Written as a talk for Gloucester University Everyday is Spatial Conference
Is Contemporary Spatial Acousmatic Music Always Composed in Terms of Referentialism or Can it Also Stretch to Music that Adheres More Closely to Formalism as a Musical Device?
By Georgina Brett, (2023) MA (Electro-acoustic Music and Aesthetics), BMus with Hons.
I will begin by clarifying the terms spatial and acousmatic.
Spatial is the placement of sound in a complex multichannel arena. This can be any sound, from the specific voice of Frank Sinatra to a sculpted sonic element that cannot be described in any other terms than either: its innate characteristics, (such as metallic, busy, rustling, echoey) or what it makes a person imagine, such as “It sounds like bats flying out of a cave.” Placement of sound spatially can be at one end of the spectrum, simple and static and the other a combination of sonic movements that can be repeated and developed. The sounds themselves can have no relation to their placement, as the instance of sound in space is arbitrary to the type of sound itself.
Acousmatic music is generally thought to be made of sounds divorced from their original sound source projected in a speaker array with no performer. The vast majority of acousmatic music comprises of sounds which are not evocative of musical conventions, sonic events that do not conform to a tonal system, overt rhythm or sound like a musical instrument. The sonic landscape contains sounds that can and do stimulate visual imagination and emotional response.
Let us move on to define the terms formalism and referentialism in music. Formal music is the musical language of sound referring to itself. The analysis of a Bach Fugue might be deemed to fit into a formal music tradition. There is the obvious referential aspect of the instrument. We cannot help ourselves but to imagine the keyboard the music is being played on and the pianist. However, these referential thoughts are static and unchanging. The piece follows a set of rules meaning that the interest to the listener is in the forms of the exposition, the development and the recapitulation of a musical theme. The listener’s focus is on the musical “Subject”, the initial primary melody, and the ”Countersubject”, the second melody accompanying the subject. We listen so as to discern the musical time signature. We listen to identify the mode, (diatonic major, minor or modal scales). We listen for inversions of pitches of the subject and countersubject. We listen for modulations to related keys. We listen for slower and faster iterations of the two interconnected themes and we enjoy a characteristic cycle of fifths usually in the development section.
Referential music is concerned, in its unfolding, with references to extra-musical phenomena, whether figurative or emotional in context, embodying the listener in a sonic scene or using found sound that is iconic of an object. The sound recording of a train horn makes us imagine a train in the same way as Marcel Duchamp’s work “C’est Ne Pas Un Pipe” – a picture of a pipe with the words “This is not a Pipe” underneath. This is not a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe. When we hear a recording of a train horn we may imagine a train even though we are hearing a recording of a horn. Referential music can also stimulate an overt emotional responsiveness from the listener, which is also a type of reference (as it is an extra-musical phenomenon).
One of the seminal articles on describing elements of sonic landscapes is Dennis Smalley’s article, “Space, Form and the Acousmatic Image”. He begins by describing his listening scene in great detail, giving the sounds he hears types of static and travelling spatial references. He continues to define numerous ways to describe the sonic elements he hears, the glossary lists these and their attributes succinctly and with an eye for incredible detail. I find it striking that only one of the 50 or so terms he defines refers to pre-industrial musical convention..”Tonal Pitch Space” his definition being, ‘The subdivision of spectral space into incremental steps that are deployed in intervallic combinations’. At no point does he include any reference to overt rhythm. His terms and definitions seem to mark a turning point in the descriptions of the genre of electroacoustic acousmatic music in a similar fashion to Pierre Schaeffers “Treaties on Musical Objects” and Trevor Wishart’s “On Sonic Art”.
So, what is formalism and referentialism within spatial acousmatic music specifically? It transpires that over the decades since electronic spatial music has been innovated, most spatial acousmatic music is referential, however, the extra musical paradigm of ‘the rhythm of sound/melody/harmony in space’ is one which can undergo a formal approach. Just as the four main elements of music: melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre undergo development and musical context within a composition, the ‘rhythm of musical spatiality’ can also undergo similar treatment, it is just a much more recent development within musical thought, due to the exponential rise in ambisonic and surround sound arenas, and the musical computer programs that allow a new type of musician access to spatialisation techniques.
If a spatialisation gesture starts on the left, ascends to middle high and retreats to the right, in the space of 4 seconds, then a formal development of this might be that the next iteration can start on the right ascend to the middle high and retreat to the left in the space of 4 seconds. Perhaps it can repeat the first gesture but in half or double the time?
I’m not reporting that i have managed to achieve this ‘singular’ gestural idea with any sort of authoritarian success, however, It is something i am constantly aiming at, because i want to hear this type of music. My explorations of overt harmony in spatiality have obtained results in that dissonant chords can be softened by spatialisation. Instead of being on top of each other, semitones and diminished 5th intervals are less obviously abrasive if spaced far apart. Polyrhythms can also be separated successfully from each other due to location and/or speed of movement.
This kind of thinking can, and i hope will, eventually open the door to the spatialisation of minimalist ideas transformed and developed and neoclassical musical content… repeating patterns that flow around each other and develop, using time-in-space, is something i would personally like to hear.
This brings me to elaborate by describing a personal musical experience. I have spent almost 2 decades performing a great deal of vocal live-looping improvisations using non-verbal vocal sounds. For me in performance, i almost always find myself in a meditative space whilst involved in what i have just sung, what i am singing and what i might sing next. Past, present and future wrapped in one action. From a scientific point of view, nonverbal vocalisations are unique in that the sound of a voice is loosely known to be primarily decoded in the left frontal cortex and the rest of musical sounds decoded in the right frontal cortex. So what happens when vocalisations are sent to the decoding centre, where meaning is deciphered from the vocal sounds, and the sounds are non-verbal? I believe that the brain gets a chance to experience the sounds without the need to interpret any meaning from the human vocal chord generated sounds, thus perhaps a shortcut to a meditative space.
So in the same context, locational sound is loosely said to be deciphered in the temporal regions on each side of the head. So if, for instance, rhythmic spatialisation is being heard. How unusual is this experience for this part of the brain, as very rarely does the phenomenon of art reach this auditory decoding part of the brain in such a direct and comprehensive fashion. The auditory brain is constantly decoding where sounds are located. As i type, my washing machine is on the spin cycle and i can hear it as behind me about 20 degrees to the right. Does the positional auditory function of the brain get a sense of letting go of the ‘job’ of decoding sounds, when a person is enjoying the rhythms of sounds in space? It’s not something i have found an answer to, however, if anyone knows a professor or 2 that i can approach with my theory i would be delighted to explain my thoughts further in the hope of some sort of research into the matter!
So i come to spatial acousmatic composition and i do totally subscribe to the idea that sculpting sounds outside of overt rhythm and overt pitches is at the forefront of sonic compositional artwork. I am also aware that this almost completely academic music does have elements of the formal in the development of material and the results are wild and wonderful beyond the ordinary and totally groundbreaking. The composer who uses Supercollider, CDP and CSound programming languages to create complex music events that are almost bewildering in their newness and sonic imagination, structure and development, does include aspects of the formal in terms of harmonic spectrum development, microtonals iterations and reiterations, stochastic techniques repetition and innovation and variations in randomisation of sonic event for example. Since i have studied many articles on the subject i find myself constantly disentangling the sound of my environment such as: the tube train in terms of the sonic events that grow and recede, the mechanical sounds in hovering helicopters, the spatialisation of the sound of a fly buzzing about my head.
Last month I took part in a week long residency on the 4DSOUND rig in London, I admit that i had a hard time abstracting my rhythms enough for them not to sound out of place and ‘pedestrian’!
I do think that there is a body of music that is not being written at present, that celebrates this new positional aspect but adheres more closely to pre-industrial musical conventions and that this could and will be rewarding in other ways to the often mind-blowing sonic achievements of acousmatic exponents such as: Natasha Barrett, Jonty Harrison, Joseph Anderson, Anette Vande Gorne, Francis Dhomont and a whole host of electroacoustic composers.
.. and as a footnote on the subject of ambisonics and in support of academic pioneers..
Ambisonics, the mathematics of 360º sound capture and dissemination, was invented by Michael Gerzon (Waves plugins) in 1970’s. There is magic and mystery in ambisonic recordings, completely outside of composition. When they are successfully decoded to a spatial arena, there is a sense of the ‘whole’ the volume of the sonic landscape captured. Natasha Barrett in her research found that when recording with an Eigen mic, from experience, it is better to leave the recordings as they are, because the minute you change something, it’s like a pack of cards and the structure of the whole get’s destroyed. To record for her albums she uses extra mics, recording the sound at the same time as the Eigen mic, in order to make compositional decisions without disturbing the reality of the pure sound recording and its mathematical perfection. The augmented sense of being transported to the place where the recordings were made is because of the precision placement of the individual mics that make up the whole ambisonic recording device. Providing you configure your sonic rig correctly, its dissemination creates a hyperreal immersion into an environment of sound, where all the auditory elements are fused together, as they are in everyday life. So, to be able to get right inside the sound in 3-dimensions is still something reserved for the academic world due to its complexity. Developments in programs such as Spat5 and Supercollider create techniques to make music that is not possible with the technology more widely available for spatial dissemination.. there is always a frontier in any discipline!
Thank you very much for listening, and to the EiS team for all the organisational hard work. Any questions you have i’d be happy to talk during the next couple of days, my piece “FocuSing” will be performed later today between 3.30pm and 4.30pm in room TC202.