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Simon Vincent – Feeling Sound

Thoughts and Observations on the Relationship Between Music and Architecture by Simon Vincent.

Part 1: Introduction.

The following words introduce an adaptation of work that I undertook in 1990 on the possible links between music and architecture, as part of my studies in music composition. Reading the text some 27 years later, it may occasionally appear somewhat simplistic, however its subject matter touched on something fundamental to both disciplines which has never been far from interest to us all: Human experience and human perception of the spaces we encounter.

Although I have abbreviated the original text substantially, I have in places updated and developed my ideas to reflect both a more contemporary context and my experience as a composer/performer since the work's completion in 1990.

I hope you enjoy reading this brief introduction and I look forward to presenting more concrete, in-depth examples in the coming weeks.

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Is it possible to 'feel' something we can only see? Is it possible to 'feel' something we can only hear? Is it possible to comprehend the smoothness, angularity and implications of an object's shape and content, or its inherent notions of height and weight, to sense these after several glances? Can an object transmit any emotion, either within or without its context?

Of course, any possible answers to these questions can only hope, at their very best, to describe some sort of 'consensus' arrived at by us through cultural and social context.

My initial reflections on musical and architectural form stemmed from an ability on my part to regard both as containing 'instances' void of pattern, melody, rhythmic/spatial gesture or external reference, and instead as abstract objects capable of inducing or negating tension, objects whose inherent 'energy' and 'dynamics' may even be capable of elating or intimidating. These initial descriptions bring into play factors related to human presence and human agency, and immediately raise the question of whether it is at all possible to take the fact of human agency away from human-made 'instances.'

Whether due to evolutionary design, social habit or a close intertwining of both, our initial reaction to things entering our personal space – whatever the dimensions of that space at any given moment – is to look for clues regarding intention, familiarity, size, direction, movement and many other parameters which will allow us to determine if something poses, for example, a threat, or how it relates to our individual and shared values. A search for patterns and behaviours, and an ability to recognise them both seem to be important driving forces behind the nature of many of our social (inter)actions, and it should therefore be expected that we interpret architecture and music using this ability to assess, understand and interact with things that enter our personal and collective spaces.

In the absence of recognisable codes or information, a process of continual reflection and reassessment – a 'sounding out,' so to speak – may take place until an understanding of the instance in question is reached. In some cases we may also project, through a desire for resonance, our human experience onto something lacking any familiar or comprehensible information, resulting in unresolved dynamic tension between instance and perceiver.

Taking a basic example to start with, let us consider a recording of an acoustic musical work. With the exception of vocal music (for obvious reasons based on our instinctively immediate ability to recognise the human voice), it is quite possible to listen to a recording of an acoustic work and not be aware of the human actions behind the production of the notes recorded and subsequently played back. We may, therefore, be able to listen solely to the rhythmic and harmonic interactions between the notes or groups of notes (played either by one or several instrumentalists), and to experience rhythmic or harmonic tension without the visual 'distraction' of the performer/s.

Of course, re-visiting this idea in 2017, the phenomenon of audio playback is a ubiquitous one which can afford a listener the opportunity of excluding from the listening experience – if desired – any codes suggesting human presence. Comparing this to the famous 'Tone Tests' of 1915 by Thomas Edison in which audiences where unable to distinguish a live singer from a phonograph being played back, both 'performing' on the same stage at the same time, it is clear how far we have come in the 'listening experience.' Furthermore, automation and quality of musical recording and playback (from the precision of midi information, authenticity of sampled instruments and spaces, to hi-end audio reproduction) are such that we may, without realising, be listening to something not initially created by humans at all. As listeners operating within a certain musical context, we may simply assume the fact of human activity behind the creation of the musical artefact in question.

However, bracketing out 'the human' can lead to an interesting perception and appraisal of musical sounds despite what may appear, at first glance, an antisocial act.

This opens up a passing view into the not unrelated territory of 'reduced listening,' a term coined by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 (to which I will return later), which describes the progressive focus away from sound source recognition, by way of repeated playback and listening, enabling a listener to focus more closely on a sound's spectral and dynamic content.

We can apply the same procedure to the perception of architecture, once again bracketing out traces of human activity, and instead focusing on lines, gestures, layers, single elements or element groups, and observing the inherent dynamics of a form, devoid of reference; we might even call this 'reduced looking.'

Thus we regard the objects as acontextual sensory stimuli, and adopt the role of a vibrating intermediary, ready to respond to each shape or sound.

In my next articles on the subject, I shall attempt to describe how we can induce such a sensation through a simple understanding of both architectural and musical dynamics. I shall also discuss possible ways of combining music and architecture more directly into one sensory stimulus, using examples from the piano works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the architectural forms of Sir Denys Lasdun.