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

In sleep, we all go slightly nuts every day when we enter the brain’s 3-pound universe. Orchestral works like György Ligeti‘s Lontano, that he calls “a window on long submerged dream worlds of childhood” and Witold Lutoslawski‘s Les espaces du sommeil (The Spaces of Sleep) describe this interior journey in a narrative manner. Similar to dream spaces is the experience of space-timelessness or hypnotic “vertical time” in works by Erik Satie (the famous Vexations), James Tenney (his compositions dealing with a “closed, resonant universe”), and to a certain extent early phase pattern (or “minimalist“) compositions by Terry Riley and Phil Glass.

The metaphor of interior space also applies to other mental activity in the form of audio illusions. Unlike most visual illusions—for example, the curvature of the sky called the “vault of heaven”, the moon size illusion, etc.—audio illusions have been less explored.

One of Robert Ashley‘s Computer Illusions involves the construction of a room with proximity detectors that constantly calculate the position of a moving listener. A sound broadcast in the room draws the attention of the listener who looks for the source of the sound, but no matter how close he or she may approach the walls, the computer maintains that sound at a constant, unreachable distance. Ideally, the listener can’t be certain whether the sound is “out there” or in his or her head. This may be regarded as an anti-space or flat surface effect. A visual analog of this illusion is described in Ashley’s opera-for-TV Perfect Lives in a scene where Bedouins quickly approaching on their camels maintain a constant apparent distance. A similar illusion is found in James Tenney’s tape piece For Ann (Rising) (1969) which uses glissandi but to create an audio version called the Shepard effect. This is a sound analog of the persistence-of-motion visual effect (for example, when a train has come to a stop but still seems to be moving to a passenger on board). In Tenney’s piece, tones seem to continually ascend in pitch but get nowhere … until the final ascension at the end.

In my piece PALS/Action At A Distance (1977), two friends play a kind of ESP game, exchanging personal observations about each other. Their voices are accumulated electronically and trigger electronic gates which allow microphones at progressively greater distances to enter into the mix. The audience hears the space of the intimate vocal interplay as well as the multiple spaces radiating outward like ripples in water after a stone is thrown in. The total effect is a psychological illusion like the one which occurs when people are having an engaging conversation that gradually creates rich mental imagery (including premonitions and intuitions) far beyond their present circumstances.

Other audio illusions are based on electronic and acoustic manipulations based on the Doppler effect.

For a beautiful example, John Chowning‘s Turenas (an anagram of the word “natures”), from 1972, was the first piece to create the illusion of moving sound sources in a 360-degree space, by precisely calculating the Doppler shift (amplitude, phase, frequency, and delay shifts) of each sound via computer. At the onset, tiny bells gradually modulate into deep gongs as the listening space changes from mono and two-dimensional to distant in all directions. Specific waveforms, quasi-acoustic instruments, are studied in detail, always maintaining an equally charming and mysterious quality.

In Morton Feldman‘s early work Piece for Four Pianos (1957), the pianists play from the same score at their own internal tempi, slowly drifting away from each other (the time delay shift of the Doppler effect). An illusion of depth is created from the initial “flat surface” texture found in many of Feldman’s compositions.

Many concert compositions have used the device of having the musicians move around with their instruments but the following two pieces invented new ways to do this. In Gordon Monahan‘s Speaker Swinging, three performers—one elevated and standing in the middle, and two performers on floor level at the left and right sides—literally swing small loudspeakers over their heads in ever increasing circles and speed, each speaker attached to a rope and electrical cord. Through the speakers is fed a mix of live electronic sound provided in most performances by the composer at a synthesizer. The resulting Doppler effect of the passing speakers creates an ethereal impression. The physicality of the swinging itself also has an additional theatrical effect of impending danger which is increased at the end of the piece when the concert hall lights are turned out for the last few minutes and all sense of proximity is lost by the audience. For Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Helikopter – Streichquartett (1993) each member of the string quartet, supplied with headphones, rides in one of 4 helicopters with pilots, which proceed to certain indicated altitudes while the strings perform complex rhythms based on varying motoric tempi. The audience on the ground views the work on 4 columns of televisions and listens to the interior of the helicopters mixed with the strings on 4 columns of loudspeakers.

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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