Out To The Stars, Into The Heart: Spatial Movement in Recent and Earlier Music



The work of child psychologist Jean Piaget describes the gradual unfolding of the perceived world as a youngster ages. After a year or so, the baby begins to grab things and soon walks, talks, and covers even more space. The mature adult is fascinated with the lives of others as well as the heavens and the rich interior distances of the psyche where immediate physical circumstances may drive one less. In some systems of thought (e.g., Buddhism) this gradual opening of the spatial sense itself (as non-relativistic “presence” per se) becomes an aspect of enlightenment.

There is an almost irresistible psychological imperative to move the body toward the source of any sound, especially those within the frequency range of a human voice (e.g., the so-called Cocktail Party effect where you are able to pick out your name whispered across a crowded, noisy room). Throughout history many instruments and vocal styles were invented to transmit such attention-getting signals across acoustic distances: Alpine and Tibetan horns, yodeling and rhythmic shouting, the marching tympani of Roman armies and Joshua’s legion of trumpets that allegedly brought down the walls of Jericho, community vocal call-and-response styles throughout the world including the hymn- and chant-outliner and his congregation, African log drumming, hunting horns, church bells, various off-stage effects in operas, etc. Of these, call-and-response, with its point-to-point implied spatial movement, is the important starting image for the discussion here.

Musicians became fascinated with imitating and utilizing the behavior of sound arising from such point sources as they projected into open and closed, natural and manmade environments: behaviors such as multiple echoes, reverberation, and the vast range of amplitude, frequency, phase (location comparison), and time delay modulations that were later formalized by the Austrian physicist and mathematician Christian Johann Doppler (1803-1853) as the Doppler Effect. This has resulted in a large repertoire of music which in some ways exploits the resources of space antiphonally as well as music which engages in spatial narratives. In some compositions, the audience becomes part of the spatial journey and in others the very location of the work is an integral component of the music. Still other works explore more subtle applications of spatial concepts through the investigation of audio illusions and interior space. Technological advances have led to still largely uncharted applications of spatial concepts using telephones, radios, the Internet, satellites, and even interplanetary music transmission via satellites.

Whether media down the road will involve communication across space-time manifolds, or at subatomic levels through anticipating quantum gravity flux, or through meta-languages and the seeding of “memes”, or trans-species or nano-technological or psychometric signaling, etc., many concepts remain to be explored. For example, John Cage invented the possibility of indeterminate interactions of an “ensemble of soloists” in works from the 1950s onward such as Atlas Eclipticalis, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, the mind-bending Variations IV, and the Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. The same concept of individuals freely making sounds in space was also applied to the sounds themselves in his early Music of Changes (1951) for piano. Cage wrote in 1952, “The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration … ” SparkleDog recently posted to a music message board, “Cage had the Internet down only he didn’t name it.” Of the billions of people on Earth with different things in their heads at any given moment, millions use the Net, so developing still other venues and methods for highly individual and splendidly social expression and spontaneity seems to be a compelling aesthetic imperative.

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