Music for Spaces: Music for Space

An argument for sound as a component of museum experience

Tim Boon


Footsteps in the Science Museum   


[Note: The original spoken version of this paper was performed with a nearly continuous soundtrack. Readers may like to repeat the experiment by playing the indicated tracks as they proceed through the text.]

[This] story begins on ground level, with footsteps. They are myriad, but do not compose a series. They cannot be counted because each unit has a qualitative character: a style of tactile apprehension and kinestheticappropriation. Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities. Their intertwined paths give shape to their spaces. They weave places together. ... They are not localized; it is rather that they spatialize. (De Certeau 1984: 97)

This evocation, which comes from Michel de Certeau’s wonderful The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), summons up two connected themes of this essay: the kinaesthetic and aural components of the museum experience. Although sound is not de Certeau’s concern, it is reasonable to argue that the “kinaesthetic appropriation of space” that he describes necessarily requires an auditory as much as an ambulatory aspect.


Most museums devote much thought and expenditure to how they look and virtually none to how they sound. They employ architects, 3D designers and graphics specialists; rarely do they consider the aural design of the space. In this, museums ignore something that is already there: go to any museum and close your eyes, and it is clear that the aural character of these public spaces is in fact a significant component of how they communicate, not at the explicit cognitive level, but in an unconscious, even subconscious, register. However, museum staff have more often thought of sound as “noise”. This is a category with its own history, as a component of modernity most often considered to be negative, as is found, for example, in the activities of the Anti-Noise League, which held a noise abatement exhibition at the Science Museum in 1935 (Bijsterveld 2001; Anti-Noise League 1935). Thomas Horder, King’s Physician and leading light of the Anti-Noise League, asserted that “doctors are definitely convinced that noise wears down the human nervous system, so that both the natural resistance to disease, and the natural power of recovery from disease, are lowered … Some people say that our nerves … can adapt  themselves without difficulty to noise. … If they [could] not we could not stand up to the conditions of modern life without becoming hopeless neurasthenics” (Anti-Noise League 1935: 1-2). We may go beyond this literal and negative interpretation of noise in museums, however, and move toward the level of metaphor, transforming this noise that obliterates silence into the “noise” that pollutes the “signal” of science communication. This entails a different understanding of the word “noise” and a figurative allusion to Claude Shannon’s information theory (Schwartz 2011: 705). In that sense, I say: let us speak up for noise as well as for sound and for music.


In this spirit, I have made several attempts over the last decades to influence how the Science Museum in London sounds. Science and technology museums have been in the vanguard of introducing new interpretive technologies into exhibition spaces, both as separate adjuncts to object displays – for example with film shows in lecture theatres – as well as  [standing alone?] in the midst of the galleries themselves (Nahum 2010:191). Tape-slide, videotape and videodisc technologies have, in the course of more than three decades, introduced not only moving images, but sound as well into gallery spaces with the intention of supplying certain kinds of experience, context and knowledge that are difficult to supply by means of combinations of static objects, words and images. But most often it has not been the sonic qualities of these interventions that have been uppermost in the minds of curators and other exhibition makers. In the case of Health Matters, the Museum’s 1994 portrait of 20th century medicine, by contrast, the archive film sequences that accompanied each of the eight major medical technologies that were featured were selected with an ear to the soundtrack as much as with an eye to what the films showed. To take one example: newsreel, because it was originally designed to keep semi-reluctant audiences interested, employed not only rapid editing but also often facetious commentaries and upbeat library music. These conventions are recognisably different from the BBC TV programme Tomorrow’s World item and the Czechoslovak documentary on cardiac surgery that also feature in the exhibition; newsreels carry an aural cargo that carries many complex associations – including historical era and social historical meanings – in addition to their ostensible subjects. In using these, the intention was that there would be plenty to stimulate the unconscious contribution of the visitor’s ear, as much as their conscious eye, to their museum experience (Boon 2004). Rather differently, the 2003 temporary exhibition Treat Yourself provided the opportunity to introduce sound at a more ambient level, in the form of a musical installation. The show’s title was a word play that alluded both to self-treatment in the medical sense and to pampering and pleasure. The proposition made to Brian Eno, as a potential contributor, was to imagine a fictitious sonic therapy and to make an installation that embodied it. 

Lydian Bells, the work that resulted, combined his interests in modal music and the sonorities of bells – also to be heard on his January 07003 Bell Studies. “Lydian Bells” used 12 CD players, each playing a specially-cut CD that provided a single layer within the whole piece of music. The CDs had varying numbers of tracks, some of which were silent, and each player was set to play these tracks of bell notes in the Lydian scale in random order. The result was a piece of, effectively, infinite duration. There have been several theories of the associations and affects of the different modes; mediaeval theorists thought of the Lydian mode as feminine, calming, and refreshing. Within the exhibition space the installation acted as a kind of calming aural perfume (Wellcome Trust 2003). Many museums are now experimenting with sonic art installations and soundscapes, and we can be optimistic about a developing field of influence for this kind of work. Many of the arguments of this essay would also apply to those other works.


Building on this successful collaboration, Eno’s work again featured in the Museum six years later, when we set about producing live performances of his recording Apollo to mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landings in July 2009. Here I focus on two sides of a pun: “instrumental music” in the sense of music with a function to provide experiences both within a film and within museum spaces and “instrumental music” in the sense of music without words. Doubtless, live performance has a different kind of affect as compared to more permanent sonic installations based on recorded sound, but for the audience member, both ways of adding sound to the museum experience share features that arise from their very aurality.


The Science Museum’s Energy Hall. © Science Museum / SSPL

“Instrumental Music”


The genesis of the live performances of Apollo owes much to another memorialization of ordinary lives bound up in superpower conflicts. On Remembrance Sunday 2008, the Science Museum held a short service to inaugurate a new war memorial to honour those in the service of the Museum who had lost their lives during the World Wars.


The Last Post

The bugle call of The Last Post rang through the Energy Hall of the Museum with an extraordinary and poetic potency, as if it were a requiem for the dead and scarred of the industrial revolution, who are memorialized in that gallery, as much as for the war dead. I wondered what other musical performances might be similarly fitting within a science and technology museum as the bugle call of a war memorial had been. What music could complement and bring out the drama of the objects we show and the stories we tell? At that point, the Museum’s centenary celebrations were in the planning stage; we already had a list of scientific and technological anniversaries that took place in the year 2009, with the 1969 moon landing at the top. It was, to coin a phrase, a small step to imagine performing Apollo in the company of Apollo 10, but a giant leap for the Science Museum to hold its first ever paying concert.


Al Reinert had conceived of his film For All Mankind (1989) as a montage of the most eloquent footage of the Apollo missions from NASA’s archive, accompanied by the music composed by Brian Eno, Roger Eno, and Daniel Lanois. This music was released on LP as Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks six years before the film, in 1983. Eno noted in the sleeve notes that “all the film [Reinert] has used is from NASA Archives, and the only voices heard are those of the astronauts reflecting on their journey or talking with mission control” (Eno 1983). The widely available DVD of the film departs markedly from the original purity of this idea, tending towards a commentary and voice-dominated work. For the concerts, we planned to realize the original intention to reunite an edit of the footage, omitting the wordy soundtrack of the released film, accompanied by a live performance of the music. In the process, we would revert from telling to showing the Apollo story.

The Apollo 10 capsule in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. © Science Museum / SSPL

The initial idea was to make a site-specific work to be played alongside the Apollo 10 space capsule – which had been the vehicle for the “dress rehearsal” in May 1969 for the landing two months later – displayed in the Museum’s Making the Modern World Gallery (MMW). Along the way it became clear that the gallery was an impractical concert venue, and, in the end, the performance occurred within the Museum’s IMAX theatre. By collaborating with the new music producer Ed McKeon, who was then working for the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM), we turned an idea into a concert. There is, of course, a small cottage industry of instrumental renditions of purely, or mainly, electronic music; Eno’s Music for Airports had, for example, been recorded by Bang on a Can in 1998, and Robert Fripp’s soundscapes have similarly been scored for orchestra by Andrew Keeling (Kelman 2012). We needed someone to produce the arrangements from Apollo, pieces created in the studio that had never previously had a written score. McKeon provided the shortlist of young composers on the books of SPNM, from which Eno selected the South Korean composer Wujun Lee (For Lee, see Cooper 2008). He also suggested that the contemporary music band Icebreaker, better known for playing the noisy minimalism of Louis Andriessen and Michael Gordon, would be up for performing the pieces. The highly regarded BJ Cole would take on the mantle of Daniel Lanois on the pedal steel guitar.

Playbill for the Science Museum performances of Apollo   

Music with a function


For the film, the music offers the viewer a layer of sound, sonic affect, that can be expected to influence the audience member’s experience of the edited footage: from the mystery and danger of space; to the “endless frontier” depicted by the Country-Music inflections of pedal steel guitar; and the narrative closure suggested by the soaring melody of An Ending: Ascent. Eno explicitly stated this functional approach; he said:

I don't see this as an adventure film, and I have not written adventure music. What this film can do is present a set of moods, a unique mix of feelings that quite possibly no human has experienced before, thus expanding the vocabulary of human feeling just as those missions had expanded the boundaries of our universe. I hope this music will assist in that. (Eno 1983)

In the Science Museum, the performances of this originally electronic score served other intended functions. By creating a site-specific event, we aimed to celebrate the anniversary and event of the moon landing as well as to suggest certain complex cultural narratives about historical and technological change which are most often absent from displays – forming a Shannon-esque “noise”, deliberately not presented in the display of the Apollo capsule. The display conventions of MMW, in which the capsule is just one of 150 remarkable “iconic” objects, reveal a deliberately restrained interpretive pallet, with just 150 words, a copy of the “earthrise photograph” and a mute film in its support. One of the “noisy” narratives the music might suggest was explicitly intended by Eno, who noted:

I discovered that the astronauts were each allowed to take a cassette with them on those missions, and they nearly all took country and western songs. I thought it was a fabulous idea that people were out in space, playing this music which really belongs to another frontier – in a way, seeing themselves as cowboys. So the idea was to try and make a frontier space music of some kind. (Gill 1998)

The business of this essay is to suggest a way of thinking about music in museums and not to evaluate what proportion of visitors experienced specific associations in the context of the concerts under discussion here. As we are concerned with the deliberate introduction of ambiguous and complex factors into the museum context, such evaluations would offer little contribution. All the same, we can be confident that the two concerts at the Museum were successful on the grounds that they played to capacity audiences and received a five-star review in the Guardian (Walters 2009) as well as enjoying continuing popularity in concert halls even five years later. But there is more to say at the level of suggestion about the broader cultural location of this music that might contribute to the audience’s associations in its presence.


Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Roger Eno: Matta, from Apollo

Electronics and the depiction of space

This evocation of complex cultural narratives about historical and technological change that we chose to introduce into the Museum with the concerts inevitably relies on the specific characteristics and conventions of the chosen music. The first aspect to note is that Apollo is the work of an artist firmly identified as working in electronic music. It is relevant to this discussion that in the same period that we were developing the concert, electronic music was one candidate theme for a major new gallery: the impact of electricity and electronics on society was selected as a valuable exemplar of the interaction of technology and culture. In other words, not just space technology, but also the devices and history of electronic music – which have since been explored in the museum’s temporary exhibition Oramics to Electronica – are important themes for us. At the concert, in addressing both together, we gestured toward the existing interplay between space exploration and the conventions of its aural representation.


There is no evidence that with Apollo Eno saw himself as composing a member of the genre “space music”, any more than he aligns his work with “New Age”. Eno’s term is “ambient music”, a category that he has employed since 1978:

An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations … . Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. (Eno 2004)

“Space music”, by contrast, is a listener’s category describing “music that evokes a feeling of contemplative spaciousness” (Wikipedia 2013). That feeling may be a side effect of much music, but it is not, with Apollo, an authorial intention.


Brian Eno: The Lost Day, from On Land

For Apollo, Eno and his collaborators depicted space by developing the sonic language of place previously heard on his On Land released in the previous year, 1982. Apollo shares some of the qualities of that record, notably the “organic” drone textures produced by slowing recordings and elaborate studio manipulations. Interviewed about On Land, Eno argued that

One of the big freedoms of music had been that it didn't have to relate to anything – nobody listened to a piece of music and said, “What's that supposed to be, then?”, the way they would if they were looking at an abstract painting; music was accepted as abstract. I wanted to try and make music which attempted to be figurative, for example by using lots of real noises. So on On Land, a lot of the sounds don't come from instruments but stones, chains and wood, all sorts of things which make the complex noises that real things make – because most instruments make extremely focused noises. (Gill 1998)

He noted of Apollo that with “so many processings and reprocessings – it's a bit like making soup from the leftovers of the day before, which in turn was made from leftovers” (Prendergast 1989).


And, in speaking of the representation of space, he has said:

I started to think in terms of very big interstellar spaces. There’s no sound in space, but we always imagined that there would be enormous long echoes. And it just so happened that around that time technology had reached the point where you could make enormously long echoes. So the sound of space in everything you hear now involves enormously long echoes. (Eno 2009)

In this, we may note that the spatial assumptions of composers may project distinctly earthly acoustics onto outer space. But the aural quality was produced by the new technology of digital delay lines acquired by recording studios from 1971, when the Lexicon/Gotham Delta T-101 Digital Delay was introduced. Referring to the cassettes taken by the astronauts on the missions, he stated:

I had this idea of “zero gravity Country Music”. It was the idea of taking all the terms and conventions of Country Music and stretching them to galactic distances so that every echo became incredibly long and the notes became very long and big; the rhythms were slow and heavy and dark. (Eno 2009)

Eduard Artemiev: M6 from Solaris

It would be misleading to suggest that Apollo is entirely sui generis, as it evidently has much in common with other aspects of the sonic representation of space. Apollo is part of a tradition of science fictional representation of space using various kinds of electronic drones; another distinguished example is Eduard Artemiev’s score for Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, realized using the Russian ANS synthesizer (Smirnov 2011: 226-234). Tarkovsky favoured the use of electronic sound because “electronic music has exactly that capacity for being absorbed into the sound. It can be hidden behind other noises and remain indistinct; like the voice of nature, of vague intimations … . It can be like somebody breathing” (Tarkovsky 1989: 163). We may note at this point that his version of Solaris, unlike Stanislaw Lem’s source story, is more about inner than outer space. Artemiev’s score may in turn be placed in comparison to the microtonal choral cluster chords of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna used in Kubrick’s 2001. Once again, it is also worth alluding to the associations that both performers and listeners made between “spacey” subjects and the kinds of music enabled by the new electronic instruments and recording techniques, including, for example, Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon from 1967, realized using Don Buchla’s voltage controlled synthesizer design (Pinch and Trocco 2009: 142-4).


Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Roger Eno: An Ending (Ascent) II, from Icebreaker’s recording of Apollo


In Conclusion 

This paper traces an orbit from the status of sounds in the Science Museum, via several brief examples, before settling on a specific piece of music used functionally within the Museum and touching upon that music’s sonic language and correlates; as we return to the start of our orbit, we can also return to our initial space of the role of sound and of music in museums. My proposition is that, in terms of the kinds of communication that occur in museums, we can consider music to be a class of noise, not in the “nuisance” sense, but in the Shannon-esque sense of inadvertent information that conventionally might seem to confound the precise clarity of the science communication that some hope will occur in these institutions. The dominant fashion in exhibition design in science museums over the last 20 years has been towards simplification and reduction in content, with the aim that everything should be comprehensible to all. It is open to debate whether this approach is based on reliable assumptions about how real visitors really interact with museum displays. There are very good reasons to doubt whether the model of narrow, explicit, “noiseless” communication applies to museums. One way of understanding the behaviour of the consumers of museum experiences, also coming back to the start of our orbit, is consonant with Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life, where he illuminates the ways that cultural consumption might occur, not on the terms of the author of a cultural product – in this case the staff of a museum gallery – but on the terms of the consumer (Boon 2011). For De Certeau, the consumer is like a poacher on someone else’s land, who steals the rabbit they want. In my reading, the museum visitor takes what they need from the display, and that may be in the “noise” just as often as in the signal. For example, it may be the personal association of a slightly familiar object that resonates for the visitor more than the meaning specified in a label. The mass of footsteps that I quoted as my prelude is de Certeau’s evocation of the invisibility of such individual choices and perceptions amongst the consumers of urban space, the walkers in the city. The responsibility of the exhibition maker within this model is not to seek to constrain the available meanings attached to objects, but to open up rich territories of allusion within which many visitors can “poach” many different “rabbits”. The introduction of music is one of the means by which this might be achieved


The rich allusive territory of music in museums is all in the “noise”; it teaches the visitor nothing, but opens up inexplicit territories of meaning to them. Music, I want to argue, has a potential power within museums of science because, at its strongest, it sits only in metaphorical relation to the museum objects encountered in its company and to the subject narratives that curators weave them into. Music is far distant from the technical label from which our forebears hoped cognitive gain would result in the minds of visitors. “Zero gravity Country Music” is in the “noise”, rendering the museum experience more engaging in a way that cannot be explicitly expressed.



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