Space to Grow

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Molly Sheridan

As a composer, a sometimes performer, a listener, and a writer about music I get very excited about the pitches and rhythms of whatever music I happen to be engaged in. Sometimes, the timbres and the control of dynamics grab my attention and each of these elements are things we have an agreed-upon vocabulary to convey in musical notation, in rehearsal, or in trying to express the experience in words. But a very key element to the process of making music, which is much more elusive, is one that is perhaps too obvious—the space that the music is created in.

Since music is the only one of the arts that is designed for the ears rather than the eyes, we sometimes tend to forget that it is part of the corporeal world, since our sense of reality is so eye-driven. However, all sound must emanate from somewhere, which makes the notion of space in music the most down-to-earth of all of the components that go into the making of music. Thinking of music without acknowledging its spatial possibilities is sort of like the study of plane geometry. You can learn a lot of formulas and neat shapes, but the real world is 3D!

The problem is that specificity of space is most often not viable either for practical reasons or even for aesthetic ones. Even advocates who clamor for authentic performance practice (and I actually count myself among their ranks) will go on and on about the minutiae of a certain temperament or rhythmic ornamentation, but will not demand to listen to the music in the specific hall in which it was originally intended to be heard by the composer.

If a piece of music is to have life beyond its premiere, which is the goal of most composer’s endeavors, it has to be translatable to a variety of spaces so the kind of exactitude you wish to convey, say with pitch or meter, would be self-destructive to do with location. And, if you’re writing a piece for an orchestra that will devote an hour to rehearsing your piece if you’re lucky, making them change their seating arrangement can eat up half your rehearsal time. For devoted performers who really want to make such pieces work, the problems can be even greater. Most players have insufficient rehearsal time in the spaces in which they will perform a piece of music and every venue is different. Listeners and writers about music too rarely account for the positive or negative effects of space on a performance or a composition. Something that sounds remarkable in one hall will sound dreadful in another no matter how great the composition or its performance.

Two years ago, NewMusicBox explored the issue of how venues help to shape the music that is performed in them, but what happens when space is an integral component of the compositional process? Henry Brant has been creating spatial music for half a century and continues to be a pioneer in the field at the age of 89. He claims the secret is to have as open-ended an aural realization for a spatial piece as possible but it is clear that he believes very strongly there are still some hard-learned dos and don’ts of spatial music. “Blue” Gene Tyranny describes a wide array of approaches to spatial music, from malleable performance situations to once-in-a-lifetime, if that, musical events. Of course, the main vehicle for disseminating music these days is through recordings and nothing is harder to convey on a recording than the space component of a piece of music. We asked a wide range of composers concerned with space in very different ways—Daniel Asia, Cindy Cox, Elliott Schwartz, Leonardo Balada, and Terri Lyne Carrington—if spatial concepts conceived for a live performance setting can be translated to a recording. What are your thoughts about this?

If the element of space in music will ever be developed to the same extent as, say, harmony or orchestration, there might need to be fundamental changes in the way music is promulgated and disseminated. It can be an exciting opportunity for music to really grow into a sort of sonic equivalent of architecture. The very notion of being able to convey the full three-dimensional majesty of a great building through the medium of sound is actually a very intriguing one. But this will not happen with an infrastructure that packages music in a way that conforms to pre-existing norms. In our current musical climate, what might appear to be the most basic element of making music as an abstract concept, might very well turn out to be the most unattainable.