2.3. Place and Space

The juxtaposition of recognisable sounds can impact hugely upon the perception of electroacoustic compositions. Different combinations of sounds can trigger different connotations because of the schemas we have built through our everyday experiences. Nothing exemplifies this more than when evoking a sense of place. For example, combining seagull calls with crashing waves suggests a different type of location than the combination of seagulls and traffic. Although it is unlikely that most listeners will be able to identify the exact location of a piece without further information, they are usually able to grasp the general environment – city street, city park, countryside, forest. The locational implication of these sounds can influence how the listener places other sounds within the context of the work. I have found that it can be quite interesting to play with the listener’s preconceived schemas of places by including sounds that go against their expectations. A significant purpose of the S.O.A.P. analysis framework is to challenge the approach to how we as composers deal with the four abstractions of space, objects, agency, and place, and another way in which we can oppose the sense of place is by exploiting the listener’s sense of space.


While the terms space and place might seem as though they mean very similar things, they are, in fact, quite different. In his seminal text, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan offers many definitions and distinctions between the two. Perhaps the most explicit distinction arises when he writes:


Place is a special kind of object. It is a concentration of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily; it is an object in which one can dwell. Space, we have noted, is given by the ability to move. Movements are often directed towards or repulsed by, objects and place. Hence space can be variously experienced as that relative location of objects or places, as the distances and expanses that separate or link places, and – more abstractly – as the area defined by a network of places.[23]


Place is the presence of objects and values. However, the perception of value is subjective. What one person perceives to be significant may be insignificant or even devoid of value for someone else. Conversely, space is the absence of these two and, as such, it is objective. In the realm of the sonic, space affects the acoustics. 


Sounds, though vaguely located, can convey a strong sense of size (volume) and of distance. For example, in an empty cathedral the sound of footsteps tapping sharply on the stone floor creates an impression of cavernous vastness.[24]


In the above example, the cathedral is the place and the “cavernous vastness” describes its space. He adds that 


Sound itself can evoke spatial impressions. The reverberations of thunder are voluminous; the squeaking of chalk on slate is “pinched” and thin. Low music tones are voluminous whereas those of a high pitch seem thin and penetrating.[25]


Our perception of space and the relative placement of objects to our central location has a direct impact on our experience of the work. Some electroacoustic compositions make use of sounds that are very loud and clear, which accordingly feel very close. From personal experience I can say that this can induce feelings of claustrophobia as an event that seems to happen very close to us yet is out of our control can make us feel uneasy – particularly in the typically dark setting of an electroacoustic concert. Le Vertige Inconnu, as mentioned before, is a fantastic example of dramatic changes in space. 


We will begin to question the reality of a place if the acoustics are not as we would expect. A seaside soundscape with immense reverberation, for example, might lead us to assume the composer is warping our sense of reality. We may question if we are really hearing a seaside at all or if it is a clever illusion. The same could be said of two juxtaposed sounds which would not typically be heard together – for example heavy traffic and farm noises. 


[23]Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 12.

[24]Ibid., p. 14.

[25]Ibid., p. 15.