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

Musical performance works which utilized spaces and spatial movement outside concert halls and installation galleries began to appear in the early 60’s.

George Brecht‘s Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event) (1960) is a legendary verbal instruction piece scored for any number of motor vehicles arranged outdoors. For each vehicle, 22 auditory and visual events and 22 pauses are written onto randomly shuffled instruction cards. Beside “pause”, the events include: Headlights on and off, Parking lights on and off, sound horn, sound siren, sound bell(s), accelerate motor, radio on and off, strike window with knuckles, open or close door (quickly, with moderate speed, slowly), open or close engine hood, operate special equipment (carousels, ladders, fire hoses with truck-contained pumps and water supply), operate special lights (truck-body, safety, signal, warning, signs, displays). At sundown “(relatively dark/open area incident light 2 foot-candles or less),” the performers arrive at the same time, seat themselves in the cars and start their engines at approximately the same time. They follow the instructions, substituting equipment for that which they do not have, and turn off their engines when they are finished.

Ralph Lundsten and Leo Nilson’s Fågel Blå (Blue Bird, 1969), commissioned by the Foundation for Nationwide Concerts as inauguration music for the Expo-Norr Festival in 1969 at Östersund, was a two-channel electronic composition broadcast from giant balloons that floated over the city…a strange effect was that the sounds did not dissipate when passing over a listener, so that the height of the balloons made no difference.

David Dunn‘s Skydrift (1977) is scored for an electro-acoustic ensemble moving in an outdoors environment. One recorded performance involved 10 voices, 16 instrumentalists, and 4 channels of electronic sound generated from materials gathered at the performance site in a Southwestern desert. The instrumentalists moved outward from a central circle while their playing responded to environmental sounds; the circle became enlarged up to a half-mile from its original formation. In Dunn’s complex interaction Entrainments II (1985), 3 speaking vocalists gave their spontaneous impressions of an outdoors environment, their voices amplified through self-carried small loudspeakers. The sound and movement of small oscillators that they also carried were picked up by a parabolic microphone and inputted live to a computer. The computer interactively triggered sound blocks, which also played back live into the environment. All the performers and instruments (except the computer and its operator) constantly moved about in circles.

Richard Lerman’s Travelon Gamelon of 1979-1982 was for a group of 25 bicyclists who hit the streets in a Promenade version of the piece with small battery-powered amplifiers and horn-type loudspeakers that amplified the sounds of the bikes.

In realizations of my procedural score How to Discover Music in the Sounds of Your Daily Life (1967), any number of persons, following certain movement strategies based on attraction, record (or transmit in real-time) sounds of their immediate daily environments. These sounds are changed electronically into rhythmic (amplitude following), melodic (frequency following), and harmonic transformations, which are played back into the same environment (possibly by hand-held devices) and/or used to compose electro-acoustic works (such as Country Boy Country Dog, the CBCD Variations for Improvisor and Orchestra, the CBCD Transforms, The White Night Riot, etc.). This procedure serves as a kind of immediate reality check comparing “inside” feeling and thought with “outside” circumstantial events.

A digital version of this same kind of environmental tracing is McCall.DEM (1989), a collaborative work by Scot Gresham-Lancaster and Bill Thibault that derives melodic, timbral, visual, and rhythmic materials from a computer representation of terrain based on composer Rich Gold‘s Terrain Reader program. The elevation of a “traveler” at each instant was sent directly to a loudspeaker. The waveforms produced could be considered cross-sections of the terrain, cut along the traveler’s path. The program initially used the McCall Idaho Sampler. This contained data files of several types (land use, water, roads, etc.). The travelers themselves can move on fixed paths or travel according to a behavior. A few of the behaviors include: the “dry drunk”: who stumbles about randomly, yet avoids falling into the lake; the “drunken Jesus” who moves over land and water; the “drunken sailor” who passes out at the helm of his speed boat, traveling in a straight line until hitting the shore which wakes him up to shove off in a random direction and pass out again.

Annea Lockwood‘s spectacular virtual environment tape piece World Rhythms (1975/1997) is composed of an array of natural sounds, the rhythms of which are sometimes on a time scale that Lockwood describes as “too great or the effects too subtle for human perception. World Rhythms explores the intuition that such rhythms are components of one vast rhythm.” The sounds employed in the piece include volcanic eruptions from Hawaii, earthquakes from a geological laboratory, radio waves from a pulsar in the Vela supernova, geysers and mud pools recorded in Yellowstone National Park, various rivers, peepers (tree frogs) near the Mississippi River, a bonfire with crows from England, waves on Flathead Lake, Montana, human breathing, and a gong marking muscular action and nerve responses. An amazing illusion is created by having all sounds at nearly similar amplitudes; the pulsar is the same “size” in loudness, as it were, as the crow. Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1990) is an aural journey from the source of the Hudson River, in the high peak area of the Adirondacks, downstream to the Lower Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. On-site recordings, in which the sounds of the moving water create complex meshings of rhythms and pitches (sound maps) in heightened detail, were made at 15 separate locations. Careful listening to these also heightens and explores changing perceptual states, as well as being a sheer pleasure for the ear.

Stuart Dempster‘s recent CD Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel explores sound movement and resonance within a 186-foot diameter cistern at Fort Worden, about 70 miles northwest of Seattle. Dempster plays on conch shell, didjeridu, and trombone, and in ensemble with nine other trombonists, two conch players and one on Tibetan cymbals. The reverberation length inside the cistern is so long (approximately 45 seconds) that the composer experienced the feeling that “this is where you have been forever and will always be forever.” That description could equally apply to the interior space of the mind.

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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