Place, Space and Sound


Christian Hörgren


The theme of Stockholm New Music (18-25 feb, 2006) was "Place and space", the relation between music and the room. Interesting indeed, but also a vast and difficult issue. To handle the theoretic challenge, the festival had chosen to spend a load of money on a book, guiding the listener through the week. The first part containing short essays on the subject of the festival, the second part presenting the program with brief comments on every piece performed. In order to present different viewpoints on the subject, the festival was subdivided. Every day a new theme, for example "The freedom of the fragment", "Speaking with angels", "The wanderers dreams", "Cities" and "Where is the place?". A good way to approach the music from different angles with different associations. But before we can talk about the festival, we should explore the twilight zone between the room and the sounds.

How does architecture relate to music?

The Perfect Loudspeaker

One of the oldest and most explored links between music and architecture is the notion of the acoustics. A certain room sounds a certain way; the sound is a proof of its physical extension and constitution. A compulsory example of the acoustic connection is the highly developed music by Palestrina, whose multiple antiphonal choir was located in different parts of the church. Another is the old saying that music by Bach should be heard in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, since that's where it was heard the first time. Some have driven this one step further by rebuilding the room, to make it more appropriate. Eccentric examples of this are Wagner's self designed opera on the holy hill of Bayreuth and the visionary open-air concert place for Prometheus by Alexander Skrjabin. Stockhausen himself, inspired by the geometrical projects of architect Buckminster Fuller, designed the Kugelauditorium, a spherical loudspeaker construction for the World Expo in Osaka 1970. The German architect Fritz Bornemann transformed it to a pavilion, and the speakers were arranged to achieve a realistic three-dimensional effect around the listener. Many composers have used the technical construction as a theme, but not implemented as natural as in this project. Most often the room is silenced with soft panels, and after this the music is added with overlayered reverbs, rooms and sound narratives. Over the last decades researchers have made efforts to design and differentiate the sound environment. But this is rather an expansion of the profession of the architect or building engineer than a new approach towards music itself. Acoustics is a thing for people working with sound ergonomics, or the question of how to build the perfect loudspeaker.

Form and Topography

Another crucial point is the many formal similarities between architecture and music in terms of topography and morphology, i.e. how the room/music develops over time. École des Beaux-Arts, the academy of architecture in Paris in the 18th century used different formal criteria in the analysis of a building. The concept Disposition combined the relation between plan and volume (Parti), and the experience of a walk through the building (La marche). La marche was the most important thing, how to move through a sequence of rooms according to a certain pattern. There is a parallel between this and the sonata form in the traditional music theory; a predestinated sequence of musical events; a strictly controlled room with a direction and a clear goal. In her thesis "Musikens rum; Metaforer Ritualer Institutioner" (1995), architect and musicologist Catharina Dyrssen makes the connection between the Gothenburg Concert Hall and the Haeffner symphony by Mozart. In her analysis she uses the connection between La Marche and the sonata form, which by all means is a proof of certain similarities between the walk in a classical room sequence and the morphology in a certain type of music; The form is in both cases narrative and directed towards the Grand Finale. Unfortunately the analysis fails to create a wider connection between architecture and music. The fact that B comes after A is not enough to make a relevant connection, other than on a rhetorical level. The background chapter of the thesis is interesting and informative, but the analyzes fails to convince. The double exposure of the Haeffner symphony and the Gothenburg Concert Hall becomes the Memento Mori of structural analysis.

The Vehicle of Representation

Finding the acoustic connection too technical and the formal too analogue, some have tried to superimpose architecture and music through different strategies of representation. Is it possible to transform different representations of music to space, and vice versa? On the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, corporate giant Philips was represented by a pavilion designed by the architect Le Corbusier. Unlike all his other buildings in his career, this was co-signed by the young engineer Iannis Xenakis. The 75-year old composer Edgar Varése wrote the music in the pavilion. Through mathematical transformations and graphical representations the gap between sound and concrete wall was overlapped. The dynamic shapes representing different theoretical parameters can be traced in Xenakis works from his entire career. Like his predecessor Pythagoras, all his life Xenakis tried to superimpose music, architecture and mathematics. Some people say he was a mediocre mathematician, but the result is rich, complex and intellectually challenging. But most convincing is not the transformation act between the different languages - it’s the music itself. The vibrating house of Xenakis is liberated from time and place. The music is archaic, monolithic, naked and beautiful, all at the same time. Another example of transformation through representation is a house by Steven Holl, where he uses the formal similarities more obvious than Xenakis. In fact he is very close to Dyrssen’s connection between crescendo and the height of the ceiling. Without hesitation Steven Holl translates the image of a score by Bela Bartók ("Music for strings, percussion and celesta"), whose repetitive arpeggio is transformed to arched roofs, one after the other. It is a nice piece of architecture, but it is not the connection we are looking for.

The Metaphysical Place

The examples above have proved to be rhetoric figures, obvious analogies or shown that the works are classics thanks to the quality of the room/music itself. Let us widen the perspective and let go of the physical room, maybe this expanded field can help us further. If we are searching for a meaningful connection between music and architecture, maybe it doesn’t have to do with similarities. Is there a point where they collapse into each other? Could a fruitful place to start looking be in the subjective experience, inside us? In our perception the two concepts superimpose completely, which is a methodological problem. The field of our study becomes immense. We have to choose a discourse: psychology, sociology, cultural studies, politics etc. But instead of even trying to make one consistent theory, I will analyze one example. Maybe this will deconstruct all problems that have occurred during our search for a connection.

A Case Study: Morton Feldman

During the 50-60’s, the artists of the New York school contributed to the development of a phenomenological and postmodern theory of the time. This occurred in many disciplines at the same time; the abstract expressionism in painting, the choreography of Merce Cunningham, the everyday poetry of Frank O’Hara and the open ears of John Cage. The composer Morton Feldman combined notions of space and sound in his works like no one before. The music of Feldman is very quiet and delicate, like the breath of a small bird. The durations of his late quartets are extreme, one is around seven hours, but they never coagulate to stiff minimalism. The music slowly unveils like an oriental rug, with notes and arpeggio like millions of knots, slowly modulating creating a big unity. In contrast to the dialectics between matter and essence in traditional metaphysics, Feldman never creates any ideal objects. The music has no ambition to create meanings or sentences with different figures or narratives. Without musical expressions and gestures the pieces become very material, tangible and prosaic, the result becomes meta music. Feldman’s aesthetics is all about presence, where the sound is allowed to interact with the context of its performance. The music is a transparent layer, a thin japanese paper, on which he calmly sketches a new, metaphysical room. This interaction between context and music makes it site specific, with the ability to interact with any place in the world. The piece invites the environment to become a part of it, like a subtler version of 4’ 33’’ by John Cage, or a whispering counterpart to the Non-sites of Robert Smithson. By deconstructing the notion of form, Feldman reduces the music to a constant rebirth, continuously presenting one new room after the other – always returning to the beholder as a cognitive imperative, appealing to experience the present again, and again, and again… When matter collapses with essence, the musical signs dissolves and the sound suddenly re-appears very close to the listener, almost as a physical phenomenon. The music becomes like wallpaper, or like the weather. It’s just there. Morton Feldman disliked the sonata form because of its narrative character. He wanted to make sound rather than form. This ambition, together with his construction of metaphysical places, implicates a strong connection to the phenomenology. A comparison with the traditional definition of room in architecture can help us define the construction of place in the music Feldman – or rather how he dissolves and questions the definition of a place, the way it was defined in terms of form and structure by predecessors like the École de Beaux Arts. Feldman describes his music with terms used when describing a room, such as measures, proportions and scale. He describes his music like walking along the streets in Berlin – where all houses look the same, even if they are not. Or like a stationary procession, not unlike a motif from a Greek temple frieze ("Essays", Zimmermann, 1985). The comparison with an antique thympanon indicates his will to deconstruct classical elements to make something new. Very similar to the intricate details of the greek temple, whose subtle distortions in the perspective increases the tension of the visual appearance, Feldman writes detailed instructions for the musician how to act in every situation. What you might experience as extended, monotonous chords over immense time is in fact thoroughly notated clusters of sound with a constant change of measures, proving his will to give every bar a unique character. Feldman is thus aware of the relation between the phenomenological room and the notion of interpretation. What you might hear as an open, floating space of sounds, is in fact an exactly notated, concentrated flow of superimposed clusters of sound.

The case of Morton Feldman is an example of how to connect architecture and music on the level of perception, where the construction of mental objects and cultural constructions in both discourses can give a new understanding of objectiveness and the notion of space. By avoiding structuralistic methods of analysis, instead using a phenomenological perspective (based on the experience of the subject), a fruitful connection between music and architecture can be established. These two disciplines meet in the metaphysical room, the non-geometrical place, where it can appear as a mental construction or a discoursive object. But even if Feldman succeeds to melt down sound and space to meta reality, many questions are still to be answered. Is it possible to describe this room in terms of topography or morphology? Is there a new terminology to explore, invent or analyze beyond what we can physically measure? What does this world look like?

Alvin Curran at Stockholm New Music Festival

Closely related to the metaphysical space of Feldman is the works of the American composer Alvin Curran. He was born in 1938 in Rhode Island, but started out his musical journey in Rome in the late 60’s, where he founded the radical musical collective MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA (MEV), working with noise and improvisation in collective, political forms. He has since been one of the forerunners in experimental american music made outside the concert halls, and in his music he uses electronic and environmental found sounds, very often with an engaged attitude towards the spatial notion of sound. His suite for solo piano "Inner cities" was performed during the Stockholm New Music Festival. The piece is also related to "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino, where Marco Polo is describing dreamy, beautiful cities for the listening Kublai Khan. At the festival Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle performed the whole piece. "Inner Cities" lasts for more than four hours, thus belonging to the same tradition as Satie's "Vexations", Feldman's late chamber works and "The Well Tuned Piano" by La Monte Young. What these works have in common is the focus on the subjective experience. Because of the extreme duration, the listener is forced to experience the music in a new way, like in slow motion. The first part begins with a few repetitive chords, like a stuttered preparation. The arpeggios and sensitive dissonances of the second part sounds like Morton Feldman. One piece is added to another, like facades on a street, and the flow of sounds is slowly transforming to a mighty city. "Inner Cities" emphasizes the physical aspect of the performance of the piece, the sacrifice that has to be done, both as a performer and a listener.

Another brilliant work not performed during the festival but worth a mention is the record "I'm sitting in a room" (1969). This composition is interesting not only because the composers names are almost the same but it also explores the boundary between sound and space. The first thing we hear is the composer Alvin Lucier reading:

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed..."

The voice in the room and the reverb, one layer added after the other, evolves into a poetic interpretation of what a room sounds like. This is with no doubt one of the most intelligent pieces ever made on the subject place and space.

Stockholm New Music raised many questions, among them maybe the most important - doesn't all music relate to the place? The thematic approach and theoretical ambition of Stockholm New Music Festival proved their awareness of the fact that sound and space are two sides of the same coin, happening inside our head, all the time. The major conquest of the festival was the strategy to contextualize music. What happens if we approach music from a new point view, the notion of place? What does the poetic room look like, the room of the city, the mental experience etc. The change of focus towards the experience of the room/music can give us a new understanding of the constitution of a place. As we have seen in this article, deconstructing the dichotomy between room/sound has helped us unveil a seamless room based on experience, context and interaction. The subjective, imaginative place is rich and complex (almost redundant), but is so far the most adequate example of an alloy between architecture and music.



Architect and musician Christian Hörgren has since the mid 90’s been working with architecture, music, writing and performance. In different projects he has explored the connections between these artforms in collaboration with composers, choreographers and directors. As a cellist he is also active in several free improvisation groups based in Stockholm. The prime mover in Hörgrens work is the critical perspective of art/music, and how this has evolved during the 20th century. Besides music and design he also writes critical essays in musicology and art. In the last years he has published articles in Nutida Musik (Contemporary Music) on electronic music collectives in the 60’s, music and politics, alternative music in Istanbul and Marcel Duchamp. His free improvisations are available for listening at www.myspace.com/christianhorgren and www.myspace.com/pallinmusik.











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