Thanksgiving Is Ruined

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July 05, 2015

sound and columns

Valerie Scroggins of the mighty ESG once explained the band's approach, a kind of zoom-in-then-expand,  as follows:

My drumming is really influenced by those breakdown parts in James Brown songs. I’d take that part and stretch it out for a whole song.

In reminiscent terms, Brian Duguid of once described the symphonies of ESG's 99 Records label-mate, Glenn Branca:

The earlier symphonies were broadly consistent in their aim to reach a state of climax as quickly as possible, and stay there as long as possible, and a positive, blissful state frequently resulted. 

Branca's Ensemble today can and does do something at least a bit like what Duguid described, as briefly captured on fresh video here


It is to Glenn Branca Ensemble guitarist Reg Bloor that TiR owes perhaps its favorite music-related quote of the month:

 Why is music so much more conservative than other art forms?  Look at the modes.  Ionian, Dorian?  That’s ancient Greek.  I.M. Pei doesn’t put Doric columns on his buildings.  Why do musicians still play these things?

Uttered in a 2011 interview, here.  

The quote might be a partial swipe at some of the content of musical education foisted upon students at Berklee in the early '90s.   We have no idea if things may still be that way there, if they were.

However, what exactly did I. M. Pei think of columns?  What was their proper place in architecture, in his opinion?  Buildings, after all, have to stay up somehow.  How were columns to be used, to Pei, if use them we must?  What should they look like? Could an architect's attitude towards one element, like a column, contain in microcosm their whole practice?

For example, for a possible case study on Pei here, we have (or sadly no longer have) his pioneering glass-enclosed JFK airport Terminal 6 or Sundrome.  The 16 columns, all interior, enabled the elimination of load-bearing exterior walls, and even hid the pipes that drained rain from the roof, giving a floating, transparent feel.  

Or we could take Pei's Bank of China building in Hong Kong.  Its arrangement of columns was described (by Puy-Peng Hoherein) as "reminiscent of ancient Chinese pagoda forms"; Pei himself said the building was inspired by bamboo.  The reinforced concrete columns are massive but visually unobtrusive, part and parcel of an innovative weight distribution system that allows for a skyscraper both asymmetrical and incredibly stable, record-breakingly tall yet capable of withstanding typhoons and earthquakes.  

Most delightful of all to TiR (because it gave us new webpages pointlessly to visit, our favorite past-time) was the discovery that one of the big controversies of Pei's career involved, one could say, columns -- and music.  

Yes, these would be the columns that flank the stage at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, TX. 

Pei went head-to-head in an "epic battle" against the acoustical expert on the project, Russell Johnson of Artec Consultants, the man said to have "the best ears on earth."  Johnson insisted that the pillars were architecturally useless and directly detracted from the experience of listening to live music in the hall.  

The press at the time sure did notice those columns.  The Christian Science Monitor described the interior of the Meyerson, in a September 1989 review of the space, thusly: "The wood is purely decorative, as are two huge pillars that serve as a proscenium-like divider between audience and stage space." 

The Washington Post, in January 1990, described the Meyerson as a "whammo room," but attributed to it "a postmodern sort of abstraction in the form of overscaled, fluted, capitalless columns and a giant acoustical canopy hovering above the stage like a strange, hybrid spaceship." 

The New York Times, under the byline of the late Donal Henahan, also brought out the P-word (post-modernism), and  likewise described the Meyerson's ceiling canopy as "rather like an alien space vehicle about to descend and whisk away our children," adding: 

Certain of the Dallas hall's features represent compromises between architect and acoustician: two immense, plaster-coated pillars serve a visual purpose only, framing the stage space for the audience. (They give new meaning to the term post-modernism.) . . . .  Surprisingly candid reservations have cropped up, however, from some members of the Dallas Symphony who report difficulty hearing one another and feel they must work harder to project tones.

The uncritical reader could have walked away with the impression that Pei, as a stereotypically "postmodern" architect, built in a style of glib "pastiche" (as Jameson might have it), in an eclectic jumble or incoherent, relativist mashup of practically any old architectural elements ransacked from any point in history.  "One almost expects," the WaPo wrote, "to see the golden carytids of Vienna's Musikvereinsaal, a 19th-century concert hall."  

One of the world's best-known decorative carytid columns stands in the British Museum, and is taken from the Acropolis.   The Parthenon,  yes, with its Doric columns, is also part of the Acropolis complex.  Thus could Pei in fact have thrown Doric columns somewhere into the Meyerson or any of his other buildings and surprised no one?  

Who knows?  Probably plenty of people would have been surprised,  if they were familiar with the minimalist look or feel of some of Pei's  prior projects.  

[This could lead to a fun debate: Is minimalism just another flavor of postmodernism, or something else entirely, its own thing?  Two contemporary composers debate this a bit, here.  If such labels mean anything in the first place, maybe one's answer connects up with one's attitude about what's too "ancient" to keep versus what's "so square it's cool again," or our method for deciding what parts of the past or various cultures to continue using or to borrow.]

     Though maybe for the purposes of architecture criticism in a daily, mass readership newspaper, you have to caricaturize things a bit, to get across the point of the magnitude of the break being made, or to prepare visitors for how disoriented they might feel when they enter certain new buildings.


Branca and his group do not seem yet to have performed in a space designed by Artec.  We bet that it would sound absolutely amazing.