Remote Overlap: Sound and Space

28th July 2021

Features NMC Recordings

Composer and architect Emma-Kate Matthews shares her conceptual and practical approach to sound and space, and some of the tools and techniques behind her piece 'Remote Overlap', which features on our upcoming release 'Six Degrees of Separation' (out 23 July, 2021)

As a composer and architect, my work often searches for conceptual and practical resonances between the interconnected realms of sound and space.

For my composition Remote Overlap, I was interested in exploring the spatial concepts of distance and direction, specifically evoking a sense of being musically ‘far away’. Many of my previous compositions have experimented with literal spatialisation of musicians within the performance space, as a means of physically defining volumes, surfaces and lines with musical sound. Inspired by the spatially-diverse and timbrally-rich works of composer Henry Brant (1913 – 2008), my piece Axial-Regional (Southbank Centre, 2019) places pairs of musicians at opposite ends of the performance space to define a series of tonal axes and timbral regions within which the audience are located. Remote Overlap presented a perfect opportunity to expand my spatialised repertoire, further unpacking ideas of distance and communication during a time when we were all physically isolated more than ever before. As a primarily recorded piece, I was challenged to find ways of articulating such a spatial concept without the opportunity for the listeners to directly appreciate the physical positioning of musicians within the space. It was time to make the music work harder, to become an audible evocation of a spatial condition.

Remote Overlap presented a perfect opportunity to expand my spatialised repertoire, further unpacking ideas of distance and communication during a time when we were all physically isolated more than ever before

As a consequence of my architectural training, I have a tendency to think about music in a very visual way. I find it helpful to conceptualise the wide variety of tonal, timbral and temporal elements of music as behaving like spatial parameters such as points, vectors, axes, curves, planes, volumes and contours. This Cartesian conceptualisation of ‘organised sound’ could be criticised as reductive or diagrammatic, but I like to think of it as providing a notional scaffold, which later becomes populated with a rich range of textural and topographic characteristics. It’s certainly not a linear, mathematical mapping of geometric figures to sonic ones! Nevertheless, my composition process often begins and ends with drawing. In the first instance these drawings are often hand-made sketches which search for correspondences: between sonic and spatial ideas, between timbral and tonal regions, points and moments, to form spatio-temporal narratives which unfold according to an overarching idea.

In the case of Remote Overlap, the music explores a desire for physical, dimensional closeness between remote, but resonant bodies, much like the closeness that we all craved with loved ones during the first lockdown. To quote the liner notes: 

“The piece begins with a quiet harmony, unsettling and intangible. As the piece develops, individual musical motifs unpredictably overlap and correspond, as if trying to find one other by sounding out the vast spaces between them. The resonant expanse of a Piano cluster chord is reinforced by an omnidirectional drone from the bowed Glockenspiel, and the Clarinet roams between them in search of musical reference points and direction.

Acoustic oscillations, heard in the close intervals within this singing-ringing space, are acknowledged and mimicked by the Clarinet’s microtonal multiphonics and flutter-tongue outbursts. These sound a frustrated attempt to locate some form of tonal anchor, which lies just out of reach. Then finally, nearer but not touching, the Clarinet and Piano begin a more coordinated communication, exchanging melodic themes whilst the Glockenspiel drone maintains a distant but far-reaching plane of reference. Yet, each time these melodic fragments are cast back and forth, something is lost in translation: temporal structures become elastic and harmonies are misregistered and distorted.

A complex resonance results from the intermittent and subtle dovetailing of overtones, which blend during the ringing-out of dissonant harmonic clusters. These occasional moments of correspondence indicate an ongoing desire to communicate, despite the distance that prevents a coherent, unhindered exchange.

Remote Overlap is a musical evocation of the sense of longing and frustration that became acutely familiar during the global pandemic.”

When composing Remote Overlap, I developed a series of tools for calibrating musical ideas with spatial ones. One of these tools (pictured) locates each of the three instruments within a space in a plan drawing. The image shows LSO St Luke’s, but the piece was later recorded in Henry Wood Hall. For this particular recording session, the players were spaced apart for the sake of social distancing, with the microphone at the centre of the ensemble. The animated drawing returns a ballpark reference — as circles of varying radii  — for visually verifying the relative intensities of each of the parts as the piece unfolds. In Remote Overlap, intensity is considered a function of aspects such as pitch and dynamics, though this isn’t the only way that intensity, or presence, is expressed in this piece. This particular intensity represents a desire to communicate across a large distance, and the circles in the diagram overlap during parts of the music where ‘contact’ is made. This contact is evident in bar 17, where the piano and bowed Glockenspiel parts share an E and an F in the same register and at a similar dynamic, but the Clarinet remains distant at a lower dynamic and sounding an unsettled A quarter sharp. At bar 18 the Clarinet sounds a multiphonic containing an F quarter sharp: attempting to overlap with its neighbours but not quite reaching the same pitch or dynamic and remaining not quite touching.


I also made a perspectival projection (pictured beneath the circles) from the plan drawing, from the point of view of the listener (or microphone) to enable a quick and intuitive visual comparison of tonal ranges and similarities between each of the parts, as well as as checking for ‘overlaps’. I make these drawings using software that is more commonly used in architectural practice, for designing and constructing spaces. With a small amount of bespoke scripting, I am able to map musical parameters to spatial ones. These ‘work in progress’ drawing tools don’t directly provide musical content, instead they act as tools for reverse engineering musical instincts and calibrating spatial ideas with their musical equivalents, aligning my spatially-informed conceptual foci with a musical output.

Recording, and playback of the recording, is one of the major challenges with spatialised music. The social distancing necessary at our recording session serendipitously infused the recording with an added sense of acoustic distance and directionality: the sounds from the distanced clarinet and piano are clearly localised in the recording, allowing the immersive sounds of the bowed Glockenspiel to establish a surface between them.

Remote Overlap is a musical evocation of the sense of longing and frustration that became acutely familiar during the global pandemic

To get another perspective on the recording, I brought along a friend: Michael, my binaural microphone (pictured). Michael sat at the center of the space, facing the glockenspiel, his left ear to the piano and his right to the clarinet. I was sitting away from the acoustic sweet-spot at the ensemble’s center, but Michael gave me immediate insight into the relationship between my intended musical representations, and the acoustic effects of the literal physical distances between the individual components of the music. This accidental overlap between a musical concept and its real-life acoustic equivalent results in an extremely spatially-rich listening experience, far surpassing my original objective, which was to focus on just the representation of a spatial condition for standard stereo playback. Discovering new reciprocities between real and represented space is a fortune which I can only attribute to the distancing that we were all forced to adopt during the pandemic!

NMC's Discover platform is created in partnership with ISM Trust.

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