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The architectures of the new symphony halls now being built in most of the great capitals of the world are among the most daring buildings of our time. Ignoring the principles based on which symphony halls used to be built, they provide entirely new viewpoints (as well as listening points). Built mostly during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the older halls were designed to accommodate the larger orchestras required by Postromantic works as well as the growing audience of symphonic concerts. In most cases the shapes of those halls were simple rectangular parallelepipeds on one of whose sides stood the stage, while the great majority of the audience sat in the space facing the stage, with in addition in some cases balconies at the far end and on the sides. The reason for this standardized shape is not random: it privileges a frontal perception of music that is the very basis of the sound constructions created by Classical and Romantic symphonies.[1] The arrangement of the orchestras also satisfies criteria related to this frontal principle: the louder instruments (percussions and brass) are placed at the back, while woodwinds are placed forward and higher up, and the strings are in the foreground. Another criterion is numerical: there are fewer low-pitched instruments than high-pitched instruments, whose spectrum is more limited. 32 violins to 8 double basses is a typical ratio. Such orchestras produce highly hierarchical sound constructions. Instruments are gathered together to form “families,” and even within each family, the woodwinds for example, identical instruments (flutes, oboes, clarinets, etc.) are also gathered together. During that entire age homogeneity was the golden rule that determined the ideal sound image. Classical and Romantic music imposed the hegemony of string instruments over the rest of the orchestras, and that hierarchical organization was also observed in the very make-up of instrument groupings. It is well-known that in the Classical age viola players were failed violinists, while double bass players were failed cellists. While absolutely necessary to the construction of symphonic sound, violas and double basses never played the most important parts.

Without attempting a simplistic analogy between orchestra and society,[2] it can be said that orchestras were often viewed as mirror images of the bourgeois European societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. The gradual emancipation from the hierarchical constraints that ruled with an iron fist the sound canons of that age goes back to the very end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Wagner’s orchestra–as fusional as ever was an orchestra–attempted to do away with the excessive unbalance among families of instruments. The famous orchestra pit of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, which places the orchestra underground, below the stage, produces a global sound with such a degree of fusion that it is almost impossible for the audience to determine whether, for instance, the flute is located on the right or left side.[3] From this perspective Parsifal’s orchestration, just like that of most of Wagner’s later works, ensures a brilliant match between sound and architecture. The works of Mahler and Strauss also give increasing importance to the expression of individual instruments, while still allowing, as in Wagner, for highly massive sound events. But the clearest “redistribution of the roles,” no longer assigned mainly to string instruments but also found in all the other families, is heard in Debussy’s works. From this specific perspective Jeux is the most premonitory work.

This example was not ignored by the generations of composers that followed Debussy, and their attempts to pursue this direction were met with some success. Those approaches appeared to take a decisive turn in the 50s and 60s. Stockhausen’s Gruppen, and later Carré, Xenakis’ Terretektorh and Nomos Gama, Boulez’s Figures-Double-Prisme, tried each in its own way to redefine the orchestra in its internal arrangement as well as placement relative to the audience. At the time it was believed that the musical world was finally about to shake off its drowsiness, as did the world of theater and dance, which was seeking emancipation from Classical frontal principles. Unfortunately, tradition, which in Mahler’s words is sometimes nothing more than a set of bad habits, crushed those attempts at emancipation. If required, a convention hall could be converted, or an orchestra moved to a “neutral” venue to allow for a chosen spatial arrangement, but those were only isolated attempts. We must recognize that neither Berlioz’s Requiem nor Mahler’s placement of brass orchestras in the wings, Charles Ives’ attempts at a construction of space, or the experiments pursued by composers during the postwar years were able to found any kind of tradition. As brilliant as some of them may have been, all those experiments were only isolated cases without continuity or consequences.

Today the frontal principle faces a surprising paradox. The new halls, designed for the same repertory as older halls (from this perspective pop music or jazz, now often welcomed by those halls, bring nothing new) provide spatial arrangements that radically disrupt the position (the “listening point”) of part of the audience. An orchestra placed at the center of the stage, for instance, makes it possible for the listeners sitting in the gallery to face the conductor, but at the cost of a great unbalance in sound perception: to them brass instruments (because of the direction of the horns) sound louder than do violins, while percussions, also placed in the foreground relative to the listeners, overhang the rest of the orchestra. This is only one example of today’s domination of visual over auditory criteria, or rather the sacrifice of the auditory to the visual realm.

I would like to approach this problem differently. My questions are the following: Isn’t there another valid way to place symphony performers than the way we have been familiar with for almost two and a half centuries? Should we keep cultivating forever this hierarchical “symphony sound” that is the legacy of the Classical and Romantic traditions? Shouldn’t we be able to express ourselves through a resolutely contemporary esthetic and finally leave behind us the codes modelled on an outdated social order? Isn’t it time to consider new sound esthetics that would derive their wealth and power from diversity and multiplicity and, instead of isolating the audience in the periphery, would welcome it at the center? Couldn’t those united families of instruments, highly homogenized according to venerable ancient designs, carry a new wealth of sound once disunited (though not disconnected!) and more freely spread out into space? Now that those new halls exist, isn’t it time for them to serve as settings for new works that finally fit them?

What I would like to propose is not so much a spatial arrangement as sound effect as it is a new conception of sound, less hierarchical and “symphonic.” By placing musicians around the audience, my goal will not be to add another spectacle to the “spectacle” of the concert itself, but to create a sound paradigm that has not yet been attempted. Fusional sound found its apex in the works of the composers of the spectral trend who, each in his own way, pursued the old Wagnerian dream of a single undivided sound. Now is the time for multiplicity to speak, not in a single voice, but in a multitude of voices. This challenge, however, also involves risks, one of which is an esthetic (poetic) of sound mass, and its direct corollary: global perception. Xenakis successfully explored those territories, but his purely probabilistic conception of music precludes any form of true polyphony.[4] “Polyphony,” in a very broad sense of bringing together heterogeneous temporalities, encourages the listener to enter deep inside the sound structures from which emerge the complexity of their textures as well as the variability of their constituent relationships. We cannot be at the same time inside and outside, just as we cannot stand from our window and watch ourselves walk in the street. Another risk would be, by seeking to loosen the homogeneity of traditional sound families, to create new families. This is even a dual risk, since from the perspective of their architectures the new symphony halls are highly dissimilar. True, a few similarities (or even imitations) are observed among some halls, but we must recognize that they are not based on the same criteria. To return to rigid and overly strict conceptions of spatial geometry (as in the case of works such as Gruppen, but also my own composition In situ) would make it impossible to perform works in a large number of concert halls. We should therefore take care to avoid replacing one norm by another just as constraining. We should think in terms of modularity in the composition of works, and not give space a status other than its own: an environment for the propagation of sound. In the same way that the forms of time should not be reified, neither must the forms of space.[5] Groups of instruments chosen to constitute those “temporary families,” whether homogeneous or heterogeneous, can be placed according to considerations that will vary depending on the architectures of concert halls. If those groups are impossible to place on the right side, then they will be placed on the left.

The heterogeneous dimension of sound is strongly underlined by the latest research on the constituents of sound, which could be brought to the fore only by computer science. We misunderstand the role of computer science when we view it only as a means of sound production (through synthesis, spatial arrangement, transformation, etc.), while ignoring its abilities as an instrument of analysis and knowledge of sound. Audio descriptors have reinforced our awareness of a plurality of behaviors in sound, while history has made us realize its fusional nature. Roughness, inharmony, noise, brilliance, whisper, friction, and perforation have found their place in the list of the descriptions of what constitutes sounds. I could also refer to “sound attractors” and Generative Musical Grammars as instruments both conceptual and compositional of a rethinking of orchestral sounds outside traditional categories. Rather than fusion and hierarchy, the guiding principles of my Köln Trilogy will be the diversity and multiplicity of sound behaviors.

Articulated around In situ, first performed in 2013 at the Donaueschinger Musiktage by the Ensemble Modern and the SWR Sinfonieorchester conducted by François-Xavier Roth, the Köln Trilogy will begin with Ring, a 36 minute-long piece, and end with X[6], a composition for a large orchestra joined by a choir and a few singers and actors, as well as electronic music performed in real time. The three pieces of this cycle will first be performed respectively in 2016, 2017, and 2018 by the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln led by its own conductor, François-Xavier Roth, in Cologne’s Symphony Hall.

The spatial arrangement for the first piece, Ring, will be the following: as a symbol of past history, a small Mozart-type orchestra will take up the stage proper, while different groupings will be distributed in several areas of the hall. Two groups of 9 performers on the right and left sides (amounting to 6 trios) will be placed in loggias in elevation behind and overhanging the orchestra, while 2 other groups of around 10 musicians will take up the side gondolas usually reserved for students (on the right) or late-comers (on the left), and 4 groups will be placed in the back of the hall in a single elevated row. Each of those groups will be heterogeneous, that is, made up of instruments from different families. This sound “ring,” so arranged in Cologne, can be distributed on different levels in other concert halls, provided that the contiguity of the different groups is preserved. A light scenography will support the unfolding of the composition. When the audience enters the hall, the different groups will already be in place. Each group will be provided with a small video monitor, which from time to time will display a digit, signaling for the group to perform a short sequence as a subliminal anticipation of upcoming musical material. For instance, when the digit 1 is displayed, Group A will perform a given sequence; when 2 is displayed, so will the rear groups; when 3 is displayed, so will one of the side groups, etc. Meanwhile the central orchestra will take its place on stage and, during the tuning process (tuning keys will be supplied to every performer, because the oboe will not provide a sufficient reference for the entire tuning), a fairly legible sound texture will begin to emerge. The music has therefore already begun, and the lowering of the hall lighting will indicate the “true” beginning of the piece. There will therefore be no applause upon entrance of the performers. Thus will emancipated music evolve, and within this context the conductor (already sitting in the middle of the orchestra, to preclude any applause) will emerge to take the work, now rigorously and tightly structured, into his hands, and bring it to an end.



Philippe Manoury

Strasbourg, June 2015

(Traduction Jean-Louis Morhange)



[1] In the Baroque and pre-Baroque age spatial distributions of orchestras were not uncommon. The best-known example is Giovanni Gabrieli’s placement of brass bands at the four corners of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice; but we also know that the choir arrangements in Bach’s Passions were not frontal.

[2] Federico Fellini developed this analogy brilliantly in his film Prova d’orchestra.

[3] We know that this stroke of genius was in fact a cast of the dice. While posted in Riga, Wagner had been struck by the sound of an ensemble in a hall with a very low ceiling. This discovery inspired him to take the risk to design the orchestra pit. This initiative could have failed. In it, genius met intuition. Having had the chance to attend entire acts from the pit and from the hall, I was surprised to observe how the dry and analytical sound heard from within the pit becomes when heard from the outside a truly alchemic and miraculous synthesis.

[4] His piece Nomos Gamma, where the audience sits freely among the performers, is very ambiguous on this level. Its musical figures, designed to serve only a global purpose and without their own intrinsic values, are foregrounded due to the fact that, if the listeners sit next to the bassoon, the detail of its part, which is not supposed to be more important than others, appears “inflated.” The paradox is that to experience the entire work properly, rather than a mere detail, the listener would have to be at the same time inside the orchestra (this is the reason for being of the piece) and far away from each performer.

[5] It is impossible to recognize spatial forms with the same sharpness as melodic or rhythmic forms. Beyond identifying primary forms such as rotations, panoramic movements, and zigzags, the human brain is unable to recognize more complex forms. Even the shape of a sound that turns around the listener is perceived identically whether it is a circle or a square.

[6] The title of this final piece is yet to be determined.