Behind the Music

Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, operating theater in Frankfurt, May 21, 2016. Photo: Tibor-Florestan Pluto.

IN OUR EVER MORE INTERCONNECTED CULTURE, architecture’s predilection for interdisciplinarity has become a popular topic both inside and outside of the field, whether among those seeking to expand architecture’s reach or to co-opt its methodologies. Most of these conversations focus on a relatively narrow range of interaction with the visual arts, despite the fact that, historically, music has often been architecture’s closest partner. For centuries, while painters and sculptors were preoccupied with various techniques of mimesis, architects and musicians focused on more abstract compositional problems. Indeed, within the classical tradition the deep connection between spatial and sonic structures can be traced back as far as Pythagoras, who expounded a system of musical harmony based on mathematical ratios equally applicable to geometric relationships. During the Renaissance, the Greek philosopher’s theories became a cornerstone of architect Leon Battista Alberti’s celebrated theory of proportion, and influenced the architectural writings of polymath Daniele Barbaro, who declared that the secret of beauty “in music as well as in architecture is called harmony, mother of grace and of delight.” And Andrea Palladio himself based the dimensions of many of his buildings on mathematical ratios derived from harmonic intervals in music.

While this belief in a single, shared order has faded, an essential connection between musical and architectural composition has survived well into the modern era. The most famous example of this ongoing relationship is probably provided by Iannis Xenakis, whose musical training informed both the visual rhythms of the façade he designed for Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette and his design for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which deployed topologically deformed surfaces that were adapted directly from his research into polyvalent musical composition. Indeed, Xenakis remains best known for his 1971 magnum opus Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Even if the mode of Xenakis’s composition is diametrically opposed to that of a classical figure such as Palladio—having evolved from the static expression of a universal principle into the pursuit of nonlinear progressions that celebrate complexity and simultaneity—both point to the perennial appeal of the idea that the composition of space is indissociable from the composition of sound.

Daniel Libeskind might seem to be a natural candidate to extend this tradition, given that he was a child virtuoso who underwent years of musical training before he entered the field of architecture. Certainly the depth of his musical background was obvious in the concert series he organized in Frankfurt this past May. Yet this project, titled One Day in Life, actually suggests that, in a contemporary context, it may be less productive to celebrate the underlying mathematical structures that unite music and architecture formally, and more generative to interrogate the specific ways in which music, as a temporal art form, can change the ways in which we experience and inhabit architecture.

Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, Boxcamp Gallus, Frankfurt, May 22, 2016. Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Tibor-Florestan Pluto.

In response to an open-ended invitation from Stephan Pauly, the artistic director of the city’s Alte Oper, Libeskind conceived of a continuous twenty-four-hour concert series comprising seventy-five performances (many of them simultaneous) at eighteen venues scattered throughout Frankfurt. The architect’s goal was to move music from the rarefied space of the concert hall into the city at large, weaving music into the daily life of its residents. But by shifting the performances—which ranged from full orchestral concerts to solo violin recitals to electronic sound pieces—out of the opera house, Libeskind raised a series of puzzling questions. The space of a concert hall is tailored for musical performance in two senses: first in that it is calibrated for optimal acoustics, and second in that it is often designed to fade into the background so that audiences focus purely on listening. (In the latter sense, it is analogous to so-called minimalist museum spaces, where architecture’s material and spatial qualities are often suppressed in an effort to provide a space for pure looking.) But if not in one of these spaces, where should music be performed? And what should architecture’s role be in performance, if not simply one of neutrality? Perhaps most urgently, what criteria should be used to select specific venues from among the nearly infinite possibilities available in the city?

Because the problem was not one of design per se—or at least not one of creating a new architectural form—Libeskind could not base his choices on the kind of formal correspondences that guided figures like Palladio or Xenakis. Instead, the project became about more atmospheric, even affective, affinities and interactions between the qualities of a space and the music to be performed within it, often all the more powerful for being totally unexpected. A hardscrabble boxing club in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, for example, became the site for Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s rendition of Beethoven’s notoriously difficult Piano Sonata No. 31 Opus 110. The low ceilings and crowded space, with chairs packed in between punching bags, forced the audience into a direct confrontation with the sheer physicality of Aimard’s playing—his grimacing face, the sweat dripping off of his nose onto the keyboard—which, as he labored on a Steinway positioned in the center of a boxing ring, seemed breathtakingly natural. When Luigi Nono’s haunting sound piece, “Remember what they did to you at Auschwitz,” written in 1965 in response to the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, was played in a World War II bunker built on the site of a synagogue destroyed in 1938, it resonated powerfully not only because of the site’s historical significance, but because of the strange synesthesia produced as the sounds, bouncing off of the bunker’s super-thick reinforced concrete walls, seemed to become interchangeable with the dank-smelling notes of underground air.

But the significance of One Day in Life was not only in the specific qualities of its individual performances. The project also suggested new ways of experiencing the city, of understanding the architect’s role within it. Today, globalization is rapidly ironing out local idiosyncrasies, rendering cities uniform and most forms of urban experience overdetermined, none more so than cultural tourism. Ironically, while major cities increasingly turn to cultural institutions to establish their identity, the buildings that house these institutions are increasingly the same, as are the uses to which they’re put and the programming they contain. Just as one high-end shopping district is very like another, a visitor to a contemporary art museum or concert hall often has few clues about which country or even which continent he or she is inhabiting.

Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, Frankfurt Central Station, May 22, 2016. Photo: Norbert Miguletz.

Libeskind’s programming disrupted—briefly but radically—the typical experience of the contemporary city. In part, this was simply a matter of drawing visitors into the normally invisible spaces that make up part of the hectic complexity of urban life: Works by Marin Marais played in an operating room of one of the city’s main hospitals, Mozart’s famous requiem mass performed by a full chorus in an empty train depot. But the most impressive performances were those that transformed the kinds of spaces city-dwellers traverse daily but never really notice or experience, as when students from the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts played a series of solo performances while moving back and forth along an unused subway line in Frankfurt Central Station, flooding the tracks with sound. Such performances not only suggested the latent possibilities of such spaces, they also served as a reminder that urban environments only achieve their potential when activated in time, that buildings and spaces are only one part of what makes up a living city.

Libeskind has long known this. Among his earliest works is a series of drawings titled “Micromegas,” which explicitly borrowed from techniques of musical notation to address architecture’s existence in time as well as space. The complex and eccentric geometries he derived from such early experiments have evolved into something like a signature style, proving highly susceptible to demands for symbolic gestures and formal metaphor. For better or for worse, he has in fact become known primarily as a form-maker, making his latest suggestion that an architect’s job may be as much about exploring what unfolds in a space as creating an envelope in which this space is packaged all the more powerful.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.