Features
Music’s Spatial Revolution, Headphones, and the Musical Artist as Architect

Throughout history, music has generally been understood as that art that operates through the medium of time. This is in contradistinction to the visual arts, which, for the greater duration of Western philosophical and aesthetic culture, were conceived of as spatial forms that mimetically represented a divine and ordered Nature. We can think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man which structures the image of man according to the proportion of a perfect circle and square, and thus, cements humanity’s place within a basically geometrically structured universe. Spatial forms have the advantage of working in terms of simultaneous objects and relations, which are easily subsumed into the concept of eternity, as eternity admits of no succession, and does not change. This relationship between space and eternity was perfectly suited to religious culture and perhaps it is for this reason that the visual arts remained dominant over music; at least until the rise of the great classical composers with which we are all familiar with–Bach, Mozart, etc.  The gradual secularization of Western culture opened up the possibility that the world of time and becoming (as opposed to changeless Being) contained its own aesthetic potential. In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche laments the West’s prioritization of “the representational arts”—that is, the visual arts—while prophesying the return to (lost since the Archaic Greeks) a profoundly musical culture.

 

It is difficult not to agree that, for the most part, Nietzsche’s prophecy has come true. Within popular culture, music and musical figures have far more influence than visual art and their creators; more people know who Jay-Z is and care about his aesthetic message than those who follow Jeff Koons. However, within music, a profound break from the conceptual and historical conditions I have just described is beginning to occur: music no longer feels itself tied to time. It has invaded the realm of space and has adopted an entirely new mode of creation: the evocation of imaginary landscapes and environments from the ground up and from the conditions of an absolute and continuous space itself.

 

From a certain point of view, music has always dealt intimately with space: Greek dithyrambs were suited for the theatres of tragedy and Christian hymns composed for the distinct kinds of reverb and acoustics of a church. Even today in contemporary culture, this kind of interaction with space is important to music; U2 and Coldplay sound like they do because they play in stadiums, and their music is created specifically for that experience. There is a distinction, however, between interacting with a place and interacting with space itself.  The Ancient Greeks did not have a word or a concept corresponding to what we understand as space. What they understood were topoi or “places” like a bedroom, a house or even, possibly, a certain segment of air, which, however, would be delineated not by a assumed set of spatial coordinates, but by the actual, material bodies that surrounded it. The idea of a uniform, infinite and continuous space—what can be called “absolute space”—is a much later concept. This more modern notion of space existed for a long time before music decided to conquer it. Even while this concept existed as a scientific and philosophical notion, music remained a part of the specific environment or place that culture dictated it to be—the theatre, the concert hall, etc. Nevertheless, the idea of absolute space is an undeniable pre-condition of the musical revolution I wish to describe. What actually allows music to utilize absolute space derives from technological advancements, particularly headphones, and the now ubiquitous presence of fairly high-quality audio systems that grant one entrance into a wholly private, internal realm—a realm ultimately dictated by the conditions of absolute space, and not by a culturally determined place.

 

In this way, music has become completely autonomous over the kinds of environments it can create. Listening to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion is an experience that in many ways has nothing to do with the physical place which you occupy while it plays. The world of Merriweather is its own, purely imaginary, environment to which the listener is transported; it is a world of neon monsters, painted children, and tribal rituals—at least in the way I imagine it. This kind of creation of an environment—as opposed to being determined by it—has been made entirely possible by both the conceptual and technological determinations I have described. Obviously, I do not mean to suggest that Merriweather cannot be listened to other than with headphones, but I do contend that it is with this device that the music is perfected and perhaps the experience for which it was truly made.  This is because of how headphones utilize absolute space.

 

With headphones that fully cover the ears, the entire spatial arena from which the ear receives sound is given over to the music being played. In this way, the musician—especially the electronic musician who works with a computer—has the ability to place each and every sound in basically whichever point in space he wishes (although of course this precision takes a great degree of skill), and the coordination of sounds in absolute space is entirely given to the listener as the artist wishes. Contrast this to a church or any performance in a building, where the music that is made is already dictated by the particular spatial structure of the building.  With headphones, the artist constructs his own acoustic structure by placing each sound in its particular point or area in the spatial field that the headphones provide for the listener. It is thus, “from the ground up,” that the artist can create his own environment, his own place.  But it is a place that he himself constructs and creates from the conditions of a uniform and absolute space itself. The musician is now the architect.

 

Even the spatial experiments with music that became fashionable in the 20th century, such as John Cage’s 4’33, fail to approximate the significance of the spatial revolution I am describing. With regard to space, 4’33 is all about exposing the pre-existing architecture of the place in which the music is performed: the performer sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds and the listener is expected to hear for the first time the actual sounds of the world, specifically in the performance space he or she inhabits. Thus, in 4’33, the musician bows to the architect and praises his sonic wisdom.

 

Musicians who experiment with musical sculpture, in creating objects that behave according to acoustical rules which they themselves dictate, perhaps more closely approximate to what I am describing. However, this process cannot hold a candle up to the autonomy over absolute space, which the headphone-musician today possesses, since the physical sculpture always occupies a fixed point in space in relation to which the listener can alter his own position. In this way, the artist does not have complete control over the environment he creates, as the listening experience is co-dependent on the listener. This is different from contemporary headphone-music in which the artist has full autonomy over the sonic structure of the listening-experience.

 

The fact that this revolution has occurred should be clear from the way in which listeners of indie music today often evaluate albums. Great albums are those that create environments and are not determined by them, thus signifying the autonomy, imagination, and vision of the artist. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is considered a classic for the singular and unique universe it creates, as well as Merriweather Post Pavillion. Panda Bear’s Person Pitch is another great example and is an album in which time has been largely subordinated to space and the creation of an environment. Songs on Person Pitch are of an indeterminate length; the “time” of the work is essentially a canvas upon which a collage of different sounds is layered on top and around one another in space. Undeniably, this revolution in the role of the musical artist via headphones and spatial autonomy is a profoundly significant event in the history of art and music. It’s something we should all be excited about.

 

Adam Klein

 

Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue