Architexture II

Architexture II is a composition by Ambrose Field specially designed to make the most of the acoustics of a ruined building that doesn’t exist today. It is 20 minutes long and is a huge monolithic, choral sound-sculpture of industrial proportions.

Ambrose Field describes the project:

Created by detailed part-writing, the singers constantly weave in and out of each other as the piece surges and flows in flurries of activity. It’s always moving, but I also wanted to give a sense of being frozen in a moment, which is extended forever. I’ve always liked those moments in the movies where time suddenly stands still, yet meanwhile, you see all the internal details of the events flow past you in a kind of cool slow motion. Architexture II is a little like that: expect a kind of ultra-minimal contemporary music (not in a 1960s way), yet one that delivers its message through huge, large-scale textures.

Taking inspiration from medieval music (in particular, the sounds of first practice, early polyphony), I’ve adapted historical composition techniques to become modern tools for sculpting a large-scale vocal composition. Polyphony, for many Renaissance composers, was all about creating a beautiful sound world from intricate overlapping of parts. That’s all very well to help make some wonderful textures, but how can we achieve clarity too? I wanted to know! So, I’ve spent a lot of time moving tiny phrases and musical lines around so that absolutely everyone’s contribution is clear, despite the vast acoustic (and I mean vast – it’s 11 seconds long at some frequencies) the piece will be performed in.

We’re using a kind of acoustic augmented reality. St Mary’s Abbey was one of the largest buildings in York by the year 1266. It was knocked down in 1530. The idea is to overlay the acoustic of what St Mary’s would have sounded like onto the actual space which exists today.

About the Performers

It’s great to be working with the Ebor Singers again. They have a superb approach to contemporary music and an expressive and beautiful sound. They’re also lovely people.

What is Architexture II?

I’ve always loved reverb and singing. Sitting in huge gothic cathedrals, listening to how voices blend with space. And getting cold too. I wondered what music could be made, with a really accurate knowledge of how historical architecture sounded? What if the acoustic resonance wasn’t just an afterthought – or a by-product of the performance?

Architexture II is the second in a series of one-singer-to-a-part vocal compositions which are designed to link extremely tightly to the acoustics of specific places.

The work is part of a collaborative research project between the Department of Music, Department of Electronics, and Department of Physics at the University of York.

What about Architexture I?

You can find Architexture I, for ten singers, on YouTube. This was the prototype piece, commissioned for performance at DAFX 2010 and performed by the Ebor Singers. Pod Twoja Obrone, written for the Polish National Chamber Choir Polski Chor Kameralny, is a related piece that also uses these techniques. Pod Twoja Obrone was commissioned by the Gaude Mater festival to mark the occasion of Polish Composer H.M. Górecki’s 80th birthday anniversary.

Collaboration with Electronics and Physics

I’m indebted to my colleagues from the Department of Electronics who have worked so hard to bring this event to fruition. Dr Jude Brereton, Dr Helena Daffern and Amelia Gully were responsible for setting up the acoustic modelling and providing an acoustic experience that singers could relate to and make sense of. This isn’t an easy proposition – as the dynamics of a performance situation involving technology are fragile and unpredictable. Jude, Helena and Amelia are also investigating how performers respond to working in controlled acoustic environments. The acoustic model in the first instance was accomplished by Steven Oxnard who produced the impulse response file based on physical measurements of St Mary’s, which he then realised using a commercial acoustic design software package.

Thanks also go to Andrew Chadwick for live sound, and to Joan Concannon and Suzanne Thorn at the University of York for their work on putting this event together. Lights and visual graphics were created specifically by Professor Thomas Krauss, from the Department of Physics and Lewis Thresh, a processing programmer. The visual graphics show, across multiple displays, the interlocking patterns of sound in the score and how the acoustic is responding to them.

Event management is by Ben Pugh.

Rehearsals

Here’s the piece in rehearsal. The spectacular sound is a result of the virtual acoustics of the 11-second reverb being employed and amplified.

Composing Architexture II

I’m using what is essentially a traditional composition process (I decided from the outset that I didn’t want to do “sonification” – or map the data from the impulse onto a piece using a strict process or algorithm. Many composers employ such approaches, and I have nothing against it – such methods of working can uncover unexpected possibilities. However, it’s just not me. I like what happens when we collide traditional ideas with new ways of doing things, together with a healthy dose of intuition and hard-graft manual experimentation.

Environments and Spaces

When you perform in a highly resonant environment (such as a large gothic cathedral), you do so very differently to how you might in a ‘dry’ space (such as a rehearsal room or your own home). Musicians will modify their delivery accordingly, to aim for maximum clarity for example. However, there comes a point at which the actual composition becomes the limiting factor on clarity and expression in a large space. To give a straightforwards example – if you write fast passages, and there is a long acoustic, no amount of additional nuancing is possible on the part of the performers to improve the delivery of your musical details without grossly distorting the piece. That’s because most pieces are designed to be performed in the widest variety of spaces. I’m wondering isn’t it time for custom-made pieces, for particular spaces? Of course, this idea is not new in itself! Pérotin working in Notre Dame had an extremely clear idea of how his textures would relate to the space of a building which he knew very well. Or Gabrieli, in Italy. It’s really difficult to live up to the tradition defined by these composers. But I’m not interested in emulating them – and instead, by knowing the scientific data of how a space responds to music am able to make something that utterly, and precisely, fits it.

A really unusual thing results. It’s almost as if the reverb of the space becomes an additional performer. It’s a chillingly beautiful effect, hearing how a 500-year-old space responds to new music.

Contact us

Director MSTRC and TMCG

Dr Federico Reuben
federico.reuben@york.ac.uk
Department of Music, UniversIty of York, Heslington Road, York YO10 5DD