Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Music between nature and architecture"

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Being the pan-aesthetics enthusiast that I am, I went to this talk (blog title) by Leon Botstein. I can see why he gets to be the president of a preeminent liberal arts college... I can almost imagine him in a Count Dracula cape, working semantic and symbolic abstraction magic with his dramatic intonations and lexicons. He would have made a terrific orator in the Greek tradition. :-P

This is his ongoing project, and not so surprisingly, he started with mostly German composers and architects, stemming from his German-Hungarian (Jewish) background. Here are the main associations he made -

(1) Architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel :||: Composer Felix Mendelssohn, based on their style that is evocative of 19th Century pastoral Romanticism. Schinkel did paint some rather magical Gothic cathedrals nestled in beautiful forests (below), and Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture is demonstrative of the spirit of nature (I played this with an orchestra and also happen to really like this piece).

(2) Architects Otto Wagner & Joseph Maria Olbrich :||: Composer Gustav Mahler... Initially ornate, Baroque, rectilinear and true to traditional form, later on more subtle and philosophical. I'm not as familiar with Mahler's music (will listen to his symphonies at some point). The Vienna Secession movement seems interesting to look into...

(3) Architect Eero Saarinen :||: Composer Jean Sibelius ... The connection is fairly obvious here because these two were good friends, and their styles influenced each other -- with organic, iteratively evolving themes. I could hear this in Sibelius's violin concerto. I like Saarinen's buildings, especially the staircase. I am drawn to staircase designs...

(4) Architects Le Corbusier & Frank Lloyd Wright :||: Composers Edgard Varèse & Igor Stravinsky ... Neo-Classical, functionally aesthetic/ aesthetically functional :-P Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was definitely a neo-shock at the time. And Varèse wrote this wicked difficult piece "Density 21.5"... One of Le Corbusier's buildings reminded me of Simmons Hall and another of the Green Building, huh. I didn't know he also designed the Carpenter Arts Center @ Harvard, which Botstein said was "hard to find an angle that actually looked attractive".

The Q&A session was illuminating as well. It gives a window that glimpses into Botstein's persona (at least in public...) which I find to be cogent, eloquent, uncompromising, territorial, and domineering. :-P

The first question was how did Botstein made the associations he did, i.e. what basis, and whether other scholars in the field would make the same associations. Botstein replied that these connections are not arbitrary as he approached these from a historical point of view, based on actual contacts between the architects and the composers. Since they were contemporaries, they were therefore subjected to similar social influences and Zeitgeist of the time. (Thank you, GRE vocab list...)

The second question was from another musical scholar, who asked about the influences of the French Revolution on the arts/architecture, i.e. pre-revolution being more formulaic and post-revolution being less so... Botstein said that he didn't quite agree with this, although I don't recall the details of what he said after that...

The third question was from an architect, who wondered about how to reconcile the improvisatory nature of some music with architecture, which is very planned. Botstein answered that these architects were also very much painters and sculptors, so their creative process involved lots of sketching in the beginning. The editing part was what he drew parallels to.

He also commented on concert halls and how their design influence the sound, which reminds me of David Byrne's TED about music and the architecture of concert halls. Botstein quipped that it's much harder to build a concert hall in a rural area, e.g. Bard College than in an urban area... hence Carnegie Hall is "unremarkable" and Lincoln Center is "an abomination"... har har har...

Well, it was a great talk for sure. I look forward to see how he'll continue this project.

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