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An Extremely Brief History of Spatial Music in the 20th Century

This article was originally published in Surround Professional (2000). The author’s extensive and detailledA History of Spatial Music: Historical antecedents from Renaissance antiphony to strings in the wings” is also published in this issue of eContact!

Past issues of Surround Professional have chronicled the development of surround sound technologies for motion pictures, from Fantasound in 1939 through Cinerama and Cinemascope in the 1950s to Dolby Stereo and THX in the 1970s and now Surround EX. Concurrent with these developments were a variety of explorations in sound space by composers of avant-garde music, working principally in the areas of electronic music and musique concrète (collectively: “electroacoustic music”).

The earliest electronic instrument was Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium (1900-1906) which was conceived of as part of a commercial subscription service, providing music to homes, offices, and restaurants through telephone lines. Though not truly a multichannel system in the present sense, it did introduce the concept of a musical "channel." In 1923 Leon Theremin's "Aethervox" (later known as the "theremin") became the first portable electronic instrument to be played through a loudspeaker, and this model of one instrument–one loudspeaker was the standard for some decades to come. It wasn't until the tape recorder became generally available as a commercial product following World War II that composers seized upon the new medium, not only as a means of audio documentation but as a compositional resource. With the replacement of human performers by loudspeakers the placement of these speakers, and therefore the spatial location of the sound sources, became a significant compositional interest.

In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer, an engineer at the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF), presented the first musical works created with phonographic disk recorders. This music was created from recordings of everyday sounds, such as the clang of kitchen implements or the chugging of a locomotive; Schaeffer called it musique concrète. With the advent if tape recorders in 1950, Schaeffer and his collaborator, composer Pierre Henry created a repertoire of works, often using multiple mono tape decks with up to five tape signals routed to a 4-channel speaker system. The speakers were arranged in a tetrahedral configuration, with Front Left and Right, Back, and Overhead. To facilitate distribution of the sound Schaeffer conceived a mechanism called the potentiomètre d'espace (1951) which used induction coils to control the signal routing according to the spatial movement of a performer's hand.

In this same year the American composer John Cage premiered Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) using 12 radios, 24 performers and a conductor who beat 4/4 time. At each radio, one performer controlled the frequency and the other controlled the volume. The following year his Williams Mix (1952) for eight mono tapes, playing through eight equally-spaced loudspeakers surrounding the audience, was the first work for 8-channel surround sound. The tapes were produced by Cage and his collaborators through the laborious splicing of often minuscule snippets of tape in order to create an audio collage from a large library of categorized sounds. The creation of sonic and multimedia environments became a regular theme throughout Cage's work, and the installations often became quite enormous. For instance, HPSCHD (1969) used 58 channels of amplified sound from live performers and tapes.

These works of Schaeffer, Henry, and Cage were achieved without benefit of synchronization between tracks, and indeed this indeterminacy was often an important aesthetic element. Not so the more deterministic work of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) for electronic sounds and the recorded voice of a boy soprano is generally considered the first piece for multitrack tape. Using a 4-track machine plus a second mono machine for a fifth track of playback, Stockhausen's plan was for the fifth speaker to be suspended above the audience. For logistical reasons this was not possible at the premiere performance, which instead featured a panoramic arrangement of speakers across the stage.

The first true quadraphonic composition was Stockhausen's Kontakte (1960) for electronic sounds. The channel arrangement was designed for Front, Left, Right, and Back speaker positions. In order to create the effect of sounds orbiting the audience Stockhausen used a turntable system with a rotating loudspeaker mechanism, surrounded by four microphones to enable the re-recording of spinning sounds. Stockhausen's interest in spatial sound continues to the present and has become integral to his work. At Expo '70 in Osaka he presented daily performances of his music in a spherical auditorium outfitted with 55 loudspeakers. Even the live performers were spatially arranged on six small balconies high on the walls, while the composer controlled the spatial movement of the sound from a central mixing station.

A fourth significant work from this early era was Edgard Varèse's Poème Électronique (1958), which was presented as part of a multimedia environment at the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. The pavilion was an eccentrically-shaped structure made up of hyperbolic paraboloid shells, designed by architect (and composer) Iannis Xenakis of the firm of le Corbusier. The interior walls, designed in the shape of a large stomach, formed an unbroken projection surface which received projected images and colored washes from a battery of film projectors and lighting instruments. The audio portion of the environment was Varèse's 3-track tape composition, synchronized with the visual effects by an elaborate multitrack sprocketed tape system. Each track was distributed dynamically to 425 speakers via an 11-channel sound system with 20 amplifier channels. Movement of sound from location to location was achieved through a switching system controlled by a second 15-track sprocketed tape. Nine different "Sound Routes" were programmed.

These four types of electroacoustic work may be considered as representative of four spatialization techniques, philosophies, or formal approaches: 1) live performance or "diffusion" of sound (Henry); 2) environmental multichannel soundscape (Cage); 3) classic studio multitrack tape composition (Stockhausen); 4) automated location control (Varèse). There is an unbroken line to the present day of development and practice using all these approaches, as well as considerable cross-fertilization between them.

Advances in technology, particularly in the areas of multiprocessor control and digital signal processing have facilitated real-time interactivity with performers as well as allowing creation of realistic psychoacoustic illusions. Composer and researcher John Chowning's work represents a watershed between the intuitive and empirical spatialization work of the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent rationalistic approaches to computer music systems design. Chowning's seminal paper "The Simulation of Moving Sound Sources," delivered at the Audio Engineering Society convention in 1970, described techniques for the simulation of Doppler shift as well as local and global reverberation effects for moving sounds. His composition Turenas (1972) is a classic quadraphonic work based on this research and realized at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Chowning's techniques quickly became standard practice at Stanford and elsewhere, and as computers evolved, shrunk, and became cheaper so it became possible to run spatialization algorithms on small portable systems affordable by individual composers. Whereas in 1981 it required the considerable resources of the French music research center IRCAM (including a large technical staff and the $100,000 4X digital synthesizer) to perform Pierre Boulez's Répons , in the new centruy it is commonplace to perform similar processing (with 8-channel spatialization) on a Macintosh personal computer. This was demonstrated at the recent Surround 2000 conference by Peter Otto of University of California San Diego, running his own software to simulate a complex combination of reverberation, amplitude panning, doppler shift, spectral changes, interaural time delay, and phase changes – all in real time! (See Surround Professional, Issue Three: Surround's Watershed Event)

While scientific rigor has greatly benefited and inspired many composers, at the same time a more "analog" performance practice has evolved using orchestras of loudspeakers and special manually-controlled diffusion consoles. This is a tradition deriving from the early RTF performances in Paris, and indeed Pierre Henry (now in his late 70s) is a primary influence on several communities of composers in France, Belgium, the UK, Canada, and elsewhere. A common practice is to diffuse a two-track source recording through a large number of loudspeakers of various sizes and tonal qualities, in order to articulate the musical materials "gesturally" by means of the particular electroacoustic qualities of the speakers and the architectural acoustic qualities of the host venue. Indeed, a performance of Pierre Henry's L'Apocalypse de Jean (1968) was diffused through a speaker system with 28 full-range channels, plus 6 subwoofer channels (28.6!), using the commercial CD as the source.

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