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  • Michael Spencer

Soundings: Patterns, music and architecture

We were delighted to be asked to contribute to the Balmond Studio’s newsletter recently.  Cecil Balmond is deputy chairman of Arup and has been credited with being the engineer for some of architecture’s most influential structures.  He is currently working with Anish Kapoor on the iconic structure for the Olympic Park; the Orbit.

This article was the outcome of a conference in which we participated at the invitation of the University of Duisberg-Essen.  It concerned the interface between organisational theory, avant garde jazz and architectural patterning theory.  You can see the article in context here.

Patterns, music and architecture

It was only recently that I became aware of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language.  I was invited to speak at a conference in Zollverein in the Ruhr Valley at the invitation of the organisational development department of the University of Duisberg-Essen.   As with many business schools there is an almost constant search under way to find relevant metaphors for improving business practices.

This conference marked a three-year research project exploring the links between innovation in organisations and the processes of freely improvised jazz.

Working across disciplines is both rewarding and stimulating.  Similarities are amplified, unexpected synergies give deeper insights, and differences provoke new perspectives. For example, working with a visual artist in Tokyo recently it was illuminating to consider the subtle reversal of the use of negative space as a visual framing device in parallel with the different polarities of sound and silence in music.

For the researchers, insights came when they introduced pattern language, and for me this provoked two observations.

The first is that the essential building blocks of music are patterns.  Rhythm, scales, melodies, structures – all contain patterns which may be implicit or explicit.

At its most fundamental level music concerns the relationship between time and frequency.  It’s from these two elements, underpinned by a constant pattern of pulse, that rhythm is created.  Rhythms and the implicit metre within which they sit (2 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats etc.) are characterised by periodic patterns, and community activities such as social dancing would not function without them. In the 14th century, because of the absence of a fully functioning system of notation such as we use today, one method of co-ordinating separate and simultaneous lines of plainchant arrangements was by the use of repeated isorythmic patterns.

Melodies are created from the application of rhythm to a systematised pattern of pitches known as scales or modes.  Harmony is created from the patterns of intervals that make up chords.   In turn these elements support musical architectures – blues, first movement form, popular song formats, fugue etc. All of these familiar structures because of their frequent application.

My second observation came from the intersection at which the structural processes of contemporary jazz and performance practice meet, and were a consequence of listening to the music of the jazz vibraphone virtuoso Christopher Dell who had participated in the original research project.

The neuro-scientists tell us how much the brain appreciates repetition, although it is the disruption of this which maintains our interest. One way of looking at music is that it is in some ways an exercise in the management of expectation and how this balances around the fulcrum of repetition and disruption.

Patterns seem to play an integral part in the spontaneous structuring of jazz, however they are highly nuanced, and can be applied in a fashion that makes the music sound random and sometimes unintelligible.  The detection of patterns somehow makes the listening experience easier to comprehend.  As with chaos theory, however, the identification of the axes that reveal recurring patterns may not always be immediate and lie deep within the overall structure.

In his ‘New Theory for Urban Design’ Alexander suggests, “…every new act of construction must create a continuous structure of wholes around itself”.  This is certainly an apt description for musical improvisation.  And, his proposal that all ‘building’ is intertwined with human activity resonates strongly across the entire spectrum of performance, whether improvised or not.

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