4. Space, Gesture, and Atmosphere


Radigue’s music might be said to achieve a heightened sense of spatiality precisely because it does not rely on the representation of sound source locations. “Kailasha” creates an impression of space that is not so much filled with sounds but that is composed of sound. The awareness of physical space arises in conjunction with the perception of the musical sounds in the activity of listening. By considering listening as an embodied activity, this simultaneous appearance of space and sound makes sense. An awareness of space can only arise with respect to possibilities for bodily motion – and if music can solicit our attention, and we then take up the affordances it offers, then music can shape our spatial experiences. 


Composer, work, listening subject, and analytical object: Radigue’s music forces us to consider each of these by foregrounding our movement through the spaces we inhabit alongside the music. Although we readily admit that there is always an interaction between ourselves and the things we study, we consistently assume that there is nothing that keeps us from stepping back out of the equation, factoring out the subjective to leave the objective. But insisting upon the separation between objective music and subjective listener, however much they intermingle, frustrates an account of how music can inspire action and generate meaning. 


According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the inexhaustibility of the meaning of the work of art lies in its deployment of a mutually-inhabited world where there are always new perspectives to be taken and where these new perspectives, in turn, give us yet another new world “to express and think about that envelops and exceeds those perspectives” (Merleau-Ponty 1993: 89). Discussing the aesthetic significance of a line drawn on a piece of paper, Merleau-Ponty writes that the viewer is invited to “take up the gesture which created it” (1993: 88). While he makes this claim in the context of an inquiry into interpretation of abstract or expressionist art, it applies well to the non-representational aspect of music. Such “taking up” does not suggest mere repetition or reenactment of a gesture, but an engagement with it, as in a game (to borrow from Gadamer’s model of the structure of aesthetic experience) where one gesture is responded to by another’s gesture, co-creating the interaction that is the game.[14] This is why a communicative model for the emergence of meaning, whether affective or narrative, is not always appropriate for music. The fact that different listeners understand different things, and that meanings can disclose themselves over time, means that understanding involves more than simply the recognition and identification of musical gestures. Instead, the complementary, corporeal engagement that such musical gestures solicit from us affects our manner of inhabiting a world with depth, providing us with new possibilities and, as a result, new meanings.


The effects of Radigue’s music also illustrate Gernot Böhme’s concept of atmosphere. For Böhme, atmosphere is “the relation between environmental qualities and human states” (Böhme  2017: 12). With respect to this intermediary status, he writes, “atmosphere is the common reality of the perceiver and the perceived. It is the reality of the perceived as the sphere of its presence and the reality of the perceiver, insofar as in sensing the atmosphere s/he is bodily present in a certain way”(Böhme 1993: 122).


As an example of this relation between perceiver, atmosphere, and space, consider the following scenario. If I and a companion stand at one end of a long, high, dim, gothic cathedral and gaze back toward the nave, we may sense a large space surrounding us. If I then proceed to light a candle and to hold it between us, the space we sense is no longer vast, but close and intimate: the space is modulated by the candlelight, whose illumination does not reach very far beyond our own peripersonal space. Our space of action is now circumscribed, and we can say that the atmosphere created by lighting the candle is largely responsible for our sense of a small space – in spite of our knowledge of the dimensions of the cathedral in which we are standing.[15] There is nothing metaphorical here, nor is this an optical illusion of some sort. We sense the space in which we are immediately engaged as an intimate one.[16] The candle modulates the space, to use psychologist Christoph Michels’ term, which in turn affects the atmosphere in which we are situated (Michels 2015). This modulation shapes our perception by guiding our attention and making us aware of particular characteristics of our surroundings. Radigue’s music has a similar ability to modulate space and provides a ready example of music’s atmospheric qualities.


Böhme proposes atmosphere as a way to understand how an object and a subject relate to one another when they are copresent in an environment. The aesthetic vocabulary Böhme uses corresponds to Marratto’s prioritizing of the notion of “compossibility” in his theory of consciousness. For Marratto, it is only through the presentation of “incompossible” spaces (a term adopted from Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible) that the work of perceiving and understanding is accomplished. For example, the different experiential arenas opened up by the different sense organs (say the feel of an object and the visual perception of the hand that touches it) together seem to solicit their resolution into a common space. Depth, in the embodied account of Merleau-Ponty, is both an awareness of and an openness to other perspectives, while simultaneously – according to Marratto – an “irrecusable demand” for a decision: “for some structuration of the field in order that some determinate being might be able to appear” (Marratto 2012: 65). Or, put another way, as Radigue herself remarks: “in order to avoid being annoyed by any type of sound, you just have to make some music out of it through your ears, through the way of listening” (Dax 2012). Marratto describes this structuring coming about as a result of an embodied sense of “I can” – a meaning predicated on an awareness of what one’s body is able to do in any given situation.


The phenomenon of space, and, in particular, depth, must be understood in terms of the bodily ‘I can,’ as the arena of an organism’s possibilities for acting: the space of affordances. [...] Space as it is rooted in the spatiality of one’s own situated body. (Marratto 2012: 43)


This “I can” serves as the underlying ground to our perceptions. It is a ground we always possess and that always imposes its own schema onto our surroundings. It stands to reason, then, that our space is indeed transfigured when confronted with the incompossible, for the incompossible introduces an imbalance into our view of the environment and calls for a reestablishment of equilibrium. The adjustments in posture and gait that are taken in pursuit of equilibrium is a type of active movement solicited by the music.[17] Radigue’s deployment of sounds that behave as if they are discreet entities, deployed throughout the listening space, discovered serendipitously, and made musical through intentional gestures, can make listeners aware of how this process works. And not just Radigue’s music, or electronic music, but any music: through guiding the direction of our movements – such as tilting the head, tapping a foot, swaying or dancing – music proffers new perspectives and relationships, alerting us to the possibilities of different ways of being in the world, different modes of behavior, and a renewal of our sense of self.


If we are to understand the unfamiliar as something other than imaginary, then we need to engage with it, to take up a perspective that will allow us to encompass what is strange and make it meaningful for ourselves. Musically, we do this through listening to the affordances a work offers and responding to the gestures it solicits. While listening to “Kailasha,” then, we are invited to take a perspective in which space is not empty, revealing possibilities for action we may not have imagined.