“To Hear a Sound is to See a Space”: Professors and Alumni Collaborate to Build ARCHITECT Opera
November 15, 2011
During her time studying at Yale in the 1980s, Professor of Music Jenny Kallick was struck by what she calls the “sacred essence” of two of the New Haven school’s buildings, the Art Gallery and the Center for British Art. That she was drawn to those two particular facilities was no coincidence: both were designed by award-winning architect Louis I. Kahn, a major figure in 20th-century architecture.
“Each seemed to invoke an interplay of light and ineffable acoustic elements, qualities central to Kahn’s vision,” she explained of her attraction to the buildings. Curious about their creator, she did some research and learned that Kahn, who once considered a career as a composer, often said that “to hear a sound is to see a space.”
“He stood apart from his contemporaries,” she explained, because he strove “to create buildings connected to the past and to the innate characteristics of their materials—color, light and, above all, sound.”
One of the watercolors painted by Michiko Theurer ’11
Such sound—along with the story of the man himself—provided the foundation for an innovative new chamber opera titled ARCHITECT, by Kallick; her colleague Lewis Spratlan, the Peter R. Pouncey Professor of Music, Emeritus; and her former student John Downey ’03. Several years in the making, the opera features vocal and instrumental music by Spratlan and electroacoustic music by Kallick and Downey, now a physician. Kallick also penned ARCHITECT’s libretto.
On Nov. 17 at 6 p.m., the Center for Architecture Foundation (CFAF) in New York will host a screening of a creative DVD of the chamber opera that will benefit the CFAF’s architecture and design programs. Members of the Amherst community are offered a reduced ticket price of $30; to unlock the discount, enter Amherst in the password field. (For more information, go to the CFAF’s online calendar.)
In writing and composing ARCHITECT—which was supported in part by a grant from the Amherst College Faculty Research Award Program, as funded by The H. Axel Schupf ’57 Fund for Intellectual Life and the Amherst Arts Series Fund—Kallick and Downey returned to the Yale Center for British Art and made research visits to other Kahn buildings. At each one, the pair spoke with people familiar with the facilities who could describe the “sound aura” of the structures and then recorded local performers providing brief explosive sounds from their instruments in the facilities. (Kallick created a website about the experience called the Kahn Project.)
“This stems from mine and Kahn’s belief that you can listen to buildings and buildings have their own particular sound,” Kallick explained. These recordings made in the facilities of the facilities, called “acoustic envelopes,” were then used to create the opera’s electroacoustic music.
“In the electronic studio, we explored a variety of ways to use these samples, convolved with themselves,” Kallick wrote in a booklet about ARCHITECT. “Convolution permits recorded burst of sound—in this case, representative samples of the reverberant characteristics of an architectural space—to be applied as a filter around any other sound. By convolving the sound samples collected at the Kahn sites, we generated a catalogue of electronic source materials with which to begin composing.”
Meanwhile, Spratlan, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in music for his own opera Life is a Dream, composed the instrumental and vocal music of the opera. Kallick describes his work and her electroacoustic music as ARCHITECT’s “two creative streams” that were woven together to create the final composition.
The first stream, the electroacoustic music, is more conceptual and is meant to represent the spatial sound world and the inner life of the protagonist, a character named Architect. The second, the sung and played music, drives the narrative and expresses the thoughts and emotions of the other characters.
That cast, noted Kallick, is a small one. The only characters joining the Architect are the Guide, the Engineer, the Healer, the Woman and the Trickster. “In my telling,” she explained in the opera’s booklet, “the Architect discovers his central vision among the ruins of Rome with the help of the Guide; he affirms his method and materials with the expertise of the Engineer; and he undertakes a great project in partnership with the Healer. The Woman is a constant muse, though her physical distance from the Architect provokes emotional turmoil for both. The Trickster uses the power of enchantment to steer the action throughout.”
Of course, they have yet to find out how an audience will receive the characters and story. Singers and musicians have workshopped ARCHITECT but have never performed it live. Professional audio recordings that were made over the course of three days in Buckley Recital Hall and then engineered by Judith Sherman, a major force in the world of classical recordings, make up the DVD that will be shown at the CFAF on Nov. 17.
And while opera purists may prefer to attend the eventual live performance of ARCHITECT, the video does feature another artistic element that only adds to the listening and viewing experience, said Kallick. Her former student Michiko Theurer ’11, a visual artist and musician, visited some Kahn buildings in Rome and then painted several watercolors. Theurer’s paintings, woven together with Final Cut software to highlight movement and changing light, are the main material for the DVD’s visual journey; they are set against the musical backdrop of ARCHITECT, as are some video clips shot by both Kallick and Theurer.
Working with Theurer, Downey and Spratlan, said Kallick, made the project extra-special. “I wanted to collaborate with Michiko and John as well as Lew, because in our department, our students really are our colleagues,” she explained. “It was really just amazing working with them all. They all brought something different to the project.”
Her goal now is to see the opera performed live in the coming year. The hoped-for location? One of Kahn’s own buildings.