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Musicity: Introduction by Nick Luscombe

Musicity – by Nick Luscombe

From Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit (2014)
in the Olympic Park to Antony Gormley’s Angel
of the North (1998) in Gateshead just off the A1,
here in Britain we are used to seeing artworks in public places. Architects, property developers, urban planners and regeneration agencies have regularly commissioned visual artists to make work that responds to buildings and spaces. Some function as decorative additions to liven up their surroundings, whereas others are more socially engaged with their locations. On my short journey to work at the BBC, where I am a regular presenter on Radio 3’s Late Junction, I encounter site-specific public artworks from several eras: the rolling programme on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square; Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure (1964) on the side of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street; and Eric Gill’s art-deco reliefs on the façade of Broadcasting House (just down the road from RIBA’s headquarters on Portland Place, its exterior featuring various sculptural interventions). Art and architecture appear to go comfortably hand-in- hand.

But what about music and architecture?
The German writer Goethe famously described architecture as ‘frozen music’, and this reminds us
of the fact that both are creative disciplines. But
I’ve often wondered how useful this analogy is to understanding either art form, never mind imagining how the two might intersect. It certainly underscores how different they are as forms of culture: buildings are all about their solid, physical presence, whereas music is something we can’t see, touch or hold on to; it exists by moving through time, like a liquid without its own fixed physical form.

Yet I’m sure I am not alone in having strong associations between particular places and certain pieces of music, and this involuntary connection that the brain makes is something that has long fascinated me. For example, whenever I see Smeaton’s Tower (1759) on Plymouth Hoe, I hear in my mind Haircut 100’s ‘Fantastic Day’ which, back in the 1980s, connected perfectly with the surroundings on a beautiful summer afternoon via my portable radio.

It works the other way around, too. When I listen to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’ (1974), it takes me back to the time, some years ago, when I heard it on my iPod while travelling on Tokyo’s monorail. I was feeling a little alienated and disorientated, and the familiar music helped. It seems that, by adding a soundtrack, my memories of those buildings and places are more powerful. It’s as if by engaging more than one sense at once – hearing and sight – the brain solidifies the experience.

The connection between music and cityscape is not just a phenomenon of contemporary life, now we have the means (ever since the invention of the Walkman) to listen to our chosen tunes as we move through the city. Composers have long responded to the fabric of our cities in their creative output, and made deliberate connections between architecture and music. In the Anglican choral tradition, for example, music was composed in response to specific churches, taking into account the unique shape and material qualities of the building and the acoustic potential these offered. Some music was even named after the buildings – think of Herbert Howells’ ‘Gloucester Service’ (1946) and ‘St Paul’s Service’ (1951), composed for those great cathedrals. Yet in our contemporary secular world, where commerce has replaced religion as the driving force in the evolution of our cities, it’s perhaps not as common a connection. Seemingly every new steel- and-glass of ce building has artworks for its lobby and plaza, but not music. If it is used at all, it is usually an afterthought, chosen to be inoffensive and unchallenging, as the phrase ‘lift music’ reminds us.

It was this apparently overlooked opportunity to explore the intersection between music and architecture that inspired me in 2010 to launch Musicity, a curated online platform for new music and sound art inspired by architecture. The premise is simple: musicians and recording artists are invited to select a building or location within a city, and commissioned to create a short sound or musical work in response to that place. The resulting track is then centrally stored at and offered free to the public to listen to, via their smartphone, when they are in that location.

Those last three words are crucial, because the site-specific aspect of the project was central to its conception from the start. In an age when our devices have enabled us to search and stream whatever music we want, from anywhere in the world, almost instantaneously, I wanted to bring back some of the joy (and frustration) of seeking music out and of needing to go to a particular place to find it; just as our ancestors did before recorded music existed and could only be heard when performed live, and just as I did, in a different way, growing up in the last pre-internet generation. For me, looking for a piece of music meant a trip to a record shop, often without even knowing whether the mission would have a successful outcome. Part of the pleasure in this was the possibility for serendipitous discovery: that new single by my favourite band might have sold out but, while I was there, I heard this other band, which turned out to be much more exciting.

Musicity similarly encourages users to take the risk and venture out; to be active not passive consumers of contemporary music, to slow down and engage with the world around us – IRL (In Real Life). The concept takes those very technologies that have unalterably changed how we consume music, but is creative with them. Let’s not just use the internet to stream or download music, but use the geo-tagging features in our mobile phones to offer access to music that relates to where we are. The prize for listeners that Musicity offers is to hear a composition within the place that actually inspired its creation – it’s like seeing a painting by Turner and getting transported for a moment to the actual spot where he stood when he sketched it. The auditory experience of the music is thus enhanced by the visual and physical experience of architecture and space, and vice versa. If you like what you hear, you can download the track for free, and build up your own portable library of city-inspired tunes to enjoy any time, or use the website to find links to more music by the artist.

The project started in London and there are already 17 compositions for the city, inspired by buildings and structures as varied as Battersea Power Station, the Post Office (now BT) Tower, Blackfriars Bridge and the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Because the brief to the musicians is so open (the only limit, for practical reasons, is on the length of the piece), the resulting tracks have been similarly and thrillingly diverse, from folk-inspired vocals to ambient electronic, modern classical and spoken word.

Some artists have used the opportunity to delve into the history of locations, and create pieces that make direct connections with the past. For example, James Birchall, who goes by the performing name Rough Fields, became interested in the riots that took place in Spitalfields in the 1700s and made a piece for Musicity called ‘Our Streets’, which he describes as a kind of protest song that references the history of public protest around Artillery Lane, as well as connecting with the nature of protest today.

Others have made more personal responses
to sites in the city. London-based Kel McKeown,
also known as Kelpe, chose George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian Gothic Midland Grand Hotel and St Pancras station (1874), which for him evokes different
layers of memories: of his earliest experiences of London when he first arrived from his hometown of Loughborough as a teenager, and also more recent trips to the station, waiting to travel back home to
visit his dying mother. He describes how his Musicity composition ‘tries to evoke the majestic architecture of the building but also has a melancholic and nostalgic feel to it’.

Simon James, also known as the Simonsound, chose a building that is no longer there: the Skylon. This ‘vertical feature’ was constructed for the 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank but, unlike the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall also created for the festival, it was removed in 1952, and through its absence gained a near-mythic status as a symbol of retro-futurism. James created an electronic track called ‘In the Shadow of the Skylon’, which seeks to ‘represent this otherworldly presence, hovering, floating, shimmering, watching, reaching skyward; against a backdrop of post-war austerity and a population both optimistic and fearful about what the future might hold’.

Musicity isn’t limited to London and has so far commissioned forty-three tracks for seven different cities internationally. Our ambition is to commission and distribute music in cities worldwide, so that
those with interests in both contemporary music and architecture can use the platform as a different kind of travel guide. You arrive in a new city and instead of turning to your Lonely Planet book or Tripadvisor to point out the obvious sights, you can be guided
to experience a city’s architecture with more than
just the eyes, and then come away with a piece of music that will take you back to the memory of that place whenever you hear it. It also offers direct access to some of the most interesting recording artists living and working in those places. The majority of commissions involve musicians who are based in the same city, and part of the project’s strength is the behind-the-scenes network of music professionals, based in cities worldwide, who are keen to share their local knowledge.

With support from partners such as the British Council, PRSF and the Mayor of London, Musicity has worked in major capital cities such as Oslo, Singapore and Tokyo, but also some more unexpected
locations: Gateshead in the UK (with Oliver Coates’ ‘Gateshead Project’, written in response to Norman Foster’s riverside concert hall Sage Gateshead, 2004) and Shinjuku, Japan, where electronic music pioneer, composer and performer Ryuichi Sakamoto created an exclusive track for the Isetan department store. To accompany the launch of many of the commissions, we’ve also organised events, which include live performances, films and conversations with the artists as well as architects, urbanists and pyschogeographers. The venues include the BFI on the South Bank, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Architecture Foundation and Curzon Mondrian in London. In Tokyo we held numerous Musicity events across Roppongi as part of the city’s Art Night in 2012, and in Singapore we launched the project at the stunning Gardens by the Bay nature park in 2012.

In Autumn 2017, Musicity will launch in Seoul, South Korea, with commissions across the city’s locations. Here we will work with both artists native to the city as well as bringing in musicians from the UK to make tracks in response to Seoul’s architecture.

Ahead of that, 2017 also brings the third chapter of Musicity in London, which focuses this time on the Borough of Southwark. One of the oldest
parts of London, Southwark has been known for its independent cultural life since Shakespearean times when, on account of the area being outside the jurisdiction of the City of London’s civic authorities, there was more freedom afforded to artists, writers and performers. As is the case with much of inner-city London, Southwark suffered rapid depopulation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but has more recently undergone substantial regeneration, and now features notable examples of contemporary architecture, from City Hall to the Shard, which co-exist alongside older buildings such as pubs and warehouses, along the Thames.

Of course, Southwark is more than the sum of these famous buildings along the river. It comprises
a wide network of smaller communities, stretching south through Walworth, Camberwell and Peckham to Dulwich. Each area has its own character and architectural heritage, as well as its own centre of commerce, the high street. These ubiquitous yet often ignored parts of the urban landscape will form a focal point for the latest series of Musicity commissions, which include tracks created by musicians with deep connections to each area. The artists will work closely with architect and sound artist Paul Bavister. With the specialist experience gained from his work at architects Flanagan Lawrence, as well as his role at the Bartlett School of Architecture where he lectures on the relationship between sound art and architecture, Bavister will guide each musician through the more scienti c aspects of building acoustics, to help shape sonic pieces that while being accessible to the general public in many ways, will also genuinely respond to the physicality of each location.

The full line-up of participating artists and sites was announced at a special evening hosted by the RIBA at Portland Place on Tuesday, 4 April with an evening that included a varied line- up of musical performances, from modern folk to jazz and electronic, from artists whose work either responds to place, or who were developing new site-specific pieces for Musicity. There were also  panel discussions and talks, as well as the premier of a brand new installation by sound art group Audialsense and a spoken-word performance.

As someone who has often used the RIBA’s bookshop and galleries as a starting point for my research, I think it was a fitting venue for this event. Our aim is to bring together enthusiasts of both music
and architecture and celebrate the potential of both to enrich our urban lives. At its core, Musicity seeks to reinforce the concept of music as a universal form of cultural expression. Accessible to any listener, regardless of whether they speak the language of
a city they find themselves in, music functions very similarly to architecture as something we simply encounter wherever we are, so perhaps the two
art forms have more in common than is generally believed.

(Adapted from A Magazine for RIBA Friends, Spring 2017 Edition)