On October 20, 2012, musicians placed on rooftops, steeples, and lake boats in downtown Orlando, Florida performed “inSPIRE for 22 Brass, Carillons, C Bell and Distance,” the first experiment in “distance music.” The Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs department supported the project as a part of National Arts and Humanities Month.
If you’re downtown at noon on Oct. 20, you might think for a moment you’re hallucinating when you hear the music. Bells and carillons, trumpets and other brass instruments will echo along Orange Avenue, as if from on high. You’re not losing it, and there will be no seraphs or cherubs – just local composer Keith Lay and his squad of musicians, perched atop the buildings of downtown Orlando.
Scott Horn, The Orlando Weekly
Distance Music Concepts
As sound travels to a specific site, it becomes delayed with distance. Distance Music accounts for these delays by having musicians farther from the audience play earlier, so as to make up for the time required for the sound to travel the distance.
A Distance Music piece is intended to be performed at a particular location, such that a listener cannot hear it correctly at any other place unless the distance, altitude, and terrain between the listener and music groups at that place are the same as those at the original environment. For example, inSPIRE cannot be performed in any other city than Orlando, or from any other rooftops, steeples, etc., than those for which I wrote it. Furthermore, the audience can only perceive the composer’s intentions in balance and counterpoint from a premeditated site.
Large-scale events fascinate us: the clap and roll of thunder, mountain echoes, waterfalls, long trains, ocean surf, a pack of coyotes howling in the distance. Distance music sounds large, if not loud because it surrounds the listener with sounds from afar.
Due to a location’s unique assortment of shapes, structures, and materials, among other characteristics, sound reflects with a plethora of tints and tones, which distinguishes outdoor music from its indoor equivalent.
Sound anomalies in pitch and dynamics are expected from stations at higher altitudes and farther distances due to the changes in temperature and wind. Sound travels at slower speeds in cooler temperatures. When sound passes through an area of different temperature called a “thermal layer”, the direction of the sound wave will bend much like how light bends when passing through a lens. Cooler thermal layers are common several hundred feet above the ground. Warmer thermals exist on the ground from the sun. Wind also affects sound to produce unexpected results in amplitude.
Being naturally visual creatures, we like to place whatever items we focus on in front of us. Our ears are particularly sensitive to sounds emanating from what we face. Antiphony (“opposite voice”) challenges the in-front soundstage norm by placing groups of instruments in opposite directions. The classical canon includes many examples of antiphony. Giovanni Gabrielli composed brass and choral music in the 16th Century that simultaneously utilized musicians placed at opposite naves of the San Marco cathedral. Centuries later, Berlioz and Mahler wrote parts for hidden, off-stage ensembles to create an illusion of memory or fate. Antiphonal works by composers of the 20th Century (most notably Charles Ives and Iannis Xenakis) further explored the use of direction and space. More recently, Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No. 12 was composed as “Spatial Music,” which surrounded the audience with musicians for a performance in a ‘natural surround’ location: the slopes of Finland’s Luosto Mountains. These antiphonal and spatial approaches to composition provide a wider palette of elements with which composers could develop a musical concept while enhancing the visceral and experiential quality of listening.
Inception of inSPIRE
Terry Olson, the Director of Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs, asked me in the Summer of 2012 if I was interested in writing a work for the Creative City project, one which would use the carillons of the downtown churches. After listening to one of the carillons, we decided that the proposed project would be too quiet to be heard over traffic. I suggested adding trumpet players to the roofs and steeples. But why not take it further? How about brass players playing from city building rooftops at the same time? It was at that moment that I realized the composition could be written to take the speed of sound into consideration by back-timing the entrances to create a precise musical experience. Terry began seeking permission to place musicians on rooftops in downtown Orlando for an October 20th concert. From an initial mapping of possible locations, we choose the Disney Bandshell location in Lake Eola Park because of its proximity to the most interested parties. The Lake Eola area also contained several churches, a mixture of building heights, available parking space, and rented pedal boats. Terry began focusing his efforts to find more locations in that area, while I began looking for musicians who would contribute to our event.
Precise timing from every station was crucial to the success of the concept. Since the large distances between stations made a traditional visual conductor impractical, I asked my twin brother Kevin to create an iOS application for the project to provide synchronization by employing the built-in world time clock. Each device could function independently because live data was not required once the app was loaded. It featured an adjustable start time and a 120 bpm tempo visual with an audible click. It also displayed the count-in to the next rehearsal letter on the music. Too many challenges stood in our way of using the app in time for the performance: too many musicians did not have an iOS device and we did not have time to fully troubleshoot the app to get it approved by the Apple App Store for downloading.
The iPhone conductor was scrapped in favor of something very reliable: renting 13 Motorola UHF two-way radios. Every station received a radio, which was capable of transmitting 2 miles. Through these, I broadcast general voice messages and synchronized timing with a live metronome click from my iPhone. To keep the unfamiliar music together, I called out an 8 beat countdown to each rehearsal letter during the performance, which was placed frequently through the score for this purpose. An extra musician, identified as the “conductor” was needed to hold the radio where it could be heard by the musicians, and to start physically conducting if the musicians were unable to hear the metronome over their playing.
Calculating time delays
About a week before the premiere, the station positions for inSPIRE were finalized so I could finally begin composing the work. The “Sweet Spot” was moved to an open, paved area adjacent to the Disney bandshell in Lake Eola Park. The distances from each station to the Sweet Spot needed to be measured so that the time that sound would require to travel could be found. Distances to each of the locations were determined with Orlando’s online Platt map and a speed of sound at 70˚F 344 meters/second was chosen for calculations.
Calculating delay time for each station was a simple function of distance/344m per sec. If every musician played a note at the same time, the order of arrival would be from closer locations to farther ones:
Unlike every other instrument station in the work, boats could be placed at any position in the lake. The Lake Eola swan boats have a flat floor and had enough room to carry a musician, music stand, and second passenger. The second passengers served as “Captains” of their pedal boats, keeping their onboard musicians at a predetermined distance from the sweet spot. These boats allowed me to fill in the sound arrival timing gap between the KEL tower (496 ms) and the Baptist Church steeple (782 ms). Swan boat station 5, at 806ft from the Sweet Spot, was to stay close to the north shore; their point of reference was a tree in line with the east side of the easternmost office building. Swan boat station 6, at 727 ft., was to align with the middle of the third large building along the southern shore. The reflective nature of the water and the slightly cooler air over it would help project the sound to make the sound of these distant solo instruments reach the Sweet Spot.
Music notation of arrival times
A common 4/4 time using a tempo of the 120 beats per minute was chosen. Not only was this tempo a common one, it provided a reliable timing grid for the piece with a dependable resolution of 125ms accuracy using a sixteenth note rhythmic subdivision.
- quarter note = 500ms
- eighth note = 250ms
- sixteenth note = 125ms
If a note was needed to be heard at the Sweet Spot at a particular time from a particular station, that event had to be performed early enough to make up for the time required to travel the distance. Such back-timing of events was made possible in 125ms increments through the musical notation and shared metronome over the radios. To facilitate the composition process, matrix tables were created. The first matrix, called “Natural Result” displays the timing of arriving sounds from a note played from all stations simultaneously on a 125ms (sixteenth note) grid. The vertical axis is organized by the order of arrival. The left to right axis displays arrival time measured in sixteenth notes at 120bpm (125ms). The red number within the cell is the number of milliseconds of quantization error between the 16th note timing grid and the arrival time. The sound arrives before the 16th note if the number is negative and after the sixteenth note if it is positive. As is evident from the values, the available locations provided an attractive, though splotchy, spread.
Creating Antiphonal Gestures
The surround positioning of instruments around the Sweet Spot afforded many antiphonal effects. An antiphonal gesture is a resulting shape and movement of the sonic image created by the sum of sounds from different stations. The gestures could contain every station or as few as two. Gestures could be overlapped. Each gesture would be most obvious if played with loud, short durations from every instrument involved. The perspective was designed for a listener facing the city center across Rosalind Street, their back to Lake Eola. Audience members who decided to walk around during performance would not experience the arrival times in these particular ‘gestures’, but would experience antiphony unique to their position. In the below matrices, the order of stations from the top of the table to the bottom lists the desired sequence of arrival times to create the effect. The red “heard” block is the time, to the closest sixteenth note, that that position would be heard from a sound played at the bold-circled time.
Left-Right was designed to begin at the furthest point to the left of a listener facing the intersection of Washington and Rosalind. The antiphonal gesture begins at the Baptist Church steeple (8), and ending with the Avis parking deck (4). This effect would be begin with a note from the Baptist steeple, followed by an eighth note of silence, then a short note from swan two, followed by the City Center roof (7) a sixteenth note later, followed by 16th note of silence, followed by the simultaneous playing of a short note by the Library (1), KEL Tower (2), Avis parking deck (4) and Swan Boat 1 (6), followed by another sixteenth note of silence, and finished with a note from the Vue tower swimming pool (3). The result is a string of entrances from left to right. Left to Right was not used often because of the difficulty of the rhythms.
Right to Left was used in the piece more often because of the more basic rhythmic playability.
The sounds of the Bell and Carillons were not used to create surround or antiphonal effects but rather for their shimmering color and psychological associations with spirit and joy. Their sound was quiet and easily lost on account of their greater distances from the Sweet Spot, but listeners walking north or west would hear them easily. In those areas, an entirely different antiphonal imaging would result from changed perspective anyways, so there was less justification to include the bell or carillon into the matrices.
Music Performance Difficulty
The combination of antiphony, melody, harmony, orchestration, and development provided a great deal of creative raw material for inSPIRE. But because I had no knowledge of the student musicians’ abilities, the music was scored conservatively for the main body of players. Antiphonal gestures were sparsely employed. The presentation of melody and development were of a more common concern. Doubling, which lends weight and color to strengthen a melody or motive, needed to involve more than one station playing the same music in unison. But since every station was located at a different distance, doubling required timing alterations to allow for delay times. In cases where arrival times differed by less than 125ms, a unison would be blurred. This blurring effect was made interesting by differences in the direction from the surround soundstage. The blurred unison could be stretched into a stretto by increasing the difference of arrival times. Shifting melodies early or late by a single sixteenth note creates a difficult rhythmic passage, which was usually relegated to the more able musicians.
A single hour for rehearsal was scheduled preceding the event which took place at noon. The decision to use the radios to call out of rehearsal letters ensured that any musician could quickly find their way back to the correct spot in the music if they became lost. All of the musicians were instructed to listen and play to the radio clicks intently, and not pay attention to the rhythms of music around them.
Instrumentation and Placement
Benoit Glazer (Music Director of Cirque du Soliel: La Nuba and the founder of the Timucua Foundation and the Orlando White House) and I recruited 22 excellent brass musicians for inSPIRE’s premiere. Three of these musicians are principals of the Orlando Philharmonic. Others included pros from the theme park musicians community. Music students from the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, and Stetson University also gave their time to the project. The final instrumentation compliment was 7 Trumpets, 6 Horns, 6 Trombones, and 3 Tubas.
Orange County could only pay each musician $25 to cover the cost of gas. I supplied bottled water and snacks. Regardless of the ad gratis nature of this “gig”, many musicians in Orlando were willing to give their expertise and time to the inSPIRE project. Perhaps they were intrigued by the concept and having fun playing from rooftops to an audience far below. I am so indebted to the generosity of these participating musicians.
The factors guiding the distribution of the musicians included the following:
- The space constraints at each position, including egress difficulties
- The position’s distance from the sweet spot, since larger distances required more sound power. More instruments were needed to compensate for lost sound pressure level to create an audible sound for these stations
- Orchestration advantages
- The frequency range and construction of the instruments.
- The sound from cylindrical brass instruments such as Trumpets and Trombones can be easily directed by pointing the instruments’ bells toward the audience. The higher frequency range of the trumpets should be more audible across longer distances.
- Conical brass instruments like Horns and Tubas are built with bells not normally facing the audience. Horns point behind the player, while tubas point upward. The lack of strident overtones in these instruments can also make them more difficult to hear. Conical brass instruments were to be placed closer to the Sweet Spot.
- Some musicians had issues with fear of heights, fear of the water, or required special requirements because of disabilities, instrument size, or the need for a rapid exit to meet other obligations in their schedules.
Station 1, looking north towards the Sweet Spot
Station 2, the KEL tower
Station 4, top of the Avis Parking Deck, looking south, towards the Sweet Spot
Station 8, atop the Downtown Baptist Church steeple, looking south towards the Sweet Spot (note that stations 1,3 and 7 are also visible in this photo)
inSPIRE employed a musical language that was simple and popular. It uses tonality to create an uplifting and inspiring feeling through repeating motivic ideas based upon fanfares and rising chords. It is uplifting music made about inspiration for a city.
Performance Day – Surprises
A day before the performance, we learned that the “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5K Walk” was planned for 9am the morning of the concert. The good news was that the walk began right in front of our Sweet Spot, and the Rosalind Avenue would be closed to traffic. This was fortunate because the work would be much more clearly heard, plus, there was now a possibility that more people would enjoy the experiment. The bad news was our concert area was blocked off! 40,000 attendees had planned to walk. Those visitors were going to take any available parking long before the performance. The musicians might be late negotiating the resulting traffic jam and have to carry heavy instruments a long way to get to our meeting place at the Sweet Spot. Also, those planning to attend inSPIRE might be unwilling to deal with the traffic and parking difficulties.
Fortunately, every musician made it on time. We rehearsed for an hour. Captains and Conductors were assigned. Terry Olson’s well-organized team took the musicians to their stations. A crowd appeared, excited about what they were about to hear. I introduced the concept to the audience. The music began. About 2 minutes into the work, the batteries began to fail in my radio. The work fell apart without the constant beat. Station conductors could not communicate. Many stations simply quit playing.
I replaced my radio with an unused one, and the musicians agreed to give inSPIRE a second attempt. This attempt went well. 8 of the 12 stations were recorded on video by phone cameras. The ambisonic recording, engineered by Thomas Todia, was successful.
What was learned
Distance music works.
Antiphonal gestures are effective
Stations playing in front of reflective vertical walls had a huge sonic image compared with those that did not. For example, the 4 horns at station 1 were significantly louder than all other stations than their closer proximity would suggest. The brass players on the KEL tower were backed with vertical surfaces of the building and were very easy to hear as well, too, creating a large sonic image.
Wind played a role in attenuating the sound from farther stations, especially from the farthest positions of stations 4 and the Carillon from Trinity Church.
St. Luke’s cathedral bell was barely heard at the sweet spot during performance. But church members told Diane Maxson, a church leader who gave us access to the bell, that is was clearly heard by residents past the east boundary of Lake Eola, and at the Executive Airport,
Composers of modern, ‘difficult’ music sometimes sometimes criticize audiences for lacking interest in what they painstakingly create. In reality, there are many people who want to engage in the music and make efforts to understand how to listen. People do understand the nature of sound and acoustics at a basic level and, in the case of this project, were excited about the work because they were informed through previous announcements about its goals and theory.
What I will do differently next time
The next Distance Music work will employ more antiphonal gestures. These proved to be more successful than I imagined. The reason that fewer of them were employed was because of the rhythmic difficulty required to play them. The 22 brass players had few issues reading them – I scored the music too conservatively.
The trumpet playing from the swan boat on Lake Eola was very easily heard – in fact, too easily heard. This was due to the boat captain steering far too close to the Sweet Spot than instructed, but also because the water provided a good acoustically reflective surface. The trombone on the other swan was expected to sound louder, but that may have simply been a result of the trumpet musician overblowing. Perhaps each station’s members thought that being 700 to 800 feet from the sweet spot was a mistake, and were trying to help the piece by moving 400-500 feet closer. If the work uses boats, I will take more time to instruct the captains where their boats need to be positioned. For this performance, both boats were many hundreds of feet too close, ruining the intended gestures and general counterpoint.
For the next Distance Music piece, I will plan the video recordings more accurately. For this event, I simply asked that everyone take video from their phones. Though I was able to cull together a good video, some locations were never recorded, (stations 1 and 3). Audience videos from the Sweet Spot was also not well documented as I received only 1 video taken during the first half.
Next time, I will include, some simple antiphony – of hearing each station by itself, perhaps trading a theme around. This will help define each location for the audience and strengthen the composition.
Distance music is a combination of art, science and community. It combines live music from musicians in surprising locations that is scientifically combined to produce an uplifting musical experience. It is a gift to the people of a city, heard on its outdoor streets. It is an event that intrigues its listeners because it employs concepts of sound that are tangible and understood. It encourages curiosity about the science of sound by presenting a different experience for every location.
As a musical experience, inSPIRE met its goal, if not artistically, symbolically. Uplifting music, played from ‘on high’ from places of worship and towers of industry inspire optimism and community from those listening.