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Activating Audiences: How spatial music can help us to listen

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 November 2019

Emma-Kate Matthews*
The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, 22 Gordon St, Bloomsbury, London C1H 0QB, UK


This article discusses the importance of active listening when engaging new audiences with experimental and unfamiliar musical formats. Spatial music is examined as a physically immersive medium in which the audience is implicated as an active component in the execution of its performance. A brief account of the historic context of spatial music will be presented alongside speculation for the trajectory of its future; particularly its potential as a model for audience engagement. This article will first consider how spatially immersive performances have the capacity to activate listeners and how can this help to engage new audiences with new ways of listening. It will also question the notion of inhabiting spatial music, with an investigation of the multiple ways in which spatial music relates to physical space and the terms of its inhabitation. The concept of virtual listening will be discussed in response to trends towards passive hearing, as driven by recent technological developments in acoustic software and hardware, and the resultant abstraction of the spatial and social dynamics of sound in virtual space. The physiological and psychological differences between listening and hearing will also be examined as a means of establishing fundamental differences in the ways that we interact with music, and questioning what our listening habits tell us about audience engagement in the context of experimental music performance. This article will also question the individual roles of the musician, composer, architect/designer and audience in the ongoing responsibility to improve audience engagement in new, or unfamiliar musical works. Importantly, this article will also explicitly examine who we are referring to when we use the term ‘new audiences’. Major developments in acoustic technology during the last few decades have somewhat confused the diagram between music, space and listener. The understanding of which elements are active and which are passive is especially ambiguous at a time when ambisonic and binaural technologies have become developed enough to provide accurate simulations of the abstract, acoustic qualities of spaces, but on virtual terms. Architects, composers, musicians, engineers and audiences are at a crossroads in the development of new music and experimental, spatiosonic practice. ‘Spatiosonic’ is a hybrid term which is used throughout this article to describe work and phenomena which regard space (spatio) and sound (sonic) as equal, interactive partners. This article considers some of the opportunities and limitations at stake in current techniques of composition, performance and listening.

© Cambridge University Press, 2019 

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