Cast Iron Symphony: A Concerto for Buildings

In May, composer and acoustician Anne Guthrie took UO readers on a soundwalk of the city through recordings of unique soundscapes across four boroughs. She also broke down those soundscapes into their elements, among them the unique sonic event — a happening, like a festival, that produces ephemeral, out-of-the-norm environments. Such events are the raison d’être of Make Music New York, a series of more than one thousand free concerts in public space in every corner of New York on the summer solstice for the past nine years and, since 2011, on the winter solstice as well. And this year one concert moved beyond playing in the street among the city’s buildings to playing the buildings themselves.

On June 21st in SoHo, Greene Street between Broome and Grand was occupied by a full orchestra from youth ensemble Face the Music and percussionists from Mantra Youth Percussion playing on the neighborhood’s characteristic cast iron facades. Inspired by composer Daniel Goode’s previous walks through the neighborhood, in which participants were encouraged to bang on the hollow, resonant frontages, three composers joined Goode in writing movements for the instruments of the orchestra and the buildings that together created the Concerto for Buildings. Below, watch and listen to each movement from the Concerto and read short interviews from two of the piece’s creators. Kevin Moran, percussionist, describes the joy of unconventional instruments and the process of reading and playing music for a building. Paula Matthusen, composer and Rome Prize Fellow, explains the draw and possibility of composing music that explores the infrastructure of cities. Next time you’re walking in SoHo, give a building a whack: you might be surprised by what you find.

J.T. 

Jonathan Tarleton: How did you get involved with Mantra Youth Percussion?
Kevin Moran: I’m a sophomore at Ridgewood High School, in Ridgewood, NJ. Joe Bergen, the director of the ensemble, also directed the drumline for our school’s marching band this year, and he invited me to join. I’ve been playing percussion for going on nine years. I also play guitar, clarinet, and a little bit of piano, and I’m very into composing and arranging modern music.

What makes the ensemble a good fit for an unconventional performance like the Concerto for Buildings?
Mantra Youth Percussion is really the only independent youth percussion ensemble around that plays modern music. Our purpose is to do things exactly like the concerto.

Unconventional music like this also attracts percussionists more so than wind or string players because high school band arrangements generally have crappy percussion parts. So if you get asked, “hey, do you want to go play on a building?”, you’re like, “what?! totally man.” One piece we played in Mantra, “Science is Only Sometimes a Friend” by Aaron Siegel, was for eight glockenspiels and one organ. The glockenspiels maintain the same rhythm the entire time, as does the organ, though the rhythms of the two instruments are different from one another. The only thing that varied throughout was the pitch. That’s something that you don’t really see a lot. That stuff is hip.

Mantra Youth percussionists | Photo via Getty Images

Most people think of music as either orchestras or rock bands or singer-songwriters, but fundamentally music is sound used to communicate an idea. Maybe that idea can be best communicated through an unconventional method, and that’s not a new thing — when big bands were big, the slides Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were doing on the clarinet hadn’t really been seen before.

In terms of unconventionality, nonstandard notation is big. Daniel Goode, one of the composers, gave us music that I wouldn’t have known what to do with had you showed it to me a couple of years ago. One page was text instructions and the other was full of self-contained musical ideas. It wasn’t, here is a score, this person plays this part at this time, everything lines up, and it’s all notated in a standard format. It was something that the composer came up with for this new idea, because it was the easiest way to communicate that idea.

How does that compare to how the other composers notated music for the building?
They were all different. Scott [Wollschleger] and Elijah [Valongo]’s pieces both looked like standard sheet music. Paula [Matthusen]’s piece — this was really cool — had a timed electronic component. For the percussion part, every 15 seconds we had a new musical idea or several ideas for which she often wrote non-specific timing. Our percussion section might have had a 1-&-a-2, but we didn’t necessarily play that together. In fact sometimes it was notated so that we did not play it together. And then in some cases we would move to bring our rhythms into unison on cue from the conductor. I’d never played something like that before.

Do you have to read music written for a building differently than you might for another instrument?
There’s a couple of things I think about when reading music. Some of them stay the same from instrument to instrument and some of them don’t. The first step is to look at the music and understand the notes and the rhythm — all the dynamics and musicality that go into it. The second step is to know what that means for your instrument. For a xylophone that means hitting the right keys. For a building like the ones we played on, it would mean hitting the right panel with the right force. Understanding what the music is asking changes when you look at a piece like Paula’s, because how the piece sounds is more open to the performer to influence. Like in a jazz combo, there are areas for interpretation, for embellishment and improvisation.

What was your ensemble’s process in discovering the unique aspects of these buildings so as to know where to strike for what effect?
We actually didn’t get to play on the buildings until the day of the performance, which was fun. But we were told that there would be different panels that would resonate differently. As you go up and down the columns, there are different pitches. They weren’t always in a line from high to low, nor would the second panel up from the ground on one column be the same pitch as that on another column. It was more the idea of relative pitch. That was also an element in Paula’s piece — for the building and percussion part, we had essentially three lines instead of notes named, and we went between those. There were rhythms written to go, for example, highest, lowest, middle, low, high. However there was no absolute pitch or timbre. Every performance could be different due to the performer, the instruments, the timbres, the pitches, but the idea would still be communicated through the relative pitches.

Mantra Youth percussionist plays on column panels of a cast iron facade. | Photo via Getty Images

How did the setting of the street or the architecture affect the performance?
When I think about music and architecture, I think of concert halls with all their specialized acoustics. But playing outdoors, people came up to me, and we just talked about playing on buildings. Music needn’t be reserved for specific concert venues — it’s a form of communication and a part of everyday life. It kind of reminds me of musicals when all of a sudden a bunch of characters break out into song. That’s pretty cool. It’s just having a soundtrack to your life. That’s what that moment is.

Did playing the Concerto change your perspective on the buildings you were playing or their possibilities in any way?
I don’t know if anyone’s going to read this and say, I want to design a building to have people play on it. But Daniel Goode said that he just put his arm on one of the buildings to rest for a second, and it made a sound. That’s how he came up with this idea. So instead of a building being designed to have a sound that could be an instrument, I think anything could really be an instrument, especially for percussion. I was talking about how music communicates things — but if you look to history, classical music started as a religious thing, and it became a luxury that only nobility could afford to see. Now it’s something that is, I don’t want to say easy to produce, but that everyone can get their hands on. And music can be about anything. It can be about a city block. It can be, this is what me walking to work sounds like. Or there’s a building here that sounds like this.

Read on for an interview with composer Paula Matthusen and to watch the movement she created for the Concerto for Buildings, entitled “Now That We Have So Much in Common.”

Jonathan Tarleton: How would you describe your compositional work, and how does it relate to the Concerto for Buildings?
Paula Matthusen: A lot of my recent work has had to do with historical infrastructures of cities. This began with the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, which was constructed in 1844 and is now sealed, working with Bob Diamond and the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association. About three years ago I was able to crawl into the tunnel and make a bunch of recordings that generated a piece. From there I got interested in the Old Croton Aqueduct because of the confluence of water technology and train technology — two lifelines of the city. The friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct gave me access to different parts of the aqueduct, from which I generated a number of pieces. That experience led me to Rome, where I’m working on another series of aqueducts, but ones with a very different timescale.

I also wrote a piece for Mantra Percussion that had to do with city infrastructure and historical lifelines of cities. So when the opportunity came up to work with these particular buildings, that’s part of why they approached me. Daniel Goode is the one who knew their secret powers, and all the composers took very different approaches toward working with that material. Outside of just liking Mantra as performers, that’s why I was really excited to do this project.

Aboveground infrastructure of the Old Croton Aqueduct | Photo by ScubaBear68

What do you find interesting about these infrastructures, especially from a musical perspective, and how do you approach them in your work?
I’m drawn to them in part because I think they still possess so much relevance to contemporary city life. It’s fascinating to look at how the city grows up around these technologies. The Old Croton Aqueduct isn’t functional anymore, but it’s not inert, right? It’s active. There’s a lot of play within the space acoustically, because there’s so much going on in the exterior world that reverberates inside these tunnels. We might not think of them all the time, but they’re there, and they have their own specific behaviors and characteristics. Playing with the sonic potential of these spaces to create new material is fun.

People tend to imagine beautiful places with lots of water when I say I’m recording the Old Croton or the Roman aqueducts. But no, things have happened in between. There are a lot of layers of different types of infrastructures over these historical pathways, in part because they’re just so old. Only one out of eleven ancient Roman aqueducts runs continuously, from the aquifer that feeds the Trevi Fountain. So the enduring question across these projects is not only what are the lifelines of cities but also how does a city forget itself?

Part of what I like about the Concerto for Buildings is this surreal moment — the facades of the buildings are meant to look like heavy, imposing stones. But out of the necessity of materials and construction, they’re cast iron, which gives them a resonance. When someone goes up and strikes it with a mallet, and people hear that, many of them gasp because the experience doesn’t match the sonic expectation. In the process, you reveal something interesting about the history and the production technique.

Tell us about the movement you wrote for the concerto — what were you trying to evoke with it?
The piece is called “Now That We Have So Much in Common,” a title adapted from a piece of original text that playwright Abi Basch wrote for another project I worked on. I liked this idea of the orchestra as a group of individuals, each with the specificity of his or her instrument, that agrees to play something together. Part of what’s exciting about this sort of endeavor between Make Music New York, Mantra Youth Percussion, and Face the Music is the engagement across generations and how it reaches out into the public. It’s not every day you walk down the street and see people banging on buildings with the full regalia of percussion and strings and winds next to them.

I’ve been working in Rome, so I only had recordings to work off to imagine the space. In thinking of the city as an instrument, you have the initial noisiness of the city and the street. Even though it has a certain kind of narrowness and quietness to it, that street is capable of producing quite a lot of sound just from natural human activity, in part because it’s paved with cobblestones.

Face The Music percussionist plays on cast iron facade | Photo via Getty Images

Then you have the strike, that percussive bonk, against the building. The whole street becomes an instrument and a resonator in a way, an acoustical chamber for the ensemble and then people are actually playing the walls of that chamber. I started to play with those recordings to create an electronic accompaniment to the ensemble. I separated the strike against the building from all the ambient noise and decay of sound in the street when it isn’t blocked off. And then I forced those two into a relationship in different configurations, as if they were oppositional.

The performance was a blast — all of us were riding the waves of this nervous energy and then jubilation when everything sort of miraculously came together.

Greene Street, where the Concerto was performed, and one of buildings used as an instrument | Photo by Ben Pardee

How does this performance compare to some of your other work in terms of unconventional instrumentation or its location in the public realm?
Part of the excitement around this particular gig is that it is so site-specific. You can plan and you can imagine, but you don’t know how it will turn out until you get there. It’s definitely one of the largest undertakings in terms of getting a bunch of people all together outdoors that I’ve done. But I also do a lot of work with sound installations and am very interested in site-specific, or very performer-specific, work. So that’s been somewhat consistent for me across a bunch of different arenas.

As far as instrumentation goes, I’ve been performing with reel-to-reel tape players and other unconventional tools. Many of the performers and composers I work with very closely develop idiosyncratic techniques, so even if they’re playing a conventional instrument they tend to play them unconventionally. I find that exciting and interesting. And then with sound installations, I’ll sometimes build wildly impractical set-ups that do something specific. I’m interested in the fallibility of systems and when things get messy in very specific ways, so that’s part of what drew me to the buildings. They have this imposing, perfect facade in a way, but there’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors going on.

Mantra percussionist plays in the Concerto for Buildings | Photo by Xandra Clark

You mentioned your piece about Roman aqueducts, which you’re developing as a Rome Prize Fellow. What’s that process been like?
It’s been a very fruitful experience; there’s just a fantastic community here. I started doing the aqueduct piece basically the second I arrived because I had so much ground to cover. So I went out to some very remote areas to do recordings with scholars and different artists. Part of what I like about these large-scale endeavors is that the figure of the isolated composer completely evaporates. So much of it is engaging with a space, engaging with an environment, engaging with performers or other contributors with whom you can start to develop a community. The piece becomes a shared experience, both in its creation and in its final performance. There’s the possibility for people interested in sound to engage with these spaces, and for people drawn to these spaces to become interested in their sonic livelihood.

Kevin Moran is a New Jersey-based vocal and instrumental performer and composer. He has been playing for nearly nine years and has performed and written works for numerous ensembles spanning a variety of styles and instrumentations.

Paula Matthusen writes both electroacoustic and acoustic music and realizes sound installations. She has written for diverse instrumentations, such as “run-on sentence of the pavement” for piano, ping-pong balls, and electronics, which Alex Ross of The New Yorker noted as being “entrancing”. Her work often considers discrepancies in musical space: real, imagined, and remembered. Awards include the Walter Hinrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Fulbright Grant, two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers’ Awards, and recently the 2014 Elliott Carter Rome Prize. She is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Wesleyan University.



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