“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Furniture Form in Contemporary Composition

I once watched a TV programme about the furnishing of historic aristocratic houses. Something that was commented on is that there wasn’t typically a unified interior design idea to the furnishing of such houses. Instead, the house has accumulated a collection of furniture and accessories over the years, of various different styles. They are not placed willy-nilly—some thought has typically gone into what goes where—but, things are retained for their own aesthetic value, rather than being chosen because they belong to an overall design concept.

And—this is the important point—the expert fronting the programme made the point that as long as the individual pieces are of high quality, the assembly doesn’t matter that much. Each “stands alone” in its context, and has sufficient heft to act as an independent aesthetic object as part of a collection of furniture in a room.

We are perhaps more used to this in architecture. It is seen as aesthetically naive to demand that buildings “fit in” with their neighbours. If a building is seen to have sufficient quality, then it will make an impact—a “statement building”—in a context of buildings of many different styles. A number of such “statement buildings” in different styles can fit together to provide a meaningful whole composition. Again, placement and look are not arbitrary—there is some consideration, for example, to the overall massing of a group of buildings, and a fine building can still look bad in the wrong place—but, we rarely demand the same kind of surface aesthetic coherence that we might demand of a contemporary interior design.

I’ve been influenced a lot by this idea in thinking about musical composition. How do we put together “musical material”? Styles of music are characterised to some extent by “form”. Classical music has ideas of “sonata form”, where a couple of pieces of (melodic+harmonic) material are introduced, then varied/developed/combined, and then re-presented at the end. Traditional pop songs have a structure that alternates verses and choruses, perhaps occasionally also including an instrumental interlude. Much electronic dance music is based on a layered form: there are various pieces of music that “fit together” are placed on top of each other (a drum track, a vocal, a piano break, a sustained synth part) and tensions and dynamics work by introducing and dropping these layers. Jazz is often structured around alternations of a melody and solos that are grounded in the underlying harmony of that melody.

Typically, all of these forms rely on some relation between the different components in the form. Could there be a “furniture form”, where different strong pieces are presented in the same environment, without a strong relation between the different pieces? There is a resonance here with ideas such as happenings, John Cage’s Musicircuses, and collage. Perhaps a piece such as Michael Finnissy’s Molly-House is a good example:

Here, we see various different sub-groups in a large ensemble presenting different kinds of music. The different musics have been carefully created so that the performing of them in the same space at the same time makes sense—this isn’t an arbitrary pile of musics. Indeed, the composer describes it as an “assemblage”. Nonetheless, the relationship between them isn’t really anything to do with traditional musical form and structure—they aren’t related harmonically, or developed out of each other, or anything. Like the pieces of furniture, or the buildings around the town square, they make sense alone, but reinforce each other by dint of being in the same space.

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