Whilst an intimacy between music and architecture can be observed in work now centuries old (see Pythagoras and his cosmic geometry (Carter, 1988)), historically the dialogue between the two was primarily unidirectional: architects responded to a particular piece, style, or idiom of music (eg. Frank Gehry's EMP Building in Seattle), and composers were inspired by specific buildings (eg. Guillaume Dufay's Nuper Rosarum Flores). Technological developments in the field of portable media have served to foster further this relationship, and though the connection between sound and space as precipitated by the use of an iPod for example is often arbitrary, over the past 50 years artists, composers, technologists, and indeed architects have begun to explore both sensory bi-products of the simultaneous experience of sound and space, as well as the controlled usage of each to affect the other.
Expanding on the work of early pioneers like Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xenakis, and taking inspiration from the work of contemporary sound-artists like Bill Fontana, I am designing a spatiotemporal experience for the listener, using site-specific sound and music to re-contextualise the existing architecture.
Using Chamberlain, Powell and Bon's Barbican Estate as a compositional and musical tool, I am creating an interactive listening experience, which will in turn fulfil an architectural role by altering the listeners' perception, experience, and use of the Barbican’s public ‘high-rise’ space. The completed work will exist in the form of an interactive mobile application.
By embracing the oft-criticised complexity of the high-rise layout as something playful and novel, and encouraging active exploration of it, I hope not only to increase usage of the Barbican’s abundant communal space, but also to change the nature of the listeners’ interaction with their physical environment.
Whilst previous architectural developments of the Barbican have pursued similar objectives (eg. Theo Crosby's redevelopment in the mid-90s), in some aspects the success of these revisions must be seen as limited. Geographer and philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan argues that 'the person who just 'sees' is an onlooker, a sightseer, someone not otherwise involved with the scene’ (Tuan, 1974, p8), and I propose that the use of sound might better promote a more active and emotionally resonant interaction with the existing architecture.
In order to fulfil the wider objective of this project - the formation of a reciprocal relationship between music and architecture - I am sourcing the sonic material for my composition entirely from within the Barbican Estate. This forges an immediate conceptual (though not necessarily perceptible) connection between the two. It is also congruous with the insular nature of the Barbican’s design, which directs the senses inwards. The architects designed introverted vistas, steering the eye inwards towards their own creation, and (at times) creating the illusion of total isolation or displacement from the wider cityscape. This sense of isolation is as much attributable to sound as it is sight; the estate’s dense concrete shell provides remarkable sonic insulation, and the underground railway running beneath the estate is suspended in rubber so as to reduce disturbance to the residents! (Heathcote, 2004, p34)
My preliminary practical work focused on the creation of field recordings, and the capture of environmental sound from across the Barbican Estate. Whilst this proved a worthwhile exercise, yielding some interesting sonic material, I felt that the Barbican’s internal soundscape was often best appreciated in its natural form, without compositional or musical interference.
Following the example set by the Barbican’s architects, I directed my ear further inwards in the search for sonic material, eventually gravitating towards the idea of capturing the architecture’s hidden sound. I loosely define this as any sound that is imperceptible within the wider environmental soundscape, and might include (though not exclusively): small sounds (either in terms of their length or amplitude), electromagnetic sound, physical vibration of resonant surfaces, underwater sound, ‘private’ environmental sound that is imperceptible within the Barbican’s public space (eg. sound from private residences, offices, concert halls, workshops, car parks, practice rooms etc..), and infrastructural sounds (eg. plumbing, ventilation etc..). I also plan to interview a number ofpeople that live, work, or otherwise spend time in the Barbican, treating their personal response to the architecture as another form of sound ordinarily unheard by the external observer.
Note - The above examples are NOT compositions; they are a cross-section of sound recordings taken from within the Barbican estate. No destructive editing or effects processes were used, except for noise-reduction/cancellation where required.
My practical research over the past six months has centred around the spatial conception of music - a system whereby each sonic component would be connected to a specific point in space, allowing the listener to explore the composition in their own chosen direction and at their own chosen pace. This presented a number of compositional challenges.
The composition as a whole would have to be modular in structure, as each of its musical components could be preceded by, succeeded by, or combined with a given number of others, depending on the direction and pace of the listeners’ chosen path. Each musical section must also be conceived as a loop (or series of loops), allowing for the possibility that the listener may chose to spend a considerable amount of time in any given space. In light of this, all musical material would have to be not only immediately impactful, evolving as expeditiously as the listeners’ physical surroundings, but also continually compelling over a longer period of time. As an architect directs the myriad users of a given space by means of material formation, so it would become my role as a composer to direct the listener, exercising a degree of control over their theoretical independence. Architectural ‘crowd control’ relies heavily upon tradition; our expectation of the correct usage of a space is largely influenced by our past experience. An open space adorned with benches and tables, or a picturesque view will promote stasis for example, whereas a long, enclosed space, or a staircase will encourage (or even enforce) movement in a specific direction. Differing musical configurations will also connote varying types of physical movement or behaviours; these connections are often literal. Musical stasis often encourages physical stasis for example, and repetitive movement its bodily counterpart, whilst progressive development of all musical elements could be used to promote the use of pre-designed paths or routes through space.
Examples 4 - 6 are short musical loops, each a development of another, which are designed to be placed together in space, such that the listener may sequence through them in any order.
To aid the compositional process, I developed a Max/MSP patch (download here), simulating the functionality of the mobile app that I had planned to build. The outcome of this was revealing, as a practical exploration of my ideas exposed both strengths and weaknesses in my original plan. Whilst being conceptually pure, the idea of the composition existing as a collection of (almost) endlessly combinable and interchangeable modules carried with it concomitant obligations (as outlined above), which weren’t all practically compatible with my wider objectives, or the space itself. By considering my ideas academically, I had conceived a non-specific strategy for the connection of sound and architecture in general, overlooking the inherent identities of both myself, the composer, and the architecture. In practice I found that the physical structure and character of the space invited the composition of a hyper-controlled, detailed form of music, containing fast-moving and dramatic contrast. I did not find this type of musical material to be effective within the spatial structural framework. I also came to realise that the complexity of both the technological/musical construction and the end experience could prove a distraction to the listener, overemphasising their own role, or the role of technology in the experience.
Whilst I will undoubtedly explore this approach to composition in future, I have simplified my approach to this project, conceiving a simpler structure that better fulfils my original objectives. My finished piece will now exist as a collection of short site-specific compositions connected by a larger soundscape. The listener may chose to experience these compositions any number of times, in any order, but will only be able to hear them in the specific environment for which they were written. A larger soundscape will cover the entire site, and will be heard as the listener travels through the space between compositions.
The apparent utility and functionality of the Barbican Estate is oft-discussed, and in many respects this is an accurate impression; the design is radically efficient, with over 2000 residences, an arts centre, a public library, a school, a museum, a university, a YMCA (now disused), and an expanse of public space contained in just 40 acres of land (Heathcote, 2004 p131-151). However, despite the impression given by its raw concrete facade and brutalist sensibility, the design does not entirely conform to the modernist ideal that ‘form ever follows function.’ The Barbican estate is decorative, from the stylised plaza overlooking the artificial lake, to the sloping glazed conservatory neatly disguising the theatre’s fly tower, and the textured concrete finish, hand-hammered by Italian craftsmen. The architects’ un-ashamed aestheticism, and commitment to beauty of form, must therefore be adopted as constituent to my approach to writing music; the musical form should be considered as equal to its function. As Chamberlain, Powell, and Bon embedded individuality into their design, my personal musical style and aesthetic, as well as theirs, will greatly influence the sound of my finished piece.
As previously stated, the finished work will exist in the form of an interactive mobile application for iOS. In its most basic terms, the program will identify the user’s position in space, playing different compositions, depending on their location.
The program will need to perform only two tasks simultaneously:
- Location Tracking - I will likely track the user’s location using a combination of GPS and a newer Bluetooth based iBeacon technology. GPS is a quick and easy way of determining the location of a portable device, but whilst it will be possible to use GPS to locate the user in the estate’s open spaces, it will not work if I choose to place a composition in any area without a clear view of the sky. In these spaces I will use iBeacons to determine whether a user is inside the designated area in which a given composition may be heard.
- Audio Playback - As mentioned previously, a site-wide soundscape will be heard between the short, site-specific compositions. As the user enters an area in which a composition is ‘located’, the soundscape will disappear, allowing the site-specific sound to be heard. As each piece finishes and the listener moves on, the soundscape will accompany the journey towards their next chosen location.
Paul Calter, Pythagoras & Music of the Spheres, Geometry in Art & Architecture, Dartmouth College, 1988, retrieved 27/01/15
Marvin Trachtenberg, Architecture and Music Reunited: A New Reading of Dufay's "Nuper Rosarum Flores" and the Cathedral of Florence, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), p 740-775
Nye Parry, Navigating Sound, Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio (Oxford: University Press, 2014), p 31-44
Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography (California: Pomegranate, 1977)
Boulez, Pierre, and Célestin Deliège, Pierre Boulez: Conversations with Célestin Deliège, Translated by B. Hopkins. (London: Eulenburg, 1976)
Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974)
David Heathcote, Barbican: Penthouse Over the City (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2004)