Aphex Twin and spatial audio

Karlheinz Stockhausen, considered an important pioneer in electroacoustic composition, predicted in 1977:

space will become as important as pitch in the traditional music (Stockhausen cited in Worrall 1998)

Despite increasing technical means the role of space in music still requires exploration … at least in academic / classical / electroacoustic / art-music circles. One could easily argue that Stockhausen’s prediction has not materialised. Some, such as Emmerson (2007, p. 143), are unconvinced that having the ability to produce almost-real 3D soundfields is an ideal musical aim at all. Of course, Stockhausen hasn’t clearly stated whether his notion of ‘space’ in music involved the realistic simulation of 3D sound, or whether it was just the use of independent spatial attributes like reverberation or location. One thing that is clear is that much of Stockhausen’s explorations of space involved cartesian location … the manipulation of the direction of origin of sounds.

I would like to argue that Stockhausen’s prediction has come true. Space has become as important as pitch. Although it may not be in the form he had envisaged it.

Let me explain. Location is just one aspect of spatial audio. In the stereo field, location is known as ‘panning’. Other aspects of spatial sound include reverberation, delay (which is echo), volume changes can simulate distance, low pass filters can simulate both distance and obstructing objects, stereo width simulates the physical size of the sounding objects etc.

All these aspects are very much present in contemporary music produced in Digital Audio Workstations like Protools. Typically, they are used to help perceptually separate individual sounds to achieve a clear and well balanced overall music (this is called auditory-stream-segregation in the scientific literature). Those who do this well command my respect. Producers do this. Whilst they may not consciously realise it, producers are, to me, spatial audio practitioners.

Some not only do it well — that is: the sounds are clear and balanced — but they even use spatial attributes to sophisticated compositional effect. Aphex Twin (Richard D James) is an example here. Sure, Aphex Twin is dance music, it is not concert music like Stockhausen’s work. It requires a different listening mode.

Have a listen to the track called Fredugolon : http://www.videosurf.com/video/the-tuss-fredugolon-6-1243875323 (note: The Tuss is an Aphex Twin pseudonym).

Now have an other listen to the section from 4:20 to 4:60. Here, Aphex Twin builds tension and releases it, over a series of clear steps, by using spatial devices. Here is a summary of the steps … these steps can effectively be considered a spatial audio score;

  1. All reverb is stripped, to create a dead, centred sound.
  2. He throws the sound into a small room (I get a back of the head sensation). This creates a kind of acoustic tension, enclosing the listener into a confined space with claustrophobic characteristics.
  3. Spatial tension is released by applying a very deep and long reverb that throws the sound way out in front (of the listener). Here the reverb acts as release. One could say that the reverb is also the ‘release’ of sound in space.
  4. The beat comes back — return to subject — but it sits exactly between the listener, and the far-in-front reverb.

Within this small series of steps, a compositional gesture has been created with very little reliance on pitch, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Spatial audio is the predominant attribute. This may not have been Stockhausen’s conception of space, but in this piece, and in much of Aphex Twin’s work spatial attributes are as important as pitch. The two key points, here, are that a) contemporary dance music is delivering Stockhausen’s prediction, and b) working in mere stereo does not at all preclude the composer from exploring spatial audio.

Worrall, D 1998, 'Space in sound: sound of space', Organised Sound, vol. 3, no. 02, pp. 93-99.
Emmerson, S 2007, Living electronic music, Ashgate Pub Co.
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One Response to Aphex Twin and spatial audio

  1. Charred says:

    🙂

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