An architectural creation myth borrowed from the phenomenology of music



Stephen Parcell



Sound versus musical sound

One of the many books in the music library that illuminate architecture obliquely is Thomas Clifton, Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology.1 In the late 1970s Clifton and another philosopher of music, F. Joseph Smith, carried out separate phenomenological studies, methodically bracketing out peripheral circumstances to discern essential premises of music. To make a long story very short, both concluded that the human experience of sound is the starting point of music. Smith distinguishes between sound and musical sound:

Musical sound is more than just raw sound. The roar of the ocean is not yet music, though it is primordial sound. Raw sound becomes musical sound only after it has been processed through … definite categories.2

Clifton adds,

Music is an ordered arrangement of sounds and silences whose meaning is presentative rather than denotative… . This distinguishes music … from sounds as purely physical objects… . The same sound, under different circumstances, can be interpreted as either music or nonmusic.3

We understand most of the sounds around us in a denotative way, relying on them – in conjunction with visual sights and other clues – to denote particular features in our surroundings, especially nearby things that are moving. Meanwhile, we may understand other sounds around us as musical because they are organized deliberately and are meaningful in a different way. Music is presented in the sounds (and silences). Normally we do not regard musical sounds denotatively: to denote, for example, that there is an oboe buzzing around the room. Both Clifton and Smith indicate that the basic distinction here is between sounds and musical sounds. They emphasize that sound is essential: “The sound source … must be there if we are to experience music at all.”4

Pythagorean theory

This scenario may seem self-evident, but Western music theory is based on different premises. Followers of Pythagoras in the fifth century BCE noticed that pairs of tones that sound consonant are generated by a taut string that is subdivided into different lengths with simple ratios: 2:1 produces an octave; 3:2 produces a fifth; 4:3 produces a fourth, etc. This seemed to provide a rare empirical proof that the universe is based on simple numbers. Consequently, music theory based on mathematics was regarded as a form of universal knowledge and later became instituted as one of the four liberal arts of the quadrivium. Although the experience of sound provided the initial evidence, writers on music theory, especially Boëthius in the sixth century CE, emphasized the numbers and declared that sound is only a secondary, non-essential attribute. He stated, “Pythagoras … put no credence in human ears, which are subject to change.”5 Discussing the cosmic music of the spheres, Boëthius also suggested that the extremely fast motions of heavenly bodies produce sounds but they are inaudible to humans.6

One consequence of this belief in musical mathematics is that Western music has relied primarily on pitch intervals: not absolute pitches that are high or low, but proportional relations between pitches.7 In theory, a C-major triad in a low register is identical to a C-major triad in a high register. This proportional relationship was the basis of harmony in Western music.8 Due to Pythagorean mathematics and the Neoplatonic and Christian connotations it had acquired, listening to medieval chants could be understood as witnessing perfect numerical proportions; the sound then would be incidental. Similarly, observing medieval religious buildings could be understood as witnessing perfect numerical proportions; the substance then would be incidental. Western architecture theory has been based primarily on form, starting from the ratio between the lengths of adjacent sides of a rectangle. This proportional relationship was the basis of harmony in Western ­architecture. In both disciplines the numerical proportions were believed to provide a glimpse of the divine order of the universe.

Meanwhile, music was understood not just as numbers. Alongside this universal music theory was a tradition of musical performances for human enjoyment; however, the two traditions were kept separate to avoid contaminating the religious concepts. Church officials warned against complex melodies and rhythms that would distract worshippers and “stir lascivious sensations in the loins.”9 Similarly, architecture was understood not only as numbers. Alongside this universal architecture theory was a medieval tradition of building in which materials were used skillfully to make things that compensate for intrinsic human weakness.10 This tradition also was grounded in religion but did not share the mathematical premises of church architecture.

Timbre and materiality

When analyzing even a single sound, focusing on its primary pitch implicitly downplays its other characteristics: intensity and especially timbre. As Clifton notes,

In our culture, a great deal of importance is given to the role of pitch and interval … while texture, timbre, gesture, dynamics, and duration are frequently thought of as secondary, something that pitches and intervals have. If a French horn prolongs an open E, and then quickly mutes it, is it the same E? Logically, yes; but in terms of musical behavior, I think not.11

In nineteenth-century music theory, timbre was conceived as a tertiary characteristic of sound: an incidental quality that can be defined only indirectly, as the leftover attribute that differentiates two sounds with the same pitch and intensity.12 To compose music in this way, one would start with different pitches and perhaps different intensities, then add timbre for flavor. Both pitch and intensity can be quantified and notated easily (e.g., middle A at double forte; or 440 cycles per second at 55 decibels) but timbre cannot. To analyze timbre objectively, several components would have to be considered: the attack and decay with which the sound begins and ends, the many constituent pitches within the timbre, and the different intensities of those pitches.13 To build up the complex properties of a particular timbre from scratch would be a difficult task.

Timbre is difficult to conceive but easy to perceive. All creatures recognize timbre intuitively from experience and memory. Sitting still with our eyes closed, we rely largely on different timbres to recognize things in our surroundings: the turning of a page, the boiling of a kettle, or a knock at the door. From a timbral standpoint, pitch is merely one simplified component of timbre, not a primary attribute in its own right. Most of the sounds around us do not have only a single primary pitch. To compose music that emphasizes timbre, one would work directly with sound and not be overly concerned with primary pitches or their graphic notation.

When analyzing even a single substance, focusing on its primary form implicitly downplays its other characteristics: size and especially materiality. Western architecture theory regards materiality as a tertiary characteristic of substance: an incidental quality that can be defined only indirectly, as the leftover attribute that differentiates two substances with the same form and size. To compose architecture in this way, one would start with different forms and perhaps different sizes, then add materiality for flavor. Both form and size can be quantified and represented easily (e.g., a cube, 2’ x 2’ x 2’) but materiality cannot. To analyze materiality objectively, several components would have to be considered: its texture and resilience, its tones and colors, and its many constituent forms at different scales.14 To build up the complex properties of a particular material from scratch would be a difficult task.

Materiality is difficult to conceive but easy to perceive. All creatures recognize materiality implicitly from experience and memory. Moving around with our eyes and ears closed, we rely largely on materiality to recognize things in our surroundings: the delicacy of paper, the steam from a kettle, or the solidity of a door. From a material standpoint, form is merely one simplified component of materiality, not a primary attribute in its own right. Most of the substances around us do not have only a single primary form. To design architecture that emphasizes materiality, one would work directly with substance and not be overly concerned with primary forms or their graphic notation.

Music versus non-music

Underlying the distinction between Pythagorean theory and everyday performance, as well as the distinction between pitch interval and timbre, is a more basic issue: the grounds on which one defines what is and what is not music. Pythagorean theory relies on numerical relations that are essentially silent and autonomous. Clifton’s phenomenological analysis points instead to actual sounds that are perceived by humans.15 He acknowledges that sounds exist objectively, like trees and mountains, but says that music requires a receptive listener to distinguish the denotative sounds of one’s surroundings from the presentative sounds of musical order. Certain sounds that one hears in the forest might be recognized as musical. The situation here includes only the sound and the human listener, not yet the intentions of a composer. To focus on this basic musical event, Clifton brackets out peripheral elements, including a composer, an act of composition, instruments, performers, and a score. He notes that one person may recognize certain sounds in the forest as musical whereas another may not; however, we tend to agree on such things. Musical sounds in the forest need not emphasize pitch intervals. We tend to focus on pitch but can recognize musical order also in rhythms and in sequences of timbres. Music we don’t like may be dismissed as “noise,” but we still recognize it as music.

In distinguishing music from non-music, Clifton points out that music is perceived not as a set of individual sounds but as a larger figure with rhythm, form, motion, direction, and degrees of stability and instability.16 The primary phenomenon is gesture.17 Musical events create their own time; they do not happen in time. Describing music as fast, smooth, high, low, ascending, descending, bright, or colorful indicates that we experience music not only temporally and aurally but also in a quasi-spatial way that recognizes forces.18 It tends to rely on tonality, which provides the narrative structure for most Western music: harmony exerts a pull on dissonant sounds to bring them back to a state of rest.19 These descriptions suggest that we rely on previous bodily experience to interpret what the music is doing.20 Here, Clifton’s approach follows that of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who stressed that we understand our surroundings reciprocally through the body, in a continuous intertwining that provides the essential ground for any subsequent abstractions.21 No one has written a phenomenological analysis of architecture that is comparable to what Clifton wrote for music, so approaching architecture circuitously via the phenomenology of music is a second option.

Architecture versus building

Like “music,” “architecture” is an abstract noun. It is inherently singular and does not designate particular things such as songs and buildings. Paul Valéry suggested that music and architecture share a special relationship because they exist in our surroundings and, unlike other arts, do not rely on representational images or words as intermediaries.22 However, recognizing architecture has become much more difficult. As Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “In general, we no longer understand architecture – at least, not nearly as well as we understand music.”23 A recognition of music relies on an intuitive perception of order, whereas a recognition of architecture relies on attributes that are esoteric, sophisticated, and often contradictory.24 Architectural ­theorists have drawn many different lines between what is and what is not architecture. They have proposed various criteria to distinguish an architectural attribute from a non-architectural attribute: proportionate versus non-proportionate, ornate versus plain, grand versus humble, complex versus simple, unique versus typical, rich versus poor, sacred versus secular, etc. All of these criteria are illustrated by Nikolaus Pevsner’s statement, “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.”25 Pevsner’s two examples sit at opposite ends of an ascending scale: Lincoln Cathedral has all seven architectural attributes, whereas the bicycle shed has all seven non-architectural attributes. By avoiding the middle zone, where a building might be ornate but simple, proportionate but secular, or sacred but plain, Pevsner avoided drawing a more decisive line between architecture and building. However, even if he had done so, the line would be arbitrary and debatable because architecture and building are situated on a continuous sliding scale. There is no categorical distinction between them – only a graduated distinction that requires a well-educated critic to employ the overlapping criteria. The graduated scale has no intrinsic division, so there is plenty of opportunity for debate over whether a given building qualifies as architecture. The ascending scale from building to architecture is unidirectional: buildings aspire to be architecture but architecture does not aspire to be building. Pevsner’s prime architectural example of Lincoln Cathedral is recognized also as a building, so the lower designation is encompassed by the upper one. Due to the many overlapping criteria it has acquired, the word “architecture” has become sufficiently ambiguous to be adopted for novel domains such as “molecular architecture” and “computer architecture” that are not associated with buildings.26

Architectural education and practice have reinforced these sophisticated definitions of architecture. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the discipline of architecture has been studied increasingly at a university level.27 It is now regarded as a composite subject that is defined in an indirect way, based on the multiple facets it shares with other subjects: art, engineering, sociology, psychology, history, etc. Because architecture has no presence in primary or secondary education, it is assumed to be an esoteric subject with no roots of its own in childhood experience. Aptitude for architecture often is assumed from a student’s previous abilities in cognate subjects such as drawing and mathematics, or from equal strengths in arts and sciences. Due to the many responsibilities that architectural education has acquired, design tends to emphasize productive lessons with direct applications.28 As a practice, architecture is defined by government legislation and regulated by professional bodies that set the criteria and standards to determine who is and who is not an architect. By law, only registered architects can make architecture. Meanwhile, anyone can make music. This is not to suggest that everyone should be permitted to make buildings, but simply to point out that the word “architecture” is reserved for advanced professional activities and that we have no equivalent concept or word for more basic experiences and activities involving substance (and space) in our surroundings.29

Tecture versus non-tecture

In distinguishing music from non-music, Clifton elaborates on the basic human condition described by Merleau-Ponty: A human is immersed in worldly surroundings and uses bodily experience to develop a reciprocal understanding of the world and oneself. The world is recognized as a continuation of the flesh of the body. If the world has three dimensions, depth must be the first, as it presumes human involvement from the beginning.30 Merleau-Ponty strongly opposes any subject–object dichotomy and he struggles to describe this continuity in words, due to the resistance in Western languages that presume discontinuity and dichotomy. Even the word “surroundings” suggests an opposition of center and circumference. Merleau-Ponty regards the human experience of worldly immersion as the precondition for developing any subsequent abstractions.

In a similar way, Clifton’s distinction between music and non-music focuses on the sounds (and silences) in our surroundings and relies on a human observer to detect the subtle presence of musical sounds amidst other, denotative sounds. This is a creation myth for music: a momentous first occasion that remains an essential benchmark for all subsequent developments and abstractions. In the creation myth this could happen out in the forest, where denotative sounds would denote the features of one’s surroundings and any presentative musical sounds would be recognized immediately as belonging to a separate epistemological category (Figure 14.1).31

Some of our surroundings are sounds (and silences); some of our surroundings are substances (and spaces). In a parallel creation myth, alongside the one for music, most of the substances in the forest would denote one’s surroundings, but something is recognized as a subtle but deliberate organization that cannot be attributed to nature; it presents something different. The word “architecture” cannot be used here because it carries sophisticated connotations and employs an ascending scale that uses “building” rather than “substance” as its foil, so let’s introduce an irritating placeholder word – “tecture” – that avoids those connotations.32 In this forest setting the basic distinction is between substances and tectural substances – equivalent to the denotative–presentative distinction between sounds and musical sounds. Similar to what Clifton noted for music, substance must be present if we are to experience tecture at all. “Non-tecture” denotes the ambient features of one’s surroundings, whereas tecture presents a deliberate order of some kind. A paraphrase of Adolf Loos offers an illustration: “When we come across a mound in the wood, six feet long and three feet wide, raised to a pyramidal form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: somebody lies buried here. This is [tecture].33

Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on An architectural creation myth borrowed from the phenomenology of music
Premium Wordpress Themes by UFO Themes