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Architecture x Music: Simon James

Architecture x Music by Simon James (The Simonsound)

“Music, like architecture, is time and space. Music and architecture alike are a matter of measure” Le Corbusier

Music and architecture share many things in common and are linked through centuries of cross pollination, interaction and evolution. As Le Corbusier’s quote stated, they are both art forms that work in measures - music using measures of time, and architecture using measures of space. The language we use to describe music and architecture overlaps too - structure, repetition, lines, patterns, pitch, harmony, density and many more are words used to communicate elements in both practices.

One of the most exciting meetings of architecture and music is the mid century World’s Fair, where experimental materials and design were sonically enhanced by the experimental composers of the period. The most famous of these was the collaboration between architect Le Corbusier and composers Iannis Xenakis and Edgard Varese at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The Philips Pavilion used the latest techniques of reinforced concrete to create a structure made up of nine hyperbolic paraboloids, with sharp points giving way to smooth flowing curves which combined to give the impression that some technologically advanced alien race had pitched up a futuristic tent. Depending on your angle of approach it could be sensual, other-worldly, disorientating or any combination of the three.

On entering the pavilion through a slit in the smooth concrete drape of the structure, visitors would hear a short electronic piece by experimental composer Iannis Xenakis, who also assisted Le Corbusier in the building’s design and construction. Concret PH, named after the paraboloïdes hyperboliques and reinforced concrete building techniques, used taped recordings of burning charcoal cut into one second fragments, overdubbed and treated to create a granular texture. The main attraction, Edgard Varese’s multimedia Poem Electronique, was played back in spatialized sound through over 300 speakers lining the cavernous walls, with an accompanying multi-screen projection showing photographic images taken by Le Corbusier. In creating Poeme Electronique, Edgard Varese AKA ‘The Avatar of Skyscraper Mysticism’ due to his preference for urban rather than pastoral influences, realised his lifelong desire for ‘organised sound’ using new tape manipulation techniques at Philips’ pioneering studios.

Varese was bending, combining and shaping sounds in to new forms, just as Le Corbusier had done with the physical structure, and these new developments in sound production were providing the perfect soundtrack for the futuristic shapes that buildings were starting to take.

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My piece for Musicity takes its inspiration from the mid century experimental electronics that you might have found drifting out of the speakers at a World’s Fair.  In The Shadow Of The Skylon, is an oscillating ode to a long lost London landmark and another futuristic structure, this time created for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Hovering over the South Bank like a UFO, the Skylon’s slender cigar like shape pointed into space like a sign post for what was to come. In this post war period there was optimism but also fear of what science & technology might unleash, and I wanted my composition to reflect these contrasting themes and give a sonic impression of the physical aspects of the Skylon too.

Sadly the Skylon never got to see the future it aimed to represent as, just like the temporary structures created for World’s Fairs,  it was torn down at the end of the Festival. In the Shadow of the Skylon celebrates its short optimistic life.