In this time of confinement, instrumental ensembles do their best to nullify distance to keep the bond with their audiences. Every day sees new musical performances, brought into being at the instrumentalist's homes. Amongst these, the Orchestre de Nice has revealed the secrets of their interpretation of Ravel's famous Bolero: “The snare drum part was recorded and sent to every musician. Then, with headphones on-head or earphones in-ear, each one added his own part over that rhythmic pulse. The musicians filmed and recorded themselves on their phones; the whole lot was assembled and edited by Patrice Gauchon.”

Looking at the video, you probably didn't miss the somewhat unusual placement of the instruments: bassoon and violin side by side, the French horn in the foreground. As for the conductor: he's somewhere towards the bottom on the right. But for from being isolated instances, orchestral lockdown videos all play on particularly atypical orchestral layouts. But in fact, could such a layout be used in a traditional concert? Let's have a look at weird and wonderful layouts through the ages.

Our investigation starts at the turn of the 17th century. At this time, choirmasters Adrien Willaert or Giovanni Gabrieli take advantage of the architecture of St Mark's Basilica in Venice to create an new compositional style known as Cori Spezzati, which translates as “scattered choirs”. The musicians are dispersed around the building's various galleries, given the audience a true stereophonic experience. Innovatively, this style of writing is characterised by melodies played alternately by the different groups, creating remarkable echo effects.

In the years that follow, the placement of orchestral instruments becomes gradually standardised. So the following schema becomes the norm: first violins on the left, second violins on the left, violas centre left, cellos centre right. Behind the strings are winds and percussion: horns, oboes, bassoons, timpani, trumpets, trombones. This layout is carefully thought through with the intention of keeping sonic levels in balance.

All this gets upset at the start of the 19th century with the birth of a major figure in acoustic transformation: Hector Berlioz. In his famous 1844 Treatise on Orchestration, Berlioz states that “here is the point to take note of the the importance of the various starting points of each sound. Some parts of an orchestra are designed by the composer to question each other and respond; and this intention can never be obvious and beautiful unless the instrumental groups between which such dialogue is established are sufficiently far away from each other. The composer must therefore indicate in his score the orchestral layout that he considers appropriate.” To create an effect of sound rotating around the audience, Berlioz isn't shy: in the Tuba mirum and the Lachrymosa of his Requiem, he places groups of brass instruments at all four corners of the hall.

But it's in the 20th century that spatial awareness becomes a tangible feature of modern music. At the heart of this preoccupation can be seen the reflections of the American composer Charles Ives. A devotee of meditation, Ives had conceived of a musical work where several instrumental ensembles would play together, each on the summit of a different hill. In 1908, in a more realistic frame of mind, he composes The Unanswered Question. The work consists of three independent groups of instruments (a string orchestra, a solo trumpet and a wind quartet), spread around the room in such a way that mo musician can see anyone in a group other than his own. Each ensemble plays in a tempo specific to it; the blocks of sound are layered on top of each other but not merged. If the strings are deaf to the dissonant questions asked by the trumpet, the quartet attempts to bring sonic responses that are effervescent, but they are also opaque. The whole thing creates a confident superposition of multi-coloured textures.

Ives is the pioneer who opens the path for the German Karlheinz Stockhausen, who attempts, in his 1958 Gruppen, to create spatialisation in music by the use of echo. The work employs three orchestras arrayed in a horseshoe around the audience, each led by its own separate conductor.

In 1966, Iannis Xenakis pushes spatial experiments even further: in Terretektorh, for 88 musicians distributed in the audience, the composer and architect, driven by the desire to represent sound in motion, fragments the orchestra by scattering it through the whole audience. From this fractured layout, the listener detects sound trajectories in circles and diagonals, brought into being by instrumental phrases being passed from one musician to another.

Given the level of technological progress, the 1980s seem to be a particularly creative period. In 1981, Pierre Boulez composes Répons, whose layout consists of 24 performers on a stage surrounded by the audience, who in turn are encircled by six soloists between whom loudspeakers have been placed. The idea comes from the mediaeval practice of call-and-response, in which a soloist would conduct a dialogue with a choir situated several metres away.

Composers aren't the only ones to try to reconstruct a historical acoustic. Many conductors are beginning to attempt non-standard orchestral layouts in the service of historically informed interpretations. That's the case for ensembles led by William Christie or François-Xavier Roth, who adopt layouts mentioned in documents of the period in the hope of recreating the acoustic conditions of the time of the work's composition. And before the historically informed practice movement came into being, some conductors had already permitted themselves to experiment, with varying degrees of success. Consider, for example, Leonard Stokowski, as related by Georges Liébert in his 1988 L'art du chef d'orchestre (“the art of the conductor”): “Obsessed by sound, Stokoski often made changes, especially in 1932 when he placed in the foreground, in front of him, from left to right, the whole of the woodwind, a layout that was rapidly abandoned in the face of protests from audiences, critics and musicians.”

Original layouts, as shown by orchestras in lockdown, are writing their own story in a book that is many centuries older. Whether driven by historical considerations or some particular aesthetic impulse, the “mastery of space” continues to attract the curiosity of today's conductors and composers. We can imagine many new sonic spaces in the future.

Translated from French by David Karlin