Inviting the listener to the exploration of the sound environment

The first piece that I wrote at the beginning of my doctorate (in autumn 2013) was an elaborate piece for piano and orchestra. This work is relevant to understanding the starting point of my research and the direction I wanted to develop my idea of “space in sound.” Taking Narcissus as the first example, it is evident how my musical imagination was triggered by a visual idea, with the dramatic evolution of the story providing a means to give a structure to the work. The myth of Narcissus is not particularly dense with events: through the static scenes I could imagine an environment where these were set. My goal was not to make a theatrical piece but to explore the evocative sceneries of the ancient mythology, as if they were abstract physical spaces in the mental projection of the listener.
The musical intention that gave rise to this piece, that of creating a “three-dimensional cinematic” representation of a drama in music, now seems to me rather naïve. However, it is a good starting point for my journey and still contains elements that evolved during my research.

Through spatialisation (a wind quartet is positioned at the back of the hall, behind the audience, as shown in the diagram), I intend to pull the audience into the specific world of this piece and surround it with naturalistic elements (which change eventually into more abstract musical material). The naturalistic elements were the foundation of my poetics and are often achieved through a constant transition between traditional and extended instrumental techniques, which mimic the mixture of noise and pitch present in natural environments. The spatialisation is not intended as a decorative surrounding effect; it is an intrinsic element of the musical material, as every sound represents a character placed in space, and they engage with each other thanks to their position. For the beginning of Narcissus, I wanted to create the effect of a progressive approach to the scene of the piece. At the very beginning, tremolos and tenuto notes in the piano part are echoed (or anticipated) by the woodwinds at the back of the stage, then by the harp (detuned of a quarter-tone) from behind the piano, by a shy solo violin, and so on. Only after this exposition, the full string section starts responding to the piano. The function of the orchestra is to create a surrounding environment for the soloist, which actively responds to the latter’s actions and radiates its sound on the stage. Furthermore, the harp can be thought of as a more distant piano: the shared nature of the strings help assimilate the two instruments and the detuning of the former could then recall the Doppler effect of pitch lowering in frequency while moving further away.

Progressively during the introduction, the string section and the brass introduce white noise which, used in this context, aims to contribute to creating a confusion in the recognition of distances in the “mental image” of the sound sources in space. The molto sul ponticello technique can be considered as part of this process too, as in nature high-pitched sounds hardly reach us from big distances. When playing sul ponticello, the bow enhances the higher partials of the sound spectrum, which are more penetrating and can have a quicker projection in the hall; but having, at the same time, a substantially poorer spectrum, the sound lacks the roundness that makes the listener perceive it as a big sounding object from a distance. According to music aesthetics scholar Edward A. Lippman in the essay Spatial perception and physical location as factors in music (Acta Musicologica 35, fasc.1. New York: International Musicological Society, 1963), only large objects, which vibrate at low frequencies, can be perceived from a distance because of the loudness they can physically produce. A soft, low-frequency sound can be associated with the presence of a distant large object. On the other hand, softness in high-pitched sounds can suggest nearness when associated with the presence of small bodies, which vibrate at high frequencies and which energy would get lost when travelling to our ear from a distance. As a result, I imagined my sul ponticello sound as close to the listening point but with no depth. By gradually introducing confusion in the perception of the spectra through the wide white noises and the feeble high-frequency noises such as key-clicks in the woodwinds, I attempted to deceive the listener’s ear and induce the sense of a progressive proximity of the sound source. After the big climax, I zoomed in on the scene like a cinematographic technique: what was before big and distant, and progressively approaching, is now much closer and detailed, completely surrounding the listener thanks to the spatialisation of the wind quartet. The fragile nature of the sounds employed here, because of the soft dynamics and the high pitch, is interpreted by the brain as noise produced by a small source placed in close proximity.

In the first two sections of the piece I wanted to move the attention of the perceiver from far away to the immediate surroundings. For the following scenes describing the wandering of Narcissus and the other Nymphs, I decided to create the perceived (though metaphorical) presence of a pool at a precise location that the character (represented by the piano) needs to reach. For this reason, I wanted to gradually move the setting back to a focused point in front of the audience, but still perceived as close. The perceiver’s ear, hopefully rendered sensitive to the fragile world of noises (the directionality of which is harder to ascertain), has to concentrate on the little timbre variations describing the water of the pool at minute 3:40 of the audio excerpt. I speculated that I could move the perception of the sound sources back on the stage by just abandoning the extended techniques gradually: the soft dynamic and the timbral variation would compel the attention solely on the string section. The fact that the representation of water is rendered by the strings playing with ordinary arco should make the sound source easier to locate in the frontal position. However, the continuity of the action (it lasts for more than one minute) should numb the perception and become a mere presence suggesting space, giving an even stronger perspective to the naturalistic elements coming soon after it. According to electroacoustic composer Denis Smalley in Space-form and Acousmatic Image (Organised Sound 12, no.1, 2007: 35-58), sustained sounds can indicate an aeriform presence which suggests space itself rather than anything which moves in it. Long and unchanged unfocused sounds – sounds lacking focus in pitch and timbre (in the piece the strings play a full-pressure/half-pressure tremolo) – can produce an idea of spatial presence of periphery or horizon.

Lastly, the location of the sound source passes even beyond the physical place of the stage. When the solo string quartet playing with rubber practice mutes replies to the piano’s strokes on the muted low strings (at minute 8:50 of the audio excerpt), the recognisable sound of the strings is transformed into something weaker. It is a ghost of the original timbre, coming from a sort of au-delà of the sound-world and symbolising the drowning of Narcissus in the pool. The mutes act as a filter on the spectromorphology of the strings: they change the components of the spectrum of their sound (see Denis Smalley, Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes, Organised Sound 2, no.2, 1997: 107-126). They reduce the prevalence of the highest partials, rendering the timbre poorer as if it were coming from behind a barrier (in this case, the figurative water of the pool). This experiment on filtering the spectromorphology of the sound source inspired the following steps of my research.

click here for the score of the audio excerpt

Copyright © Gerardo Gozzi 2018