Oh! Space… space…

Translation by Lily Woodruff

Original French TextCliquez sur ici pour le texte français original.


A large number of books and articles have been edited over the decades on the theme of sound space, its perception, its fixed and mobile configuration in the composition of acousmatic music, and its perception in the space of a particular environment.

In this article, I would just like to testify to my experience as a composer of acousmatic music who is fascinated by the different techniques of stereophonic and multiphonic spatialization.

From the internal space of a stereophonic work to its spatialization with an orchestra of loud speakers

Every technician knows the different positions of microphones necessary to record a sound that gives the impression of being located very close, or far away, as well as the sounds that move between these two points in space. In monophonic music one can play with two dimensions: far-near, “high-low” high pitch-low pitch.*

In 1963, at Groupe de Recherche Musique, hereafter GRM, the tape-recorders were monophonic. I wanted to create sounds that would be mobile in space through near-far movement, the only ones that were possible to compose with the technology of that moment. In order to approach the composition studios at the GRM it was necessary to have a command of the processes. Up until 1967, I was working on single tracks for Shaefferian solfège and doing professional training in music. I had the habit of going into the studio for the official composers during their absence at lunch time in order to manipulate the new machines invented by Francis Coupigny. In these exceptional moments, I was able to experiment with different spatial figures** that made me dream for years to come. The recording tape and the small amount of time in the analog studio did not allow me, at that time, to go very far in my spatial desires, apart from near-far, high-low pitch, and later on with stereo, left-right, each mix strengthened a little more the breath and the buzz of the sound, so, I limited them in the extreme. Despite these difficulties, I was able to savor my first experiments on four tracks with my three first works that I composed at GRM between the years 1967-70.

In this era, we already knew that in adjusting the physical relations between the acoustic waves generated by two loudspeakers, the sound was deflected from these two sources and sent between, or in front of, the two loudspeakers. Our ears and our nervous system reconstitute the sound in a place where the sound no longer is. It becomes therefore an “image” of the sound. This is the principle of stereophonics.

When the stereophonic image is transposed and circumscribed by a large number of loudspeakers, it creates a virtual volume of sound that is more full, more physical, more natural. The figures, the lines of space can spread in every possible dimension where the complex, entangled images are much more legible if one observes them in relief. We speak therefore of the “spatial field”***, a key concept that I tried to develop through the placing in space of stereophonic music, a concept that will be developed later.

Since 1997, I have been using a computer, which allows me to more easily control the inner space in a work. It has made all of my dreams of trajectories, of jumps, of mass movements, of spatial figures of all orders realizable. It is possible at the moment of the composition, to “separate” the sound from their points of projection, and to fix, or displace, them to an infinite number of virtual points scattered throughout the field, thereby creating all sorts of subtle and indefinable spatial movements. It is easy to differentiate them, not according to large trajectories and full mass movements, but also along stable and distant planes. These options, which are chosen for the characteristics that are specific to them (morphologies, speed, dynamics, displacement, evolution, trajectory…), will be placed in this virtual field according to their function at the heart of a structure. The so-called extreme trajectories, right-left, very often employed, and which specify the localization of two source loudspeakers, above all if the trajectories are long and crossed, do not hide other more subtle movements that play, and are developed, within this virtual field, from this three-dimensional sound volume, in which the fourth dimension is time.

Certain sound materials posses an intense internal energy that is produced by the imperceptible and very rapid “rubbings,” that make vibrating fields appear. This is a sort of quivering of material suspended in space. They are differentiated from smooth and stable sounds by the intensity of their internal movement. This energetic material can be transformed into a smooth, immobile mass, either by accelerating it, or by slowing it down to the extreme. They can change the spatial field if, in composing the music, each voice is shifted forward or back from the other voice by several milliseconds. They are thereby perceived as escaping from their sources. A very subtle spatial slippage can be obtained by a minute acceleration of one of these two voices.

Several insights into the phenomenon of spatialization

For the record: acousmatic music derives its true sense and its true dimension from its diffusion in a chosen location, by two, or preferably by a large number, of loudspeakers, if the location and the budget of the programmer permit it. Each loudspeaker is a source of sound controlled by potentiometers integrated into a console. They can be positioned at any place in a location where music will unfold. Placed at distances studied in advance, they create a delimited space within the volume of a room (enclosed space), outside (open space), or in a location whose mixed construction includes one or two walls (2).

From my first spatialization with the implantation of the Gmebaphone (currently the Cybernéphone of the IMEB (Institute de Musiques Expérimentales de Bourges, Institute of Experimental Music of Bourges)), created by Christian Clozier in 1973, began my first conscious perception of this spatial field put into movement by this very particular installation. Each of the loudspeakers diffused a zone of the musical spectrum obtained through filtering, which gave the work a very curious spatial movement thanks to the sliding of the low pitches, of the medium range pitches, and of the high pitches outside of the spatialization fixed by the composer. This type of diffusion created a game, subtly overlapping mobile spatial planes and fields.

The system of diffusion during the 1960 and 70s was technically different from what it is now: a line was inscribed in the middle of the console so as to separate the potentiometers plugged into the loudspeakers on the right from those on the left. It was therefore easy to intuitively distinguish where the stereophony was situated in the hall during the projection of the sound in space. The acousmonium created by François Bayle in 1974 at the GRM (Musical Research Group), consisting of loudspeakers of different “colors” and different powers, did not escape this practice (2).

Current systems, having become rather orthodox and fairly frontal (in effect, there is a concentration of loudspeakers in front of the public), with two stereophonic loudspeakers guided by two potentiometers placed next to the console, make a spatialization created by a plane that is right-left, in the front, from the side and at the back, easier, and makes complex crossed trajectories more difficult.

This technical restriction drove me to mark each potentiometer plugged into the loudspeakers on the right with red tape so as to differentiate them from those on the left. This simple trick returned to the old system that allowed one to dissociate the movements of the potentiometers from the idea of stereophony so as to create mobile spatial fields and unforeseen slippages, provoke heteroclite crossed movements, link together sounds from several loudspeakers from the left toward a single point on the right in order to create ranges of sound. In a word, this allowed us to realize all the instances of figures that our imagination can invent, so as to create totally new spatial fields.

Curiously, perception of what moves in space breaks away, in perception, from a plane that is farther away or more static, which gives the sensation of a spatial field close to that of the multitrack.

In addition, it is imperative to always have a marked potentiometer open and another unmarked during the diffusion in order to avoid making one of the two channels mute.

As it is practically impossible to hear all the different points in space that are situated laterally, in front of and behind the console, and to also be aware of what the public hears, the imagination takes on a primary importance: raising or lowering one or several potentiometers again causes us to “imagine” the spatial projection that we wish for. The public, placed in different places in the hall, perceives this mobile field very distinctly.

The spatialization of a multitrack is fixed in advance at the time that the piece is composed, but can be augmented by adding additional loudspeakers or by an original installation—groupings of loudspeakers in different areas of the concert hall. On the other hand, stereophonic music also has something to say about this since, projected this same spatial field, it can develop unimaginable sound displacements where each performance is unique, which is also what makes it very fragile. (See “Who spatializes… an interpreter?” farther down).
All slow, smooth movement lets the music “settle in” and move naturally. To want to “ameliorate” or change its movement with well synchronized “effects” can valorize a musical moment, but also destroy the work and make it incomprehensible.

I would like to point out the existence of sound projection systems that offer listening conditions that are less conventional and that open new horizons in our quest for renewal. In order to not repeat a history that is already well known thanks to a full bibliography consecrated to this subject, I would like to mention several experiences that are original and in evolution (2) (4):

Installing loudspeakers in water—in a swimming pool or in the sea, so as to hear music underwater, was the beautiful idea of the composer Michel Redolfi.

During a very playful show in the 1970s, the composers Michel Redolfi and Georges Boeuf had the idea to attach a loud speaker to their stomachs. They moved about on roller skates while spitting out acousmatic music on the stage of a theater at the Maison de la Culture in Bourges.

An idea of the same genre germinated in the imagination of the composer Christine Groult. She created the installation of an audio unit formed from two car loudspeakers and a mini-disk player, which projected acousmatic music behind several experimental bicycles. These, accompanied by amused and complicit cyclists, rode along the Ourq canal where several selected spectacles took place in different stages, up until the final concert at Bobigny on the Acousmonium. (“Canal instantané” 2004).

These last two examples demonstrate the inversion of the orthodox idea in which music moves in a spatial field across a static installation of loudspeakers. In this case, it is the loudspeakers that move in a non-delimited space while projecting music.

I would like to mention another spatial conception that is currently in its experimental phase, by the composer Pascale Criton, who proposes a mixture composed of loudspeakers and instrumentalists, stationary and moving, placed at different points—visible and invisible—of a “construction” or of a location. The public can move about, searching in order to locate the source of the sound or ignoring where it is located. This set-up creates, inside and outside of this “house,” paradoxical spatial sound fields (3).

When I composed “Demeures Aquatiques” on four tracks at GRM in 1967, I remembered having felt, two years before, an intense joy in making a framework turn using 4 loudspeakers, around an astonished public, during a presentation by Ivo Malec, before a concert at the Maison de la Radio. I thought that to realize this spatial figure in my music was a great idea. So I constructed an articulation between two sequences where a high-pitched pulse turned clockwise on the 4 loudspeakers while accelerating its movement, while at the same time, a complex object with resonance turned in the opposite direction, faster and faster. At the time of the concert, this idea seemed so naïve to me that I never again repeated the experiment.

In my opinion, the trajectories right-left, forward-back and all the crossed movements are familiar to us in every day life: in the circulation of car traffic, the noise of steps, people who speak while walking, a passing plane, the brouhaha of the city, the ambient sounds of the countryside. All of these sounds made musical in a work drive the emotions, the sensations, breathing, they create more or less identifiable images and forms. On the other hand, in our every day life, circular sounds are the exception. Myself, I find them too artificial, too mechanical; these are superficial effects (sometimes funny), except in the very specific cases like the circular movement of horses in a circus arena, fully justified in the piece “Cirque” by Michèle Bokanowski.

Professional training in Spatialization at Pantin

During a period of professional training at the Pantin Conservatory, in the area around Paris, I asked each participant to spatialize a stereophonic work with which he or she was not familiar, so as to oblige them to concentrate completely on it. Placing something in space demands heightened attention and a listening that is very pointed toward the natural movement of the internal space of the work.

In the beginning, they had to mark the potentiometers on the right (or on the left) in order to identify the loudspeakers on the right from those on the left. Then, they had to open each potentiometer in order to know the color of each loudspeaker and their positions in the hall. And finally, having opened the different potentiometers in turn, they had to walk through the hall to determine the maximum intensity that each loudspeaker should not exceed so as to save the ears of the listeners.

In the case that they should find themselves confronted with unfamiliar music, I recommended that they open just 4 potentiometers: “front-narrow” and “front-wide” , two simple frontal positions without risk, that permit one to easily follow the unfolding of the music.

The results were very interesting: apart from a blockage in the first few minutes, little by little the participants entered into the movement of the unfamiliar piece with a very heightened attention, in respecting its construction, its subtleties, without adding any unuseful movements. We can remark that each among them discovered the true sense of “spatializing,” of the importance of not just playing too strong (the public plugs their ears and hears nothing…). Each became aware of the impossibility of hearing the loudspeakers behind that must be used with much subtlety and moderation. It is better to imagine them rather than hear them, and, for the same reason, imagine most of the spatial displacements.

After this first exercise, it became evident that it is necessary to be perfectly familiar with the piece to be spatialized, so as to valorize it with complete respect for the piece itself, for the composer, and for the public.

I showed them another technique: to study the placement in space of a piece when the allotted time for the rehearsal is too short. First, listen to each pair of stereo loudspeakers, then take a tour of the hall in order to hear the intensities of the sounds, and finally, draw in color, the placement of each loudspeaker tied to the potentiometers. After having written all of this information on a sheet of paper, comfortably settle into the corner café and work the spatialization while listening to the music in your head. This technique is also valuable for any type of operation, from the most simple to the most complex (5).

Who spatializes acousmatic music during a concert? An interpreter?

This little label is a source of misunderstanding. Whoever spatializes acousmatic music “interprets” in a certain manner in projecting it in a space that is exterior to the music itself, above all if it is stereo music. This is the source of its fragility. But there are “interpreters” … and there are “interpreters.” To make an analogy with the interpreter of a Mozart sonata is incorrect. These are two completely different musical phenomena: the interpreter of classical music plays the notes, the harmonico-melodic code is still recognizable despite changes in speed, instrumentalization, nuances, dynamics, etc. We can still identify the theme, the melody. The interpreter would not have the idea of changing the notes, because he would change the music and make it unrecognizable.

The problem with acousmatic music in stereo is different because it does not rest on the same criteria: it does not have a defined code. All its components are essential, even if they are fixed on a support. It is possible to change the high and low pitches through filtering, or overload their power, lower or “push” the potentiometers in order to arbitrarily annul or dynamize a musical moment, move the hands on the potentiometers in a disorderly fashion, which interferes with the subtle spatialization of the piece, sometimes just a gesture that would mean to be spectacular can compromise the musical intention of the composer. It is in this way that stereo acousmatic music becomes unrecognizable, causing it to suffer a great degradation in its structure. Francis Dhomont defines this distortion of the sense of the music “extreme interpretation,” interpretation that is the most in vogue among some professionals. So, what name should be given to this person who projects the music into space? Does he really need a name, a title?

I thought for some time, while transforming my stereo pieces into polyphonic pieces, that I would come to save them from extreme interpretations. I was half mistaken. In September, the director of Music & Research, Annette Vande Gorne, very quickly showed me a software program with which she manually changed the spatial field from 8 tracks by moving, virtually, the position of the loudspeakers on the tactile screen. Still in the works, this software is the interface Le LEMURE (1) of Ludovic Berquin, employed for the moment in studio work. This is a dark future for pieces of music subtly worked in complex spatial fields since, in a concert, a supposedly “extreme interpretation,” will be able to reduce them to zero. Even if for now a stereophonic piece is more vulnerable than a multiphonic piece, in the long run, both risk being subjected to the same process.

But… a positive side may emerge from the latent possibilities of this software. Thanks to it, we can already try different spatial figures in the studio in real time. We can choose a definitive and untouchable version, or the most adapted to a spatialization in multiple versions. So, no catastrophes if the composer creates his music with this intention, above all if one can change the disposition of channels in real time. We will have, from this, the same flexibility of games to play on multitracks during different concerts as one would have with the games developed with stereophonic music.

Multiphonic music

All the theories and all the experiments with internal and external multiphonics come up against the problem of the location of sound projection and the perception that we have of these spaces. How and where will we place each punctual sound, each sound displacement in space, each dynamic profile, that is to say, each mobile and/or immobile element, in a field defined by two (stereo) loudspeakers or several (multiphonic) loudspeakers? In a spatial field, there are an infinite number of points where sounds can be immobile or move. The spatial movements of an octophony are easy to perceive. But, what becomes of a piece with 32 or 48 channels? The composer chooses, transforms, recognizes, assimilates, installs each sound in a well-specified location in the composition, in taking account of the complexity of superpositions, and of the internal and external spatial movements of the work. He makes this work step by step over a very long time in order to arrive at a result where he can recognize each detail of each instant of his music.

But what happens at the moment of the concert before a public that hears this work for the first, and likely the only unique time in its life? How do they hear, when one knows that listening is very capricious, that it has a tendency to amalgamate in a block, in an excess of sonic superpositions? The phenomenon of masking definitely exists: certain sounds disappear from perception masked by others that are more captivating. The composer predicts them and recreates them in himself because he knows them by heart. And the public? It must be fascinating to compose such complex music, a sort of conceptual challenge and extraordinary technique. But does one really need such a compositional display?

I am incapable of responding to this question.

It is evident that mega-spatialization requires a specific location (which does not currently exist), an enormous budget, an appropriate technology and a public (if the ears allow) capable of hearing the totality of the work in these minor details. But then, what becomes of this spatialization in an mp3 compression?

A little wink: some friends proudly showed me a 5.1 installation that they had just bought in a Monoprix. They had very carefully installed each small loudspeaker in each room, as well as in the kitchen and the bathroom, so that they could listen to music throughout the entire apartment…

And holography, a futurist dream?

In the 1970s, I dreamed of a somewhat special sound projection system. The appearance of new technologies that project an image into a space in three dimensions, thanks to a two-beam laser, set my imagination running. Would it be possible to decode the sounds of a musical work and find their correspondences in color in order to project them across an image system—its laser, in a space delimited by the loudspeakers, creating thus a sort of real holographic visual music with colored forms?

In conclusion

As base, all points of view on spatialization can be taken into consideration because they issue from personal experience, even the most paradoxical, the most strange. Maybe changing the position of the loudspeakers, still directed toward a central point where the console is generally located, could interfere with the directional and punctual aspect of the source of the sound and facilitate listening to the spatial fields.

In this art, perception plays tricks on us, it places us in front of “something unknown” that underlies all the theories and descriptions of this “doing” that is so unusual that we try to decode it. We know, from experience, that all the pain, the labor, the suffering and also the joy of composing are exalted at the moment of the concert, this unique moment where the music is given as a gift to several attentive ears, several distracted, vexed, or maybe unsettled hearts, by a type of miracle that exceeds us completely.


*This last dimension is complicated since a friend recounted how he heard high- and low-pitched sounds: when he was a child, low-pitched sounds seemed to him to be an immense, grandiose phenomenon, that he instinctively placed above himself, at a high point. On the other hand, a high-pitched sound seemed very thin to him, small like himself, and he placed it below, at the level of his hand… A friend told me one day that he had a lot of difficulty in habituating himself to play the piano because the low-pitch keys were placed on the left of the keyboard and the high-pitched keys on the right, which, since his childhood completely overturned his sense of physical space. And, for the cello and the bass, one plays the high-pitched sounds near the bottom of the instrument and the low pitches near the top. These examples, among others, are legion. But, because of the physical nature of sound waves, we spatialize the low-pitched sounds with the large boxes of woofers and the high pitches in the tweeters, that is to say, the loudspeakers of the high pitches have a thin bandpass. It seems that in biology, high-pitched sounds make the region of the head vibrate more, medium-pitches the thorax, and low-pitches the abdomen and the legs.

** term used by Patrick Ascione and Annette Vande Gorne in article (2).

*** Spatial field: zone or volume in which an operation is practiced, where determined physical phenomena are manifested in every respect.

(1) Interface Le LEMURE: presented at the colloquium “L’espace du Son”  [“The space of sound”], at the Festival of Music & Research in October 2009—text published in this journal.
(2) It would not be useful to lengthen this account with an exhaustive list of all the installations that have been experimented over a long period. For more information, see “L’interprétation spatiale, essai de formalisation méthodologique” [“Spatial interpretation, trial in methodological formalization”] by Annette Vande Gorne in the journal Demeter, of the University of Lille 3, 2002.
(3) Pascale Criton: article to appear in the journal Filigrane, “Musique et lieu,” [“Music and place”] no. 12, 2010.
(4) The installation was in place from June until October 2008.
(5) Pierre-Alain Jaffrennou, “Composer avec l’espace” [“Composing with space”], ed. GRAME (Centre national de creation musicale à Lyon, France) [(National Center for musical creation in Lyon)].

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