Some thoughts on composition and spatialization

(erschienen in Ideas Sonicas / Sonic Ideas 16)

Spatialization has numerous refined algorithms and tools. But actually, the „space“ of a musical piece is much more than the hall in which the piece is performed. We can speak, in a metaphorical way, of an „inner“ space of a piece. We can describe this space, and we can ask in what way it can be represented (mirrored, answered) by a number of loudspeakers: What number? What configuration? What kind of speakers? And what technique of sound diffusion will fit best? — These are important questions which will not lead to the one and only solution; but they will avoid a loss of consciousness of this important factor of spatialization.

What is the „Inner Space“ of a Piece of Music?

Speaking about music is always speaking in comparisons or metaphors. There are some metaphors which already have a long tradition. One of these metaphors is the Gedanke (thought/idea) of a piece. Wo teufl hast du diese Gedanken her (where the devil did you get these thoughts), says Leopold Mozart to his daughter when she played him a new piece which she pretended to be hers, to test her father's expertise.¹ And for Arnold Schoenberg, this word is still in use as a matter of course: Es ist sehr bedauerlich, dass so viele zeitgenössische Komponisten sich so viel um Stil und so wenig um Gedanken kümmern.²

In a similar way we can speak of the inner „space“ of a piece of music. This metaphor is meant to grasp the body or Gestalt or characteristic shape of a piece of music.³ Let me propose some examplary descriptions to clarify what this wants to describe. I will start with two pieces of instrumental music, and then continue to two pieces of electronic music.

At first, two string quartets, from italian composers around 1960. I would describe the „space“ of Giacinto Scelsi's Quartetto No. 4 (1964) as wide and characterized by immense tension, although these tensions are only insinuated at like forces or potentials, not set free. In contrast, the space at the beginning of Luciano Berio's Quartetto per archi (1956) is characterized by short, sometimes violent gestures. The overall image is like a cube: a space with defined borders, and an abundance of contrasts inside; whereas the space in Scelsi's piece is tight, but without graspable borders, so in a way it is unlimited.

How can the inner space of Stockhausen's Studie II (1953) and Cage's William's Mix (1951/52) be described? I would describe the former as homogenous, calm, like a surface with ever changing light, and the latter as heterogenous, disrupted, without any unifying substance, but as a space being built from diversity. So it seems to be more than a technical question that Stockhausen's piece is monophonic whilst Cage's piece is the first piece for eight surrounding speakers in electronic music ever.

Certainly, these descriptions are in part subjective, because they are about music. But they should be sufficient to demonstrate what is meant by „inner“ space. Many composers have a strong sense of space, when they start to realize a piece. You feel this space, you feel it as wide, or narrow, as silent, or wild, as bright, or dark. This is the subjective sensation of the space I am talking about; a space which can be described by anyone who is sensitive for a certain music.

What is the Relation between „Inner“ and „Outer“ Space in Music?

Generally speaking, there can be any relation between the „inner“ space of music, and its realization in a real, „outer“ space. Both can tend to be congruent, or can be indifferent to each other, or anything in between. If we look back at the tradition of European classical music, we find for instance the double choir pieces in Venice around 1600 as examples for a strong congruence, as the antithetic musical structure is quasi-projected to the outer space, or reflected by it. Quite similarly, in the beginning of Bach's Matthäuspassion, which in its original performance in Leipzig 1727 had three groups of musicians located separately in the space, the arrangement accords with the musical structure. And still in the „remote orchestra“ in the 19th century, we have this sort of congruence.

On the other hand, music often seems to be indifferent or insensible to the space in which it is performed. Musicians refer to a space as „it sounds good“ or „bad“, but not as something which is substantial to the inner structure of a piece. This can be considered as „main stream“ in western classical music: the notation, the text is the actual being of a music, which implies that this being is independent of its concrete realization. Or, in philosophical terms: The „concrete“, „outer“ space of a musical performance does not really affect the essence (or „inner space“) of a piece of music. The outer space is a mere accident, and the above mentioned examples of Gabrieli, Bach and Berlioz, which show a strong coincidence between inner and outer space, are more like exceptions to this general line.

Now, in electro-acoustic music, we have much more possibilities to form the outer space of a performance. In contrast to an acoustic instrument, which connects the sound production and its projection in space, in electronic music both elements can be composed independent of each other. In other words: The sound projection is free, it can be set in any way. Would you like to use one speaker on stage? Or hundreds of speakers in an array, like in wave-field-synthesis? Or a sound dome? Everything is possible; it only depends on the equipment you can use. But what does it mean as a compositional decision?

Choice I: Do you believe in correspondences?

First choice: Do you believe that “inner” and “outer” space of a piece are strongly related to each other, or not? Or, in less metaphoric words: Do you want to create a sound projection which articulates important qualities of your musical structure? Or do you consider the sound projection as a more neutral, non-substantial part of your music?

Luigi Nono's works in his late period are examples for a strong connection between „inner“ and „outer“ space. As a simple example, in the Post-Praeludium per Donau (1987) for Tuba and live electronics, each speaker represents one of the four delay lines, as substantial parts of the musical structure. For Prometeo, Nono created a much more sophisticated representation. Obviously, this music looses a vital property when it is not heard in this way.

Choice II: Do you believe in Sound Diffusion techniques?

If you believe in spaces, and you decide to use any given speaker configuration, you will be able to choose any sound diffusion technique. Each of them will have aesthetical implications.

If you use simple routing, you will establish the speakers as fixed points in space. Each of them is a body, immobile and important. If you use any sort of panning (either simple stereo panning, or complex stereo like in the acousmonium, or vector base amplitude panning in two or three dimensions), you will loosen the connections between sound and speakers to some degree, without cutting it completely. Still, the speakers will be perceived as concrete bodies, „speaking“ to the listeners.

If you use a sound field technique (like ambisonic or wave-field-synthesis), the „personal speaker“ is dissolved more or less perfectly, in favour of a field: soft and ungraspable. In this case, spatialization has created an environment.

Choice III: Do you believe in speakers as objects?

This — establishing a sound field — implies that the individual speakers have lost their meaning as being objects: with a unique body, a unique position in space, and a unique sound quality. This tradition of a speaker as object has some important implications, and it is not by accident that it is usually connected with simple sound diffusion techniques like panning or even routing.

One example of this tradition is the acousmonium which has been used in the „french school“ of electro-acoustic music. Here, many different speakers are placed on stage, very much like the different instruments of a classical orchestra. The composer or interpreter decides which of them to use. Both are important: the individual sound of each speaker, and its position on stage.

In the tradition originating in the fine arts and architecture, the sculptural quality of a speaker is much more important than in the musical tradition. So the question is not only how a speaker sounds, but also how it looks like, and how it is a part of the general installation. As one of many examples, Ulrich Eller puts speakers into bowls or drums. And finally, the sound objects can become something different from a speaker...

What is your choice?

I think it is important that a composer does not see spatialization as a mere collection of tools to use. He, or she, should think more fundamentally about the relation between „inner“ and „outer“ space, musical thought and representation in space:

If a composer believes that the projection of sound in space is not important for the music, it's fine. This is a decision very much in the tradition of the mainstream of western classical music, like Beethoven or Brahms. For electronic music, this would basically mean to use monophonic output.¹⁰

If a composer decides to use a standard given speaker configuration for spatial projection of sound, it's fine. There is a huge range of techniques, from simple routing over amplitude panning to ambisonics and wave field synthesis, all having aesthetical implications. Decide what fits to your needs, and use it. Perhaps for some situations it is best to combine certain techniques.

If a composer decides to create new ways of relating the inner and the outer space of a piece to each other, it's very fine. By this, you will create something unique. You will gain individuality, but you may loose the possibility to play your piece anywhere. You will perhaps free yourself from expensive devices, you will be able to build your sound space with rather cheap material, but you must build it.

All is fine, except this: To use any standard speaker configuration, and any standard spatialization technique without any decision, just because „everyone does“. This lack of reflection and perception would assign your music to be „like everyone does“, and that is probably what you will not want your music to be.

Leopold Mozart to Wolfgang A. Mozart, 13.08.1778, in: Mozart, Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, Edited by W. A. Bauer and O. E. Deutsch, II, Kassel 1962, p. 446.
It is very regrettable that so many contemporary composers care so much about style and so little about idea. (Arnold Schoenberg, Stil und Gedanke, Frankfurt:Fischer 1992, 52.)
Actually I would say: A piece of art in general. For Fine Arts, it is obviously the way it is expressed, as we see it in the (two- or three-dimensional) space. But I believe it makes a lot of sense to use this term also for texts: the „space in text“ is significantly different for instance in a text of G. E. Lessing from 1751 compared with a text of 1778 (see my contribution in
For instance in the Requiem of Hector Berlioz which per score requires four remote orchestras.
And as a Venician by birth, Nono made reference to the music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabriele of four hundred years before.
Whereas Stockhausen used parts of his last electronic work Cosmic pulses (eight channels) in other contextes also as stereo versions (hours 14-21 of Klang), so at least considering the spatialization as less substantial as Nono.
Which can also be considered as a filter quality, whereas the perfect sound field speaker is neutral. and (accessed 26 april 2015)..
For instance in André Bartetzki's pot-shot (, accessed 26 april 2015).
10  Regardless of usage of one or more speakers.