Cities of music

Brick Wall, photo of a red brick wall reflecting sunlight


It takes me about eight minutes to walk from my home to the office. I leave the modern red-brick houses, passing the children’s playground, the wasteland slowly being converted into playing fields, and the old warehouses, one of which is now home to a judo centre and gym. Flat, blocky office buildings announce optimistic visions from the Fifties across the street. I cross the main road opposite the peace garden built among the ruins of an old church destroyed by bombing during the last world war, its clocktower still standing but no longer functional. After more modern red-brick homes, a bridge crosses the Victorian canal and leads to what in their industrial heyday would have been foundries and japponing workshops, now converted into offices for a law firm, a student marketing company, and public agencies.

red brick     see-saw     earth-mover     metal shutters     stained concrete     frozen clock     still water     hidden courtyard

No grand master plan binds all the different architectures I encounter between home and work into one overarching logic. The thinking behind some individual decisions can easily be guessed — putting the workshops close to the canal for easy transport of raw materials and finished goods, for example. The situation overall, however, would seem to be the result of multiple competing visions pursued over time by planning officers, property developers, home and business owners, and other actors, each responding to decisions made by others before them. This is not to mention the play of chance, the influence of various conventions and traditions, technological developments (leading, for example, to the canal being superseded for commercial transport by road and rail), and the odd erstwhile Luftwaffe bomb.

sloping roof     basket swing     flapping banner     offices to let     landscaped garden     smoking barge     vinyl decals     metal entry buzzers

It’s rare to see such a jumble of contrasts and juxtapositions in places that haven’t been extensively modified by human activities. We could say that it is a defining feature of a distinctly urban aesthetic, an aesthetic of cities. The transitions could be gradual or sharp: stand and watch as a long straight street unfurls a history of architectural styles, or turn a corner and be immediately plunged into a whole different world. Tall contrasts with squat and with stepped and with slope; towers once visible for a mile around are now hemmed in by blocks of flats. Red and grey and brown and yellow and green; concrete and tarmac and brick and glass and slate. I move through a matrix of combinations both planned and unplanned, expected and surprising.

Playground, silhouette of fence and swing in the sunlight


How are works of contemporary experimental music organised? How do composers decide the order in which to place their sounds? Trying to answer these questions in terms of traditional musical devices such as theme and variation or tension and release can often draw a blank. Listen in a certain way, however, and a strong resemblance between the structure of cities and the structure of some recent experimental music becomes audible. Discrete units of sound with distinct, contrasting timbres and harmonies are placed next to one another in time in the same way that different architectural styles and functions are to be found next to one another along a network of city streets. We move from one sounding event to the next, from juxtaposition to juxtaposition, contrast to contrast.

Take ‘Fade the Species’, from Mathieu Ruhlmann and Chris Strickland’s album “This Heap Is Greater Light”, as an example. The piece opens with a glistening hum, soon joined by squelching and ringing. Then there are voices, and a faint chord, while the ringing continues in the background. Next, a faint tone, and the hum of the city fades in slowly. Muffled voices; a quiet melody. A series of auditory scenes unfolds, sometimes with development within a scene, sometimes with a transitioning sound that carries over between them. The music doesn’t work its way towards a chorus or climax; there’s no grand revelation to impart the sense of an ending. There is simply continual change, with varying degrees of abruptness.

glistening hum     squelching and ringing     voices and a faint chord     a faint tone     the hum of the city     muffled voices     a quiet melody

Office Block, modernist office block with road in foreground and church steeple in background

Ruhlmann and Strickland make use of electro-acoustic techniques and draw on a wide range of sound sources, emphasising the contrasts between their different auditory scenes. But music with a more restricted range of timbres can also resemble the aesthetic of cities in its structure. I’m thinking particularly of Taku Sugimoto’s ‘mada’, as performed by Ryoko Akama, Cristián Alvear, Cyril Bondi, and d’incise. The piece’s two sounding sections are comprised of discrete sounding events featuring different combinations of four instruments, in this instance separated by short pauses. The only structuring logic audible to the listener is the juxtaposition of contrasting harmonies and timbres; in this way the piece reflects the juxtaposition of contrasting architectures found in contemporary cities.

guitar     harmonium-guitar     feedback-guitar     bowed metal-guitar     feedback-harmonium-bowed metal     guitar-harmonium     harmonium-feedback     guitar-feedback-bowed metal     guitar



To suggest that the structure of some experimental music bears a resemblance to the structure of cities isn’t to imply that the music is about the city, as if this amounted to an explanation of the music’s essential meaning. Both ‘Fade the Species’ and ‘mada’ have much more going on inside and between their soundings. When it comes to the problem of how composers structure their material, perhaps the most that could be said is that the city in its form of organisation offers a sort of template that sometimes provides a solution, either consciously or subconsciously.

Or perhaps I’ve simply invented the whole thing, as a way of connecting the city I walk through every day to the music I listen to and that initially presents itself to me in the form of a puzzle. Maybe it’s just a strategy I apply when trying to solve this puzzle, to help me make sense of what I hear. Even if so, it’s something that increases the pleasure and insight the music brings me. To listen to music as if walking through a city; to become familiar with every moss-fringed pavement and shuttered window; to learn a sequence of transitions as a way of knowing where I am. How does your environment affect how you listen?

Canal, photo from a bridge looking down on a dark canal, strong lens flare

This Heap Is Greater Light


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