“Architecture, like music, must be a part of the composer, but is must also transcend him to give something to music or architecture itself. Mozart is not only Mozart, but music.” - Louis I. Kahn
For centuries, philosophers and artists have offered comparisons between music and architecture. Essays and books have been written, quotes passed down, even academic coursework focused on the idea that the aural and built worlds have much in common, or at least much in relation to one another. And I agree – these two basics of any world culture do have much to share.
Here, I’ll avoid the historical context of each, and simply offer another layer to the dialogue. (There’s plenty of material out there if you really want to dive into the historical relations between these two arts. Start here:
Also, theres a fascinating TED talk by David Byrne on the subject here:
With that said, here’s where I think music and architecture have a huge crossroads: they both dominate our culture simultaneously with blandness and brilliance.
Drive down almost any street and you’ll find a banal continuum of blandness in our architecture. Sure, the buildings may each be different, physically individual in some manner, but overall the contribution is one of ‘background’ to the greater context of the pedestrian activity, the human activity taking place in front of, and within, the buildings. The buildings serve their function well, without disaffecting their context, and even the lousy ones took a team of people a lot of sweat and effort to produce, most often driven by economics over aesthetics. Without being cynical, America consists in great quantity of vinyl siding, strip centers, curtain-walled boxes, and fake facades that (blandly!) try to emulate something entirely other than what they really are. In a word, vanilla.
Similarly, most of the music that has been produced over the years is, frankly, pretty bland. Record companies and media outlets, often driven by economics, have over the years crafted genres into which most commercial music must fit. As a result, much of the music that makes it out of the studio becomes predictable, formulaic…bland. That said, like those boring buildings that line our streets, this music quite literally provides a background, or soundtrack, for our culture and lives. It’s this ‘background’ music that causes us to remember events, people, places, and times in our lives. While popular records may have had singles create lasting momentum for a while, there are countless other tracks and “B-sides” that never saw the light of day beyond someone’s turntable or CD player. Often, filler material at best. In a word, vanilla.
But on certain streets, at certain corners or bends in the road, there are moments of architectural brilliance. Designs that capture our imagination and cause an emotional response, that inspire us to new ways of thinking about how we live. You do a double-take. Regardless of ‘style’ or personal preferences, these masterpieces reach beyond the everyday to something timeless and ethereal. A ‘loud’ example of this is the new CCTV Building in Beijing, designed by Dutch firm OMA. It’s an extreme example of “don’t tell me what I can’t do” that impacts the skyline like no other building can: it’s bold, brash, and screams, “look at me!” Another, ‘quiet’ example is the St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale Arkansas, designed by Marlon Blackwell. This unassuming building sits largely in the middle of nowhere; the perfect place for a little brilliance. It’s only 3,600 sf, basically a converted metal shed, but it throws conventional wisdom on its heel. We need these, and other similar examples, to punctuate the bland backgrounds, and take us higher.
And once in a while, a musical artist, composer, or group will make us stop and listen just a little longer. We’ll stay with the song more than 30 seconds, or if it’s playing in the background, we’ll stop what we’re doing and focus on the music, instead of ourselves. These aren’t always the most popular songs. Not always the Grammy winners, or AMA contendees. Probably not the latest craze on reality music television. Just honest talent in raw form, shaped by those who believe in honing their craft so that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Like their counterparts in the built world, they cut through the background noise and become aural punctuation; like the phone ringing in the middle of the night, you cannot help but pay attention. Film scores by Hans Zimmer. A moment of exquisite solo piano by Bruce Hornsby. Joe Bonamassa’s sensational blues guitar riffs. These and other examples lift us above the bland playlist, and take us higher.
While one could argue that we need the Bland so to recognize the contrasting Brilliant, we should never be satisfied with it. Allow yourself to seek the higher ground – in where and how you live, and what you listen to. You might be surprised what you find there.
What examples of musical and/or architectural brilliance have affected your life?