The Matter of Space

Kerry Hagan


Roger Reynolds has the patience of a saint.

I was a headstrong and naive student who had very willful convictions about her ideas. At times, I’m sure I could have been called adversarial. At the very least, I was contentious in composition lessons. But, it was by asserting my ideas and having them turned on their head that I learned best. Roger seemed to get this. He never lost patience with me. He never gave up on me. He always gave me his full time and attention without exasperation or impatience. Well, as far as I could tell, anyway.

One particular issue that kept arising in my earlier works was the notion of space. Roger would always tell me that my ideas needed more space. It stays with me. In fact, whenever I hear Roger’s voice in my head today, it’s always telling me I need more space for something.

In one particular work, t.R.,m.f.a.c-c., for cello solo, I can mark when I first heard his voice prominently and consistently telling me that each note, phrase, gesture needed more space. The piece takes the single bowing of a note as both a physical and musical gesture, deconstructs it into its constituent parts, de-correlates the gesture, then magnifies it musically so that it grows from note, to phrase, to harmonic sphere, returning to long, single notes. For this journey, each subtle change of bowing or pitch needed to have the space to be heard, to establish itself in the piece.

When I took the first pages to Roger, I slapped them proudly on his desk, and announced, “I know exactly what you’re going to say. You’re going to say this needs more space. But, I’ve thought about that with every note, and it’s exactly as I want it.”

I’m not sure what I expected in response. I was certainly used to his calm, well-reasoned and entirely justified contradictions to my declarations. But this time, a shadow passed over his face, and he didn’t say a word.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Do you disagree?”

“No, it’s not that,” he replied. “Only, I’ve become predictable.”

I, of course, countered him. “No. It’s not you. It’s me who’s predictable.”


So what is this metaphorical ‘space’?

We all seem to intuitively know what we mean when we talk about the space in a piece: the space of an idea, the space in a sound, the environmental space a piece conjures – so many different applications of the same word to mean so many things.

There is, first, the straightforward environmental space – fairly uncontrollable by a composer, even in more adjustable electronic works. We rarely know what kind of room a piece is going to be performed in, despite our imagination at the time of composing. We can, certainly, choose some aspects of this, e.g., where performers stand, how many speakers for electronics, where the speakers are, etc., but we can’t control the room.

Then there is the space of individual sounds or events, created by timbre, musical gesture (movement, speed, envelope, etc.), contrapositioned background and foreground layers, among other things. Perhaps most importantly, the time of events, their duration, and the density of events beget the space of sounds or events.

And so, finally, the space of ideas arises from these characteristics. Does an idea have space? This question asks: does it have time? Does it have room (silence?) around it sufficiently to establish itself? Is the density of other events or ideas around it thin enough to play downstage of the star?

We all have thought about space at one point or another in our music. So many have tried to quantify what makes space in music. Though some musicians have made interesting conclusions about space, it really seems like we know nothing at all about it while still entirely understanding the metaphor.

So rather than attempting the futile task of quantifying–or even qualifying–musical space, I want to talk about space specifically in one work by Roger, Summer Island for oboe and tape, written in 1984. I am focusing on the one question: does an idea have space?


The solo oboe introduction of Summer Island catalogs both the melodic and gestural content of the work. The notable absence of the tape at the start draws the ear to focus on the details of the oboe part. The melodic content is best described by the performance instructions. The first phrase is “lilting,” the second phrase is “like a cry,” and the third phrase is “playful.” Though the audience cannot know these instructions, they reflect the audible distinctiveness of each phrase. I will refer to material that stems from these phrases by these performance instructions.

The opening phrases contain idiosyncratic gestures that repeat and develop throughout the work. “Lilting” plays legato and staccato pointy, fast contours connected with small glissando over a relatively long period of time. The space of this phrase is marked by the boundaries of small pitch change to large intervals, and fast, short durations to long sustained notes.

“Like a cry” introduces different types of trills, an integral part of the development of the piece. Microtonal trills, irregular trills, trills of larger leaps (which I will call tremolos), and multiphonic trills are connected by short, interruptive notes. Trills are fascinating when it comes to musical time, because they can act as a pivot. If we take for granted that in normative melodic practice, density of notes leads to the impression of motion and speed, which then leads to a kind of musical space, trills and repeated notes live in two realms. On the one hand, they are sustained, so they can slow the apparent passage of time. On the other hand, they are dense and motile, which can accelerate time in a different context. This becomes a crucial part in the passage of time and creation of space in Summer Island.

“Playful” jumps in large, staccato leaps broken by rests and marked by jagged dynamic changes, before trills and tremolos can usher in the tape part. So the catalog of ideas here are the three melodic ideas (lilting, like a cry, and playful) and several gestural ideas:

  • Jagged melodic contours
  • Small, long pitch bends
  • Trills of various depths and regularity
  • Broken, staccato leaps

In the development of these gestures, further examples emerge. I will discuss them later, but they are:

  • Revolving gesture
  • Unison encounter
  • Reiterative articulations

In the beginning, a silence separates each of the three initial phrases. These silences pass relatively unnoticed except to mark a change in material. A later silence functions similarly yet much more profoundly, but I will discuss this below.

The tape part is relegated to a supporting yet vital role to the space of the work. It has two main functions. First, the majority of the tape part is long, sustained pitches. These unwavering, constant tones create a horizon in a landscape against which the oboe’s proximity to us can be measured. Secondly, the tape occasionally recalls the important gestures of the oboe part through highly processed, imitative remembrances that occur only at key moments. These echoes change the tape part’s distance to us. The layers of foreground and background lead to impressions of proximal and distal spaces.

Since the oboe and the tape play complementary roles, I will start by looking at where they play alone. Then, I will focus on where the materials of the parts oppose each other in space and style. Finally, I will examine where they congruently match together, even meet at points, elevating the tape into a duet role. By following the different characteristics and density of the parts, the overall space of the piece, or form, emerges.

The score itself does not have regular measures or measure numbers. However, despite the oboe introduction and coda, the rest of the piece is marked in the minutes and seconds of the tape part. I will refer to points in the score by the indicated time in the tape.

It is important to note that the timing of events is more ambiguous than suggested by the seconds marked in the score. Reynolds specifies:

The treatment of time here varies in two ways. In segments which are measured (with tempo markings), the rhythm is to be performed traditionally. In other sections a time-space proportional notation is used…

Coordination between the oboe and tape is not, in general, critical. The relative placing of events in time, however, should be observed. The oboist can distort rhythmic relationships, if necessary, to wait for a tape event, or to close a passage that has fallen behind. Overlappings indicated, for example at the 46th second, must always be observed.1

The oboe part is marked at the start as ca. 60 mm. Despite the “circa 60” marking, where the oboe is played in tempo, the meter matches precisely the second markings of the tape. The score is precisely notated in seconds in senza tempo passages, even if the performer chooses to adjust. This does give rise to some interpretive issues that could result in slightly different spaces for the material. This analysis is based on the recording by Jacqueline Leclair on Roger Reynolds: The Paris Pieces.1 Leclair performs the piece quite closely to the score.


Already noted is the opening oboe solo and its role in establishing the kernels of materials throughout the piece. Likewise, the introduction of the tape part overlaps slightly with the last pitch of the oboe introduction. However, it is then given seven seconds to sustain a single pitch clearly. This settles the horizon, providing time to hear the pitch and timbre of that horizon, and then attenuating its primacy.

Shortly later, the oboe and tape alternate again. At 34 seconds, the oboe plays material similar to “lilting” and “cry,” given a solo role to demonstrate how these materials can be combined. The oboe then makes room for the tape at 46 seconds to re-establish a horizon at a new pitch.

The first time the tape imitates the oboe, it has a long pitch bend, briefly moving the tape forward in perspective. The oboe rests from 1:23 to 1:31 to allow space for this gesture. The oboe articulates a single, short note in the middle of the bend, ensuring that the tape part does not intrude completely in the foreground.

The tape fades away at 1:42-1:49 to allow the oboe to interrupt with “playful” material. Though there is a section earlier that suggests the passage, this is the first time that “playful” returns in a distinctive phrase.

At 2:43-3:19, the oboe has an extended solo. Aspects of “playful” and “like a cry” appear here. Although certain elements are foreshadowed with the tape earlier, this solo allows for these elements to be developed without distraction. The most important element here is the one I call the revolving gesture. The oboe plays a long passage of notes that revolve around a center pitch. This is connected to “like a cry” in an earlier point, which I will discuss more clearly when I talk about the oboe and tape in opposing roles.

Immediately following this is a six-second period of silence. It is the only point in the score where neither part is playing. Silence is, perhaps, the blunt object in the toolbox of musical space. It impacts form and permits extreme changes in the work. In this case, it connects a remarkably dense oboe solo to a very slow, sustained passage duet that lasts for nearly a whole minute. So the silence has several functions. It changes the density and motion of the work. It changes the orchestration of the work (from oboe solo to tape and oboe duet). And, it pins a pivotal formal moment.

After a fairly dense passage where the tape part approaches the foreground, there is a moment where the tape becomes the horizon again, with a solo from 4:49-4:56.

Up to this point, the solo passages gave space for the playing part to present new or newly developed material. The space suggests the importance of the moment in the piece. There is a wonderful moment, though, at 5:39, where the tape solo serves two functions. A few seconds earlier, the tape imitates the multiphonic trills of the oboe. It is somewhat occluded by a forceful oboe part. The oboe then drops out for six seconds, conceivably to allow space for the tape’s complex material. However, the oboe enters on a sustained C-sharp at the same time as the tape part. It is the first time the oboe and tape clearly play the same pitch, a unison encounter. I will discuss the importance of this later, but it is worthwhile noting that the oboe gives space for this moment in its rest before.

Like the revolving gesture, a repeated note as reiterative articulations is developed in the oboe earlier in the piece, and I will discuss this later. However, at 7:17-7:50, the tape is foregrounded to develop this gesture as something both new and imitative.

The tape ends at 9:27. The oboe continues in a solo coda that is a beautifully developed integration of “lilting,” “cry,” and “playful.”

So, it can be seen that each of these isolated moments of oboe and tape are spacious arenas where new material is introduced or, when it is introduced in subtle ways earlier, developed material is exposed for more careful consideration. These solos can also provide space for changing density or ideas in the form of the work.

Opposing parts

By discussing solos first, I have marked where parts have their distinct space clearly defined for different purposes. However, it is still possible for concurrent materials to carve out their own territories. Musical space can be characterized as having depth, generally induced by clear foreground and background layers. This can be quite hard to achieve with solo material, but is easily generated by opposing materials in different layers. As layers with different distances to the listener, the two parts maintain their independent yet complementary spaces.

As a horizon, the majority of the tape part that plays with the oboe is background material. This allows for development of material that may not need the privilege of a solo (or maybe gets it later, fully formed). In this section, I will note where this happens.

At 23 seconds, we find that the single interruptive notes between multiphonic trills first introduced in “like a cry” are replaced with what I called a revolving gesture. This is the first time the revolving gesture appears, and it is dependent on and integrated with previous material. This stands against the single, sustained horizon in the tape. At this point, the revolving gesture does not have independent status, which comes later (mentioned earlier) in an oboe solo. The tape stands firmly in the background.

“Playful” makes an appearance, slowed down and spaced, at 1:07, again with the tape sustaining a single pitch. This occurs immediately before the tape has its solo pitch bend. Immediately following, the oboe returns to “playful” as the tape’s momentary foreground disappears. We clearly see here where a background layer moves forward, and the foreground momentarily stands aside, creating an exchange of spaces.

Once the tape has presented its pitch bend, it can exist as background. With care, duplicated gestures can yield attention, providing space for other parts. At 2:35, we hear the pitch bend in the tape part as a middle ground, while the sustained pitch continues in the horizon and the oboe plays “lilting” material. The oboist is even given an optional fermata to ensure that its material lines up and, perhaps, prevent the pitch bend from being as important as its previous announcement.

Another point where the tape moves forward occurs at 5:33; this is where the multiphonic trills in the tape begin. As mentioned before, it is isolated later, but the tape vies for the foreground at first. This clash of space is as important as making space. I do not consider this a duet, though, since the oboe part is not playing with the tape, rather playing against it.

“Lilting” gets slowed down, as “playful” did. At 5:57, the tape resides firmly at the horizon while the oboe plays a slower, smoothed version of “lilting.” Eventually, this material gets marked “lyrically” at 6:10, completing the transformation of the material into something new. The tape remains in the background until 7:17. In this passage, ideas from the introduction have room to develop, expand, and interconnect while the tape ensures depth to the section. This leads to another aspect of space: the linear nature and shifting density of the oboe engender a rate of change that suggests a pace, and therefore, a musical time. Meanwhile, the tape is static, existing outside of time. In this way, these two parts are further separated in their musical spaces.

From 7:53 to 8:49, these separate musical times/spaces further bifurcate. The oboe’s material becomes faster, denser, and more frenetic. At 8:49, the oboe thins out only slightly to allow for a pitch bend in the tape to be announced one, final time. Then it returns to its furiously paced material to the end, while the tape fades away at 9:24-9:27.


Since the tape fundamentally plays a background role, the points where it meets or shares space with the oboe are rather striking. These points have significant and meaningful formal implications. I refer to these points as duets, signifying the equivalent roles both play at the given moments.

After the tape is first introduced, the oboe and tape share similar material, primarily sustained notes. The sustained pitches in the oboe form important intervallic relationships with the tape part. These relationships, however, remain for another analysis. Instead, the similarity in the material blends the initial presentation of the reiterative articulations. At 10 seconds, the oboe part fades away at E, repeated as quickly as possible. This E introduces the reiterative articulations, but is not apparently important until later passages described above.

Again, the oboe meets the tape through sustained pitches at 1:49. These passages with long tones serve to contrast the dense materials in the oboe mentioned above. The alternating materials at the formal level (as opposed to the gestural content or even phrases) serves to set the space of the piece, from a long and settled line to dense and frantic passages. When the oboe meets the horizon, it does not, in fact, shrink the musical space. Rather it enlarges it by traversing the depth of the space.

Likewise, when the tape becomes dense and frenetic to meet the oboe, the musical space is shaped similarly. At 2:05, the tape imitates the trilled and staccato passages of oboe in the opening. This matches the staccato part in the oboe, reminiscent of “playful.” The horizon still plays, only the tape now includes foreground material that is not exposed but integrated with the foreground oboe. This is the second time the tape plays (through a different lens) oboe material. The first was the pitch bend at 1:23. However, the trills in the tape are the first time where the tape and oboe are blended through similar materials.

This is especially true after the profound, six-second silence at 3:19. I mentioned earlier that this silence marked a drastic change in material and a formal pivot. Now, the six-second silence can be addressed with regards to the change in parts. Preceding the silence is an extended oboe solo. At 3:25, both tape and oboe enter together with sustained notes. Occasionally, the oboe starts sustained notes with some fast gestures, but they are fleeting. The oboe also has pitch bends and trills. In other circumstances, this would push the oboe material forward. However, the tape performs a gradual crescendo until the instruction “tape level very strong, oboe just audible.” The result is that the horizon overcomes the foreground. This is a very different experience than the tape taking on foreground characteristics. It only happens this one time, and it follows directly after silence. Despite the relative simplicity of the oboe and tape materials, this has a profound formal impact.

Immediately following this change in material, the tape part suddenly plays reiterative articulations and tremolo gestures taken from the oboe at 4:19. This is the second time the tape and oboe blend through shared material. During this passage, the oboe anneals the reiterative articulation gesture, and the tape part reflects it. Around 4:35, a subtle percussive sound, like struck strings, appears. This later becomes a more obvious bass drum sound when the material thins at 4:49. This is a third voice, not heard before or after, that appears hidden by surrounding material but emerges when the other parts thin. By tracing a different timbral area, these percussive sounds circumscribe the essential timbre space of the work.

The tape and oboe vie for foreground starting at 5:43. It was noted before that this is where the tape performs characteristic multiphonic trills, conspicuous in the oboe part throughout. Noted more importantly that at 5:45 the oboe and tape both sustain a C-sharp, a unison encounter. This marks approximately halfway through the piece. At 6:41, despite the contrasting materials in the oboe and tape parts around this moment, the oboe stops quietly again on the C-sharp. This connects the oboe, briefly, to the horizon. Since this has happened before, a new space has to be created to make it as effective. In this second connection, the oboe slowly bends the C-sharp to D and back before continuing on in its contrasting dense material.

Though the tape solo at 7:17 has been mentioned with regard to the reiterative articulations and tremolo gesture, the oboe entrance at 7:50 must be noted. The entrance overlaps with the end of the tape’s gesture, while the C-sharp remains sustained throughout. The oboe is playing fast microtonal trills that slow to microtonal inflections. Irregular trills continue on rather long notes that occasionally get interrupted by short notes. The connection here is one mentioned before: trills serve to be the pivot between dense, fast material and slow, sustained material. Despite the immediate contrast between the tape and oboe, they still remain connected in importance. This is further buttressed when the oboe matches at the C-sharp again at 8:02. This time, the unison encounter has a microtonal trill. Like the pitch bend before, this microtonal trill serves to make the foreground and background connect, but in a new space that remains fresh and important.

The tape persists in the background for the remainder of the piece, except where it moves slightly in its farewell. At 8:50, the oboe part thins a little to allow for a final pitch bend in the tape.

At 9:18, the oboe connects one last time to the horizon with a matching C-sharp, this time combining the unison encounter with reiterative articulations.

The duets, then, are not only when the tape part ascends to foreground status, which is the most obvious method of matching material. But, more subtly, the duets occur when the oboe retreats into the background at points, as well. These duets show the depth of the musical landscape in a process contradistinctive to when the parts are drastically contrasting.


The analysis so far has looked at the connections between tape and oboe under three headings: solos, opposing parts, and duets. This analysis demonstrated how the space of each idea was created between the parts. To see the overall shape of the piece and the space it inhabits, one must take a step back from this second-by-second description and look at larger markers. These markers include the six-second silence mentioned above, the parts where the oboe and tape connect at the horizon, and how the relative density and sparsity of parts and passages affects the time, hence the space, of each section.

In the figure below, the importance of the unison encounters becomes apparent, as they fairly regularly mark the last half of the work. Regular points in time have the effect of stabilizing time, making the movement to the end more concrete. The six seconds of silence, besides preparing for a shift in material, also divides the first half of the piece (from the beginning to the first shared C-sharp).

The bass drum that marks time in the tape part is a clear moment where the tape impacts the passage of time. It is a signpost as the piece approaches its halfway mark.

The tape and oboe duets appear regularly through the first half of the work but part ways in the second half. When the parts play together, there is a kind of coalescence of material, somewhat more stable at the start but more volatile in the second half.

Finally, if we take at broad strokes that denser material pushes time forward, sparser material slows it down, then we can see how the oboe part is pushing and pulling the form of the work (indicated by thicker and thinner lines). Where the tape moves forward, it is using the pivot material (repeated notes and trills/tremolos) to be both dense and static, so it is perceived as being dense or thin depending on the context created by the oboe part. We can see how the extended trills in the oboe part after 7:17 serve to move the piece from stasis to motion.

Therefore, the form illustrates the consistent use of musical space to change the pacing of the work, creating interest in the shifting passage of time. The key points in form (denoted with bold font in the figure) take different shapes (duets, silence, new material in the tape, matched pitches), but the points are scattered steadily throughout.

The form of the work creates a fluctuating shape that is quite perceivable, which then leads to the overall space of the work. It does not attempt to push formal boundaries in any way, or even play too dramatically with the perception of the formal space, but it demonstrates solid, skillful craft.


It is clear that each melodic and gestural idea in The Summer Island has room to establish itself, has room to develop and change, and eventually creates the space of the work. The tape, though subservient to the oboe, plays a fundamental role in establishing a musical space as background, as well as imbedding permanence in specific musical ideas through its processed echoes of gestures. The shared and exclusive spaces of tape and oboe construct formal markers that then change the time, and incidentally the formal space, of the piece. Whether planned or intuitively implemented, Roger incontrovertibly mastered musical space. Composing space into an idea also requires patience with one’s process, the patience of a saint.