the sound of architecture / the architecture of sound (re: rm schindler)

schindler house, CD booklet, 2002

here are the original liner notes to the installation and documentation of my sound installation created for the mak center for art and architecture, the rm schindler house on king’s road in west hollywood. the installation was presented in 2001, and the CD document was released in 2002.

the architecture of rm schindler a personal view:
i don’t remember the first time i saw the work of rm schindler. i have a series of early images floating around my head that take place in various schindler rooms, but there are no dates or exact locations. i remember being on a schindler tour with my father, and standing in the living room of a small house, with sunlight coming through a very high window. i don’t remember which house it was, only that it was up in the hills. i also remember sitting in a car looking at an apartment building – a blurred image of the plants out front and the building painted the color grey. these are the earliest images.

for a short time, when i was in high school, my father lived in schindler’s lechner house. these memories are clearer. more than anything, again, i remember the light. i remember it shining through the thin horizontal windows between the roof planes, and how it moved across the living room floor. i could probably re-build the floor plan of the house if i took the time; but the things that immediately come to the surface are material presences and details – the ceiling treatment, the corner of the glass walls in the kitchen, the angles of the bedroom windows, the pull out dining table, the metal fireplace…

during grad school and the ten years following, i lived in an apartment a few blocks from schindler’s buck house. i remembered being inside it once, again quite a long time ago and very fuzzy pictures; but the buck house became a friend i’d wave to every morning on the way to my studio. perhaps driving by was an attempt to reclaim the memories.

of all of schindler’s works, i am astounded that i don’t remember the first time i saw the schindler house/studio – there is simply nothing else like it. i suppose i have been there so many times that the initial moment is buried too deep. after all these years of visiting the house, i realize that you can never really come to know it. schindler never allows you become complacent with his spaces, as they are impossible to ‘own’ intellectually – they are all about the process of living experience. as one approaches the house, there is that incredible feeling of impact and discovery every time you see it.

i didn’t know how far i was from really comprehending the house until i was allowed to spend the night making the source recordings for this project. after an evening in the house, the term organic architecture took on a new meaning for me, as the space literally seems to breathe. when the light slowly fades at night, the spaces change completely; only to change again in darkness, and again as light begins to enter in the morning. the intimacy, the room sizes, the wall sizes, doorways, interior/exterior spaces – all seem to shrink and grow like shadows in harmony with the different times of day. if one lived in the house; one would have no choice but to be beckoned into a voyage of discovery and rediscovery every single morning.

sitting in the rooms at night, with eyes closed listening; and gently running contact microphones along the surfaces of glass windows, fireplaces, wooden beams, concrete walls, canvas sliding doors, metal door springs, etc. once again, for me, it was the material presence, the details, and the intimacy of the spaces that found their way to the surfaces of my experiences and consciousness.

architecture as sound / sound as architecture:
my works are meant to be listened to at a quiet volume. intended to produce a kind of hushed resonance within a site. i cannot help but be reverential as i move through this house, and it would be rather egotistical to think my work could add anything to the imperfect perfection of simple beauty here. (this, of course, is the challenge of working with a site that one feels so strongly about. you want to work with it, use the inspiration it has been continuously giving you – but you are afraid of drawing attention to yourself; afraid of drawing attention away from that which has inspired you; and afraid of upsetting the balance by imposing yourself on that which worked so well without you.) i could never approach the house as simply a frame or a setting for my own work – my work must simply embrace the house, attempt to coexist with it, and to somehow enhance one’s experience of it – to slow the viewer down and to reflect their ‘gaze’ back towards the details and the architecture. i am simply building a few small sound structures that can hopefully remain somewhat hidden or rest unobtrusively in and around the space – i can only offer my work as a kind of humble gift to the house.

in most of schindler’s work, and especially in the schindler house, the materials have a very visible presence. although it still manages to invoke a sense of wonder, the building process is generally visible through this clarity of the materials. in all of my works here, there is an attempt to use the materials with respect to schindler’s ideas and to have them as the only ‘visible’ presences in the soundscapes. almost every sound in the finished works is the sound of a material present in the gardens or house. many of these recordings have been processed – basically fragmentation, some ring modulation, looping, and pitch shifting – essentially magnifying the details of the sounds – giving prominence to their material presences. as the house and it’s surroundings are sucked through a microphone, captured on tape, and reassembled in new configurations, the sound becomes a kind of translation of the site and the architecture.

for me, sound composition is a building activity – and indeed architecture is one of the metaphors i often use to describe my compositional process. i gather materials, manipulate and refine them, and put them to tape (the site). the difference of course is that i do not have a set of rigorous drawings to follow. the building process is purely intuitive and dependent upon the activity of focussed listening – yet both practices lead the ‘architect’ through the process of building; and towards the creation of a space. my own work moves towards the creation of an audio space that one can move around in. listening becomes an activity of architectural wandering.

with the sound installations i am interested in creating a kind of stagnation – a kind of revolving space without qualities of beginning or end. one may enter them as one enters a room – you can wander, remain, or leave whenever you wish – it is a somewhat open floor plan.

the tracks:

1. garden. (‘man trembles facing the universe’). sound sources: bamboo

garden was created for the bamboo area along the back of the lot – one of the best places to view the entire house. bamboo surrounds the lot and is visible from almost every location. i wanted to create a small garden within the garden, again to approach the details – as well as to create something that could interact with the existing sounds. the piece is made up of recordings of this rear bamboo area, as well as the large bamboo area in the front yard. i have also used some earlier bamboo recordings from the botanical gardens in montpelier france, and a grove near rakushisa in kyoto. it seemed rather fitting to connect shindler’s house to an actual site in japan.

2. “a quiet, flexible background for a harmonious life”. sound sources: voice. window panes. airplane. wooden beam.

my initial audio idea for the schindler house was to build a piece around the singing of schindler’s 1912 text ‘a manifesto’. when i began the project, the presence of my voice seemed too much of a distraction for the space, so i moved on to other things. dealing with the interior of the house was a big problem for me – everything i created seemed too busy and not nearly delicate enough – everything felt intrusive. while i was struggling, i began to think about the voice again. i returned to schindler’s manifesto as a way of letting my thoughts drift, and the last line really struck me in terms of what i was struggling with for the interior space – ‘it will be a quiet, flexible background for a harmonious life.’ i eventually sung this line through a ring modulator and looped it. the voice became a kind of insect-like presence; and thus through abstraction, the sounds of this last line sung over and over again attempt to create this ‘quiet flexible background for a harmonious life’ within the house.

i decided to install the piece with headphones, since even at a very soft volume, the piece was still intrusive of the quiet existing audioscape of the house. i placed two sets of headphones in a small hallway, facing the windows between the rm schindler studio and the pauline schindler studio. the windows face the rear courtyard and trees, and somehow i imagine that the headphones, the sound, and the view through the old wavy glass enable one to drift in and out – hovering between the house and the exterior landscape. along with my ring modulated voice, the piece also includes the sounds of rattling window panes; and the sound of an airplane flying over the house as recorded through a contact microphone attached to wooden ceiling beam. sound sources: voice. window panes. airplane. wooden beam.

3. pathway. (‘it was a lovely sight, against the sky’) sound sources: fireplace. springs. flowerpots.

pathway was created for a long narrow path leading to the entrance of the schindler side of house. it is a very narrow dirt path, enclosed by tall bamboo – an extremely intimate space. speakers were hung within the bamboo wall, to create a kind of hovering audio space. music for a short quiet walk; music as a prelude to the house, sound setting up the first view. the piece uses the sounds of the inside of the fireplace, the springs on the door to the schindler studio, and a pair of flowerpots – all in reference to the ghost of resonant sounds in john bovingdon and his wife jeanya’s dance performance that took place at the house in 1926. “it was a lovely sight, against the sky, forming the background, different sounding gongs in various sizes hung from 12 poles…”

my first thoughts included using a series of actual gongs; but eventually, i decided upon a pair of flower pots; not only for their gong/bell-like resonances, but also for the fact that these particular flower pots once lived in the office of architect richard neutra. neutra and schindler knew each other in austria, and the neutras eventually made it out to los angeles to live with the schindlers in the house. after a few years, and a few ideological disagreements, the neutras left the schindler house to pursue richard neutra’s own brand of california modern living. i felt it would be good to continue the dialogue.