Chasing Lights and other Parallel Stories

I was having a conversation with a friend about how music is so influential in everybody’s lives, more so in mine, to the point where I planned a sequential exit from my job and decided to start my own architecture firm because of one band. That’s almost trivializing the conclusion of my five years of architectural education and two years working at a firm in Bombay that helped me develop and figure out my unique design quotient. That being said, its almost strange to separate my love for the two because music and architecture cannot be seen as two very different entities in my life. Both stem out of passion, both involve human interaction without which they have no emotional value. Both are influenced by such varied ideas from the past and the future- history, psychology, science, culture or social contexts, which is why I probably have a liking towards both equally. Speaking of common ground, while reading an article about the history of recording studios and the evolution of sound recording, I learnt that people would use large rooms meant for public gatherings so they could play in their usual arrangement or form and record through a large acoustical horn. Eventually, spaces started catering to music production and mastering techniques became more sophisticated. Music changed (evolved is too linear to use here), and popular music changed genres as fast as every five years. I appreciate electronic music as much as I like listening to an acoustic guitar by the sea, but the craving I have to listen to ‘true sound’ and my preference of a simpler mastering process made me choose my research subject during my final year studying architecture.

Recording music is an art to create something eternal, like a building or technology or space- and to be able to attribute the quality of a record to the space it was recorded in is something I’d strive to achieve then. Music has varying depths and techniques with contrasting trebles and tones coming together to create a beautiful sound. This makes it challenging, and to have one sole space to record varied instruments was an impossible task. Designing efficient spaces to record the true sound of these individual instruments to achieve what could be the best reproduction was my aim. This would mean listening to old records, newer ones, understanding what I could about production techniques and even questioning some. I met A. R. Rahman’s chief sound engineer as part of my research process, who taught me the basics of production and made me understand the importance of material used for creating an efficient space. Form is never secondary, but the material used to bring that to life  would mean years of producing close to true sound each time. Aversion to these developments in material technology and going back to earlier forms for recording true sound is what set me back during my design process before this valuable interaction. Meeting people, discussing ideas even if they’re premature, experimenting with words while doing that lead you on to something you never thought of earlier. This reminds me of a discussion I had with a Landscape Architect in Akershus in Norway which was probably one of the highlights of my year. Relevance- whether limited by climate, culture or history is of prime importance. I casually spoke out loud  about how my experience with tropical architecture would set me back if I had to analyse Nordic architecture and my points would be invalid, considering my lack of local knowledge. But then I realised that good design is a response to a problem, issues created by situations everyday. How you hold a cup of tea determines the shape and handle of the cup. Problems sometimes governed by local issues couldn’t be addressed universally, but once your mind is trained to address or analyse a user-based issue in a certain way, the possibilities are endless. I was travelling for a while last month and at so many points during my time abroad, I would try and understand the local context of design form prevalent there, and this would lead me onto reading or learning about influences I would’ve overlooked otherwise. Maybe that made my experience richer.

In an earlier post I mentioned how rhythm, form, space and time define both music and architecture. Sometimes, they define travel too. “What’s your travel style?” A quick two day break to a new city might not be ideal for me. A slower rhythm with maybe varied forms of activity is what I aim for. There would be restaurants I must eat at and museums I definitely have to visit, but there’s also going to be the time when I find a spectacular record store on the way to that restaurant, spend too much time there and realise the lunch session at that restaurant ended an hour ago. It is then that I discover a quaint eatery, have the best grilled fish, followed by an espresso and sit around reading the first edition of my treasured ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ that I scored at a bookstore in Paris. The space and time will always be perfect.

Capture

The trail

It’s humbling to see and experience things of such great scale, and when it’s a part of the built environment, I still feel old Indian architecture’s probably up there. There was rarely a time when I walked into a building and felt taken aback by the sheer scale of it. Intricacy, technology and technique- is something that was obviously incomparable during my time there. Whether it’s modern architecture’s structural wonders I saw in a Renzo Piano building or the buttresses in Notre Dame, techniques that rose because of requirement, or a response to an architectural problem- stayed and evolved over centuries. Walkable cities are Europe’s biggest strength and things you don’t see when you take a metro to the next stop, you experience on the streets. It was sort of magical- I saw three boys and a girl reharsing for their school play audition on a street in Republique and the boy said proudly, “You know I’m the only one in my class who could choose which part of the choir I wanted to be in?” and then for a full fifteen minutes sang the soprano, alto, tenor and bass vocal parts of a French song. He was 12. Humbling experience, one out of so many.

I made the plan for my trip based on the tour date of Dave Matthews Band live in London. What followed was multiple checks on tour dates of other bands and musicians I love and a close watch on the Northern Lights activity in October. I would spend a good part of my day reading articles and statistics on the activity and phenomenon and how to increase my chances of seeing them and where to go to do that. I zeroed in on Tromso because Norway has a landscape that’s hard to experience anywhere else in the world. The fjords and the Norwegian sea seemed so different from anything my tropical being is used to. The food, culture and Arctic history seemed too interesting to not explore, making the diversion to Scandinavia well worth it. I convinced myself that Tromso was an apt choice and Abisko in Sweden or Iceland should be done another time.

Food and music are memories, so every place I went would mean taking suggestions to eat the best local food as much as I can (I wouldn’t get too adventurous with sea food sometimes so I lost out) and listen to music at renowned local venues. I was lucky enough to do that because some bands that I liked and are relatively not as popular played in some beautiful venues, large and small. Also, here’s the thing about a big city. There could never be just one London or Paris. After this trip, my London could very well be different from yours.

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For Michael

Remember that the song that takes you back to the first time you heard it is the most powerful. Your song. The moment just flashes across your mind. There’s always that special song, or many for some. Songs that remind you of your childhood- the first song you danced to, the first song you sang in front of a large audience, the songs you listened to in full blast when you got your new music system or in your car while driving on a perfect day with the perfect company and just smiled, listening to every lyric. I was listening to ‘The Earth Song’ by Michael Jackson and remembered the time when my parents, my sister and I would watch the video on MTV at home with all the lights off. My mum would turn up the volume and we would listen to MJ sing. I was what, 10 then or younger. I remember the time when we bought the 3 cassette set of the ‘History’ album. Cassette players! From cassette players to CDs to mp3, MJ lived through all of it. I remember how fascinated I got looking at the ‘Dangerous’ album art. I wondered if I could redraw the graphics on it in my book but I never ended up trying.

I believe and know that the greatest contribution a human being can make to the world is influential music. I am reminded of great moments shared with the people I love while listening to some of my favourite music. Michael Jackson contributed to many of those. It was compelling, meaningful, special music.

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world
A better place
Take a look at yourself, and
Then make a change”

I believed then that he was the person who taught the world how to dance, how to be kind and protect the planet and everyone around us. That will always live on in my memory through his music. There were two six-year-old kids sitting next to me in the theater when I went to watch ‘This Is It’ for the third time, and they knew every word of every song and clapped after every performance. The relevant gem through time. There’s this benevolent attitude and honesty about the King of Pop that you can’t help but admire. My mother made me listen to Dire Straits and the Doors and made me love them. Michael Jackson came much later in my childhood, but I always picture myself in my living room with that MJ record playing fifteen years from now in an ideal, peaceful time.

Evolution

I didn’t enjoy taking photographs until a couple of years ago. That might not be a good thing, but I remember a lot more details of places I visited without having a photograph to take me back there. I was walking around in Fort sipping on my cappuccino and came across a street artist selling images of the Taj Mahal. I asked him why he had photographs of just the Taj, considering our country has so many beautiful architectural masterpieces. He didn’t know. 

That conversation took me back to my visits to the Taj Mahal. I’ve been there thrice. I was too young to filter in the magnificence the first time, but I remember it being a warm sunny day. The sky was clear blue and the white monument looked just wonderful with the rays of the sun reflecting off it. Let me tell you this. In architecture school, there’s a lot of twisting words around. The ‘play of light and shadow’, ‘degree of surprise’. Well, it’s not an exaggeration of a building analysis but it sort of makes it seem like a caricature of the built form to be honest. Applying intellect and analysis sometimes ruins a perfectly normal emotional experience. 

You walk through gardens and through a gateway that frames the Taj so beautifully. The walk through to the huge open vista with the most graceful linear axis leading to the monument is unreal. I think the contrast of the raw calligraphy on the coloured gateway that opens up to viewing this pure built form provides you with an experience you need to understand and take in. It got better the second time for me. It was when they used to keep the gates open until late in the evening. It was a full moon night and the semi precious jewels on the marble glistened like nothing I’d seen before or after. I remember it so clearly. You could see the spirit of the workmen almost shining through. I never wanted to leave but sights like those never leave you anyway. The third time I went, it was a dull grey sky. It got even better this time. The spirit of the monument wasn’t all bright. The history after was bloody. Seeing this monument mean something different each time is something that taught me the quality of the built form being timeless. Not just physically, but in terms of giving any living form the pleasure of evolution, anticipation and experience. That’s a power tough to possess and being able to create something as timeless? That’s probably the biggest character test there might be.