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)

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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.

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Wagner’s Musical Kaleidoscope

Unknown-6Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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In my last post we explored a fun, eight minute piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer, Michael Torke.  I asked you to pay attention to the rich orchestral colors in the music.

Now go back and listen a few more times to pick up some new details.  Do you hear bright, shimmering colors?  Do you feel swept along by the music’s motion?  Maybe the leaps and falls of the woodwind and string lines suggest flowing, rippling water or crashing waves?  In the comment thread, one listener heard “a fast moving movie,” constant surprises, and allusions to the music of John Williams (who also wrote music for the Olympics).

In this piece (and other music of Torke) fleeting, momentary cartoon-like references to John Williams, Beethoven, Ravel and other music pop up and then disappear back into a great musical melting pot.  These moments function as musical signifiers.

In his program notes, here is what Michael Torke wrote about the piece:

“I had three goals in mind when I began this piece for the Atlanta Symphony’s anniversary: I wanted to use the orchestra as a virtuosic instrument, I wanted to use triads (three-note tonal chords), and I wanted the music to be thematic. I knew I would welcome swifter changes of mood than what is found in my earlier music. What came out (somewhat unexpectantly) was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps that remined me of something in flight: a light spear thrown, perhaps, but not in the sense of a weapon, more in the spirit of a competition. When the word javelin suddenly suggested itself, I couldn’t help but recall the 1970s model of sports car my Dad owned, identified by that name, but I concluded, why not? Even that association isn’t so far off from the general feeling of the piece. Its fast tempo calls for 591 measures to evoke the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”

Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin…Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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This music opens Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin.  One of the most influential composers of the Romantic period, Wagner was innovative in the way he used (and enlarged) the orchestra.

The Prelude grows out of (and at the end returns to) a single A Major chord.  Listen to the way the chord changes in color as sections of the orchestra (strings, woodwinds, and brass) merge in and out, like a musical kaleidoscope.  In these moments, it is the pure sound you want to enjoy.

As the music unfolds, what kind of motion do you sense?  How is it similar or different to Torke’s Javelin? Pay attention to the instruments in the opening of the piece.  Do you hear mostly high or low pitches?  As the music progresses, do you notice any gradual change?  Is there a large-scale shape unfolding in the music?  If there is, how is Wagner achieving this?

Hearing Colors in the Music of Michael Torke

Colouring pencils


Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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When you listen to music do you hear colors?  The idea of musical color may seem like a strange mixing of the senses, but color is an important element of music, along with motion, energy, flow and fabric.*

For violinists, color is synonymous with timbre.  We often choose between playing the same pitch in a lower position on a higher string (creating a bright tone) and playing in a higher position on a lower string (creating a darker, thicker and sometimes more veiled and velvety sound).  It all depends on what color the music calls for.

This month I’m excited to introduce you to a piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer Michael Torke.  In my own listening, I find myself drawn to Torke’s music.  It unfolds in a deeply satisfying way and captures the rich, sonic color pallet possibilities of a full symphony orchestra.

Most of us perceive musical color as a metaphor, but Michael Torke experiences it literally and involuntarily.  He has a neurological condition known as synesthesia. Dr. Oliver Sachs, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, defines synesthesia as “an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.” Michael Torke experiences each musical key as a different color.  Here are some interesting interviews where Sachs and Torke discuss synesthesia.

Javelin was commissioned in 1994 to celebrate the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Listen to Javelin and enjoy any musical colors you may hear.  Is the music bright or dark? What feelings does it give you?  Does any particular moment in the music conjure up feelings that are real but hard to put into words?  What kind of energy does the music have? Notice the way it flows, evolves and unfolds. Does any visual image beyond color come to mind?

Take a moment and leave a comment with your perceptions.  Feel free to site specific moments in the music with the track time.  If you have the involuntary sensual associations of synesthesia, please describe your experience. Also, continue to listen to the other music we have explored so far.  The more times you listen, the more you will hear.  In the middle of the month we’ll get together again with additional thoughts about Javelin and I’ll share another piece that highlights musical color.

(*The Musical Elements: Who Said They’re Right?, Robert A. Cutietta, Music Educators Journal, May, 1993, pg. 48)