November 16, 2015

Composer Mary Ellen Childs on the Melodic Pairing of Music and Architecture

Childs with Kontras Quartet

photo by: Mary Ellen Childs

Mary Ellen Childs (right) sits with Chicago-based Kontras Quartet during rehearsals.

While some might argue that architecture and music have little in common, composer and Farnsworth House artist-in-residence Mary Ellen Childs looks to prove any skeptics wrong with her new music piece, “Stone Steel Glass Wood Light,” inspired by her time at the National Trust site.

One of two artists participating in the “Architecture + Art: Inspiration Amplified” program for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Childs—with the help of Chicago’s Kontras Quartet—embraced the challenge of composing a piece to complement the glass box structure.

We spoke with Mary Ellen Childs about her experience at Farnsworth days before the November 14 opening performance at the inspirational site.

“I think of the combination of the two things [music and architecture] like combining food and wine. When you pair wine with food, it’s not meant to duplicate it, it’s meant to complement it.”

Mary Ellen Childs

As a composer, what drew you to the artist-in-residence program at Farnsworth?

I was approached by U.S. Artists and by Farnsworth to create a new piece for the house, inspired by the house—to be performed there—and to do it in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial. I was thrilled because, first of all, I had already visited Farnsworth a few years back and I knew the place, and the feel of it sprang to mind. I like writing music for places and situations that will spark my creativity, and Farnsworth House was certainly one of those places.

What parts of the site served as inspiration for your project?

I was struck by several things. I was struck by the materials of the house, and those materials have become the title of the piece [“Stone Steel Glass Wood Light”]. The house is entirely made up of stone, steel, glass, and wood. For me, light is a big part of it because of the glass. There’s a blending of indoors to outdoors; when you’re inside, the outdoors is part of your experience.

What has surprised you about this experience?

I’ve been surprised by how much the place, the Farnsworth House, has stayed with me while I was writing. Of course I couldn’t write the piece there; I was writing in my own studio. But I did have photos of the place in front of me and this beautiful 3-D cutout card of the Farnsworth House, so I had surrounded myself with it. But the experience of being there really stayed with me while I was writing, and the way that it ended up being expressed in the music definitely had an impact.

What kind of experience are you hoping to provide your audience?

I thought right away, “Well, how are we going to present [the piece] in this space?” I wanted it to be a different experience. So we were not going to set up the performers on one corner of the house and then put rows of chairs facing them—no. Instead we will encourage people to sit on the furniture. Lie on the carpet. Turn and face looking out the window rather than looking straight at the performers.

I don’t want it to be a concert experience. So neither is it like being at a concert hall nor is it like putting headphones on and [having] that personal listening experience. But rather it’s the experience of being in the house and hearing this music that was written for the house.

I think of the combination of the two things like combining food and wine. When you pair wine with food, it’s not meant to duplicate it, it’s meant to complement it. And so the music is the same thing. I’m not trying to express architecture in my music but writing something that will complement the experience and make both experiences more satisfying because of the way that they’re paired. I’m really hoping people will be as aware of their surroundings, the house and what’s through the glass outside the house, that they’ll be just as aware of that as the music when they have this experience.

Do you have dreams of composing for another location?

I would love to do a whole architectural series. In fact I have a piece called “Dream House” [video below] that was based on building, on construction and destruction and how those things are intertwined. Some of “Dream House” is going to be incorporated into the performances that we’ll do to round it out. So I’ve already worked in that vein and have been curious about the process of building or the experience of architecture.

I have wanted to do something where the pairing with the music is the night sky. So whether that would be an outdoor performance where people are looking up or if that would be in a planetarium—that I am very interested in doing. I’d also love to do something in any other architectural space—especially if it has historical significance or a strong character the way Farnsworth does and just see how a different space would influence what I’m creating.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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