Sonic Cartography and the Perception of Place

I found myself driving halfway across Los Angeles from the slowly gentrifying Northeast to the already gentrified Culver City.  When I arrived at the local park, I ditched the car and entered on foot—not knowing that the event I was covering would ultimately be held in a parking lot. So in a way, my experience of Nat Evans’s Assemblage (for sunset) started with a hike.

Evans is a composer from Seattle who has been creating a series of pieces for sunrise and sunset. The music—made from field recordings, bells, and traditional instruments—is coordinated with the changing light of the sky at dawn or dusk and is inspired by his studies in Zen meditation. Evans also cites the time-specific characteristic of Indian Ragas and site-specific pieces by Robert Moran and Stuart Dempster as strong influences.  Naturally, the works have to be experienced outside and at a precise time of day.  This is how I found myself on a tiny, trashy pad of asphalt on top of a hill in Culver City.  There I met Evans and a small group of listeners with media players in hand.  At Evans’s signal, we all sat on a retaining wall facing the Los Angeles basin, donned our headphones, and hit play at the same time, just ten minutes before sunset.

Nat Evans's Assemblage (for sunset)

Crowd gathered for Nat Evans's Assemblage (for sunset)

These actions set in motion a change in our sense of the parking lot as a non-place to a special kind of focus on our humble hillside.  This began with the set up to Evans’s piece, which required a pause in movement; listeners sat down, turning off phones and committing themselves to the experience for the duration of the work. The group’s stillness and Evans’s sounds enclosed the space, transforming it into an intimate environment and giving it a rooted sense of place.  Listening on headphones rather than loudspeakers made the broad vista before us seem close at hand, even intimate.  Headphones also allowed the urban din to seep into the piece, effectively filling “silences” with the prevalent external soundscape. The co-production of site and sound made this piece work and created a focused sensibility you might expect to find in a church, but Evans produced it in a parking lot.  Outdoor works tend to frame the more mundane aspects of our everyday existence.  In Evans’s piece, small things took on weight and gravity.  Never have planes seemed so stunning and ponderous, or the counterpoint of city lights so poignant. The event’s locale was impermanent–not a brick and mortar building, but a transitional place: a parking lot.  So when the piece was over, the sense of place floated away, slowly removing itself as I walked back to my car and drove home.

This experience of Evans’s work dovetails with a recent interest of mine in human geography. As it is related to the subject of music performance, such study creates an awareness of our spaces, and the relative effect that they can have on a listener’s presence in that space.  It has led me to believe that the reason people enjoy music is not for the sonic aspects alone, but for its ability to create an environment where we feel closer to one another. Sound in space creates a platform of increased intimacy and connectedness. A consideration of human geography can help us understand how we can best engender effective concert programming and create a strong sense of place with the presentation of new and experimental works in new or traditional contexts.

Sunset

HUMAN GEOGRAPHY, A PRIMER

There are two main branches of geography: physical geography which studies the processes found in the natural environment, and human geography which studies the world, people, and cultures in the built environment. Physical geography is a natural science while human geography is a social science.  The knowledge set found in human geography has broad-ranging applications in analyzing the way people experience the performing arts. Furthermore, our performances and installations serve as living realizations of long-held theories in the field.  If we could organize geographers on a spectrum from deterministic to poetic, we would be dealing here with the poetic ones.

“Until the 1970’s most human geographers considered space to be a neutral container, a blank canvas which is filled in by human activity.”—Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin [1]

Before the mid-20th century, human geographers would comprehend space much like the physical geographers: as a concrete measure of Euclidean geometry (with an x, y, and z axis).  Spaces were viewed as static containers where human activity transpired, but thinkers like Henri Lefebvre began to see geographical space as fundamentally social.  Geographers (specifically the humanists and Marxists) now understand that people construct their own sensibilities of space based on events, memories, and experience—and that spaces are defined and understood by lived experience.

I think we comprehend this pretty well in music: We know our concert halls are fundamentally social, with the rules of engagement built into the architecture and ethos of the space.  For as much as we see spaces as dynamic and social, however, we tend to falsely understand our halls as blank canvases for the focused presentation of sound. To alter this assumption, I would like to stretch Lefebvre’s sentiment to the concert experience via John Cage and his landmark “silent” piece, 4’33” (1952).  The work unveiled the concert hall (supposedly a neutral container) as a discrete sonic environment.  With Cage’s 4’33” we change our relationship to the concert space—in recognizing the existence of a music already present over which we perform works.  Put another way, a human geographer like Lefebvre might look at the concert experience as a co-production of the social experience (social space) and the music presented in that environment.

Sunset

PLACE AND SPACE

Space and place are often regarded as synonyms in referring to landscape, region, or other distinct areas.  For geographers, however, these terms have more nuanced definitions.  Their meanings and surrounding theories can be employed to make sense of our performance environments; identifying the qualities of our concert spaces, and helping to establish platforms for new and experimental works.

“Space” and “place” are familiar words denoting common experiences. We live in space. There is no space for another building on the lot.  The Great Plains look spacious.  Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other. There is no place like home. What is home?  It is the old homestead, the old neighborhood, hometown, or motherland. . . Space and Place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [2]

Space is a more abstract concept than place. Space is undifferentiated, open, and potentially vast.  In contrast, place is enclosed and humanized space—space with value.  Anyone who experiences the limitless horizon of the sea can feel its spaciousness.  We establish place when we stop to make a fire for warmth, or share a tent with our partner on the sands overlooking this expanse. We feel the stability of this encampment (place), yet sit on the cusp of freedom and threatening openness (space).  They are not concrete terms, but poetic concepts that perhaps ring truer to artists than to cartographers.  As Yi-Fu Tuan says, we long for spaciousness and the unhindered movement that it affords us. It is this movement that we surrender to achieve the comfort and safety of place.

“Place is a pause in movement. . . The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

If we experience space by moving through it, then we experience place by ceding this freedom and resting our body and mind.  Consider the arrival to an event such as a traditional orchestra concert; the movement from a busy street bustling with urban activity to a stationary seat in an enclosed and quiet concert hall is an exercise in two dynamically different environments.  One calls you to be aware of your peripheries and the sounds around you, while the other asks you to surrender movement and focus on the organized sounds in front of you. Our halls are set up like this for a reason; we take refuge in their comfort and value their stillness.  There was a presumption in human geography that we could only “take place” as humans, but more recently the field theorizes that we actively participate in creating place with memory, experience, and actions like a pause in movement.

“Immensity is within ourselves. . . As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense.  Indeed immensity is the movement of the motionless man.” —Gaston Bachelard [4]

Our spaces do not have to be immense to conjure deep and reverberant sentiments in a listener.  We carry immensity within us, and it is accessed while daydreaming, experiencing art, listening to music, etc. Bachelard goes on to explain that thisinner immensity” is what gives meaning to our experiences.  We can engender this “sense of the terrific” in listeners with volume and close proximity.  Unfortunately, this is why the orchestral environment often doesn’t capture visceral sensations of immensity in all listeners: the distance is too great, the volume too ineffectual. Although the performances are beautiful, the vast spaces of Avery Fisher, Disney Hall, and their ilk can drain the immediacy from a performance leaving some in the audience untouched.

“Permanence is an important element in the idea of place. Things and objects endure and are dependable in ways that human beings, with our biological weaknesses and shifting moods do not endure and are not dependable.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

Our brick and mortar concert halls, clubs, and galleries are the principal places for our musical community.  Avery Fisher Hall, which has stood since 1962, holds a weight that a more temporary structure would not have.  This permanence makes it a guarantor of meaning and a locus for identity.  We see ourselves as belonging to these places and linked to those people who have gone before.  The same could be said for an institution like an art museum, a house of worship, or a dusty oft-frequented pub. Repeat visits to a place create memories that resonate and expresses the same attitude and environment with each return.  These permanent structures allow us to discover and rediscover with each visit; perhaps our first time in a space yields delight, the second comfort, the third contentment. 

In contrast, an event held in a temporary place, like a parking lot or stretch of desert, creates a different experience for the listener. Because the environment is ephemeral, you can’t visit and revisit the place because the place will be gone.  After a momentary structure is dismantled, all that is left is an open space, the memory of the event and the human warmth felt during that time.  These temporal structures (both social and physical – public and private) should not be considered “less-than” a more permanent structure; they can be created more casually, more idiosyncratically, and are therefore more strongly affixed to a particular time and place.

Darkness

“Intimacy between persons does not require knowing the details of each other’s life; it glows in moments of true awareness and exchange.  Each intimate exchange has a locale which partakes in the quality of the human encounter.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

We all hope to have intimate and genuine encounters with those around us, and in our best moments as musicians we encourage an intimate experience either between the audience and performers, or amongst the audience members themselves. The locale of our performance plays a large roll in the nature of this closeness. If we are sitting in a recital hall watching a great pianist perform Chopin’s preludes, it is possible that we could have a warm and human experience with the pianist. Empathizing with Chopin’s sense of nostalgic loss, we can have an intimate (indescribable) moment with a long-dead composer.  Entering a dispersed, environmental sound installation, or a work like Nat Evans’s, the interactions are more social, dynamic, and serendipitous.  A piece with many focal points (or none at all) creates a dense web of exchanges that are not controlled by sound, but made available by the platform or context of the event.  Yi-Fu Tuan offers another gem of advice regarding intimacy and the potential arena for human interaction.  He says that “one can no more deliberately design such places than one can plan, with any guarantee of success, the occasions of genuine human exchange.” [3] There is no science to composition, performance, or curation.  However, considering the relationship between sound and space can help us in framing poignant experiences, which will happen by accident and happy chance over the duration of a work.  As musicians, we can merely fill this time with sound and silence in the hope of dressing up intimate moments that would otherwise escape our attention.

Perhaps this is our humble aspiration: to create platforms for potential warm human encounters. When creating places and events for the presentation of sound in space, we can design environments of heightened intimacy and exchange by sonically framing an environment.  No one system for doing this is superior, but different contexts inspire disparate experiences for the concertgoer. They offer different kinds of intimacy, or a complete lack thereof. I often wonder in what ways can we make art music more real to people, providing a potential for true awareness and exchange.  I believe that we have to draw our own conclusions and might do well to look to our peers in relevant fields like design, urban planning, food, aesthetics, visual art, and human geography for guidance toward discovering new answers.

*

Footnotes:

1. Hubbard, Phil, and Rob Kitchin, eds. Key Thinkers on Place and Space. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2004. 4.

2. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 3.

3. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 138-41.

4. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. 184.

***

Chris Kallmyer

Chris Kallmyer performing on a bison horn for a bison dinner at the Museum of Contemprary Art Denver. Photo by Alex Stephens

Chris Kallmyer is a performer, composer, and sound artist living in Los Angeles, California, who works in sound installation, composition, trumpet, and electronic music. He has presented work at the Walker Art Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Hammer Museum, the Getty Center, REDCAT, and other spaces in America and Europe. His work is influenced by a sense of place, architecture, field recordings, and outdoor listening.

Thanks to Andrew McIntosh, Ken Ehrlich, Mark Allen, Katie Tate, and Chris Rountree for their time, energies, and ideas about this piece.

4 thoughts on “Sonic Cartography and the Perception of Place

  1. Jackie Paskow

    Chris,this is beautifully written meditation on space and place and music’s place in making space. You have been so creastive with your music and your thinking. The bison’s horn I thought was a shofar.

    Reply
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