RMA transcript

This talk is a reduced version of a paper that I wrote, which presents a categorisation of interactions between space and sound, as a guide for creative practitioners and as a way of improving the ways in which spatial and musical ideas can be calibrated in creative works.

Throughout this talk, I use the self-coined term ‘spatiosonic’ to refer to work which deliberately exploits and explores productive reciprocities between music as constructed sound and architecture as constructed space.

Continued improvement to the portability of recording and listening devices is changing the way that we understand and experience relationships between sound and space. Recorded content in music and sound art is very often dissociated from the physical context of its origins in that such content is often captured in spaces distinct from where we end up listening to it. As a result, a large proportion of the music that we listen to, unknowingly embodies varying degrees of spatial information and often lacks any deliberate interaction with its spatial situation. Despite the obvious advantages to technological developments across both sonic and spatial disciplines, the resulting lack of planned interaction between sound and space appears to forget the historically productive symbiosis between the practices of architecture and music.

As a result of this trend, the autonomy from physical sites that manifests is contrarily accompanied by a desire to access and replicate the acoustic character of other spaces, as evidenced in the routine application of electroacoustic reverberation, echo and delay effects to recorded (and sometimes performed) sound. Typically these effects give a generic illusion of an acoustically reflective space, with the exception of convolution reverb which has the capacity to correspond to particular spaces, though is rarely used with the space in which the original impulse response was captured, in mind.

The conceptual and practical disconnect that has become common between sound and space is also evidenced in the way that spaces for music are typically designed. Architects and engineers rarely question the design paradigms that fundamentally influence the way we experience indoor musical performances. Design decisions relating to aspects such as audience/performer relationships and acoustic propagation are becoming increasingly standardised, fostering a disjointed dynamic between the realms of music and architecture in which any discussion of each other's disciplinary zeitgeist is neither explicitly acknowledged nor sought out. This continued divergence is surprising, considering the wealth of conceptual and practical overlap between these two worlds.

This paper speculates on current issues surrounding areas of disciplinary overlap and provides a possible conceptual framework for improving the quality and precision of communication between spatial and sonic disciplines. The definition and development of such a framework is just one small part of the larger initiative within this body of research, which otherwise aims to establish a significantly richer and more active scene for cross, inter and transdisciplinary practice amongst architects, engineers, musicians and composers.

In order to gain a more rigorous understanding of the ways in which sound and space interact within architectural and musical contexts, it is helpful to first classify and categorise such interactions, to form a hierarchical structure resembling a taxonomy.

This work in progress diagram is one method for organising such a concept and will form the focus of today’s talk. At this point, it is important to also acknowledge a few caveats: It’s not possible to fully reduce the complex network of relationships between space and sound to a set of neatly organised and well-behaved groups, nor-would it be particularly desirable to do so as this would disregard the pleasures and creative possibilities available in the complexity and unpredictability of the interactions between these two worlds.

It is worth also noting at this point, that this paper only intends to identify and categorise types of interaction as opposed to listing all of the possible agents responsible for producing and defining sound and space, or anticipating all of the possible products and consequences of such interactions.

In order to qualify for inclusion in this diagram, interactions must contain both a spatial and a sonic agent.

Starting at the top of the hierarchy

the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ categories provide a coarse-grain organisation. ‘Outer’ space explicitly relates to features associated with physical space, such as acoustic phenomena and the dimensional positioning of sounds. By contrast, the ‘inner’ or evoked space category contains elements that exhibit no direct interaction with ‘outer’ or physical space, despite having the capacity to influence and be influenced by it.

Within the ‘outer’ category, and below the label of ‘experienceable’, the diagram branches into a distinction between the ‘physical’ and the ‘virtual’.

The level of branching below this, organises types of interaction belonging to each of these realms.

the virtual relates to analog and digital models of these interactions

And the physical category discusses spatiosonic interactions which are directly accessible in physical space.

To identify a few key historic examples relating to acoustic phenomena and the organisation of sound sources:

Twentieth century American composer Henry Brant dedicated more than half of his career to producing spatialised compositions (Harley 1997: 70) in which spatial separation is used as a compositional device to achieve an audible clarity in musically complex arrangements. In Brant’s own words: “Spatial separation is essentially a contrapuntal device… and it enhances the polyphonic contrast between widely separated groups.

In a reflection of a rehearsal for his composition Voyage Four, Brant compares the sound of the orchestra when “[they] were jammed together on the stage in a conventional symphonic seating arrangement” with when the musicians took their places as intended by Brant. When arranged in Brant’s spatially diverse configuration “contrapuntal amalgams, even in the most complex places, became easily clear, and individual parts easily identifiable by direction” (Brant 1967: 228). In this example, and in many more of his compositions, Brant creates deliberate relationships between aspects of physical space, particularly direction, and musical content.

Prior to Brant, composers such as Hector Berlioz and conductor Leopold Stockowski also experimented with and published proposals for non-standard orchestral layouts in order to enhance musical concepts. It’s surprising that these experiments and ideas don’t appear to have been more successful in promoting ongoing experimentation, in the interest of improving relationships between orchestral layouts and musical content, especially in the creation of new music.

The idea that standard models even exist for orchestral layout might make sense for a large proportion of existing work on which these standards are based, however there still exists a great deal of resistance to experiment with the positioning of players on an orchestral scale in the commissioning of new works, even in relation to pieces which propose highly specific and rigorously researched relationships between spatial and musical concepts. Perhaps this reluctance anticipates the organisational inconvenience of having to move a large number of players and instruments between pieces, which would require careful concert programming and the addition of a floor plan to the conductor’s score. Alternatively, if a piece is written for a specific building, or architectural configuration, it could be argued that it would be undesirable to add such a piece to an orchestra’s repertoire, as they would have to only ever play that piece in the location for which it was written, or seek out performance spaces with similar acoustic and architectural characteristics.

To return to the other side of ‘outer’ space. The categories under the ‘virtual’ label…

refer to sounds containing spatial information which is either constructed, recorded or manipulated using a range of digital and analogue modelling and production tools. Some of the examples in this section may have their origins in physical space, but they are all products of electroacoustic processes and as such, require playback on loudspeakers in order for their spatial content to be experienced.

Interactions in this section are categorised as:

Synthesised: Relating to the spaces that are implied in sounds which have been subjected to electroacoustic effects such as reverb, delay and binaural panning providing impressions of generic as opposed to particular spaces.

Simulated: Auralizations of spaces that are simulated using an impulse response (IR) that is gained from either physical capture or generated using a digital geometric ray traced model. This category also includes the positioning of sound sources and receivers in virtual models, which output a binaural signal for playback on headphones.

And Sampled: The acoustic character of a physical space that gets captured when sound is recorded within that space.

On the other side, the ‘inner’ category...

...branches from ‘evokable’ to ‘imagined’, ‘remembered’ and ‘metaphorical’. As the headline suggests, these are all types of interaction that aren’t immediately available in the physical realm and as a result, require a method of communication and interpretation to be accessed and understood by an audience.

Imagined: Relates to imagined interactions between space and sound, evoked by a number of agents including (but not limited to) a verbal description of a spatiosonic interaction, such as in a fictional story or an anecdote.

Remembered: Is similar to the ‘imagined’ category. The difference is in the particularity of the thought, in that ‘remembered’ interactions recall particular spaces and/or sounds that are directly influenced by our experiences in ‘physical’ space.

Metaphorical: Has a more complex relationship to the other parts of the diagram than remembered or imagined as this category is more closely linked to ideas of representation. It is also arguably more common to refer to the idea of metaphorical space or sound as agents or products of an interaction, than it is to focus on concepts of metaphorical interactions per se

A metaphorical interaction might reasonably exist in the method for modelling reflected sound using ray-tracing. Early examples of ray-tracing were originally developed for registering light on the surfaces of digital geometric models. Ray tracing remains problematic for acoustic applications as we know that sound doesn’t necessarily travel in straight lines, as it is subject to wave behaviours that ray tracing doesn’t account for (Dalenbäck, 2018). But such is the nature of a metaphor: It isn’t so much a replacement for the thing which it is claiming to be, but rather a translation of a concept from one medium to another.

There isn’t time today to discuss the multiple ways in which representation is relevant to the diagram, as the subject of ‘representation’ very fluidly weaves between both the experienceable and evokable sides of the diagram, but it is still helpful to mention the four categories which are:

Representational methods in Spatial Practice and Sonic Practice - for example architectural drawing and musical notation in their various forms and combinations.

Spatial Representation in Music - or examples of pieces which realise spatial ideas in the form of sonic constructs (usually relating to explicit definitions of space such as geometrics or proportional ideas)

and finally musical Representation in Spatial Practice which might exist in Examples of architectural features such as a facade representing a musical idea such as a rhythm.

One of the motivations for producing this paper is in response to an observation by composer Dennis Smalley who, on the subject of ‘spatial attributes and the role of space in composition’ identifies that ‘there is no substantial, unified text on the topic, nor any solid framework which might provide a reasonably secure basis for investigating space’ (2007: 35).

Smalley’s paper is written from a sonic practitioner's point of view and places a particular focus on spaces implicated in acousmatic sound. His list of ‘spatial forms’ are derived from what he refers to as ‘source bonding approaches’ (2007: 35), a concept that Smalley defines in an earlier paper as ‘the natural tendency to relate sounds to supposed sources and causes, and to relate sounds to each other because they appear to have shared or associated origins’ (Smalley 1997: 110). To understand how this aligns with the spatiosonic diagram, Smalley’s concept of source-bonding would be well-placed in relation to the ‘sampled’ category. Smalley correctly identifies that ‘Sounds in general, and source-bonded sounds in particular… carry their space with them – they are space-bearers’ (2007: 38).

Information regarding both spatial and sonic agents is embedded in a recording: The point at which interactions between a sound and its physical context become sampled. The acoustic response of the space which becomes ‘sampled’ allows us to ‘imagine’ corporeal characteristics such as the size, geometry and materiality of space. We might also be able to derive dimensionally relational information such as the locations and proximities of sound sources relative to each other and the receiver. The sound’s agency, in terms of the cause of, or motivation for its production, enables us to derive information on other environmental characteristics such as geographic location, climatic conditions and maybe also even social and cultural contexts. Smalley’s paper lays important groundwork in outlining methodologies for integrating spatial concepts into electroacoustic music specifically. This paper builds on this work, by explicitly establishing the terms of a disciplinary territory between wider sonic and spatial practices.

An even richer opportunity for complex and creative synergies between sound and space exists in works where interactive concepts, as outlined in the diagram, interact with each other, as they start to overlap and influence each other.

Each of the spatiosonic typologies, when discussed in isolation, present their own restrictions and problems: Physical space is limited in terms of what’s physically possible and virtual space isn’t always able to understand or acknowledge the complex variables in play within physical space. However, both typological areas unavoidably also interact with each other in varied and interesting ways, both conceptually and practically.

When a work presents multiple types of interaction with the same space, simultaneously, it could be thought of as a ‘nesting’ of typologies.

The following site-specific piece illustrates an example where sound and physical space are deliberately disconnected, though creative calibrations between sound and space are deliberately crafted to occur in multiple virtual realms. Construction 005: Similis is a recorded piece which I was commissioned to make, for playback on headphones, and at a physical distance from the space which it is both sonically-representing and (virtually) acoustically interacting with. Musicity Global asked me to write a piece of music which ‘represents’ the architectural characteristics of London’s Barbican Centre (particularly the foyer space, as opposed to the concert hall) as part of their Sound Unbound Festival last year.

A spatial representation of the space at the Barbican is captured in the recording method for the individual sound sources. It wasn’t possible to physically access the space to record at the Barbican directly, so the sounds were recorded in analogous spaces in a way that was able to audibly represent the horizontal depth of the floorplan at the Barbican, by placing the instruments at varying distances from the microphone, constituting a metaphorical interaction. Of course the analogous spaces in which the instruments are recorded are unavoidably also sampled as these spaces have their own acoustic signatures (though this was considered subtle enough to not become a dominant part of the concept). The varying distances from the microphone not only represents the spatial depth of the Barbican’s floor plan, but also maintains an individual clarity in relation to sounds that are timbrally similar to each other.

Once the parts were recorded, the tracks were then subjected to an acoustic simulation of reflected sound within the Barbican foyer, without the need for any direct physical interaction between the origins of the sounds and the space in question, by convolving the initial tracks with an impulse response (IR) that was previously captured by engineers at Arup, directly in the foyer space, (though it would have also been possible to simulate this with a ray traced, geometric digital model).

The IR revealed that the Barbican foyer is particularly reflective to frequencies between 110 and 440 Hz. The low to mid register in which the music is written, deliberately coincides with the most intense region of the impulse response file, as visualized by the spectral frequency display. The music capitalises on the reverberant potential of the space and thus its ability to ‘blend’ sounds as they are (virtually) reflected.

If we then align the conceptual frameworks of this piece with the categories presented in the diagram: On listening to Similis, the space of the Barbican foyer becomes present through a multitude of types of interaction, simultaneously:

The simulated interaction between the initial tracks and the virtual model of sonic reflections within the Barbican is perhaps the most conceptually straightforward. The simulated acoustic response (derived from a physical acoustic response) produces a sonic character which either

evokes a memory of the space at the Barbican or causes one to imagine it, depending on whether the listener is already familiar with that space or not. Though in very subtle cases, the acoustic connection to a specific space may need to be made clear to the listener in advance, for its particular presence to be acknowledged and recalled or imagined.

Compositional decisions regarding the tonal range and harmonic development of the music then directly respond to the simulated interaction.

The representation of spatial depth as constructed through the dimensional organisation of microphones relative to sound sources in physical space, constitutes an audible spatial metaphor, which is effectively a scale model of the distances present in the Barbican’s interior. This combination of spatiosonic interactions, when explicitly utilised as compositional elements, constitutes a calibrated sonic metaphor for the architectural characteristics of the Barbican’s interior. Such a combination of interactive typologies is perhaps the audible equivalent of viewing a set of architectural drawings in conjunction with its accompanying physical or digital model, in order to interact with a visual representation of a space in a multitude of ways.

There isn’t time to listen to this today as it’s quite long, but please see the link at the end if you would like to listen.

Despite the examples discussed today, it would appear that there still exists a large and exciting untapped reservoir of potential for the cross-disciplinary sharing of spatiosonic concepts, knowledge and methodologies. We have learned from historic examples that architectural practice is capable of learning what music wants and that musical practice is able to access and utilise spatial intelligence shared from architectural practice. As such, endless possibilities exist for creating spatiosonic works which deliberately and precisely exploit nuanced areas of overlap between the spatial and sonic intelligence embodied in both musical and spatial practices respectively, yet surprisingly only a small and specialist group of composers, musicians and designers are seemingly interested in capitalising on this creative potential.

In order to maintain a creative exchange between the practices of constructing sound and space, we must establish rigorous and precise methodologies for interdisciplinary calibration, and for this to be successful we must also remain critical of what the resultant interactions, in their various categories, have to offer. By exploring existing and hypothetical examples we understand that virtual space offers composers, performers and listeners liberation from the physical constraints of immediate space. With this material autonomy comes a freedom to test ideas and work remotely, with and inside spaces and visions of spaces that are otherwise inaccessible, or don’t physically exist. However, virtual space is limited in its ability to engage with the complexities of physical, sonic phenomena, even in sophisticated and high-resolution digital models. On the other hand; the complexities and relative unpredictability of acoustic phenomena in physical spaces is something that many practitioners actively avoid or even try to fix.

It’s exactly this complexity, associated with multiple, overlapping spatiosonic realities where a great potential exists for richness and originality in multidisciplinary works.

Identifying and categorising types of interaction is only a small part of establishing an interdisciplinary practice between sound and space; or spatiosonic practice. This paper is not an instruction manual for prescribing methods for making spatiosonic works, but rather a guide to facilitate a productive dialogue between two highly compatible disciplinary areas that are seemingly losing touch with each other.

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