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The Composer’s View: Simon Vincent

Musicity Introduction by Simon Vincent

As architecture traverses space, so humans traverse architecture.  As music traverses acoustic space, so humans are traversed by music.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to formulate an opening sentence that will somehow both describe succinctly the nature of architecture and music, their relationship to each other and the way in which humans interact with them, yet at the same time provide a sufficiently strong outline of two phenomena which are embedded so deeply in and imbued with the concept of 'culture'.

As a composer and performer fascinated by architecture, my initial ideas about how architecture and music may be related came about during my years as a music student when I was 'confronted' by both the early piano works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the architecture of Denys Lasdun, who designed the buildings at UEA in Norwich where I studied. At that time, in 1990, I attempted a very literal pairing of forms which I found to be 'similar', and which seemed to bring together two disciplines not often thought of as related.

Over the coming months I will be sharing my thoughts about the relationship between architecture and music, finding and discussing ways to describe their similarities, their differences, their points of intersection, and ultimately ways in which they are created and consumed.

This is of course a vast subject concerned with the nature of public/private spaces and consumption culture as much as intellectual/creative processes and the perception of multi-dimensional spaces, yet if we start by looking at possible origins and meanings of architecture and music, we start also by assuming that we are looking at phenomena perceived as something distinctly human. However already in assuming a human perspective, we potentially exclude anything non-human, drawing a distinct line between human and non-human consciousness, expression and communication.

Put more simply, where does birdsong, for example, end and music begin? Are not the breathtaking mounds constructed by termites also examples of functional architecture?

It is clear that we are influenced by architecture and music, and that we create both using a language steeped in cultural references and history, a language that has been developing since the very thing that we call 'human consciousness' has been able to recognise itself as such.

As humans – but also primarily as organic living beings – we respond to spaces and sounds in physical and psychological ways, alone and collectively, yet is it possible to talk of significant and indeed fundamental similarities between these two phenomena, or are such similarities only to be found at a few points of intersection and on a superficial level?

It is certainly the case that architecture and music both occupy multi-dimensional space, but it is the ways in which these spaces are conceived, constructed, perceived and ultimately used that will allow us a possible insight into the way such multi-dimensional structures work and how they may be related.

On a very simplistic level, a building of some sort will be mostly perceivable at a glance, whereas a musical work requires an unfolding in acoustic real-time for its narrative to be communicated and understood. However the true nature and extent of a building's details and scope can only be experienced by traversing in real-time its external and internal spaces, whereas looking at a score or any notated representation of a musical work does not necessarily allow us to perceive at a glance the general totality of the work and how it ultimately occupies acoustic space; looking at the back of a CD, for example, even less so.

The social, technological and cultural factors behind both architectural and musical forms, furthermore, play a significant role in their creation, something which, in the case of music, I call 'socio-acoustics'. What are the factors that lead to the emergence of genres such as jungle, dubstep and grime, for example, and why could they only have emerged the way they did, specifically in London? The same questions may be asked of tecnobrega from Belém in northern Brazil. Could Lasdun's iconic National Theatre building – an example of his 'urban landscape' architecture – and Hadid's Broad Art Museum in Michigan only have been conceived and built in the years that they were? In what way are these four examples a response rooted to contemporary impulses and questions, and in what way could they be timeless, perhaps even iconic statements?

The nature of external and internal spaces are key to both architecture and music, as is the role of the end 'user', and I will discuss examples of intended and unintended use – parkour and vinyl scratching spring to mind – in subsequent posts.

We must however avoid making assumptions about the abilities of a person to perceive, consume and traverse the object in question. The narratives of differently-abled consumers, being brought into consideration only relatively recently, have necessarily opened up vital debates about privilege and layers of accessibility which in themselves can only add to our perception of the nature of multi-dimensional spaces which architectural and musical forms create, inhabit and explore.

I look forward to exploring these as well as many more aspects of the relationship between architecture and music, and I congratulate Nick Luscombe on the exciting launch of Musicity Global.


Termite Mounds:

Denys Lasdun: National Theatre:

Zaha Hadid: Broad Art Museum:


Jungle Fever (BBC, 1994):