Monday, October 14, 2019

Music as liquid architecture


Just as architecture can be frozen music*, so music can be liquid architecture. Robert Rich's 1986 electronic composition Geometry is inspired by the abstract patterns of Islamic design in which symmetry emphasises both unity and flowing form. Like the visual patterns which inspired it, the music exhibits a balance between structure and freedom. In his sleeve essay Robert Rich explains that for Geometry he mapped certain mathematical relationships directly into musical structures. Through an awareness of the harmonic series and its various expressions into whole numbered ratios, he explored the interactions between melody, timbre, rhythm, harmony and tuning.


My photos were taken during a recent visit the El Capricho house in Comillas on the north-western coast of Spain. It was designed by Antoni Gaudí early in his career and like Robert Rich's Geometry is inspired by Islamic design, notably in the tower which has been compared to the minaret of a mosque. El Capricho was commissioned by Máximo Díaz de Quijano, a wealthy music-lover who wrote the libretto for three operettas, one of which was performed in 1863 in nearby Santander. In response to his client's interest Gaudi incorporated music references throughout the house including images of animals playing instruments, bells in the mechanisms of the sash windows, and a performance space tuned for chamber music. The congruence between Robert Rich's music and the celebrated architect extends further with his album Gaudí seen below which dates from the same period as Geometry. On the CD inlay card Robert Rich explores the concept of music as liquid architecture in there words:


rhythmic limbs twist upwards
balanced
upon a helical spire
a melody of colours shimmers
among shadows and mosaic light
sinuous line reveals its own
liquid proportion
a geometry of life


Long term readers of On An Overgrown Path may be surprised at the extensive coverage devoted recently to Robert Rich and other ambient electronic musician/composers, and I must say it also surprises me. My interest in these outer reaches of art music probably derives partly from a restless personal desire to explore beyond cultural comfort zones. But it is also a reaction to the currently all pervasive 'digital correctness'. In a 2012 interview headlined 'Our collective cultural insanity' Doris Lessing explained that "An observation I think about often is to the effect that, 'once we played with toys but now our toys play with us'. It's true! From cars to weapons, TV to computers. Everything! Our lives are determined by our inventions..."


Doris Lessing was painfully foresighted and our digital toys now truly control us. Our online news is clandestinely moderated by personalising algorithms, and remorseless social media peer pressure - Facebook 'friends', Twitter 'followers', Instagram 'influencers' - dictates what we like and dislike. On BBC Radio 3 we are not left alone to form our own opinion: instead presenters tell us how we should react to music. We live in an autocorrect culture and my exploration of music beyond intermediation is undoubtedly also a reaction against this. Art music is a tool for self-exploration, and no intermediary - digital or human - can lead us down that exalted path. Satprem (Bernard Enginger) described this path presciently in his 1970 book 'Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness'**:
The age of adventure is over. Even if we reach the seventh galaxy, we will go there helmeted and mechanized, and it will not change a thing for us; we will find ourselves exactly as we are now: helpless children in the face of death, living beings who are not too sure how they live, why they are alive, or where they are going... The same pervasive Mechanism stifles us: the trap is closing inexorably. But, as always, it turns out that our bleakest adversities are also our most promising opportunities, and that the dark passage is only a passage leading to a greater light. Hence, with our backs to the wall, we are facing the last territory left for us to explore ourselves... We must first realize that we can do better than our machines, and that the enormous mechanism that is suffocating us is liable to collapse as quickly as it came into being, providing we are willing to seize on the true power and go down into our own hearts, as methodical, rigorous, and clear headed explorers:

Steve Roach's ambient electronic work 'The Magnificent Void' - described as having more in common with 20th century avant-garde than other genres - explores transpersonal pyschiatrist Stanislav Grof's concept of primordial Emptiness and Nothingness. As Grof explained "The Void exists beyond form of any kind... It is beyond space and time". It is this Void, the highly personal space between quotidian and infinite***, that the Western classical masterpieces lead us to. We glimpse it in the final minutes of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the Heiliger Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet, the ambiguous orchestral flourish that closes Elgar's E flat Symphony - 'Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight' - and in the finale of Malcolm Arnold's Ninth Symphony which the composer described as 'dying away into infinity'. I find that in a very different way the compositions of Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Éliane Radigue and others on the margins of art music also lead me on a personal journey in that same direction. And yes, I do still listen to Mahler and Maconchy.

* The full quote is 'Architecture in general is frozen music'. Its precise origin is unclear; it is mostly frequently attributed to Goethe, who in turn attributed it to Novalis, while it is also wrongly credited to Xenakis and other.
** Satprem's Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness is quoted in the liner notes for the New Albion CD of Stockhausen's Mantra.
*** This is the mental silence that meditation strives for.
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1 comment:

billoo said...

Fascinating stuff-as always, Pli!

Reminded me of Burckhardt:

Aniconism, by precluding every image inviting man to fix his mind on something outside himself and to project his soul onto an 'individualizing' form , creates a void...the quality of a contemplative emptiness. Instead of ensnaring the mind and leading it to some imaginary world , it dissolves mental 'fixations' just as contemplation of a running stream , a flame, or leaves quivering in the wind, can detach consciousness from its inward 'idols'.

Paradise is an eternal springtime, a garden perpetually in bloom, refreshed by the living waters,; it is also a final and incorruptible state like precious crystals and gold. The crystalline state is expressed in the purity of the architectural lines, the perfect geometry of the arched surfaces and the decoration in rectilinear forms; as for the celestial springtime, it blossoms in the stylized flowers and fresh, rich and subdued colours of ceramic tiles."

Hope all else is well?

Best wishes and salams,

b.