Monday, November 20, 2006

Noise Orders

Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture
By. David P. Brown
University of Minnesota Press

It is not uncommon to hear architectural terms applied to jazz solos—well structured, logically constructed, building to a pinnacle. There are always parallels to be drawn between art-forms, but most would probably prefer their improvisation in music than architecture, if asked. In Noise Orders David Brown finds a place for improvisation in both disciplines.

Brown’s book is clearly written for an audience well versed in the latest scholarly literature in the architectural field. He does however raise some interesting points for further discussion. Describing the impact of boogie-woogie musicians like Meade Lux Lewis on Piet Mondrian, Brown asserts:

“These rhythmic emergencies, which bracket boogie-woogie’s revival, show that boogie-woogie, in its reductive and clear articulation of repetition and variation, provided a rhythmic expression that propelled a further transformation of Mondrian’s work.” (p. 24)

Clear enough, but discussions of Mandrian’s concept of neo-plasticism may lose some readers. Ultimately, Brown seems to argue that architecture should be more informed by jazz, so it is better able to provide space for the improvisation, or ebb and flow, of everyday life. Unfortunately, Brown does not lead readers by the nose through his argument, instead presenting a string of ideas that were somewhat thematically related, under a general rubric of improvisation.

Whether they effectively promote his thesis or not, Brown frequently develops interesting areas of discussion. Of particular note are his explorations of musical performance dependent on physical action which defies notation. He describes Cecil Taylor’s attack in terms that suggest choreography when he writes:

“Architecture, in Taylor’s formulation of using sonorities to create three dimensions, is not limited to notated directions, definitions, organizations, and relations of sound values, because the ‘intricate network of formal relations’ that he produces by playing includes such seemingly nonmusical variables as getting to his instrument.” (p. xxii)

Brown does effectively take issue with Le Corbusier’s interpretation of jazz, particularly that of Louis Armstrong, in mechanical terms: “the equivalent of a beautiful turbine running in the midst of human conversation. Hot jazz.” (p. 65) Brown notes in contradiction the genius of Armstrong, in that: “Armstrong’s introduction of rhythmic variations in the rhythms Le Corbusier emphasized.” (p. 73). Indeed, jazz artists building on the Armstrong legacy, would bend and stretch time in various ways that would move the music far a field from the architects understanding.

Brown’s analogies are often under-developed. He seems to compare the cooperative musical organization, the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, with a Community Land Trust (CLT), “a non-profit organization that holds land in common for the benefit of a community.” (p. 111) The AACM survived, due to a flexibility that encouraged fellowship. According to Brown: “AACM members could play in any band; however, a band led by an AACM meber had to maintain 60 percent AACM representation as a show of musical support.” (p. 95) AACM members were also stylistically compatible. In Chicago, a city with a relatively small jazz community, it would probably have been difficult for members to organize bands that did not meet such a requirement.

In contrast, CLT’s represent a host of issues that would be well informed by study of James Buchanan’s Public Choice School of Economics. Just who is set the rent for land parcels held by the trust? Who determines what constitutes the public good? Any expectation that those decision makers would not act in their best interest first, is na├»ve and impractical.

Brown’s Noise Orders is at times thought-provoking, but lacks cohesion, and his prose style is academic to a fault. It may well be of a piece with current thinking in architecture’s scholarly discourse, but as is doubtlessly clear by now, it is hardly the right title if your book club wants to read about jazz. Architecture has played a role in the development of the music. The shape of the Village Vanguard for instance, has serendipitously created the acoustics favorable for documenting great artists in historic live recordings. Truly, all art-forms have an impact on each other. Noise Orders’ tentative explorations suggest further thought on two disciplines not often associated together might be in order.