Aural Territories: how phenomenology taught me how to compose electroacoustic spatial music

DOI: 10.5920/divp.2015.35


In this article I describe the process of creation, performance, and reception of two sets of multichannel pieces - Journey I and II and Night Song I and II - performed as part of Aural Territories: a concert of spatial electroacoustic music. The main philosophical foundation for this experience has been the views on phenomenology as conceived by Merleau-Ponty (2004) and Dufrenne (1973). In these pieces, I explore compositionally three aspects of the interrelationship between sound and space that were fundamental for my theoretical and practical understanding of electroacoustic spatial music: acoustic space, sound spatialisation, and reference. First I describe shortly some aspects of my theoretical research in sound spatialisation: the phenomenological approach and the use of space as a structural element in composition. Then I describe the process of creation of the pieces and the implementation of the 16-speaker system used in the concert. In the last section I describe the reception of the pieces in the concert situation, as registered in a questionnaire filled by the listeners. In the conclusion I discuss what I learnt from the whole process and some implications of the phenomenological approach to electroacoustic music in general and electroacoustic spatial music in particular. 


Aural Territories: a concert of spatial electroacoustic music took place on 5 March 2012 at the Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster University, UK, as part of the final stage of my PhD studies. [1] The starting point of this theoretical-compositional research was an attempt to understand the meaning of space in music and electroacoustic music, which started off with the questions “What is space in music” and “How can space be used as an essential aspect of composition?”

As a preliminary answer to the first question I identified five uses of space and spatial concepts in relation to sound and music: (1) space as metaphor, which consists in the use of spatial images and metaphors to describe abstract concepts or perceptual experiences associated with sound and music, not necessarily related to the spatial perception of sound, as in the notions of musical form or structure, or high and low as applied to pitch. Examples of this kind of spatial metaphor can also be found in concepts suggested by music writers to describe different aspects of music, as in the concepts of tonal pitch space (Lerdahl, 1988), sonic space and noise colouration space (Wishart, 1998), or spectral space (Smalley, 2007); (2) space as acoustic space , related to the acoustic effects of the environment on sound, through the phenomena of sound reflection , diffraction, and resonance , and the sound’s capacity to carry information about the acoustic “container” of a sound source; (3) space assound spatialisation , related to the surroundability of the auditory field and the ability of the auditory system to perceive the distance, direction, and motion of sound sources; (4) space as reference , related to the ability of the auditory system to recognise sound sources and the power of sound to recall the experience of different places through the use of its referential properties, a process based on the plausibility of specific sound sources to be located at specific places, and their potential for “carrying” spatial information associated with these places; and (5) space as location , associated with the actual experience of being at a specific and real place, related to the global perception of space produced by the information provided by all sensory channels, with all its social, cultural, historical, and environmental implications. Due to the focus of my research, I developed in detail only the three concepts that had a closer relation to my compositional work at that moment: acoustic space, sound spatialisation, and reference.

In order to answer to my second research question – “How can space be used as an essential aspect of composition” – I composed and described the process of creating the two sets of pieces presented in Aural Territories : the materials used for each piece, the criteria used for their selection, and how the spatial concepts discussed before were used as structural elements in the compositions.

In this article I summarise the whole process of creation and implementation of Aural Territories : a description of the structure and compositional processes of the pieces; the system of 16 loudspeakers and the multichannel diffusion techniques used in the concert; and the responses of the audience. I finish by discussing what I learnt from the process of doing Aural Territories and some implications of the phenomenological approach to electroacoustic music in general.

Phenomenology and the composer

When applied to music studies, phenomenology provides rich and original insights about music, useful for describing the musical experience from different points of view, including the perspective of the composer. In music, as in the field of philosophy, phenomenology is not a homogenous approach. The level of engagement with the main ideas of phenomenology and the depth of analysis vary, ranging from a brief introductory mention, as in Pike (1970), to a more consistent and thorough analysis, as in the studies of Schütz (1976), Smith (1979), Clifton (1983), and Ferrara (1984; 1991). One important aspect of the phenomenological approach to music, fundamental for the discussion developed in this article, is the centrality of the musical experience to the processes of creation, reception, and reflection.

During the process of creating Aural Territories, phenomenology offered me the tools to reflect about, conceptualise, and describe my attitude towards music and the process of composition. These I summarised in six points: (1) working mode and listening mode , or the alternation, during the process of composition, between the processes of composing and listening to the results; (2) composition as an intersubjective process, in which the composer establishes a creative dialogue with the work being created; (3) the means and ends of composition , where I discuss the extent to which the aural results may reflect (or not) the compositional techniques used and the intentions of the composer; (4) musical theory and interdisciplinarity, where I discuss the need to conceive musical theory as an interdisciplinary field, in order to discuss the subject of space in music; (5) art, music, and the world of perception, where I discuss the importance of taking into consideration the mechanisms of human perception in the process of creation and reception of artistic works; and (6) phenomenological reduction and reduced listening, where I discuss how Husserl’s phenomenology gave the foundation for Schaeffer’s concept of reduced listening, and how French phenomenology may expand this concept to include a broader scope of aural experiences. [2]

Aural Territories: a Concert of Spatial Electroacoustic Music

The use of space as a structural element in composition was the main compositional concern underlying the works presented in
Aural Territories
. I composed Night Song I and II, and Journey I and II as practical compositional experiments in sound spatialisation, where the spatial properties of sound would no longer be an added dimension, but structuralelements, fundamental for the full understanding and appreciation of the pieces.the spatial properties of sound would no longer be an added dimension, but structural elements The pieces were composed over a period of two years before the concert took place. My main goal was to explore the compositional possibilities of three senses of space discussed in my theoretical research – acoustic space, sound spatialisation, and reference – and to use perceived distance, direction, and motion of sound as structural parameters in composition. I intended to produce in the listener the experience of being in places other than the performance space, both realistic – the nocturnal soundscapes suggested by Night Song I and II – and non-realistic – the imaginary and surreal spaces suggested by Journey I and II. The title of the concert – Aural Territories – also suggests the idea of a listener who journeys through different spaces through sound, and the titles of the pieces also reveal the same intention: Journey I and II are explorations of the possibilities of creating imaginary spaces using processed and unprocessed sounds of musical instruments; Night Song I and II intend to produce in the listener the experience of journeying through nocturnal soundscapes using sounds of natural phenomena and nocturnal animals.

Materials used in Journey I and II and Night Song I and II

All materials for Journey I were recorded from the harpsichord, using both the keyboard and extended techniques (direct manipulation of strings with nails, coins, and other small objects). I sketched a few ideas and themes based on Messiaen’s fifth mode of limited transposition (Messiaen, 1956, p. 53; see figure 1a), which I recorded in different keys with different timbres, also recording a relatively large amount of other kinds of material – chords, octaves, and single notes, with different durations and timbres, shown in figure 1. [3]

Figure 1a Messiaen’s fifth mode of limited transposition (Messiaen, 1956, p. 53).

Figure 1b Chord formed by the use of all notes of the mode played simultaneously.

Figure 1c Rubato theme.

Figure 1d Harmonies derived from the rubato theme.

All materials for Journey II were recorded on the piano, using both the keyboard and extended techniques. I first recorded single notes, octaves, and major and diminished chords with different intensities, durations, and articulations, derived from Messiaen’s second mode of limited transposition (Messiaen, 1956, p. 50; see figure 2a). The material recorded using extended techniques - direct manipulation of strings with fingers, nails, rubber balls, and marbles - did not have any pre-established pitch structure and was recorded in an improvisatory way. The strings were played directly using arpeggio-like gestures, individual notes, and short sequences of pitches. I also used a twelve-tone series as part of the structure of the piece, shown in figure 2 with its respective transpositions.

Figure 2a Messiaen’s second mode of limited transposition (Messiaen, 1956, p. 50).

Figure 2b Twelve-tone series used in Journey II (Parts 1 and 4): original form.

Figure 2c Twelve-tone series as it appears in Part 1: original form and inversion transposed up a minor third.

Figure 2d Twelve-tone series as it appears in Part 4 (second section): retrograde of the inversion transposed up a minor third; inversion of the original form; original form and inversion transposed up a minor third.


All materials used in Night Song I and II consist of recordings of wildlife animals and natural phenomena, most of them taken from the British Library Wildlife Archives. [4]  I decided to use nocturnal wildlife sounds because I already knew some sounds I was very fond of – owls, crickets, foxes, and bat echolocation sounds - and because I appreciated the atmosphere of mystery and darkness and the different moods and emotions suggested by nocturnal sounds.

Spatial design and spatial narrative in Journey I and II and Night Song I and II

As a result of my research on sound and space, I suggest two concepts to describe the spatial aspects of my pieces, which can also be used for the analysis and description of other pieces: spatial design, describing the general spatial features of a piece, or a section of a piece, that has a clearly defined spatial identity; and spatial narrative, describing how the overall spatial structure of a piece, or a section of a piece, changes over time. I have conceived these two concepts to describe and conceptualise the changes that may occur during a piece in terms of spatial identity. [5]

Having played the piano for many years, I have always appreciated the perspective of the performer: the feeling of intimacy produced by the proximity and the physical contact with the instrument, and the way it sounds from this close perspective.In Journey I and II I was interested in exploring the different spatial impressions produced by the natural acoustics of the instrument and different distances from it, and also in developing ideas of how it would be to be inside the instrument, to get inside its sounds, and to have them placed in different reverberant spaces. I was also interested in how the sounds of the instrument, both processed and unprocessed, could suggest real and imaginary spaces. Based on these ideas, the spatial narrative in Journey I and II is the narrative of the aural journey of a listener-traveller through different spaces, real, imagined, and surreal, suggested by the sounds of the harpsichord and the piano, respectively. The analyses below (tables 1 and 2) show the formal structure of each piece, in terms of materials, spatial design, spatial narrative, and spatialisation techniques used.

Table 1 Journey I analysis.

Table 2 Journey II analysis.

The spatial design and narrative in Night Song I and II is based on the idea of an imaginary journey of a bird-listener through different environments. The environments visited by the bird-listener are described by the subtitles of the piece – In an Open Forest, In the Sky with Bats, In a Cave, and Valley of the Owls. These environments are characterised aurally by the referential aspect of the selected sounds, the kind of reverberation used and the spatial design conceived for each section. Although the reference to each natural environment visited by the bird-listener is important for the piece as a whole, these environments are not characterised in strictly realistic terms. Together with the original sounds found in the wildlife archives, sounds with different levels of transformation and the unnatural sound of organ clusters were also used, and at different moments the spaces suggested may be characterised as surreal or imaginary. The analyses below (tables 3 and 4) show the formal structure of each piece, in terms of materials, spatial design, spatial narrative, and spatialisation techniques used.

Table 3 Night Song I analysis.

Table 4 Night Song II analysis.

Composing space in the studio

Different factors may influence the composer’s choice of technology for sound spatialisation. The desired accuracy and aesthetic orientation are very important, but pragmatic considerations related to the performance context and availability of technologies are also crucial (Baalman, 2010, p. 209). Barrett mentions that limited accessibility may be a problem for composers not affiliated to institutions that support large multiple-speaker systems (Barrett, 2007, p. 246). Wilson and Harrison (2010) also point out that spatial audio technologies may also require different levels of programming skills, which may be another barrier (2010, p. 249). As I did not have the opportunity to work with technologies such as Ambisonics, wave field synthesis, or large multiple-speaker systems, I decided to start my multichannel compositional work using the four-channel format, which was already available at Lancaster University, also working later with the eight-channel format when it became available on my request. I therefore composed Journey I and II in the four-channel format, and Night Song I and IIin the eight-channel format.

The choice of format was also related to the aesthetic characteristics of each set of pieces. I already knew, from my experience in the studio and from the literature review, of the limitations of the four-channel format for creating precise localisation and continuity of motion between the speakers, the difficulties in transposing the spatial design composed in the studio to concert situations, the inconsistencies in the perceptual results of spatial panning (Kendall and Cabrera, 2011), the problems related to the precedence effect, the peculiarities of the phantom image, and the characteristics of the sweet spot(Kendall, 2010). Therefore, in composing Journey I and II I explored the possibilities offered by the format to create an environment that had four defined points of localisation (the four speakers) and that was also able to produce some level of envelopment of sound. When I wanted to produce the perception of precise localisation I worked with mono files panned directly to each speaker. I used stereo and quad files to work with background textures and sounds that did not need a precise localisation. As the main idea of Journey I and II was to explore aural spaces that were not necessarily realistic, I found the use of four-channel format effective for my compositional purposes. In spite of most of the spatial design of the pieces having been composed in the studio, in the concert I had the opportunity to perform them using 16 speakers and multichannel diffusion, which allowed me to create more variety in the spatial design and spatial narrative, and to produce perceptions of distance and direction that were not possible in the studio.

In Night Song I and II , as I intended to work with referential sound and with more realistic soundscapes, I decided to use the eight-channel format, because it would allow the creation of a more immersive environment, which would help me to produce a more effective experience of the nocturnal soundscapes I intended to work with, and more possibilities of motion of sound, as the angles between the speakers were smaller. As the main spatialisation technique, I worked with the panning of mono, stereo, and four-channel files. As I was aware of the problems related to the precedence effect (Kendall, 2010), I used pitch-shifting as a simple but effective way to avoid the perception of the spatial image collapsing onto the closest speaker, and to create a very immersive effect of envelopment, which was particularly convincing for the sounds of natural phenomena such as rain and wind.

Loudspeaker layout and multichannel diffusion

The Nuffield Theatre, where the concert took place, is a “black box” studio theatre, measuring 75ft x 75ft (22.8m x 22.8m) and with no pre-defined seating arrangement, where I could use any desired placement for the audience and the speakers. For the diffusion of the pieces, I had a digital mixer – a Yamaha LS9 32 - and two sets of eight speakers: eight Genelec 8030A, which I arranged in an internal ring, and eight Meyer UPJ, which I arranged in an external ring. I placed the chairs – about 60 – in a circle, in the centre of the square, facing outwards, as shown in figure 3. [6]

Figure 3 Loudspeaker layout used in the concert Aural Territories.

A Yamaha LS9 32 mixer offered the possibility to group different faders under the control of one single fader, a feature that was used to programme three presets: one for Journey I, one for Journey II, and one for Night Song I and II. In the presets forJourney I and II the faders were grouped into four groups of four; in the preset for Night Song I and II , they were grouped into two groups of eight. As I had enough time to rehearse, I could test the different combinations of speakers to enhance the spatial design and narrative of the pieces, also taking advantage of the acoustics and size of the theatre to create significant differences between close and distant speakers. I also used the digital mixer’s built-in equalisation and reverb to make the differences between close and distant speakers more evident, slightly boosting the middle and high frequencies of the inner circle to enhance the perception of closeness, and cutting the high frequencies from and adding reverb to the outer circle to enhance the perception of distance. Based on these experiments with the set, I made a score showing the combinations of speakers that best suited each section of the piece, which I used as a guide for diffusion during the concert. Figures 4 and 5 show the different combinations of faders programmed for each preset

Figure 4 Fader layout for Journey I.

Figure 5 Fader layout of internal ring for Journey II
(the external ring was the same used for Journey I ).

Figure 6: Fader layout for Night Song I and II.


In order to evaluate the extent to which the listeners would respond to the various aspects of the concert, I devised a questionnaire that I asked each member of the audience to answer. Of the 50 listeners present in the concert, 30 answered the questionnaire. The first question intended to investigate whether the listeners perceived the three main spatial parameters incorporated in the compositions - distance, direction, and motion – and how strong these perceptions were. Table 5 summarises the answers to the first question.

Table 5 Answers to the first question.

Regarding the perception of distance and direction, the answers were very consistent: 83.25% of the respondents had a strong impression of sounds coming from different distances, and 96.66% had the strong impression of sounds coming from different directions. The perception of sounds moving in space was less consistent, but still meaningful: 63.27% of the respondents had the strong impression of sounds moving in space, and 33.33% had only a subtle impression. These results are consistent with the literature and my expectations, as impressions of motion of sound, with the use of four- and eight-speaker systems, are harder to achieve than impressions of distance and direction.

The second question intended to investigate whether the listeners had the experience of being in places other than the performance space. I listed four categories of spatial impressions I expected to produce - outdoor spaces/natural spaces ,indoor spaces/architectonic spaces , imaginary spaces, and other – leaving a blank space where the listeners could specify the kinds of spaces experienced during the concert. Table 6 summarises the answers to the second question.

The most common answers to this question fall into the category of outdoor spaces/natural spaces : 86.58% of the respondents had the experience of outdoor spaces, and of these 76.59% specified jungle, forest, or rainforest. Other environments reported included cave, mountain peaks, and monsoon. 50% of the respondents reported the experience of indoor spaces, as varied as underground, apartment, inside the piano , basement, and dungeon. 39.96% reported the experience of imaginary spaces, among them outer space, a room full of mirrors, time travel, and time warp. 16.65% of the respondents reported the experience of other spaces, which included in a cave or mine, buildings falling in a destructive war of the future, and movie. These results show that the most common perceptions of space were produced by the referential sounds – natural phenomena and wildlife – that appear in Night Song I and II.

Table 6 Answers to the second question.

Table 7 Answers to the third question.

The most common answer to this question, 69.93%, is the sensation of being immersed/bathed in sound , which corresponds, in technical terms, to the effect of envelopment of sound, which is also consistent with the literature, according to which four- and eight-channel systems have good results in terms of envelopment of sound (Dow, 2004, p. 26). The responses on the impression of moving in space are also meaningful: 43.29%. Other impressions reported included spinning and oscillating internally.

The fourth question was an open question, intended to investigate any other kind of responses the concert could have produced in the listeners. The answers are shown in table 8.

Table 8 Answers to the fourth question.

Some of these answers, such as numbers 2, 5, and 14, are closely related to the impressions I intended to produce in the listeners, while others, such as numbers 3, 4, and 9, express predictable doubts regarding the conceptualisation of this work as music or sound effects. Answers numbers 1, 6, 8, and 13 offer positive feedback, although not too specific.

The last two questions intended to investigate the general experience of the listeners in attending concerts of electroacoustic music for loudspeakers only, and whether they are keen on going again to another concert of the same kind based on the experiences they had with Aural Territories. The results are shown in table 9.

Table 9 Answers to the fifth and sixth questions.

Most of the respondents had little (16.65%) or no (59.94%) experience with concerts for loudspeakers only. In spite of that, more than three quarters (76.59%) would go again or invite friends to a concert of electroacoustic spatial music, which is a very good result that indicates that, in spite of not being specialists or particularly experienced as listeners of electroacoustic music, they found the experience interesting enough to motivate them to come back again to a similar concert if they had the opportunity. This particular result shows that the idea that electroacoustic music sounds interesting only to specialists or very experienced listeners may be a prejudice, and not necessarily true for all kinds of electroacoustic music.

Final considerations: listening to space in electroacoustic music

The use of phenomenology as the foundation for the composer’s attitude towards music has many important implications for electroacoustic music, in special for electroacoustic spatial music. As Truax (1992), Smalley (1992), Norman (1996), Westerkamp (2002), and Schaeffer (2004) have discussed, electroacoustic music is often about listening. Phenomenology suggests that all kinds of sensory impressions may be part of the musical experience, as they may be triggered by the musical sound and experience. As I expect to have shown from the conclusions drawn from the survey described above, the spatial suggestions and impressions produced by electroacoustic spatial music may go, and in fact I believe they should go, far beyond the realm of the listening modes associated with reduced listening.

The concept of semiotic listening, defined by Kim as “a way of listening to electroacoustic music in which listeners entertain sounds and their potential sound-images based on semiotic significations” (Kim, 2008, p. 91), describes some of these dimensions, which may come into play in the reception of electroacoustic spatial music. As I believe that the results of the survey presented above have shown, semiotic listening may be as important as reduced listening as a mode of reception for electroacoustic musicsemiotic listening may be as important as reduced listening as a mode of reception for electroacoustic music, as many of the significant impressions reported by the listeners have strong semiotic significations.

Following this reasoning, I believe the reflection brought by phenomenology, especially in its French ramifications, as devised by Dufrenne and Merleau-Ponty, may offer a fundamental contribution to music in general and to spatial electroacoustic music in particular, in the sense that it recognizes different levels of musical meaning and perception as a natural part of the musical experience. If this step is important for all kinds of music, it is still more important for electroacoustic spatial music, as spatial perception is a global perception that involves information originating from different sensory modalities. When the composer opens his or her sensory channels to the richness of spatial impressions produced by sound, and uses their perceptual mechanisms as a guide for the process of decision-making in composition, it may be possible to produce music that can incorporate spatial perceptions as structural elements, in a way that becomes meaningful for the listener. Therefore, in order to reveal the full potential of space in electroacoustic music, I believe it is fundamental to operate a metamorphosis in the understanding of Schaeffer’s reduced listening as the main listening mode to be used for the creation and reception of electroacoustic music, so that the processes of listening can be revealed in their full potential and richness, as inexhaustible as the lived experience of being in the world.


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[1] Funded by ORSAS Award, Lancaster University and Peel Studentship, and finished under the supervision of Dr Alan Marsden and Mr Takayuki Rai (2008-2012).

[2] A discussion of each of these points is given in my PhD thesis. A summary of five of them, entitled Phenomenology, Spatial Music and the Composer: prelude to a phenomenology of space in electroacoustic music, was presented at the ICMC 2011 conference in Huddersfield (United Kingdom) and published in the proceedings of the event.

[3] All Scores edited by Lourdes Joséli da Rocha Saraiva.

[4] Thanks to Cheryll Typp, curator of the Wildlife Archives of the British Library. The sounds of wind, rain, and thunderstorm were taken from the BBC FX collection (copyright free) and most of the bat echolocation sounds were taken from the CD The Bat Detective (Biggs and King 1998) (used by permission).

[5] As they have not been suggested by another author, I regard them as a modest contribution to the vocabulary and analytical tools associated with electroacoustic spatial music.

[6] All figures drawn by and © Yonyonson (

About the author:

Rederico Macedo is a Brazilian composer and lecturer currently living in Brazil, who did his Ph.D. at Lancaster University, UK (2008–2012). He is a lecturer at UDESC (University of the State of Santa Catarina, Brazil), where he teaches courses on music technology, musicology, ethnomusicology and history of popular music, having also worked as a part-time tutor at Lancaster University (2011–2012). His research work has focused on the compositional uses of space in electroacoustic music, the effects of technology on the notions of authenticity and authorship in popular music and the different uses of sound in theatrical spectacles. This article represents partial results of his Ph.D. research, funded by ORSAS Award, Peel Studentship and Lancaster University, and describes the compositional results of his PhD work on the meaning of space in music and electroacoustic music