  2. Marc-André Dalbavie, Le son en tout sens, Paris, Gérard Billaudot Editeur, 2005, p. 91.
  3. Ibid., p. 52.
  4. Ibid., p. 50.
  5. Albert S. Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1990.
  6. Omer Corlaix, “De l’in situ à l’opéra interactif : entretien avec Marc-André Dalbavie, Patrice Hamel, Guy Lelong,” Musica Falsa, N. 20, “Opéra,” September 2004, p. 102.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2013



  • Guy LELONG, Marc-André DALBAVIE, Le son en tout sens, [entretiens], Paris, Gérard Billaudot éditeur, 2005.
  • Véronique BRINDEAU, Accents. La revue de l’Ensemble Intercontemporain, n° 14, 2001, p. 7.
  • Hélène CAO, « Marc-André Dalbavie, ou le son en fusion », Analyse musicale, n° 66, septembre 2011, pp. 97-99.
  • Danielle COHEN-LEVINAS et Nieminen RISTO (éds.), Marc-André Dalbavie, Paris, IRCAM, 1993.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Patrice HAMEL, Guy LELONG, « De l’in situ à l’opéra interactif », [entretiens], propos recueillis par Omer Corlaix, dans Musica Falsa n° 20 « opéra /opéras », automne 2004, p. 99-111.
  • Sylviane FALCINELLI, « Marc-André Dalbavie ou la perception réhabilitée : entretien du 27 mai 2010 », L’Education musicale, sept-oct 2011, pp. 92-100.
  • Guy LELONG, « De la musique spectrale à Marc-André Dalbavie », Analyse musicale, n° 66, septembre 2011, pp. 90-96.
  • Guy LELONG, Révolutions sonores : de Mallarmé à la musique spectrale : une théorie des rapports texte/musique/contexte, Paris, MF, 2010.
  • Cécile REYNAUD (Ed.), Color de Marc-André Dalbavie, Paris, Scérén-CNDP, 2011.
  • Marc-André Dalbavie, coll. « Les cahiers de l’Ircam, Compositeurs d’aujourd’hui » n°2, Ircam - Centre Pompidou, 1993.


  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Color, Orchestre philharmonique de Slovenie, direction : Emmanuel Villaume, 1 cd Emi Music France (coll. baccalauréat), 2011.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Variations orchestrales ; Sinfonietta ; Rocks under the water, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, direction : Marc-André Dalbavie, 1 cd Ameson, 2009, ASCP 0711.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Concerto pour piano, dans « Leif Ove Andsnes - Shadows of Silence », Leif Ove Andsnes : piano, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, direction : Franz Welser-Möst, avec des œuvres de Kurtág, Lutoslawski et Sørensen, 1 cd EMI classic, 2009, n° 2641822.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Concerto pour flûte, Emmanuel Pahud, Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, direction : Peter Eötvös, avec les concertos pour flûte de Michael Jarrell et Mathias Pintscher, 1 cd EMI classic, 2008, n° 5012262.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Palimpseste ; Trio ; Tactus ; In advance of the broken time, l’Itinéraire, direction : Mark Foster, 1 cd Soupir Edition Nocturne S209, 2006.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Antiphonie ; The Dream of the Unified Space ; Concertate il suono, orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, direction : Pascal Rophé, 1 cd Radio France.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Color ; Concerto pour violon ; Ciaccona, Eiichi Chijiiwa, violon, Orchestre de Paris, direction : Christoph Eschenbach, 1 cd Naïve, 2005, MO 782162.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Les Paradis Mécaniques, ensemble Musique Oblique, direction : Marc-André Dalbavie, 1 cd Accord - Una Corda / MFA, 1996, 201272.
  • Marc-André DALBAVIE, Seuils ; Diadèmes, Ensemble intercontemporain, direction : Pierre Boulez, 1 cd Ircam - Centre Pompidou, Universal, 1996.

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