The Common Language of Music and Architecture

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By Kevin Janowiak

Walk into a modern house. White walls and buffed floors. Quiet except for footsteps and echoes. Sounds more like a museum than a place to hang your hat. But turn on the stereo, and that place instantly gets a pulse. Music bestows life upon our homes, transforming inanimate objects into something more human. Sure, music is just noise—a daily soundtrack of radio jingles and elevator accompaniment. But play the right tunes in the right context, and you’ll move people, in all sense of the word.

The building itself is part of that harmony. Some songs are designed for stadiums, others for the bedroom. But the connections between architecture and music run deeper than the venue. Look at terminology used by the creators and you’ll see overlap: words like rhythm, accents, theme variation. Architects and musicians often speak the same language. View the two art forms through the lens of modernism, and you’ll observe more common DNA. Both embraced new materials, questioned assumptions, and stripped down structures to their cores. “Before the modernist period, a cutting-edge musician tried to make melody and harmony even more expressive,” said Jack Sheinbaum, a professor of musicology at the University of Denver. “But then, the questions change to: ‘Wait a minute, why do I even need melody and harmony?’”

Architects asked similar questions and rewrote the rules over the last 65 years. Why not break down the barrier between indoor and outdoor space? Why not put a kitchen in a living room? For example, look to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) with its jutting triangles and deviant geometry. “The museum is very abstract and jarring,” said Michael Knorr, an architect based in Denver and Las Vegas. “It reminds me of electronic composers at midcentury who used atonality and didn’t follow formal structure.” Daniel Libeskind, architect of the DAM extension, was once an accomplished pianist and accordion player. And so he often invokes musical analogies when describing his projects, calling them precise and emotional compositions where one wrong note can ruin the mood.

Of course, music and architecture do not always run on parallel rails. A saxophone solo requires a very different skill set than designing a high-rise, but their growth comes from the same petri dish of culture and technology. Pioneers in both fields became modern by pushing boundaries. Dip into musical history from modal Jazz to Hip-Hop and you’ll see that creativity evolves faster than we do.

miles davisCUT THE CHORD

Let’s start with the Jazz album that everybody knows about, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. And let’s start at the beginning of that record. The first track “So What” lives up to its defiant title by subverting traditional Tin Pan Alley song structure. Normally, horns lead the melody, but Davis freezes them in a two-note loop, while the bass lines are thrust to center stage. Skip to track two, “Freddie Freeloader,” and you’ll hear an abstraction that breaks Blues conventions; chord progressions are thrown out the window. “It’s an intellectual modernist exercise,” said Sheinbaum, “but it’s still beautiful and enjoyable.”

Why did Cool Jazz musicians want to be different? Partially because for the first time, musicians in the 20th century acutely felt their place in history, argued Sheinbaum. “Before the 1950s, most music you would hear in your life was only the music
of your generation, but now we have all of music history at our fingertips,” he said. In other words, postwar musicians carved out a distinction between popularity and quality that survives today—a new ambition beyond concert and album sales. 

That unconventional streak led to natural allies with architecture. Miles Davis met Bruce Goff, a largely self-taught chair of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. Far from smoky clubs on the coasts, Jazz icons performed private concerts for Goff and his students. Goff dotted the prairie with eclectic and organic homes, but he also experimented with player-piano rolls. Goff didn’t bother with proper musical notation; he simply sliced triangles and circles into the paper rolls and let the piano do the work. It was music designed visually—an adventurous mix of careful planning and random results.

How did it turn out? “Not too bad,” Michael Knorr said with a laugh. He heard them at an exhibition in Washington D.C. Goff wasn’t trying to emulate Miles Davis. But both took bold risks and blazed their own trails. “Jazz is like a river,” Knorr said. “You can go off on interesting tangents that are not strictly bound by the course of the river. I think modern architecture is the same way.”

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ROCKING THE BOAT

The sea change eventually flows from Jazz into Rock music, spilling over into the roots of Punk and New Wave in the ’70s. Modern music again flips expectations and flips off protocol. Think of minimalists like the Ramones, armed with three chords, two-minute songs, and one cohesive fashion sense. The lesson: You don’t have to be a virtuoso to have a band. You can use brute force, rattling off anthems like a machine gun. But simple doesn’t mean stupid. Johnny Ramone was once asked why his songs were so short. His reply was that they were actually long songs played very quickly. Modernism can come across as stark, but a closer look reveals complexity within all the open space. For Sheinbaum, Punk is a reaction to the “hot” emotional passion of Classic Rock.

Next in line is New Wave, which cools down the temperature even more. “We expect soaring intensity from classic rock,” Sheinbaum said, “but New Wave strips all the emotion out of it.”

Guitars are no longer a given, and synthesizers let you squeeze out new tones, impossible to produce without machines.

Of course, plenty of musicians still revisited the past. Progressive Rock bands like Pink Floyd and King Crimson aimed for the old grandeur of symphonies and operas but used the latest tools. Like modern architecture, natural and synthetic materials are woven together. “Quiet acoustic sections contrast with loud electric sections,” said Sheinbaum, who has published several articles on Progressive Rock. “It’s a statement on the 20th century condition of modernity and lost innocence.” Again, musicians and architects feel the burden of history and have something to say about it.

santiagoRHYTHM SECTION

Rock embraced new technology in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it took Hip-Hop and Electronic Music to seal the deal with a kiss. Grandmaster Flash invented a new science for the dance floor, scratching vinyl and redefining turntables into instruments. The secret was extracting the “break,” what Flash called the short, catchy parts of records that grab hold of your ears and never let go—Hip-Hop samples from the best sounds available in any genre, at any time, period. Like a modern architect who seamlessly combines styles, rappers tinker with recipes to show that apples and oranges sometimes do go together. 

Electronic Dance Music stretched out the concept of the “break” even further—whole songs with only percussion and rhythm, vocals stripped off like an unwanted distraction. Originally dubbed “hard disco” by Rock journalists, Chicago House hammers out repetition with no time for melody or subtlety. Like any new genre, House had a mothership: a record store called Imports Etc. just south of downtown Chicago. Traveling DJs could return there to fill up on hard-to- get vinyl. They mined the racks for gems and brought them to the world. It’s a geographical dispersion like the way modernist architects like Cliff May and Richard Neutra imported Californian lifestyle to the rest of the American landscape. “Much of Electronic Dance Music is fascinating and avant-garde and noisy on purpose,” said Sheinbaum. “It’s as much a modernist approach to making art as anything that happened in Jazz.” To its detractors, Electronic Music can sound like wall-shaking mindless hypnosis. But there are brains behind the beats. Look at Daft Punk’s carefully crafted image—it’s a fully synthesized vision for music that also happens to sell out arenas. With their faces hidden by helmets, the French duo removes the human element to sound and transports their audience into an alien future. An architectural equivalent could be Paolo Soleri, with his massive hypercities that seem ripped from a science fiction movie set. His floating pyramids and urban beehives were more imagination than reality, but wait a few thousand years and Soleri might have the last laugh. Most of us have a hard time thinking beyond next week’s schedule, but Soleri and Daft Punk looked way beyond the horizon.

Thanks to digital production, fanciful designs can now be churned out in warp speed. But we should be careful to not drown in theory, said Christopher Herr, an architect based in Boulder and Denver. “Both architecture and music are artistic expressions, but both need to be founded upon technical mastery,” said Herr, who also plays principal horn in a local symphony. In other words, art shouldn’t scare away an audience—it can be challenging yet approachable.

Clearly there are no straight lines to be drawn in music history. Any attempt at a rigid family tree does a disservice to thousands of sub-genres and permutations. Garage Rock Revival and Neo-Soul are signs that the history can repeat itself. Musical collages and mash-ups poke holes in traditional categories. Bands can reinvent themselves like Radiohead. In the end, modern music and architecture do not hit dead ends. Sound waves can be stretched and twisted into unlimited forms. Steel, wood, and glass can be rearranged to match evolving lifestyles. And technology does more and more of the heavy lifting. Like oral tradition, the languages of architecture and music adapt and thrive. ♦

Record images by Danae Falliers, courtesy of the artist and Robischon Gallery

 

REBELS WITH A CAUSE

Picking your favorite album is harder than picking your favorite child. And anytime you rank artists of any kind, you’re asking for a fight, or at least a vigorous debate. So, don’t consider these pioneering musicians and architects to be a definitive best-of list. Instead, look to them as fine examples of risk takers and boundary pushers. These iconoclasts probably wouldn’t do well together as roommates. But as a group, they broke ground and built modern wonders. 

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ORNETTE COLEMAN // THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO 
COME (1959)
As a founding father of avant garde Jazz, Coleman has a polarizing reputation. Anytime you ditch chord changes and hormonic structure, you risk sounding abrasive. But this prophetic album ushered in a new era of jazz soloing, one more like a flowing conversation than a set script.

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RADIOHEAD // KID A (2000)

Disillusioned with guitar anthems and well-worn conventions of Rock, Thom Yorke started over. Boldly dropping the instruments that made them millions, the band cooked up a new recipe of electronic dissonance and nervous energy. Turns out fans like a challenge: Kid A debuted at No. 1 in the U.S.

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RAY CHARLES // MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY AND WESTERN MUSIC (1962)
With a melting pot of sleepy Country classics spiked with Gospel, Charles broke down racial barriers in music. This album flew off the shelves, a crossover hit at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The songs may be about loneliness and heartbreak, but “Modern Sounds” is ultimately about common ground.

TALKING HEADS - FEAR OF MUSIC
TALKING HEADS // FEAR OF MUSIC (1979)
David Byrne squeezes poetry out of robotic rhythms. Loaded with one-word song titles, this album gets to the point quickly with hard-hitting production. But behind the weird textures and bleak urban lyrics are plenty of infectious hooks. It’s dystopia you can dance to.

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DAVE BRUBECK // JAZZ AT OBERLIN (1953)
This live album of Jazz standards was recorded years before Brubeck tinkered with time signatures. But it’s far from a paint-by-numbers affair. Listen to the subtle solos and you can hear great forces at work: BeBop shifting to Cool Jazz and a younger generation along for the ride.

 

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PATTI SMITH // HORSES (1975)
This debut album launched Smith from New York club darling to the poet laureate of Punk. Garage Rock is recast for a grittier age, starting with her snarling take on “Gloria.” It’s a frenzied assault on gender roles and tired Rock clichés.


For even more game-changers, pick up the summer issue of Modern In Denver

 

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