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Mark Johnson

Photo: Christian French

The visual character of sound has inspired my architectural practice since design school. As an architect, I craft visual music in my studio by day, composing, constructing and diagramming buildings and landscapes on whiteboards and trace paper to locate the big design moves. By night, as an artist/musician, I build loud, thunderous constructions with fellow architects inspired by sound; we detail the shifts between dissonance and resolution with loud guitars, bass, drums and open space. Goethe, and before him Schelling, called architecture “frozen music.” If that is the case, then is music liquid architecture?

In the same way that spaces shape our experiences, sound can be influenced by physical volume. Space is often the invisible instrument in an ensemble. A case in point: during rehearsals following the opening of the then newly built Icicle Creek Music Center in Leavenworth, Washington, pianist Oksana Ezhokina was working through an exercise with a string ensemble. At one point she stopped the rehearsal, unable to properly hear herself. The space’s design team was in the room, and to their ears, the performance sounded acceptable; however, the artist was dissatisfied with the sound levels between her instrument and the ensemble. Oksana had worked with a team—myself and Johnpaul Jones of Jones and Jones Architects and Landscape Architects and Michael Yantis of Sparling—to create a recital hall that, through its materials, textures and spatial character, would reinforce the chamber ensemble. In this instance, the addition of a temporary riser elevating her black Steinway Model B to the audience level was counter to the piano’s integral nature within the performance. She described that the sound was divorced from the recital hall. The music director suggested that the piano would not have enough volume in the mix if it were on the floor, to which Oksana replied, “I’ll play louder.” The recital hall was an instrument in the ensemble, reinforcing the merger between sonics and space.

Not only does space make sound, but sound also makes space. In 2006, sculptor Christian French installed a piece titled Boilerworks in Seattle that would become the test bed for my collaboration with him between sculpture and sound. Christian’s medium is shipping containers; his work expands on the modularity and utility of the 8' x 8' x 40' volume, celebrating the transient, impermanent nature of the boxes, the stories of human connection across vast distances that they embody, and humanity’s reliance on the sea inherent in them. For our collaboration, he explored different ways to stack the containers, while I experimented with the reverberant nature of the volumes. I focused on how the container’s interior space could influence or react to sound inputs of varying pitches and sources.

The instrumental diagram of the container is a reverberant block, with solid wood decks, steel frames and corrugated metal walls and roofs that serve as reverb chambers capable of substantial entropy. Citing composer Carl Orff’s approach to music making, we developed simple methods to generate acoustic tones in the containers. In each box, we triggered a long decay of complementary notes that mixed within the volume, and we explored instrumentation precedents drawing on the intrinsic sound-character of different materials. Hans Reichel’s daxophone, Ellen Fullman’s long strings, and harmonic principles of the xylophone served as starting points for our sound generators. Hardwood slats of varying lengths that were clamped to the container frames and activated with bass bows produced the loudest, most consistent acoustic tones, while bailing wire strung along the lengths of the containers produced harp-like notes. The result was a dense, multiphonic layering of sound. Hauntingly beautiful, with low-frequency drones overlaying each other, the sound of the containers merged with the ambient train and transport noises of the Riverside neighborhood in an industrial chorus.

This sound and sculpture collaboration was a physical interpretation of the latent opportunity within a utilitarian space—it was a sonic still life of humble vessels that exist in constant motion, connecting humanity and products across the globe. The ephemeral world the sounds created implied a greater space than the interior of the containers, one that reached beyond the walls of the Riverside Boiler Works building in which the boxes sat. The containers’ fleeting sounds gestured to a volume beyond their walls, evoking a human connection to the space of the city.

The sonic possibility of the containers represents the guts, lifeblood and loud quietness that can be discovered at and beyond our city’s intersections and edges, becoming present among the noise of today. At once frozen music and industrial jumble, the containers and their resonant potential illustrate how space can become the amplifier of a place’s soul.