Acoustics, Not Theatre


Adrian Knight



Sound, time and space are our way of dividing a multidimensional reality into manageable subunits. Sound in time and space constitute what we call music. This text will primarily deal with the fact that of these three subunits, space is the most complex, and also most dependent on social and architectural necessity and availability: "through this small intervention of man, a fragment of the vast space of nature becomes a place, in the sense that, from this moment on, it distinguishes itself from the rest of the surrounding space through a certain symbolic or physical quality."(1)

Space is also the component of music that attracts the least attention among composers in the sense that it is not usually treated as a real musical parameter in the way that melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and timbral qualities are. In fact, none of these traditional musical parameters can exist without the space, and the space commands them: a space can change everything. Moreover, the mood of an artificial (the term "artificial" is used only to distinguish it from a natural acoustic space, or "outdoors") space is determined by lights and shadows, smell, the materials used in the furniture and structure of the building. I would like to advocate for an increased consciousness about space and its profound impact on our experiences.


Sound, time and space

It is difficult to say when man became conscious of sound, time and space. Which came first? It is likely that primitive cultures found it impossible and impractical to separate the three. Sound acts as a guide to location in space – and as such, sound and space are inextricably linked – and time, being the most abstract human construct, can perhaps more accurately be described in terms of direction in space; that is, the experience of a process or a cycle, like the sun going up in the morning and setting in the evening. Without the experience of the process, the notion of time is useless. So the idea of sound in space, and the idea of time, originate in our instinctive experience of the physical world, and their division into separate subunits serves to clarify this. In reality, the experience, if strong enough, will cause this separation to be bypassed, because, in a sense, the mystery is part of what makes music exciting.


Space becomes a contextual and visual concern

Our experience of music is dependent on a number of factors (these factors will vary from person to person, and also from time to time for any single individual): cultural and social context, live performance or recorded media, emotional context, but arguably the most important dependency is space. Experiments with space have been made since the advance of establishment. The term establishment can refer to a religious institution, a national radio broadcasting network, or an opera house. The idea here is that an institution provides the necessary resources to carry out experiments with space. Concert houses are, because of their one-dimensionality (their sole purpose is to showcase classical music repertoire, and sometimes academic jazz music), rarely supportive of experiments with anything at all. Sometimes a living composer is commissioned to write a symphonic work for the orchestra in the concert house, but the living composer is always at the mercy of a dead composer, who will also be featured on the program.

One of the most oft-cited pioneers of spatialisation in music is Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612), whose use of the two choir lofts in the Saint Marks Basilica in Venice represents a true concern for space, and indeed, the use of space as a musical parameter equivalent to melody, harmony and rhythm. It is difficult to say why, but the idea of space as a musical parameter is never quite accepted, perhaps due to practical concerns. In fact, space slowly becomes, with the advance of opera, a contextual concern rather than a musical one; the set, the colours, the lighting – in short, space, previously an acoustic concern, is now a visual, and therefore a contextual, exploration.



I would like to suggest, along the lines of Marshall McLuhan, that from the outset of Western civilisation, we have lived in a world of visual overstimulation, even "in a state of hypnosis," and that in the 20th and 21st centuries, the constant storm of visual information, now approaching noise, conquered the possibility of defining an independent acoustic space once and for all.(2) This is where the idea of the image comes in; an image is a manifestation of an abstract human construct, and as such an artificial, or filtered, rendering of our impression of the physical world. I'd like to include the written word in this category. Language is now a perpetual feedback loop: the spoken word feeds into the written word, and the written word continually changes how we speak.

The result of the storm of visual information is that our impression of the physical world drastically adjusts to fit that which we imagined. Our senses adjust to the image. And for a little over 100 years now, we have been able to capture an "image" of sound, too, and the same thing has happened to sound that happened to the visual image. We are no longer capable of separating the "image" of the sound from the sound itself, the source, as we are no longer capable of separating the "image" from the idea or physical object it is supposed to represent. When the image is disjointed from the source, that is decontextualised, and a number of images are layered or juxtaposed, we go from information to noise. The brain struggles to appreciate the meaning of the image, and in doing so it tries to determine its source. When the source is no longer present, no longer part of a context, the meaning is lost. In 1969, R. Murray Schafer coined the term "schizophonia" to describe this rupture.(3) In so many ways, these notions are largely the concerns of all disciplines of modern art; it deals with the examination of the physical world, including cultural phenomena, as filtered through human constructs.


Space as an image

If we think about visual and sonic information, their appropriation into images, and their subsequent distortion of our senses, it becomes clear that the same thing has happened to our notion of space. The appropriation and quantification of space through architecture, infrastructure, vehicles and industry all serve to create an image of reality as we experience it, a reality within reality, a space within a space, a molding of the physical world. In doing so, we in fact alter the physical world. The boundaries between the "artificial" and the "natural" are set in motion.


Space as an image in music making


Sound comes to us from above, below, and the sides.

- Marshall McLuhan, "Visual and Acoustic Space." (4)


I mentioned Giovanni Gabrieli, and with a few famous exceptions (including Bach in the St Matthew Passion and Mozart in Don Giovanni, where spatialisation is however mostly used as a dramatic device that underlines and clarifies the narrative), we are hard pressed to find any applications of the idea of space as a musical parameter (as a flexible, moldable, integrated aspect of music making) until the advent of electroacoustic music in the 1940s, when it quickly became an integral defining trait of postwar avantgardism, e.g. Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras, and numerous electroacoustic works for multi-channel speaker arrays.

The impracticalities of site-specific and spatialised works have been and continue to be an obstacle for composers and performers insofar that a separation of the sound from the space is impossible, and as such works may only be performed in a specific space. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is R. Murray Schafer's Patria, a cycle of (so far) ten music dramas or operas whose spatial and environmental concerns make Wagner look like an uninspired dabbler:


The work begins in the darkness before sunrise around a wilderness lake. At the beginning we hear the aria of the Princess drifting unaccompanied across the water ... Musicians and singers occupy the shores of the lake and masked actors and dancers move across the water in canoes in the archaic ritual of The Princess of the Stars.

- excerpt from the synopsis to Schafer's The Princess of the Stars.(5)


The difficulty for the "professional" composer lies in embracing the anti-Goethean idea that nothing stays forever, and that allowing one self to experience something in the here and now is more useful than to be concerned with any given work's relative potential durability. A site specific work can be a deep, meaningful experience. There can be a sense of inevitability to it, an expressive quality to its finality or apparent eternity (e.g. John Cage's ASLSP that will hit the final barline in the year of 2640). A work that takes the properties of a familiar space, e.g. a specific type of church, and incorporates these into its personality, is more portable, but nonetheless impractical.

Iannis Xenakis, also an architect who collaborated with Le Corbusier, worked intensely with space, sound, lights and projections in his series of large scale multimedia installations, polytopes (literally poly = many, topes = spaces), in the 1960s and 1970s. These works broke new ground and paved the way for the many forms of multimedia works that followed, but were made in a time when experimental arts had the (French) government's general blessing and financial support. (6)

The British composer Natasha Barrett works consciously with location and distance in space as narrative and expressive musical devices through the use of multichannel surround speaker setups (up to 16 channels). Again, where a sound is in relation to the listener is not separate from when and what it is. Many symphony orchestras deal with location and distance too, but its members, as well as many conductors and composers, only experience the problems inherent in trying to synchronise over 100 performers in spaces not necessarily built for the purpose.



It's worth remembering that while the findings at the early centers for electronic music in Paris and Cologne introduced the world to the notion that sound and its location and direction in space could be a real expressive musical parameter, the firstly monophonic and later stereophonic reproduction of sound on consumer audio systems have certainly changed our ears in terms of how we expect a live performance to sound. The experience of direction, location, natural reflections in a space, and distance – while fairly well represented using more recent recording techniques – are attributes of a physical acoustic space, and any attempt to reproduce that space is an image, an interpretation. It is a question of authenticity of intent, not a question of experience. The experience is always there to be had but is dramatically changed by the space. Headphones are the most extreme example of this, where an almost completely contained environment essentially replaces acoustic space with artificial space.

Recordings is now mainly how we ingest music, learn about it, experience it; and live performances – while still numerous and well frequented – are commanded by the recordings; they are at the mercy of recordings, even. In electronic and popular musics, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the image from the source, the original from the copy, the here from the before, the live from the prerecorded.


Acoustics, not theatre

Whenever the notion of the stage, and the gathering of a group of performers upon it, is challenged by the space wherein it is set, there is an element of theatre. Whenever performers move around in a space, or use "non-designated" areas, there is a sense of surprise. Why is this? "Sound comes to us from above, below, and the sides," its position is not fixed! Sound in space is an organic, flexible matter. Every day life proves this to us, all the time. The world is full of sounds from all directions. It helps us navigate. So why would we want to capture it? It is inevitable that all music on the deepest level comes out of the experience of the sounds in the physical world, that it is an image of what we hear in our every day lives. The attempt to focus sound, to gather it, and to present it as an object of expressivity, is probably something deeply human, because the general complexity of life and our perception of the world lead us to want to organise things in order to understand them. And recordings have changed everything for good.

It would be constructive to work with space expressively, rather than passively. Sound artists and electroacoustic composers understand this, but are continually faced with using inadequate performance spaces, but perhaps less so than composers of acoustic music who are interested in working with space, because of the rigidity of the establishment, because of mere practical concerns. Today's composers are in truth robbed of their possibility to work with space in a meaningful way. The experimental nature of music means that there can be no standard. There can be no standard, but in understanding this, and in understanding the need for space, and how sound in space functions, there can be something new. If the 20th century was all about sound, the 21st will be all about space.


(1) Sterken,Sven. "Towards a Space-Time Art: Iannis Xenakis's Polytopes" in Perspectives of New Music 39:2 (Summer 2001) p. 262-273
(2) McLuhan, Marshall. "Visual and Acoustic Space," from The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
(3) Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977
(4) McLuhan, Marshall. "Visual and Acoustic Space," from The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
(5) Arcana Editions (R. Murray Schafer's publisher). On April 30, 2010: http://www.patria.org/arcana/arcdrama.html
(6) Sterken, Sven. "Towards a Space-Time Art: Iannis Xenakis's Polytopes" in Perspectives of New Music 39:2 (Summer 2001) p. 262-273




Adrian Knight is a composer of electronic, orchestral, vocal and chamber music currently living and working in New Haven, Connecticut. He was born and raised in Uppsala, Sweden. His music draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources, including free improvisation, electroacoustic music, early music, and experimental electronic musics such as drone, microsound and noise. He has received grants from the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm and a 2010 Morton Gould Young Composer Award from ASCAP for his orchestral work "Manchester" (2008). "Manchester" was also selected by the Swedish section of ISCM for the World New Music Days 2011 in Zagreb. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in composition at Yale School of Music, studying with David Lang, Ezra Laderman and Martin Bresnick. He also teaches electronic music at Yale College. Since 2008, he operates “the smallest record label in the world,” Pink Pamphlet, and has released six albums so far, with, in addition to his own works, music by Magnus Bunnskog, Christopher Cerrone, Sebastian Lakatos and Victor Lisinski. His works are published by the Swedish Music Information Center (SMIC). He is a member of Fylkingen in Stockholm. http://adrian-knight.com & http://pinkpamphlet.net











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