How does space shape sound?

Greg J. Smith


Answers to the question can take many forms, from the technical through to the poetic and the phenomenological.  Terms like sound and space are seemingly quite simple, in their everyday usage, yet when we begin to look past their conventional definitions, things start to get complicated.  We find it difficult to talk about one without the other, and questions arise as to the workings of, and potentials in, that relationship.  Certainly, in a strictly physical sense, sound and space cannot be separated; sound, as mechanical vibration, needs room to unfold, and matter to modulate.  This means that an acoustic experience is, by its very definition, a spatial one as well.  And yet, there is always more to it.  Saturday's first panel was asked to think through the many ways that space and sound are contingent upon one another, and how artists have both learned from, and learned to manipulate, that dynamic.  We asked Jesse Stewart what sonic perspectives he derives from his physical surroundings when choosing locations for his recording?   We learned from Gordon Monahan how to transform an abandoned brick factory into a massive musical instrument.  And we probed just what Barry Blesser means when he tells us "spaces speaks" and asks: "are you listening?" 

Can sound be spaceless?  For Barry Blesser, the answer is a definitive no:  "You can't really have sound without space.  Once you have a transport process, you are going to have space.  It's just not possible to have spaceless sound."  This may not be the whole story (as we will see), but it is certainly the beginning.  Indeed, we can approach and complicate this question from any number of angles (experiential, poetic, philosophical, technological) but, in a strictly physical sense, sound is a function of the spaces it occupies and the media it modulates.  These are its basic preconditions and the starting point for any artist's sonic experiments.  My goal here is to establish the basic technical foundation from which we might begin to join these artists in thinking with sound and channelling its physical potentials into projects that lead us into new relations with the world around us.

Try imagining yourself, for a moment, as a bundle of sonic energy, as vibration in space, looking for a host.  You can't exist in a vacuum; you need a medium (whether gas, solid, or liquid) to stay in motion, to keep sounding. Emanating through space, you'll cause chains of particles to vibrate back and forth, producing a wave-like motion.  Your outward shape will expand more or less evenly, until you meet other media (objects and organisms of varying shapes and densities) that reflect, absorb, and scatter your energy.  Absorption means a cessation of vibration ... silence ... a kind of sonic death.  What isn't transmitted or absorbed will reflect and undergo a process of metamorphosis, briefly taking the ghosted form of the acoustic space before collapsing back, crossing multiple times, and refracting ever further.  Your remaining energy will continue its increasingly diffuse travels until it has been completely absorbed by its physical environs.

Every space (a room, building, lung, organ, cave, instrument, street, etc.) has its own acoustic character—its own capacity to mould sound—owing to its shape, size, and material composition.  Reflections, for example, produce echoes.  When accumulations of echoes—big and small, loud and quiet—begin to overlap and blur together, we call it reverberation.   A bathroom, for example, has a short, sharp reverberant character; whereas the sounds that fill a gothic cathedral may move, swell, and linger for ten seconds or longer.   Every space also has a built-in potential to be excited by specific vibrational frequencies.  That is, they may ring, hum, or "sing" when particular tones are struck within them.  This phenomenon is known as resonance, and every object or space (including rooms, buildings, bodies, instruments, etc.) has its own resonant frequency.  These are the material factors that preoccupy sound artists, instrument designers, and musicians, enticing them to adopt sound's point-of-view and experiment with different combinations of vibration and space.

When experimental percussionist Jesse Stewart selects a cave as the venue for a series of recordings, he is imagining what he can do with its resonant and reverberant qualities.  Probing the cavern with microphones and headphones, he explores a complex topography of acoustic responses.  When sound sculptor Gordon Monahan attaches long piano wires between chimneys atop long wooden buildings, he is speculating on the acoustic potentials of material and structure.  The vision is realized when wind sets the strings in motion, and an abandoned brick factory in southern Saskatchewan begins to sing, becoming, in effect, a giant æolian harp.  David Byrne (former Talking Heads frontman) conceived his sound art installation Playing the Building with similar strategies in mind.  However, instead of being activated by the wind, Byrne's building instrument is activated by the keys of a central organ connected to a series of electrical wires that control small mechanical oscillators attached to various pieces of the building structure.  The devices cause portions of the structure to vibrate, producing resonances within the interior spaces.  In this way, he is literally able to play the building.  Elsewhere, Montreal's Silophone, by contemporary art collective [The User], utilizes the spaces inside silo no. 5—an abandoned grain storage facility in the Old Port—as resonant chambers.  The massive and tall concrete cylinders allow for sounds to reverberate for more than twenty seconds.

What unites all of these examples is that they demonstrate a fundamentally indivisible relationship between space and sound.  Each, as we will see, in various ways in the following essays, determines the capacities of the other, not only in a physical sense but also as they feed imaginations, ideas, and experiments.  This is how sound begins to shape culture and knowledge.  Pushed further, it can even offer glimpses of a "spaceless" world of sound beyond the restrictions of physical media.

  1. Blesser, Barry, and Linda-Ruth Salter. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007.
  2. Bull, Michael, and Les Back. The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2005.
  3. LaBelle, Brandon. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. New York: Continuum, 2010.
  4. LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Continuum International, 2007.
  5. Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Plume, 2007.
  6. Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2008.
  7. Rasmussen, Steen Eiler. Experiencing Architecture. Cambridge [Mass.: M.I.T., 1964.
  8. Ripley, Colin. In the Place of Sound: Architecture, Music, Acoustics. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007.
  9. Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny, 1997.
  10. Voegelin, Salomé. Listening to Noise and Silence: toward a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum, 2010.

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