Sound Within Topography

The environment in which music is played or performed can be as vital a component in the structure of the sound itself, both in context and in physical shape, as any element of instrumentation or composition. This has been true as long as humanity has been consciously creating music, a process at least as old and in some ways even older than language itself. The earliest music, comprised of vocalizations and percussion, was created by necessity in either open spaces or in naturally occurring geographical features such as caves, cliffs, and outcroppings. The different sonic characteristics of even these simple settings would have been as evident to early humans as they are to us. A basic plane such as a cliff wall will reflect sound to produce echoes and phase cancellation, and the added third dimension of an enclosed space such as a cave creates an almost infinity complex sonic signature of reverberant frequencies. These reverberations generally lend themselves well to the performance of vocal and percussive sounds, provided that neither is so rapid or complex in their tonality and rhythm that their nuance is obscured by the reverberation itself. Simple, repetitive chants and drumming take on a more rich and rounded character in any reverberant space, and this has inevitably impressed and influenced both musicians and listeners throughout human history; even today, a universal of recorded music is the recurring inclusion of some sort of reverberation, be it natural or artificial, on percussion and voice, generally more so than on other instruments. This effect will almost universally be described as sounding “better” and more “natural” to the listener, but it is interesting to remember that this is a matter of taste and conditioning shaped by many generations of associating music, often in a sacred or a ceremonial sense, with a specified system of emotional and intellectual response, and not an intrinsic part of sound on a scientific or artistic level. As these tastes and preferences of performance spaces and conditions were shaped, the rhythmic sensibilities of human groups who tended to spend more time performing and sharing music in the open air, often due to a warmer climate or less topographical variation, usually developed their musical aesthetic accordingly to include more rhythmic variation, shorter and more percussive use of voices, and often a broad palette of percussion instruments. Meanwhile, those groups who tended to convene in naturally enclosed stone spaces developed simpler rhythms that do not become lost in reverberation and can match the pace of natural echoes, and longer vocal phrasing in which single notes have time to build upon themselves. The percussion instruments used in these situations were generally pitched lower, as well, to take advantage of the amplification of low frequencies afforded by natural reverberation.

These spaces in which music was being performed and explored were also the loci of ceremonial and sacred experiences of the groups, and these aspects were in turn shaped by the interchange between the music and its surroundings. The basic function of music in ceremony and ritual, to transpose the listener from a physical, earthly state to a removed, spiritual state, is seen across the globe, but, interestingly, the music used for such a purpose varies greatly in its structure, and the specific music and setting which may deepen a spiritual experience or even induce a state of trance in the listener are culture-specific. Those peoples with an open-air sonic sensibility tend to use repetitive, complex rhythms at moderate to high speed to induce trances, while those with enclosed, reverberant sensibilities tend to use slower rhythms, lower frequencies, and complex harmonies or overtones. The music of the open-air traditions is by its nature suited to a very specific and unchanging sonic space, and has thus undergone little change in terms of structure and instrumentation since the sonic sensibilities of these traditions were developed. The music of reverberant traditions, however, was intrinsically linked to the characteristics of the performance spaces themselves, and as people began to move away from natural performance spaces and shape their own sacred spaces, their music and architecture both guided each other closely. Simple churches provided a single voice, speaking or singing simple arrangements, a clear voice, and as the churches grew and eventually became cathedrals, so too did the number of singers increase, inspiring architecture which amplified and reflected the chants back towards those in attendance. Organs became the preferred instrument and secured their long association with European spiritual spaces by benefit of their increased volume and full range of sustained notes, which could play music slow enough to carry through its own echoes, but ornate enough in harmony to take advantage of the rich reverberant spaces of these artificial caverns.

Cathedrals, with their massive choirs and huge organs (instruments which were often an aspect of both music and architecture), became the high-water mark in the intentional creation of cavernous spaces for purposes of reverberation as well as visual grandeur. Music, while remaining deeply entwined with spirituality and ceremony throughout the human world, began to be increasingly developed for recreational and purely artistic means. Stringed instruments developed from their original role within the broad percussive palette of music developed by those with open-air sensibilities, and became gradually more elaborate and resonant, finding their place as more portable instruments in the hands of musicians who sought an outlet beyond the choirs and organs which were inexorably bound, both spiritually and physically, to the holy spaces. And gradually, as music began to be played in less reverberant spaces, private and secular places where more the development of more artistic and elaborate musical ideas was being encouraged and sponsored, they evolved into instruments such as the many permutations of the piano. Brass instruments became more articulate, no longer needing to produce the volume needed to carry a sound in the open air. Assemblages of greater numbers and types of instruments were able to play together and increase the potential for both volume and harmony as more precise systems of music, both physically and theoretically, were developed. Importantly, dynamics became more valued as dedicated spaces were constructed to cater specifically to music performance. Reverberation was still important for its ability to strengthen sound and blend harmonies, but a balance was now sought between it and ever-more rapid and elaborate melodic passages, while, invariably also influenced by cultural and aesthetic trends towards mechanization as a whole, rhythm became more streamlined and mathematical.

This pattern continued until the introduction of electronic amplification and recorded sound, at which point aesthetic paradigms began to shift and diverge relatively quickly. While the segment of humanity which initially pursued a reverberant sonic sensibility was geographically limited to Europe, social and technological developments quickly spread their musical paradigm (even as musicians and artists within that cultural context continued to borrow and experiment with the sonic and aesthetic sensibilities of traditions from around the globe) anywhere the needed electricity and equipment travelled, and “western” popular music became global popular music. The advent of the phonograph and the radio broadcast shaped their own performance space, limited by the frequency spectrum of early recording equipment and the quality of the listener’s speakers (as well as often being colored by some degree of static in the case of the radio, or physical damage to the recording itself in the case of the phonograph). The live performance of music at the dawn of electronic amplification was still generally for the purpose of dancing, as it had been for centuries, but this amplification increasingly allowed for faster and more active dances without the dancers overwhelming the sound of the music, leading to the birth of rock n’ roll music and its great diaspora. The incorporation of speakers into cars led to another technological bottleneck in sound quality and frequency range, encouraging music with a strong, simple rhythm and few dynamics, as well as popularizing the synthesizer as an instrument, with its pure sound that traveled well through radio broadcasts. Digital music media such as the compact disc and the computer file gave an even further advantage to non-organic sound sources and recording techniques, and, finally, the technological trend of miniaturization, as ear buds and personal music players led to a focus on recordings with few dynamics that favor the middle and upper frequencies which may be accurately produced by a tiny speaker.

It should be noted that beyond the sonic characteristics of a space, any performance (and here I include the playing of a recording) is also affected by the sonic texture of a space; what one might think of as background noise, although it is very much an active part of the listener’s experience, and can be part of the performer’s experience as well. Historically, reverberant music was performed in an enclosed space which also isolated the performance from external sonic textures, but various artists and composers have created music with the intention that it be allowed to blend with the ambient sounds of the performance space (John Cage’s composition 4′33″, for instance, is a piece written for piano in which the sonic texture of the performance space famously comprises the entirety of the piece). Modern recorded music is often played back in spaces relatively dense with sonic textures, however, and this has influenced the music itself both consciously and unconsciously. Music played back in an automobile, as previously mentioned, needs to contend with the textures of the engine as well as mechanical and road noise, and where this has been knowingly addressed while designing speakers for automotive use, it has led in many cases to an emphasis on more powerful bass speakers, which has in turn led musicians to produce music which takes advantage of these increased low-frequency capabilities. Also, the aforementioned ear buds are not simply a response to the trend of miniaturization in consumer technology nor indicative only of an increased social swing away from communal music or even social interaction, but are in many cases a response to increasingly noisy urban environments. Thus, while actively creating music to incorporate and reflect increasingly dense and complex sonic textures is a relatively new possibility, it is being explored, and may yet be developed more directly and universally.

This history is invaluable to bear in mind when considering the ways in which sonic spaces can, have, and will influence music, but, knowing where these traditions arose and how they have been shaped, what I find most interesting is the ways in which sonic space and music may consciously shape each other in the future. This is especially true once sound is approached and created free from the constraints of culture or tradition. Music can be developed to interact with any environment or sonic space (or, to approach it from an architectural perspective, a sonic space can be created to emphasize, contrast, or even create any sound), especially when sound is utilized which does not rely on pre-existent paradigms of musical experience and is meant to be actively explored on its own terms intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, there are several anomalies which are interesting in the context of difficult or even painful music or sound design related to sacred or ceremonial music through history. Within one chambered tomb in the Orkney Islands dating from the Neolithic period, for instance, such are the sonic characteristics of the stone-lined space that an additional subsonic characteristic is manifested in the form of the natural resonance of the air in the space itself, a phenomenon known as Helmholtz resonance. A microcosm of this phenomenon can be seen in the space within a bottle or jug when air is blown across the opening to excite the natural resonance of the air inside. In the case of this specific tomb, the resonance is roughly 2 Hz, and while this is well below the threshold of human hearing, even the basic stimulus of movement in the tomb itself is enough to produce this frequency strongly enough to induce physical effects which may include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, headaches, and feelings of disorientation, restlessness, and weariness. While these effects are by no means pleasant (and were likely almost wholly accidental on the part of the builders), the connection between the sound in a sacred space and a powerful physical effect could not have gone unnoticed or unexplored. Could music have even been composed and performed to enhance these effects? What would the ceremonial or social implications have been? In any case, intentional or not, there is evidence that the tomb was actively used ceremonially for one or more long periods of time, rather than sealed or abandoned, and the effects of this Helmholtz resonance must almost certainly have been incorporated in some way. In instances like this in the past and the potential for others like it in the future, it is equally challenging and fascinating to consider the implications, not only of music designed to elicit an intellectual response outside of a community-unifying emotion of joy, sadness, or spiritual depth, but also the architecture and even the ritual that might be designed to accompany it. The scope of sound created thus far by humans is staggering, but once the factors in music dictated thus far by culture and tradition are consciously controlled and manipulated apart from these limitations, we will have only just begun to explore what is possible.