On Music and Architecture

On Music and Architecture

One thing that fascinates me as a composer, is how the setting and cultural contexts I am writing for affects the way I write. There are many filters and layers of translation between a composer and their eventual audience; beginning with the notation, to the performer, from the performer to their interpretation, and then that last layer, perhaps, is the context and setting in which the work is presented to a listener.

It is this final step of the process that I have been focusing on recently: the architecture in which you hear a piece, how you feel when you walk into the room, and how that can ‘set’ the piece. This focus, which ties in with contemporary narratives of hearing verses listening, looks at how one can play with, and create, the role of an active listener, as opposed to a passive listener (whatever that means).

This manifests as a collaborative project with two architects, in which we hope to create one of those ‘third-point’ meeting places that is so often discussed within settings of translation and collaboration. Part of my current artistic residency with Aldeburgh Music, this project is a new artwork in which the architecture is the muse for the music, and the music is the muse for the architecture. Essentially, the musical side of the project is a six-part violin piece, with all of the parts played, and then recorded, by the same person. Each part is set for playback in a separate chamber, with a central, negative space chamber in which you can hear all of the parts as an ensemble. As you move into the different chambers you are able to hear an individual part as a soloist with an ensemble in the background, but the chambers are quite playful, and you can actually adjust the acoustic enclosure, and change it in various ways.

This project is two and a half years in, with another eighteen months until it is complete (one of the longest collaborations I have been a part of), a time frame which has allowed us to really develop and play with the translation between architecture and music. We talk about our art in very different languages, which was an initial obstacle to get over; you soon realise how easy it is as an architect to draw what you are talking about and show it to someone, compared to how, in some ways, difficult it is as a composer to get that across in the same way in the very early stages.

About a year before I originally intended to begin writing the piece, the architect said, “Well, you know, we have been showing you our sketches for the chambers”—which, by now, no longer resemble the design and reality of the piece—“but you know, we need to play with the different acoustics; we actually need a sample of your music, and since we have only got one violinist, can we just record thirty seconds of solo violin music which is going to be part of your piece?”. For me, this was quite scary, because normally I would not actually record and set down in stone a piece I was writing until I was towards the end of the process, having written, drafted, and worked it all through very carefully with the violinist. Instead, it was a case of showing up the next day, with a thirty-second sketch, and saying, “Yes, yes, we are recording this, and this is going to be the thing that you use for the next six months”.

This completely changed the process for me. At the time it was a case of, “I will write the sketch and it will not really mean anything, it is just something to use”, as it was very counterintuitive for me to start with what is, essentially, the essence of the piece for them to hear, rather than begin with the whole thing and give it to them. Possibly, to an extent, this ties into the idea of this relationship between style and content, because I had to completely throw that away. However, in the end, it became a very important juncture.

Later, we were working on a part of the project, and I ended up painting walls with them, whilst making them sing in various places, in order to get to that level of translation where we really understood each other. During that time we went to a Soviet Russian shop ruin, where we played the sketch and improvised around it. They were recording it in order to listen to it with various different levels of reflective surfaces, and various heights and size of room (so we could figure out how to make our chambers not sound like you were in a toilet cubicle!). The sketch ended up having these practical purposes, of just getting these very basic things across to them, for them. However, for me, it has completely transformed the piece. This simple melody, that I had originally so quickly sketched, had completely become the core of the piece, which is now actually half-written, and this melody remains at its centre.

So, that small fragment is certainly something I found in translation.

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