It has often been said that music is liquid architecture and, from as far back as the Renaissance, you will find examples of musical works that were written to fit the geometry of specific buildings. Here are five of them.
1. Benedict Mason‘s Meld
Written for the geometry of the Royal Albert Hall, this 2016 work by the British composer Benedict Mason saw 144 musicians placed throughout the building with precise maps and instructions. Every part of the auditorium – including the boxes – and the corridors outside were used during the 45-minute work, as the singers and instrumentalists moved from level to level in carefully choreographed fashion, performing from memory and co-ordinated by electronic click tracks piped into their ears.
2. Adriaen Willaert‘s Salmi spezzati
As maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s in Venice, a role he took on in 1527, Adrian Willaert is often credited with being the first composer to write polychoral music tailored to the layout of the iconic building. As there were two choir lofts – one to each side of the main altar of St. Mark’s, both provided with an organ, the Netherlandish composer divided the choral body into two sections, using them either antiphonally or simultaneously. The tradition of writing that Willaert established during his time at St. Mark’s was continued by other composers working there throughout the 17th century, among them De Rore, Zarlino, Andrea Gabrieli, Donato, and Croce . In 1550 he published Salmi spezzati, antiphonal settings of the psalms, the first polychoral work of the Venetian school.
3. Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Permutations
This 2017 composition was written for a new architectural installation by Finbarr O’Dempsey and Andrew Skulina. It consisted of six overlaid parts, performed by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, which had been recorded separately and distributed through the building. Listeners were invited to enter the space, then treat it as a musical instrument itself, opening and closing the doors of the chambers in various combinations to emphasise different parts of the music with the aim being to illuminate the complexity and interest in a polyphonic composition beneath its surface wall of sound.
4.Edgard Varèse‘s Poème électronique
This 8-minute piece of electronic music by the 20th century French composer Edgard Varèse was written for the Philips Pavilion – a stomach-shaped construction in Brussels designed by Le Corbusier to celebrate postwar technological progress. Saying he wanted to create a ‘poem in a bottle’, Varèse composed the piece using noises that were not usually considered ‘musical’ throughout and the resulting work was synchronized to a film of black and white photographs selected by Le Corbusier which touched on vague themes of human existence. The piece was played for the Pavilion’s opening at the Brussels World’s Fair, alongside the electronic composition Concret PH by the Greek architect and composer Iannis Xenakis, who also acted as Le Corbusier’s architectural assistant for the pavilion’s design.
5. Dani Howard‘s Casa Batlló Soundtrack
Written over lockdown, this piece provides the soundtrack for an audio tour of the recently restored Casa Battló in Barcelona, designed by the great Catalan Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Working with a sound team in Berlin, Howard created 27 pieces of music, one for each of the building’s 27 rooms, with the intention of paying homage to Gaudí’s flair for colour and eccentricity. Howard explains: ‘The whole building is inspired by water and the sea. The roof looks like a dragon’s back. The ceiling is shaped like a rib cage. The windows are shaped like turtles. There’s only one straight line in the whole building. Everything is revolutionary: Gaudí created this ventilation system inspired by the gills of the fish. And because the spaces are all so different, the variety of sonic worlds you could explore is huge.’