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

A fundamental characteristic embraced by over 500 years of polyphonic thinking from the Middle Ages through the Baroque was the echo-like imitation found in simple two-voiced works of the 13th century (with a single voice above the tenor called the “duplum” and later the “motetus”) to multi-voiced wonders such as the motet for double chorus and eight solo voices by J.S. Bach or the antiphonal motet Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (ca. 1567) for 8 choirs of 5 voices each by Thomas Tallis. The octagonal scoring of this work matches the architecture of the octagonal hall of Arundel Castle where it was premiered. This intentional employment of a composed spatial effect was heightened by devices such as having a leading tone in the soprano of one choir resolved by another soprano in a more distant choir, incidentally creating a wonderful dissonance that hangs in the air. The variation of modal tonalities in this piece also creates several spine-tingling moments.

The time delay/echoing effect between separate vocal and instrumental choirs became exaggerated in works of the Venetian school such as Giovanni Gabrieli‘s magnificent Canzoni et Sonati (1615, posthumous). More than a century and a half later, this kinetic response between separate groups is played out in W. A. Mozart‘s Notturno for 4 orchestras in D major, K. 286 (K. 269a) (1776) which the listener can easily imagine as being played in four separate rooms of a grand house. And more than a century and a half later than that piece, European works such as Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gruppen for three orchestras (1957), his Carré (Square) for 4 orchestras and 4 choirs (1959-60), and Bruno Maderna‘s Quadrivium (Crossroads) for 4 percussionists and 4 orchestral groups (1969) continued the tradition of this practice.

In the States, this kind of spatial layout was realized in several orchestral works by Henry Brant, such as his Kingdom Come for Orchestra, Circus Band, and Organ (1970) with its outrageous contrasts between seriousness and play: the stage (symphonic) orchestra plays in a heroic, stentorian, self-important manner; in the composer’s words, this orchestra “celebrates life in the human pressure cooker” and “expresses its anxieties in long frenzied phrases.” The mechanistic, compulsive circus band located in the balcony is the other side of this crazed, violent interchange. Its instrumentation consists of slide clarinets, slide trumpets, slide whistles, sirens, klaxons, buzzers, electric bells, ratchets, air-compressors “and a soprano who impersonates a psychotic Valkyrie.” Brant’s well-known earlier chamber work Angels and Devils for 3 piccolos, 5 flutes, and 2 alto flutes, has a spatial layout with the performers standing on ladders and in other spatial-music arrangements.

Earle Brown‘s Octet 1 for 8 loudspeakers (1953) which uses random sampling tables to vary the densities of sounds and Edgard Varèse‘s classic Poème Electronique (1957-58) which was broadcast over hundreds of loudspeakers in the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair are two of many early electronic works that employ distribution of sound from varying points as a musical parameter.

The recent development of 5.1 surround sound and DTS high-resolution sound on DVD for home audio or video players has made available revamped quadraphonic recordings from the ’60s and ’70s, for example, Morton Subotnick‘s four-channel Touch (1969) with its flying electronic gestures, his lovely 8-channel work A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978), and a new work Gestures … it begins with colors (1999-2001) mixed in 5.1 on the Mode label. An excellent DVD entitled Immersion on the Starkland label contains new pieces designed for the 5.1 medium by Pamela Z, Bruce Odland, Maggi Payne, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Ellen Fullman (Margaret Tuned the Radio In Between Two Stations played on her 100-foot Long String Instrument, the unearthly results fully enveloping the listener), Lukas Ligeti, Paul Dresher, Pauline Oliveros, Paul Dolden, Masami Akita (a project Merzbow 2000 which aims to create accidental Doppler effects), Ingram Marshall, and Meredith Monk.

Binaural recordings in stereo, which most truly reproduce the action of sound in acoustic space, are more rare because, with the present system, the listener must still wear headphones. Available from Lovely Music, David Tudor‘s Neural Synthesis, Nos. 6 – 9 features the composer performing on a homemade synthesizer constructed from 64 non-linear amplifiers with 10,240 programmable interconnections that emulate neuron cell patterns in the brain. The 14 output channels of sound are beautifully defined as to their discrete locations throughout a wide area.

From Out To The Stars, Into The Heart: Spatial Movement in Recent and Earlier Music
By “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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