We think of ourselves as autonomous, not realizing we are barely held together unprotected from leakage in or out. We imagine our thoughts as private, as an unseen activity not realizing we are more than just our bodies. We are the sum of the chemicals we take in and send out, the interaction between the internal and external stimuli, and seemingly impossible connection of the physical and spiritual. We are what we breathe, we become what we touch, we end up being what we wash off our bodies.
During my Rome Prize residency in 2005-06 I noticed that I perceived architectural spaces differently than my visually based colleagues. I often found that upon returning from an excursion that what I recalled most about those visits to various spaces was their acoustical shape rather than their visual aspects. Around the time I was noticing this, I was asked by photographer Richard Barnes and architect and video artist Alex Schweder if I would be interested in collaborating with them on a project they had been working on. The result of the collaboration was Murmurs, recently featured at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Murmurs had as its subject matter the beautiful formations of flocks of starlings as observed in winter at EUR. Alex video-taped them and Richard photographed them. I was brought in to provide sound/music. The piece required two rooms, one for the video and one to display the photography. As we discussed the project it became clear that each of the two rooms demanded its own music. But we also felt it was important to use the sound to link the two rooms together and thus I did not want to simply create separate pieces of music for each room. As I worked on the piece I began playing with the idea of creating a work of music which had separate layers, a counterpoint, such that each layer had a space for which it was best suited; yet, all layers together resulted in a composition which could stand on its own. I then added a third space, the cortile, to accommodate the composite of the many layers. Thus as a person was passing from one room to another or standing in the passageway between rooms the resulting music always made sense. By all accounts, the goal to create a piece that worked whether a person was hearing one, two or all three layers; and a piece where the individual layers were designed for specific spaces was achieved.
This experience led me to explore music and space in other ways:
With Ospidelleto (premiered by Madeleine Shapiro) for cello and digital sound I explored the concept of musical structure being determined by reverberation characteristics. With Scrapings (premiered by DUO46) for violin, guitar and digital sound I used the concept of layers (similar to Murmurs) such that the composite resulted in a concert piece.
In 2008 I composed a work for the American Composers Orchestra, called Additions. With Additions I added the mobile listening experience to the concert hall listening experience by placing “pods” of instrumentalists in various locations in the lobby and boom boxes in the restrooms. In addition to the music that each “pod” performed, one member of the small ensemble would strike a wood block fortississimo every three or four minutes. The woodblock defined the acoustic architecture without intruded more than briefly into the “acoustic arena” of the congregations of people. The placement of musicians opened up hidden spaces and delineated curved surfaces. Additions followed the listener to private spaces and greeted listeners in the most public of places. This portion of the piece took place prior to the concert, thus the audience came to the concert piece well informed about the piece. In the concert hall, Additions changed the perceived acoustic arena by changing the apparent reverberation characteristics of the sounds coming from the stage. Acoustic sounds were not amplified and electronic sounds were integrated to create a different type of acoustical space.
Concepts of acoustic space continue to stimulate me creatively and inform all compositions I currently am working on. One project involves video artist Sheri Wills in a work that will take place in three rooms. Both the acoustic and visual aspects will consist of interactive layers.
An excellent book on this topic is spaces speak, are you listening? Experiencing aural architecture. By Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter. Published 2007 MIT press.