Music, Space, and Place

Music, Space, and Place

“Place is security, space is freedom.”

—Yi-Fu Tuan

Morton Feldman’s one and only composition lesson with Varèse was a brief encounter on the street in New York. The old master gave the young upstart one pearl of wisdom: “Make sure you think about the time it takes from the stage to go out there into the audience.” That seemingly simple adage contains a world of implications.

Listening to music, time and space become present to our ears. Since sound is slow, we hear space as time. The distance between here and there becomes then and now. Space is where the music comes from, and where it’s going. Place is where we are listening.

In the 19th century, the most exalted place for listening to Western music was the concert hall, that consecrated space outside quotidian time where a congregation of listeners came to experience symphonic communion. As the concert hall grew larger, the orchestra grew larger. (And vice versa.) But though the sound grew louder, it also moved farther away from most listeners.

In the 20th century, the locus of much of our listening moved to the loudspeaker. Musical space exploded to fill arenas and stadiums for blockbuster concerts. And it grew smaller and more intimate until (with headphones) we had private music rooms for our ears alone.

From Gabrieli to Berlioz, from Ives to Brant, to Oliveros and Lucier, the places and spaces in which we listen have fundamentally shaped the creation of music. Just as music is molded by the acoustical spaces in which we hear it, the virtual spaces of recordings have a powerful influence on the music we make today.

As a composer, I’m obsessed with space and place. My music has been profoundly shaped by the place where I live. The soundscapes of Alaska resonate even in pieces I think of as abstract, and the ideal of sonic geography remains a persistent metaphor for my work. But a very specific acoustical space has also been a touchstone for my music.

Over the past three decades I’ve been fortunate to work in a beautiful concert hall at the University of Alaska, and this space has had an audible influence on the evolution of my music. Whether by accident, design or some combination of the two, the acoustics of this hall are nearly perfect. Both high and low frequencies are fully present, and the natural reverberation of the room imparts richness and warmth to almost any ensemble.

This hall seems especially well suited to the spacious textures of my music. Several of my works have been premiered and recorded in this hall, and a few years ago I composed a concert-length work for percussion and electronics specifically for the unique resonances of this space.

Now, after years trying to evoke place in musical space, I’m trying to do this in a more concrete form. The Place Where You Go to Listen will be a permanent installation for the new wing of the University of Alaska Museum. In this space, infrasonic and ultrasonic vibrations from earthquakes, volcanoes, aurora borealis and other natural phenomena will be transposed into our range of hearing, and modulated by the seasonal cycles of night and day. So once again my work comes back to music, space and place.

But what about you?

What are your favorite musical spaces?

How do space and place shape the music you listen to and the music you make?

John Luther Adams
American Music Center

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.