The Stage is Not Enough – Spatial Sounds

The Stage is Not Enough – Spatial Sounds

The subject of spatial disposition of sound has occupied composers for many generations. In his “Leonore” overtures, Beethoven calls for an offstage trumpet, while Berlioz deploys multiple orchestras throughout the concert space and while Mahler gives clear instructions for the positioning of individual instruments in order to achieve a dimension of scenic depth. Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Respighi’s Pines of Rome also call for an alternative orchestral placement for dramaturgical reasons, but the relationship between players and listeners as well as closer attention to the individual acoustical properties of the performing space itself really became significant concerns only in the second half of the 20th century (for example with Stockhausen and Kurtág). In the following paragraphs, we will introduce to you some exciting younger representatives of this idea.

Vinko Globokar

In his orchestral trilogy Der Engel der Geschichte (The Angel of History; 2000-04), the European composer Vinko Globokar seats the audience between two orchestral groups, further separated spatially by a barbed-wire fence. At times, one of the two orchestras – the “own” orchestra – drowns out the sounds of the “other” orchestra; at times it is overwhelmed by the pull of the other. Additionally, in parts two (“Mars”) and three (“Hoffnung” – Hope) of the trilogy, “passers-by” with microphones wander through an orchestral group and bring out individual elements, electronically altered. 

Bernhard Lang

The composer Bernhard Lang also pits two orchestral groups against one another in his Bruckner adaptation Monadology XIII – “The Saucy Maid” (2011). The sounds of the two groups, tuned a quarter tone apart, are generated not on the two platforms, but in between. This breaks down the “frontal massiveness” (Lang) of an orchestra confronting the audience and, with it, the authoritarian setting of a concert hall.

Philippe Manoury

Philippe Manoury goes even further spatially in his work In situ (2013). Divided into eight groups, the musicians are positioned around the audience within the performing space. Chamber-musical passages alternate with symphonic sections, at times creating delicate or massively three-dimensional domes of sound. For Manoury, “the places from which the sounds emanate are just as important as the sounds themselves”. The arrangement of the unconventionally constituted instrumental groups makes possible spatial symmetries and leads to an alternation of homogeneous and heterogeneous musical images.

Interview with Philippe Manoury

Luigi Nono

For the world premiere of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo (1984), a milestone in music history, the Italian architect Renzo Piano designed a special musical space – a vast wooden “instrument” inside Venice’s Church of San Lorenzo in which the ensemble groups, loudspeakers for the live electronics and the audience could be positioned exactly according to the sound conception. In this “tragedy of listening”, Nono subordinates everything to listening – there are no ornaments, no effects. André Richard, recording engineer, composer, conductor and a longtime associate of Nono, has served as director of sound for many performances of the work and is co-editor of the recently published new edition. He says: “Prometeo is the refusal of a kind of perception conditioned by the daily routine and mass media. ‘A tragedy of listening’ is what is happening within a given space, an authentic encounter in which communication between interpreters and listeners is reborn. It brings us back to a genuine listening experience that is unique and unrepeatable.

Interview with André Richard

Olga Neuwirth

The composer Olga Neuwirth attended the 1984 world premiere of Nono’s Prometeo in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice. For her own ensemble work Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie (2014-15), Neuwirth also had a space constructed whose acoustic would serve as a foil for the particular musical processes, though – 30 years after Prometeo – not made of wood but a virtual, electronic space. The six ensemble groups, arranged in a circle around the audience, together with the live electronics, transport the audience to the Venetian church and other acoustical spaces. Since its world premiere, the full-length works has also been performed to public and press acclaim in Paris, at the Holland Festival, in Vienna and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.

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Score of Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie

Maximilian v. Aulock

Photo: Luc Hossepied, Ensemble intercontemporain