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From Circles to Nets: On the Signification of Spatial Sound Imagery in New Music
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From Circles to Nets:
On the Signification of Spatial Sound Imagery in New Music

As Bas van Fraassen observes in his introduction to the philosophy of time and space, "with respect to space, it is not easy to make a plausible preliminary list of basic relations" (van Fraassen 1985). And yet we try: the number of studies of spatial topics has gradually increased with the ever-growing variety of thematic subcategories and types of approaches. In the domain of music, theorists like to discuss "musical space," usually equating it with a two-dimensional pitch-time space, not the space of performance (e.g., Kurth 1969, originally published 1931; Bernard 1983, 1987; Lerdahl 1988; cf. Harley 1994a). In the area of electroacoustics, we deal with sound projection spaces and composed spaces, the latter being integral to the compositions themselves. Still different types of spatial imagery are represented by sonorities or hinted at by the works' titles (e.g., Krzysztof Penderecki's Dimensions of Time and Silence, 1961; Witold Lutoslawski's Les espaces du sommeil, 1975; Kaija Saariaho's Lichtbogen, 1985– 1996; Joan La Barbara's Space Testing, 1977).

In other words, there are a plurality of "spaces" that might be associated with music. An insight into this diversity of spaces is provided by Francis Dhômont's poetic program notes for his electro-acoustic composition Espace/Escape (1989), which has the word "space" in its title and explores the associative and symbolic aspects of space and movement:

Space.Open, intimate, confused spaces. Broken spaces, whirling.Indecisive edges of the space.Space-refuge, enclosed, maternal, space of reminiscence and of associations.Tumult or murmur in the space of a thousand reflections.Escape.The flight engenders a vertigo of multiple elsewheres.Here . . . There . . .

Espace/Escape brings together the immensity and intimacy of the human experience of space. Sounds fromvarious acoustic environments, ranging from a bird's cage (the flutter of wings) to an airport lobby (the muffled din of footsteps and conversations and the noise of the airplanes' engines) are juxtaposed with synthetic sonorities in complex, evolving formations that defy description. This instance of contemporary musique concrète draws from the acoustic physicality of human life and from the exploration of spatial dimensions of sounds possible in acousmatic projection, "the dimensions of volume, of near and distance, of front and back, left and right" (Guérin 1991).

Spatial Designs

Space may be experienced only in time, and time only in space. It is important to note that music drawing the space of performance into the realm of meaningful elements, that is, "spatial or spatialized music," is really "spatio-temporal" and not "spatial." The categories of spatialization may seem to belong outside of time, but their realization is always temporal. For instance, the perceptual experience of musical layers originating from different spatial locations involves the awareness of their succession and simultaneity. Several factors have a bearing on the classification of musical-spatial designs (see Table 1). Firstly, these designs are not purely geometrical as they are realized in sound. "Space" in music is neither empty, nor absolute, nor homogeneous; it is revealed through the spatial attributes of sound matter. Secondly, the human auditory perspective constitutes an essential element of spatial arrangements. If, for instance, groups of musicians are scattered in the hall, their [End Page 39] distribution among listeners is more important perceptually than their exact balance of timbre and volume. The performance and perception of spatialized music takes place within certain acoustic environments, and the choice of these conditions may be part of a composition. Moreover, even the same acoustic environment may be perceived from different auditory perspectives that vary because of the mobility of performers and listeners.

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Table 1.

General classification of spatial designs

From the acoustic point of view, there is a difference if one listens to music in a concert hall, any other space, such as that of the home, during an open-air concert, while changing one's surroundings, or via headphones. If such an environment is specified by the composer who forbids the performance of the music otherwise, it belongs to the composition. Examples of this type...