I was struck the other day, whilst reading Donald Mitchell’s excellent book Cradles of the New, by a passage in which he describes Debussy’s Fêtes as ‘one of the earliest explorations of acoustic space.’ There is a section in the work, the middle movement of his orchestral Nocturnes, in which a march-theme appears in the orchestra, grows louder and then recedes. Mitchell suggests Debussy is creating the sense of a marching band appearing and receding into the distance, and the work is re-creating the effect of music moving through space.
This practice of moving sound around, it seems to me, becomes an increasingly significant aspect of composition in twentieth- and twenty-first century music: think of the lone trumpeter in Ives’ The Unanswered Question or the structural arrangement of the score in Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum which reflects the layout in St. Mark’s, Venice; the off-stage ensemble in Mahler’s Resurrection symphony; or Turnage’s About Time, for modern ensemble and the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where the initial brass chorale is played by instruments arrayed around the tower of Ely Cathedral.
The movement of sound around the performance venue (I’m having to avoid the phrase ‘concert hall,’ given the nature of the Turnage piece!) has become a very real phenomenon with the advent of amplification in performance, in particular with electro-acoustic music: rather than move the performers around the space, the sound itself can be transported around the environment. Think of Stockhausen, or Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos: no longer is the sound static, in the sense that it is being created in one place in relation to the listener: now, the actual sonic space in which the listener is immersed can be altered and moved – the distribution of sound itself becomes as much a part of the compositional process, and the listening experience, as is the choice of instrumentation or harmonic modulation.
Medieval minstrels performed in the city streets, at festivals and mystery plays, playing as they moved, often in order to advertise their playing and draw listeners towards the eventual site of the performance. The sonorous music of Gabrieli in the Renaissance period was working with its acoustic environment, exploring textures and effects dictated by the intended performance space. Modern concert audiences can have a similar experience without leaving the comfort of their seats: the music is moving, receding, diminishing, or growing louder all around them.
Listening to music is no longer about being a fixed point in a static sonic environment: we can be moved by sound, in more ways than one.