The Mozart of Modernism

The Millau Viaduct in Southern France, designed by Sir Norman Foster.
The Millau Viaduct in Southern France, designed by Sir Norman Foster.

 

It’s been estimated that 3,000 performance majors graduate from American music schools and conservatories each year, while there are only 150 to 269 yearly openings in full-time professional orchestras. To that end, recent advice from internationally renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster seems relevant, not only to music students but to all of us:

Foster captured attention in the 1980s with his innovative design for the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, a 47-story modular design that features a sunlight-filled, cathedral-like interior which echoes (on a much larger scale) Frank Lloyd Wright’s now demolished Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York. Other prominent Foster designs include the glass-domed restoration of Berlin’s Reichstag, the cylindrical “Gherkin” tower in London, and the 1,125 foot tall Millau Viaduct in France, the world’s tallest bridge, completed in 2004. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has pointed out that there are few man-made structures that actually improve their natural setting. San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge may be one example, and the serene Millau Viaduct is surely another.

Elegance, beauty, economy, and soul lie at the heart of all of these designs. There’s no waste in the unseen hand of nature (think trees, bird’s nests and spider webs). The same is true in great music, art, literature, architecture, and beyond. Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York, a design which requires 20% less structural steel because of the inherent strength of its triangular diagrid design, inspired Paul Goldberger to dub Foster “the Mozart of modernism” in a 2005 article in the New Yorker:

Norman Foster is the Mozart of modernism. He is nimble and prolific, and his buildings are marked by lightness and grace. He works very hard, but his designs don’t show the effort. He brings an air of unnerving aplomb to everything he creates—from skyscrapers to airports, research laboratories to art galleries, chairs to doorknobs.

The Hearst Building
The Hearst Building

 

Sublime Background Music

It’s so famous and catchy that we almost don’t notice it anymore. And that’s probably what Mozart intended. Eine kleine Nachtmusik is far from Mozart’s most “serious” music. It was written as functional party music. Yet, like everything else Mozart wrote, it’s so great that we can’t get enough of it. As you listen, consider the parallels Goldberger draws with the 21st century architecture of Norman Foster.

Here is a live concert performance by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra:

Michael Graves’ Postmodern Legacy

Michael Graves' Denver Public Library (1995)
Michael Graves’ Denver Public Library (1995)

 

They say (quoting Goethe) that architecture is “frozen music;” so it seems appropriate to mark the sudden passing of one of the giants of American architecture. Michael Graves passed away yesterday at age of 80 at his home, “The Warehouse,” in Princeton, New Jersey. A member of “The New York Five,” he rose to prominence in the 1980s as one of the leading Postmodern architects. In keeping with postmodernism, Graves’ sometimes controversial architecture defied the formal purity and austerity of modernism and openly drew upon historical precedent. For example, the Denver Public Library (above) brought whimsical turreted towers to downtown Denver. Dignified columns lining the facade suggest the monumentality of ancient Rome.

Michael Graves’ buildings often exhibit cheerfully exuberant colors. Occasionally they play tricks with our sense of scale. The crown of Louisville’s 26-story Humana Building (below) evokes the bridges of the nearby Ohio River. The base of the building echoes adjacent historic storefronts, but at a blown-up scale. The base’s large windows and wacky proportions make the entire composition seem smaller than it actually is, and less overbearing to its neighbors. Simultaneously, it pays respect to history without copying it, creating something exciting and new. Unfortunately, aspects of Graves’ style were quickly (and less artfully) copied in strip malls across the country.

In conjunction with Alessi, Michael Graves was also influential in product design. For years his designs, ranging from tea kettles to clocks, were bestsellers at Target stores. Following a spinal chord infection in 2003, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, Graves developed a passion for improving hospitals and other facilities for the disabled.

Michael Graves' Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky (completed in 1985)
Michael Graves’ Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky (completed in 1985)

Michael Torke’s Musical Postmodernism

There are some key differences and similarities between music and architecture: Music is pure art, while architecture is a mix of art and utility. A bad piece of music is avoidable and short-lived. An architectural mistake is there for a long time, and as Frank lloyd Wright pointed out, planting vines may be the only way to solve the problem. At their best, both music and architecture are “of the spirit.” Elegant solutions seem to flow out of limitations. Ideas emerge in a flash and then develop. From the inner ear of the composer to the architect’s pencil sketch, the same mysterious creative process is at work.

In a previous post we explored the similarities between architectural and musical postmodernism. For me, Michael Torke’s music embodies the same playful postmodern spirit we see in Michael Graves’ buildings. Listen to Javelin (1994) and see if you agree:

And here is Run (1992), a piece in which one exuberant motive finds continuous musical adventure. Listen to the way this motive slowly takes shape in the opening. Torke seems to make an almost cartoonish reference to Steve Reich’s additive process (gradual change by adding one note at at time).

Torke describes the piece saying,

Though this music is not meant to be programmatic, one could imagine the moving panorama and feeling of uplift in a morning jogger breathing in the still fresh urban air.

Arvo Pärt: Spirit in Sound and Space

Architect Steven Holl's Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.
Architect Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.

In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussionSpirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff.

For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Knut Hamsun Centertwo hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Hamarøy, Norway, register the flow of time with constant, subtly changing plays of light and shadow. Holl notes that Arvo Pärt “sees sound as space.” 

“Music surrounds you. It’s an immersive experience” says Holl, whose work is influenced by music. “Architecture, space surrounds you.”

Zatorre points out that the parietal lobe of the brain handles our perception of music as well as space. His insights, based on a strictly mechanistic view of the workings of the brain, are interesting, but in the end they leave many questions unanswered. The “spirit” part of the conversation remains elusive. What is the source of a creative idea? How do great buildings suddenly emerge out of Steven Holl’s brushstrokes? Albert Einstein hinted at these questions when he said,

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

A new voice emerges…

The story of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) demonstrates the mysteries of the creative process. At the end of the 1960s, Pärt suddenly abandoned the dissonant, twelve tone music of the mid-century musical establishment. For eight years he was unable to compose beyond musical fragments jotted in a notebook. Then, in 1976 a new and radically different voice suddenly emerged with Für Alina, a three minute piece for piano:

All music flows through time. Listening to the mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, there’s an equally powerful sense of time flowing through music. It’s easy to become one with the moment in Pärt’s music. It allows us to “enter inside the sound.” You might be reminded of the meditative, circular flow of Gregorian Chant or the music of Lassus or Palestrina

Pärt’s style of writing, which suggests the overtones of bells, is known as Tintinnabulation. He describes it here:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

Silentium

Silentium is the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977):

Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance of Canon of Repentance, which took place June 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.