A Dialetic of Audible Space.

by Ian Stevenson

What follows is a free ranging discussion of some aspects of the use of space in musical performance. Although my interest is primarily in the use of spatialisation or three dimensional physical space, I will touch on other aspects of space as it relates to musical experience. In order to establish some coherence in my presentation I have attempted to develop an argument around the potentialities of audible space.


Space has been an element in Western musical performance from at least the middle ages. The antiphon in Gregorian chant with its characteristic call and response between voices became the prototype for antiphonal composition of various types in the Baroque and Classical periods and beyond. The often quoted cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice, with its spatially opposed organs was the site much development in the late Renaissance / early Baroque, of the antiphonal devices especially associated with the Gabrielis, Andrea (c1533-1585) and his nephew Giovanni (c1555-1612). In this polyphonic style the various melodic lines are presented by spatially distinct choral and instrumental groupings. Other famous examples of the use of spatial effects include the antiphonal choral effects in J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) St. Matthew Passion (1727/29) and W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) Serenade in D for 4 Orchestras (K286 1777) with its motivic interplay between spatially separated instrumental groups. The inevitable spatial effects of Mahler’s Symphony No.8 in E flat ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ are maybe more a result of the sheer expanse of performers than an effect by design. The spatial location of musical sources has often been a concern in the theatre. There are many examples of on or off stage bands in opera, here the concerns are clearly with the shaping of the dramatic action. However, musical space has clearly been an area of interest for a wide range of composers within the Western Canon.

The age of the machine brought new inspiration for defining space with sound. The ‘intonarumori’[1] or noise instruments of Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), inspired originally by the sounds of war, where designed to project noises into an auditorium. His futurist manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’ rejoiced in the acoustic and spatial character of the modern mechanised environment. The potentially liberating invention of the loudspeaker held a unique fascination for composers inclined toward modernism. It was not until after the second world war that the use of loudspeakers in musical composition became more common. The use of the tape recorder as an adjunct to acoustic instruments has become common, however electroacoustic composition with space as an integral musical component is a distinct form. Some of the more famous examples are as follows: Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928- ) Gesang der Jünglinge 1956 includes five loudspeaker locations, Kontakte 1960 includes a four track tape. The Philips pavilion for the 1958 Brussels world fair, designed by Iannis Xenakis (1922- ) and Le Corbusier (1887-1965) included an 11 channel 425 loudspeaker sound system for which Edgar Vàrese (1883-1965) composed Poème Electronique 1958 and Xenakis produced Concret PH 1958. Stockhausen produced various pieces for the German pavilion at the Osaka EXPO 70. The pavilion was a geodesic dome with loudspeakers at every vertex and integral sound control equipment. EXPO 70 also included the 800 speaker installation in the Japanese Steel pavilion. This system was used by Xenakis for his 12 channel composition Hibiki Hana Ma. The idea of introducing the spatial complexity of an orchestra into electroacoustic performance has been explored by the Groupe de Musique Expèrimentale de Bourges with their multi-loudspeaker Gmebaphone (1973-). A similar idea is seen in the Acousmonium (1974-) of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. Pierre Boulez (1925- ) utilised a multi-speaker system suspended in the auditorium for his Rèpons.

There are innumerable other examples of the exploitation of technology to achieve an integrated spatial dimension to musical composition. In the field of popular music, multitrack recording and stereo reproduction has made the inclusion of a spatial dimension common place in music production. From the earliest clumsy uses of the stereo sound stage in records such as The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band[2] , where instruments are placed either to the right or left channels for effect, to carefully placed spatial deployment of instrumentation in records such as Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly[3] , a set of conventions for the use of space has been established. These conventions are often strictly adhered to, as are the conventions of instrumentation in popular music.

In writings on the Western musical tradition, space and motion are often used metaphorically. Motion is a device for musical expression and as such has become a musical paradigm. Musical space is often measured in the dimensions of pitch, harmony, texture and rhythm or time. Musical motion occurs within this space. In addition to this usage of space, much musical discussion is imbued with dynamic qualities of human emotion. These ideas have contributed to the multilayered, metaphoric connotations of space whose relations are wholly paradigmatic or associative.

Traditionally, musical aesthetics has dealt with the issues of meaning and aesthetic value. I would like to look at some contemporary perspectives on the use of space in electroacoustic music. Much in musical language is arbitrary and its function rests on convention. It is likely, however, that our auditory perception of space and its relation to meaning is grounded in every day experience of the physical world. Moreover, the expressive gap filled by the metaphor of motion in music may be closed when actual spatial motion becomes a part of compositional practice.

One of the characteristics of Modernism in music is the rejection of theories of expression which characterised Romantic music. Musical Expressionism turned inwards and from the extremes of subjectivism, total abstraction was born. Serialism and other devices were employed to rid music of the extrinsic burdens of music history. This tendency toward musical abstraction has been fuelled by the creation of totally synthetic instruments. Electronics and computers operate in a sonic continuum that spans reproduction of real acoustic events to unimagined artificial sounds. The interplay of levels of abstraction, both in a traditional melodic / rhythmic sense and in terms of sonic material has become a device used in electroacoustic composition. Spatialisation has been used to effectively articulate these levels of abstraction. This form of compositional device is particularly evident in the music of Natasha Barrett, Earth Haze 1996[4] for instance employs a sort of phrasing of spatial perspective that underlines the evolving abstraction of the material. Another use of space in musical performance is employed by Stockhausen in Gruppen 1955. Stockhausen uses three orchestras situated around the audience. In this piece he attempts, according to Worner[5] , to establish a polyphony in time and in space. Here we see space compared with the traditional compositional elements of pitch, harmony and time. Polyphony of space suggests the interplay of two or more sound spaces as well as space being one of the musical properties of a melodic line. Stockhausen adopts a seemingly formalist approach to space. For him the property of space is an entirely intrinsic property. He uses space in order to better articulate the temporal complexities of his composition.

Wittgenstein’s[6] discussions on musical understanding may help to shed some light on the contrast between the abstract and the referential in musical language. Wittgenstein suggests that understanding a musical theme is easier than understanding a sentence. This is because the music does not bear complex relations of linguistic referents that are found in the words of a sentence. Still we understand a sentence in much the same way we understand a musical theme. Space like other musical parameters does not bear semantic meaning and yet we can interpret audible space by applying our experience and an innate or learned set of governing rules. For Wittgenstein music is highly abstract and yet we understand it by understanding the system of rules within which it operates. Our ability to understand audible space is a product of our experience and understanding, in Wittgenstein’s terms, this implies a degree of expertise. This is true of both language and music. As I suggested earlier the relation of space to meaning is likely to be grounded in our experience of the physical world. Much thought has been applied to analysing aural experience. Work with specific relevance to audible space is presented by Denis Smalley[7] in a paper entitled ‘The Listening Imagination: Listening in the Electroacoustic Era’.

In this illuminating paper, detailing modes of listening applied to electroacoustic music, Dennis Smalley includes space as one of his ‘indicative fields’. He posits the argument that musical apprehension of sounds exists on a continuum between merely informational use of sound and a more aesthetically involving, interactive engagement with the subtle qualities of a sound. Space as an integral component of sound exists on this continuum, though he categorises it amongst those elements which are indicative of relationships external to the sound itself.

He argues that the listeners response to these extrinsic relationships cannot be guaranteed and are dependent on the experience or expertise of the listener. In this regard we can see similarities with Wittgenstein’s explanation of the relation of musical and semantic meaning discussed above. As outlined above, the paradigmatic relation between music and motion is central in the language used to discuss musical sound. Smalley explores this and includes ‘energy and motion’ as one of his nine indicative fields. In his discussion of space he sets aside the use of space as an aid to the articulation of structural and spectro-morphological (relating to the formal evolution of sonic spectrum) aspects of a composition. These aspects of space are those which lie within the interactive relationships between the listener and musical sounds. His discussion centres on the indicative character of space and its interpretation by the listener.

He begins his discussion by outlining the difficulties associated with the potential contrast in acoustic properties of the spatial environment described within the composition and those in the listening space. He describes the indeterminacy arising from what he calls the ‘superimposed space’ which is the combination of the properties of the composed space and the listening space. This may result in the alteration of the indicative interpretation of the piece.

Smalley describes three indicative properties of space. The principal property is ‘spatial texture’. This concerns the topology of the audible space. Size, he argues, is the most important indicative property. It may express a range of meanings which are fundamental to human experience: he outlines the contrasts between ‘intimacy and immensity’ and ‘confinement and vastness’. He suggests the psychological or emotional states that may result from either of these extremes. Other aspects of spatial texture include the density of distribution of sounds, the spatial contiguousness of sounds and the movement of sounds.

The second spatial property which may bear meaning is ‘spatial orientation’. He employs the metaphors of ‘sound confronting from ahead or stealing up from behind’ to describe the potential of spatial orientation. Interestingly, he follows Wishart[8] in suggesting that there is no differentiation between left and right. This position is countered by Truax[9] and Wallin[10] as I will outline later. He does, however, include the case of circumfrentially enclosing sound which Wishart conspicuously excludes from his seemingly exhaustive enumeration of spatial possibilities.

The final spatial property in Smalley’s exposition is ‘temporal space’. This describes the evolution of space over time resulting in impressions of stability, permanence or rapid change. Smalley coins the term ‘spatio-morphology’ to describe the evolution of the spatial components, described above, in electroacoustic composition.

In the chapter on spatial motion in his book ‘On Sonic Art'[11] , Trevor Wishart goes to great length to enumerate the various geometric possibilities of spatial motion. His stated objective is to analyse the vocabulary of spatial motion without attempting to define its language. He does, however, comment on the meaning-bearing aspects of each type of motion. He denies that beyond the subtle aspects of left and right handedness, there can be any significant differentiation between sources coming from or moving to either side of the listener. This position is refuted by N. C. Wallin in his book ‘Biomusicology – Neurophysiological, Neuropsychological and Evolutionary Perspectives on the Origins and Purposes of Music'[12] in which he details the functional asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain and its influence on the perception and processing of musical sound. Barry Truax[13] takes up this point. He details the role of the two hemispheres in the different levels of hearing that may be involved in the perception of different sounds. The location of the speech function in the left hemisphere and this hemisphere’s popular association with analytical processes stands in contrast to the supposed synthetic and associative powers of the right hemisphere. These factors may be viewed in relation to the fact that unlike the other senses, hearing is processed by both hemispheres with the slight dominance of the opposite hemisphere. Truax cites research[14] that indicates that signals presented to each ear may be processed with access to the different faculties dependent on the hemisphere in question. Obviously, neurophysiology is a rapidly evolving field and these factors are the subject of current and controversial debate.

The points of view presented above indicate a strong belief on the behalf of contemporary composers that space can be effectively and meaningfully employed as a composition tool. This belief is born out in a great multiplicity of compositions in which space takes a predominant and sometimes central role.


Trevor Wishart’s descriptions of spatial motion and their potential meanings in musical language rely, as he says, on the apparent location of the sound object being unequivocal. This, however, is often not the case. The difficulties, as outlined by Denis Smalley above, of spatial superimposition due to the complexities of room acoustics and replay systems often work against spatial localisation. Added to these difficulties are the psychoacoustic limitations of spatial perception, for instance, limited spatial resolution of low frequencies and perceived front/rear reversal resolved only by head movement. These factors introduce a highly equivocal character to the physical aspects of spatialisation. In addition to these practical considerations must be the general difficulties of divergence between the composers intention and the audiences interpretation. The fact that understanding audible space is rooted so strongly in the every day experience of the individual, implies a ‘death of the composer’[15] leaving only what Barthes might have called active interpretation on the part of the listener. Without a fixed signified, audible space is reduced to an arbitrary sign with only a field of potential meanings for the listener to operate within.

The formalist approaches to musical meaning of space, as exemplified in my reference to Stockhausen above, imply that space is an intrinsic musical property. For those who deny that such ideocentric approaches are valid, the convergence of meaning in composers intention and listeners interpretation is very limited. From this deconstructionist point of view, the meaning in audible space would be almost entirely equivocal.

The argument represented by my references to Wittgenstein, imply that understanding a musical idea requires an understanding of the syntax and vocabulary of the musical system. It is not clear that any such fixed structure exists in the case of spatialisation. We may have extensive experience in the field acoustic spatial perception, but our analytical expertise may not necessarily be equal to that of the composer.

It is apparent that there is no guarantee that the composers intentions will be transmitted to the listener. There are a range of practical and theoretical difficulties associated with the use of audible space as a musical device.


Clearly, any meaning that may be associated with the spatial elements of a composition cannot be absolutely fixed. This will be case with most musical properties of a composition. This does not mean, however, that listeners cannot share a common experience or interpretation of audible space. Or, indeed, that the composers intentions will not, in some form, be perceived by the listener. Obviously, the fact that space has been employed successfully by so many composers in the past, and that it continues to be explored as a musical device, means that it has earned its place in musical language and will surely continue to grow in importance. Theoretical interest in the use of space in composition has occupied much space in the literature of contemporary music. Analysis of its use and exploration of its potential by theorists and composers presents great scope for research and development.

The technical difficulties outlined above are being continually addressed by research and advanced electroacoustic practice. Great progress is being made both in the predictable use of electroacoustic devices and in the treatment and control of acoustic spaces. New auditorium designs, sensitive to the needs of electroacoustic performance must surely help to narrow the gap between the composers spatial design and its performance realisation. New techniques for spatial encoding and advanced signal processing[16] for multi-channel playback are presenting a viable way forward for the development of spatial composition. These developments do not inhibit the performance of live sound diffusion, where this is seen as the aesthetically appropriate approach to the realisation of the inherent spatial properties of a piece. On the contrary, they will provide the performer with new and flexible tools and enhance the expressive possibilities of this form of live interpretation.

Being aware of the limitations and potential pitfalls of spatial expression can only improve our understanding of this exciting dimension in musical language. This understanding must help us to explore the wealth of musical material that exploits audible space and open the horizons to new and innovative work in the future.


1. Goldberg, R.1979 ‘Performance Art – From Futurism to the Present’ Thames and Hudson, London
2. EMI Parlophone 1967,EMI Records 1987 CDP 7 46442 2
3. Warner Brothers Records 1982 7599-23696-2
4. Nota Bene Records 1997 N.B. 970101M
5. Worner, K.H. 1963 ‘Stockhausen – Life and Work’ Faber and Faber, London
6. Worth,S.E 1997 ‘Wittgenstein’s Musical Understanding’ The British Journal of Aesthetics 37:2
7. Smalley,D. 1997 ‘The Listening Imagination: Listening in the Electroacoustic Era’ Contemporary Music Review 13:2
8. Wishart,T. 1985 ‘On Sonic Art’ Imagineering Press, York (See 1996 Ed. Simin Emmerson)
9. Truax, B. 1984 ‘Acoustic Communication’ Ablex Publishing Corp., New Jersey
10. Wallin,N.L 1991 ‘Biomusicology – Neurophysiological, Neuropsychological and Evolutionary Perspectives on the Origins and Purposes of Music’ Pendragon Press, Stuyvesant N.Y.
11. Wishart (1985)
12. Wallin (1991)
13. Truax (1984)
14. Truax (1984) pp. 53-54
15. I have borrowed from Barthes,R. 1977 ‘The Death of the Author’ in Heath,S. Ed.,‘Image Music Text’ Fontana Press London
16. for exciting developments see http://www.ircam.fr/produits-real/logicels/spat-e.htm, http://www.ircam.fr/activities/recherche/cou-salle.htm referred to in a thread of the 3-D Audio mailing list correspondents: Jean-Marc Jot – Room acoustics team, IRCAM and David Malham – Music Technology Group, University of York

c. 1997, Ian Stevenson.
From Audile Paradigmatics. (Republished with permission.)

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