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

Electronic devices have not only enabled the creation of new sounds, but also a new musical space, as it were, which makes possible the audibility of sounds at great distances and in combinations, modulations, speed and coordination not realizable in the acoustical world.

One of the earliest hopes for the telephone was to be able to transmit concert music into the home. The radio and television later took over this function but the telephone has been employed in many contemporary pieces. For example, for Max Neuhaus‘s Public Supply (1966), a radio listening audience phoned in sounds on ten telephone lines running into a studio where the composer and other performers electronically modulated those sound sources in real-time and then immediately broadcast the results. The listeners were instructed to not turn down their radios (unlike the usual call-in program) in order that a delayed feedback flow would be created between the callers’ homes and the radio station. This giant feedback loop added to the sensation that the piece was happening over a large, and to some extent ethereal area (the feedback loop creates a liquid and “outer space” sound). The composer explains that it is an important aspect of the piece that in the public’s mind they realize that they are “participating in a process which is happening instantaneously.”

Recently, Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) has staged many controversial live performances which also use telephonic communications but in the form of eavesdropping on private cellular and mobile telephone conversations.

Two early live electronic works which used the unpredictable input of contemporaneous live radio broadcasts as sound sources were John Cage‘s Radio Music (1956) for 8 performers and 8 radios, and Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Kurzwellen (Shortwaves, 1968) in which 6 instrumental performers react to the quasi-random sounds received by 4 shortwave radios.

Bill Fontana has created many radio broadcasts of his “sound sculptures” built from long-distance transmission of sounds originating live in different locations. His two performances of Landscape Sculpture with Fog Horns (1981, 1982) covered many places in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was followed by Distant Trains: Cologne – Berlin (1984) and Sound Sculptures Through the Golden Gate (1987) and his recent Sound Bridge: Cologne – San Francisco. Fontana says of his work, “The use of live transmission in my ‘sound sculpture’ grew out of my interest in sound sources of large physical scale. Examples of these include the light path of an aircraft, an entire bridge, a fog horn, the whistle of a moving train and a bell tower … transmitting sounds to the site of a sound sculpture rather than to a tape recorder makes the medium of sound sculpture more direct and real … alive, not frozen in a recorded time capsule … open to unexpected occurrences.”

Joel Ryan‘s The Number Readers for live computer-driven electronics, video and spoken text is based on those mysterious shortwave radio transmissions heard mostly in the evening hours of women’s voices reading numbers in German, and sometimes Spanish and Czech, with great precision sometimes preceded by electronic chime patterns. No nation or agency has claimed authorship of these broadcasts. Joel observed a middle-aged woman in Amsterdam sitting at the front window of a well-kept old house, who sat with pad and pencil in semi-darkness by an old style model radio; he soon began to realize that there was a “synchrony of the number readers broadcasts with the woman’s vigils.” Ryan weaves a variety of musical imagery using this central “coding” idea as a stepping-stone: “Codes to protect property,” “Julius Caesar’s code to confuse the Gauls = c + 3Mod24,” “Code as reason contradicting itself,” “The Language of Flowers,” “Codes you can eat,” and many others.

The advent of the Internet, a telephonic cyberspace with modem communication, mp3 music downloads, and virtual on-line recording studios, like resrocket.com, where musicians far removed from each other may gradually build up multi-track pieces or leave basic tracks for anyone to add to or change, has also made new musical performance arrangements possible. Although the Internet serves a more ordinary function as an immense repository of information of all sorts, one of its greatest promises lies in its live aspects such as instant messages, chat rooms, broadcasts, instant and unbridled access, the free exchange and interchange of thoughts. The physical limits of space-time appear to be almost overcome.

In 1987, composers Nick Collins and Phill Niblock invited members of the first live interactive computer music group called The Hub, whose members are all composers as well as designers and builders of their own hardware and software, to create a performance linking two performance spaces at some distance to each other. These were Experimental Intermedia and The Clocktower in New York City. Two distinct trios were formed to perform in each space, each networked locally with new, more robustly built, identical hubs which communicated with each other via a modem over a phone line. The various programs designed by each performer would intermodulate and interfere with those of the others. The Hub composers often like to incorporate “artifacts” or electronic quirks and other unintended behaviors of their devices in the compositions. The Experimental Intermedia trio was the “Zero Chat Chat” ensemble of John Bischoff, Tim Perkis, and Mark Trayle, while the Clocktower position was taken by a trio of Chris Brown, Phil Stone, and Scot Gresham-Lancaster. More information on The Hub and computer network music in the Bay Area can be found in “Indigenous to the Net,” a web-based article by Chris Brown and John Bischoff, and also in “The Emergency Committee to Make Time Go Forward presents The History of Experimental Music in Northern California. The sound of the gong is heard everywhere,” compiled by the late Jim Horton.

One of the first interactive works of music and art created specifically for the World Wide Web was William Duckworth and Nora Farrell‘s Cathedral. On line since June 10, 1997, the Cathedral website includes both acoustic and computer music, live webcasts with improvising ensembles from all over the world, and new virtual instruments called Chaos, the Sound Pool, and the PitchWeb that can be played by anyone and allow the Web audience to interact with the site. Duckworth explains: “Cathedral deviates from the traditional concert model where audiences attend a scheduled performance at a fixed place and time in that the venue, time, and location of performance, and even the performers themselves (both live and virtual) are variables. Time, for example, is no longer a factor in a piece of music that is always available, that has no beginning, middle, or end, and that no two people listen to in the same order or for the same length of time. For listeners on the Web, the effect is individual, and more like exploring an art gallery than attending an opera.”

Also like exploring a very mobile art gallery is Helen Thorington‘s spectacular Adrift (2001), an evolving multi-location Internet performance event that combines movement through 3D space, multiple narratives, and richly textured sound streaming between virtual and real geographies. Making use of three vrml cameras, images are received by three computers and projected onto a semicircular screen. According to Thorington, the work focuses on “multiple journeys through a harbor and through virtual space.”

Slightly before the current speed and resolution of the Earth-based Net was available, Nam June Paik created Wrap Around the World (1988), a spectacular satellite link-up, coordinated by Paik, which connected artists in the United States, Brazil, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Japan, and several other countries. The event was similar to Paik’s video collages or assemblies of that time in which he starkly contrasted and/or blended world cultures, with the images modulated by his original video synthesis techniques and graphics. In this piece the rock n’ roll world was represented by David Bowie, the band La, La, La Human Steps, and Japanese composer/musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. Other aesthetic worlds were represented by avant-garde dancer Merce Cunningham, the Viennese Art Orchestra, a game of elephant soccer in Thailand, and an Irish car race.

Extending further out in space, Pauline Oliveros, aided by composer Scot Gresham-Lancaster and several technicians, realized her piece Echoes From The Moon in 1987 with Mark Gummer, a ham radio operator in Syracuse, NY, using the 48-foot dish in his back yard with Oliveros sending signals over a phone line from Hayward, CA (the return was 2 & 1/2 seconds), and again in 1998 using several large Yagi arrays and the Moon and Mars mapping radio telescope at Stanford University. The recorded signal was sent by phone line to the radio telescope, converted to radio waves, and then bounced off the surface of the Moon and back. The returning radio waves were converted to audio and played back. At light speed, the sound delay was about 1.8 seconds, 900 milliseconds each way. There was a slight Doppler shift on the echo because of the motion of both Earth and Moon. The first sounds bounced were mid-range in pitch: a conch shell, gas pipe whistle, Tibetan cymbals, woodblock, and temple block, but eventually anyone who wanted to participate could join in. Oliveros’s conception was that each individual was actually touching the moon with his or her voice.

Many composers are already preparing for the eventuality of interplanetary performance. Composer David Cope is currently working on his Pleiddes Project, a yet-unrealized plan to build a privately owned and operated radio telescope on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The purpose of this undertaking is to transmit music deep into space in hopes of contacting extra-terrestrials. Anthony Braxton has envisioned his C4DM(R)-Z (Composition No. 82 For Four Orchestras) (1974, 1977-78), scored for 160 musicians and 4 conductors, to be the first of 10 compositions for “multi-orchestral activity” or spatial distribution of musical information in several dimensions and coordinates (oriented toward parts of the listener’s body when heard in a recorded version; players may sit in rotating chairs in order to throw sound in differing directions.) The completed series will include pieces for “Four Orchestras and Tape,” “For Six Orchestras,” “For Ten Orchestras,” (connected by television) “For 100 Orchestras in 4 Different Cities,” (connected by satellites and television systems) “For 3 Planets,” “For 5 Planets,” “Between Star Systems,” and “Between Galaxies.” This kind of scale vastly extends Charles Ives‘ notion for his Universe Symphony which was ideally to be played between mountaintops, and the largest audience size for Robert Ashley‘s electronic theater work Public Opinion Descends Upon The Demonstrators (1961) which at maximum is designed to be experienced by 28,278,466 people.

Ever since Kepler referred to PythagorasMusic of the Spheres in the 12th chapter of his Mysterium Cosmographicum (1595), further detailed in his Harmonice Mundi (1619), with the average varying angular velocity of each planet assigned a musical interval, many composers have included materials associated with the vast mystery of outer space: Maggi Payne‘s Solar Wave (1983) includes a source tape (heard sometimes in its raw form) from a plasma wave instrument for detecting solar wind interactions in space. Data from this instrument triggers a 16-voice synthesizer. This piece is based on the shock wave interactions of Saturn and Venus with the solar wind. Alvin Lucier‘s Sferics (the shortened term for “atmospherics”) is built from the natural radio frequency emissions (often delicate whistling sounds) in the ionosphere caused by electromagnetic energy radiated from nearby or distant lightning. Many of Lucier’s compositions are based on physical phenomena from his still life tracings of objects which then become scores for oscillator tunings and live instrumentalists, to his elegant and meditative Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977), a huge monochord construction consisting of a wire (affected by sine wave oscillator, fatigue, air currents, human movement, etc.) strung across a large space and connected to amplification, his well-known I Am Sitting in a Room based on the central resonant factor of the room which turns speech into music, and his Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas which moves dancers through space by generating standing waves.

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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