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"I Imagine Myself Composing a Space" Extended Interview

Jonas Salk, August Komendant, and the Woman populate a new chamber opera inspired by the life and work of Louis Kahn.

Read the shorter version of this interview.

In 2005, composers Lewis Spratlan and Jenny Kallick began work on an opera inspired by the architect Louis Kahn. Kahn, who excelled in music and once considered becoming a composer, was especially cognizant of how sound works in a physical space. “Space has tonality,” he often said.

Kallick, a professor of music at Amherst College, made recordings of the “acoustic envelope” at several Kahn buildings, which were employed in composing the work’s prelude and interludes. Key elements from Spratlan’s music were integrated into this electro-acoustic music, creating a seamless connection between the narrative world of the characters and the sounding spaces that filled their dreams.

Opening in the ruins of Rome and ending with the healing waters at Kahn’s Salk Institute, ARCHITECT: A Chamber Opera narrates the dramatic arc of Kahn’s journey from dreamer to master builder.

ARCHITECT has not yet been performed live, but a video will be screened as part of the Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City, October 17–21, 2012.

In the following interview Spratlan discusses the project with Frederick Peters, board chairman of New Music USA, based in New York City, which works to increase opportunities for composers, performers, and audiences of contemporary music.

Click play button to hear an excerpt from the opera.

Frederick Peters: Lew, how did you decide to create “Architect”? Did it arise from a personal interest in architecture?

Lewis Spratlan: Jenny Kallick was really the creator of this piece. She had had a long fascination with Kahn. While a student in New Haven, she became very interested in his two important buildings there, the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, and particularly so after seeing Nathaniel Kahn's film, "My Architect: A Son's Journey." She decided that she wanted to immerse herself in what these buildings stood for, and was particularly interested in their sonic value, what they stood for in the world of sound. Kahn spoke often of his interest in the sonic qualities of his buildings. He had a strong interest in music to begin with; in fact, had even considered a career as a composer. He frequently spoke of music and architecture and sound in one breath, so to speak.

Jenny began this project by doing recordings, together with John Downey, a student of hers, at the Salk Institute for Biological Research, at the Yale Center for British Art, and at the Exeter, New Hampshire, Library. They went to various locations in these buildings and would first of all record just the room tone. I can't technically describe what room tone is; but when you're in any given room, you're never in total silence; the environment is producing almost imperceptible sound; that’s room tone.

Then she would have various sounds made in that room -- a hand clap, a drum smash, a squawk on an instrument, usually a quite short burst of sound -- to determine what the so-called sonic envelope in that space would do to those sounds.

FP: Was she thinking opera at this point, or was she just thinking it was interesting to collect the sounds?

LS: I don't want to speak entirely for her -- this was all prior to my becoming involved in the project -- but at this point I think she was mainly exploring what Kahn had talked about in terms of the sound of these buildings.

When she first approached me, it was with an invitation to compose the songs that would be in this song cycle. At that point, we weren't talking about it as an opera yet. At that time, the Yale Art Gallery was really the only Kahn building I knew. I didn't have a very elaborate idea of Kahn, who he was in the world of architecture, or what he stood for, particularly. But I knew I liked that building.

Jenny presented me with four or five sets of lyrics already done for these songs, and I was very taken by them, right away. A lot of them include Kahn's own words: there are volumes of Kahn's writings and remarks that were taken down by people as he talked with them. Jenny is a profound musician herself. She's primarily a musicologist and music theorist, but she's also a splendid cellist and a tremendous student of opera and vocal music. So I became very interested in doing the project.

Very early on, she said, "You've got to go see this film, 'My Architect.'" So I got a video of it, and was tremendously moved by it. It was a revelatory film to me. I think the main theme in the life of Kahn and at the heart of this film is -- and it's something I've been aware of for years as an artist, myself -- the cost to one's private life of an artistic career. Which is exaggerated in Kahn's case, but it's something that all artists are aware of.

FP: It's overwhelmingly strong in the film how everybody around him paid for what he did.

LS: Absolutely. Frank Lloyd Wright is an interestingly parallel case -- the same sort of cavalier obliviousness toward people who were extremely close to him. But we observe it all the time. Art has a kind of commanding quality if you're its servant. My wife might disagree, but I think I've mended my ways a little after seeing that film.

FP: So when did the switch from song cycle to opera take place?

LS: Very quickly after we got started. I can't remember whose initiative it was, but within weeks after first talking about it, we came to realize that we had something beyond a song cycle on our hands.

FP: Although you can still hear the seeds of the song cycle inside the opera; one gets a strong sense of the songs within that bring out different character aspects of the participants, or their processes.

LS: Yes, I think that's quite true. This is not a straight, linear opera by any means.

FP: It's not story-focused.

LS: No, not at all. It's a psychological venture, I would say.

FP: Since Jenny had recorded all these ambient sounds which she then amplified by various electronic means into interludes or musical segments within the opera, there really were two composers at work. How did you dovetail the sections you composed instrumentally with the sections she worked on electronically?

LS: It was a big nut to crack, achieving some sense of unity, of flow, in a piece which is constantly alternating between song and played music and electronic music, without having a jarring sense that one world is interrupting another in an incompatible way. We realized early on that it was something we were going to have to pay a lot of attention to.

There’s this process current in the world of electronic music called convolving, which is where the envelopes recorded in various spaces are then applied to sounds that are introduced. Those sounds could be a cough or a series of words or a musical fragment.

FP: Or played music?

LS: Yes, anything. We realized early on that one of the best ways to get a kind of through-ness to the texture would be to take music that I was composing, which would be sung and played, and to subject it to this convolving procedure. The timing worked out very nicely once we decided that we wanted to do this as an opera, because she had a whole pile of raw material on hand from the recordings but had not produced even a single interlude or introduction. And we realized early on that if this was going to have a chance of working, we were going to have to steer some of the music that I was writing into this chamber.

So we did just that. I was writing music at a rather rapid rate, and we would then do dry runs in the main music space at Amherst College, where we both taught. We would bring singers and instrumentalists in to record bits of what I was writing; no whole arias or scenes, but just enough so she could take this material back to the studio and incorporate it into these segments, which then serve as interludes or introductions within the whole piece. That was the main thing we did to try to give some unity to it.

FP: When you hear the piece, you’re certainly aware of these distinct vocabularies; but they definitely weave together very successfully.

LS: I should make clear that the bits of my composed music are not the only things that were subjected to this convolving technique. Many sounds that were recorded in the Kahn buildings were also convolved. Jenny was trying to create a sense of being in those spaces, not just by the sonic envelope but by the sounds that are native. For example, there are a couple of moments where she's actually in a laboratory at the Salk Institute, and you hear lab sounds, the sounds of beakers being struck or filled. Of course, they are quite elaborated, but she's trying to bring some sense of what being in one of those spaces, beyond just that sonic envelope, might be.

FP: Early on in the opera, Kahn says that space has tonality: "I imagine myself composing a space." One could flip that and say music has architecture. Working on an opera about an architect, were you unusually conscious of structure? Were there particular ways in which you tried to build architecture, or a sensitivity to architecture, into the work?

LS: Yes. There are two conspicuous places where I was quite self-conscious about trying to evoke architecture in the music itself. And there were many other instances where it came out in the wash, so to speak. I’d had a flirtation with architecture, myself, mainly during my junior high and high school years.

FP: So not unlike Mr. Kahn, who flirted with being a composer.

LS: Indeed, right; sort of the flip side of that. I've been acutely aware for a long time what architecture is and what it has to be. I've often thought about the commanding forces that are at work in both architecture and music, and they are remarkably similar. Common to both is the fact that there's a surface: the tune, or the façade. But behind that surface, in both cases, there are elaborate mechanisms that allow that surface to be understood and appreciated: the harmonic contrapuntal structure of music, or the whole collection of structural elements that are involved in architecture.

One of the things I've always envied about architecture is that it has to have a function. No matter how beautiful the building is, if the doors don't open right, it is no building. It has got to work. It's got to stand up and it's got to have a degree of permanence about it. Music doesn't have that, beyond what you might talk about as the imposed structure of the audience expectation or perhaps cultural demands, which are rather flimsy by comparison.

FP: Which I would guess is why, throughout much of history, people composed within highly organized structures, be it sonata or fugue or theme and variations. It actually lays out some engineering, for a lack of a better word, requirements through which you elaborate the piece.

LS: The two most conspicuous moments where I am invoking architecture in a frank way are the opening of the second number, which is the soliloquy that we hear Kahn deliver about what a building is and what a building needs to be. It's called "The Flame." He had this rather elaborately articulated notion that was consistently at the center of any structure that he was working on. It was his metaphor for the sort of irreducible purpose of that building: why it existed; what its mission on earth was, so to speak. And then he had this rather concentric idea of subsidiary functions that were paid attention to in the design of a building. So there's this sense of centeredness and then structure surrounding layers of concentric function.

FP: And in the opera, that's described in a quasi-religious way, as if you had the people within the temple, then the people who want to be in the courtyard of the temple, and then the people who want to be even further away but nonetheless in proximity to the temple.

LS: And those who want to just wink at it. So there is a sense of trying to design that feeling of concentric qualities in this aria. And the introduction to it is my best shot at setting up some architectural elements. What I had in mind was two walls intersecting with one another, but on a single grounding, lying on a common platform. And that common platform in this case is the lowest sound that was makeable by this orchestra. It was a nine-piece orchestra and the lowest instrument was a double bass, which has E as its bottom string. So this open E string is constantly there, so that we get these two walls that are just intersecting one another, but on the common platform of this E. And in my imagination they were great, towering walls, so the whole span is laid out in them. But they're distinctly different: one might think of one being in shade and the other in bright sunlight, or one rough and the other smooth. I wanted a sense of two independent elements which were at the same time linked by their being on this ground of low E.

FP: That's fascinating.

LS: In fact, when we first hear the “voice” of Kahn, it appears during the sounding of one of these walls in the form of an oboe. The oboe is the surrogate for Kahn in this piece. In fact, during the Woman’s mad scene, when she's exhausted from flailing and tries to remember their passion, he is introduced in an oboe cadenza. So the oboe shows up importantly. It's the first truly melodic material that we hit here, during the setting up of these walls. That’s one example. The other is in the introduction to the first number in the piece, a duet --

FP: When they're in Rome.

LS: Yes, there's an invocation constantly of stonework. I was trying to get at the whole sense of these interlocking blocks of material. The music actually is like brickwork, or interlocking elements. Again, not in a way that it's going to make you pop up and say, "Ah! Well, that's a picture of a stone," but this is my response to trying to make that invocation. There's a bit of this also in the last number of the piece, where the Salk Institute is being sort of dreamed into existence by Salk and Kahn.

FP: You spoke earlier about fire. But there's also obviously a real importance of water in that structure; and that's the way the opera ends, with water.

LS: One of the really striking features of that building is the two-foot-wide channel of water that runs right down through the courtyard, dividing the two main halves of that building. So that’s the metaphor -- the water will run peacefully to the ocean, which is the main text of that last number.

FP: In the first scene, there’s all that Roman ruin imagery -- all those arches, capstones, cornerstones. And the music during the first part of the opera, up until the entry of the Woman, has in many ways a lapidary quality -- a sense of being polished and intellectually driven. Then the Woman enters, and suddenly you're in more of a sense world, rather than a world of corporeality and idea. Can you talk a little about the Woman? She's such an interesting apparition in this highly intellectualized, male environment.

LS: Anybody who has any kind of familiarity with Kahn is aware that his private life was turbulent, to say the least. Complex. He was married and had a daughter by Esther, his wife. And he had at least two mistresses, each of whom bore a child by him. We talked about trying to represent this in some detail, but realized that we didn't want to get down into blow-by-blow biography. Yet at the same time, we felt that if we were going to be telling any kind of serious tale about Kahn, the issue of women in his life had to come up. So we made the decision to create an amalgam of these three women and just call the character "Woman." What she stands for in the opera is an exemplar of the difficulty that he has with personal relationships. She feels neglected, not incorporated fully into his existence, feeling on the outside all of the time.

FP: What is it she says? "I work while I wait."

LS: Yes, that's it exactly: "I work while I wait. But he travels.”

FP: So there's a lot of waiting.

LS: And the traveling music appears right from the very beginning of the opera. So we hear these drums -- the traveling metaphor. When she mentions that he travels, those drums come back dutifully, re-invoking that world. So she is a kind of vessel for the frustration and inconstancy and inconsistency that we imagine was experienced by these three women.

We see the Woman twice. The first time, as you say, she interrupts this train of intellectual considerations and male dominance that had been occurring in the piece, and it's a very abrupt shift. We see her just after she has received a letter from Kahn that includes a poem by E. E. Cummings, which we hear her read. It's a complex reading -- she doesn't simply sing it straight through; each of the lines is sung twice, and on its second reading, more of her reflection and spice of her understanding is injected into it.

FP: It wasn't a poem I knew, but it's terrific – a lot of internal rhyme. It's beautifully, beautifully done.

LS: Kahn says it to her by way of excusing himself, though – harkening back to Whitman, I am multitudes, I have many selves, and this is something that you're going to have to understand and live with. And she doesn't choose to understand it.

FP: It's like a country-western song: don't tie me down.

LS: It's an emotionally turbulent aria that we hear her in, very unlike the first two pieces, which is the duet in Rome followed then by the flame aria, which is his manifesto. These are stirring pieces because they're confronting some big issues. You wouldn't call them emotionally engaged especially. We see this very heavy-duty emotional engagement from her.

FP: Which then is followed by one of my favorite moments in the opera, the Concrete duet, in which Kahn and the Engineer sing like workmen with Italian accents about how you temper concrete. Suddenly, for the first time, there are people -- workmen and guys with wheelbarrows and bags of cement; it's actually a job site. And there, in the background, you actually see a building being put together while they are singing about how it has to be tempered with the right vibrations. Very funny.

LS: I think this duet is one of the strangest operatic moments in captivity.

Click play button to hear an excerpt from the opera.

FP: Was that written as a separate song in the cycle?

LS: No, Jenny imagined it as a moment between Kahn and Komendant, showing their complicated relationship, as was the case with all of the important relationships in Kahn's life. Komendant, by many reports, was largely responsible for a lot of Kahn's buildings even being built. Kahn was a tremendous dreamer and would come up with schemes which most engineers would have said, "Why do you even show me this? It can't be done. Forget about it." Komendant was an imaginative, very large-brained thinker, who could find a way to make these buildings happen. So they were symbiotically very heavily involved with one another. At the same time, Kahn was abusive to him and felt that he was too strict about things, too orderly. He wouldn't allow himself to be engaged in Kahn's pipe dreams. And Kahn was annoyed by that.

FP: These visionary architects desperately need good structural engineers; otherwise they end up with buildings that leak or barely stand up. They may be conceptually brilliant, but for architecture to work, the building actually has to stand up. The doors have to open and close. That clearly is where Komendant was indispensable.

LS: Both Kahn and Komendant were of Estonian heritage, so this duet starts with a sort of imagined reminiscing about Estonia -- the flounder, the little red potatoes. And then the other thing we share is our love of concrete. That's not just an empty, throw-out remark. As I understand it, concrete is a tremendously important structural element in many of Kahn's buildings, as was the case in Rome, also. We don't appreciate that. We think of stone structures in Rome, but many Roman buildings are the first great uses of concrete. So I'm sure his visit to Rome is important in that sense.

FP: In fact, that's telegraphed in the video, through the fact that there is a lot of flashing on the Roman ruins during the concrete conversation.

LS: So Kahn had this affinity for the material, and Komendant was apparently an absolute master of concrete. He's celebrated in that the concrete in most of their buildings simply doesn't crack. It has this incredible integrity to it. It also, and this is very noticeable in the Salk Institute, develops a patina, a kind of burnished quality that you don't think of with concrete. When you look at it, it doesn't seem to be rough. It seems to have a finish to it. In any case, he was obsessive about getting concrete right. So they did share this love and respect for concrete. That's not an incidental thing. We imagined that when this is staged, they'll be having a beer somewhere, just a couple of guys who finally find a moment to sit and relax, then fall into this riffing about concrete.

When Jenny first produced the text for this duet, it was just a bunch of English words. But I took it a good deal further in that I imagined this kind of 50s scat thing that they fell into. So concrete turns into concribidee, concribideet-deet. And then we get into kind of a battle of the bands, concriba-dibba-deed, concriba-doo-deet-deet, and so on, where they try to outdo one another.

FP: It's very funny.

LS: It is funny, with this constant refrain: “mix it right and cure it with the right vibrations.” It's borderline nonsense, a deliberately heel-kicking moment in the piece. But like many of the great heavy-duty operas, there are wonderful moments of levity in it.

FP: Then you move into that extended mad scene, which is very intense and just about 180 degrees from the lightness of the concrete duet.

LS: This takes all the frustration and disappointment that we see from the Woman in her first number and sends it to its furthest extreme. Talk about a woman at the end of her rope -- she's just losing it.

FP: And not even articulate through much of it.

LS: No. I've invented this kind of private language for her, grunts and moans and squawks and squeals, and sometimes things that actually sound like language, but don't mean anything. There are a few English words in it, but they're all chosen from that E. E. Cummings poem that she sings earlier. It's mainly just agony, which then turns into rage; then there is a moment of retrospective reflection on sexual joy that she had with him; then it lapses again into real fury at the end.

FP: If you think about the opera in terms of movements, that scene is followed by what I see as the reconciliation section. You get the third embodiment of the baritone as the Healer, and Salk and Kahn have this lovely interaction on the grass in which Salk soothes him into sleep with a wonderful little lullaby. Then there's a dream sequence, which ends up with a reference to the Salk Institute, which seems to be where all the different themes come together. So you have all three of the characters at the end singing very lyrically about the water flowing through the structure and out to the sea, with obviously all the things that the sea represents.

Click play button to hear an excerpt from the opera.

LS: Jonas Salk was very aware of Kahn's work and actually commissioned him to design the Salk Institute. Salk had this vision of a marriage of science and art; and not only the art of the building, but he wanted art to be in the air at this building. In fact, to this day there is an ample line item in the budget of the Salk Institute for artistic productions, and they have a little theater there.

Kahn, when he's on stage, is going to be carrying this small rug around with him, which is a place of comfort for him. He's exhausted following his trip. He takes a nap during which he dreams of the Salk Institute. After he wakes, we hear elements of the building as he is imagining it. But during this time, he is also confronting Woman, and we see her once again. We actually hear her within the dream. This is a step toward reconciliation. For Kahn this was not just imagining one of his greatest buildings, it was an opportunity to re-examine himself and his relationships with people. We are not posing that he has succeeded in figuring out how much damage he has done. But it's an imagined moment where he reaches a sense of equanimity about the people that he has been with.

I should back up a moment and say that this nap is introduced by the lullaby that you mentioned, the heart of which is an actual Estonian lullaby. By coincidence, we have on our faculty at Amherst College an ethnomusicologist whose specialty is the music of Estonia. I called him up and told him what we were looking for, and he sang me this lullaby over the telephone.

FP: How serendipitous!

LS: Much of the lead-in to the dream has a recitative-like music that is overlaid on top of this constantly cycling lullaby. Then, after the awakening occurs, there's a -- I wouldn't call it an aria, maybe an arietta -- a little, not very structured but rather extensive piece from Kahn, embodying his ideas about the building, and also addressing the Woman and representing a shift in his sense about his relationship with her and them. Which then leads into this closing music, the redemption scene. It begins with just the two of them, Kahn and Salk, then incorporates the Woman as a kind of almost a ghostly presence. We don't imagine her sitting there. It is an interesting staging problem. We would want to differentiate between the corporeality of the two men and then this kind of hovering presence of the Woman there.

FP:Architect” hasn't yet been performed live on stage; how do you imagine that performance when it occurs?

LS: Right from the beginning, we had this idea of it being very portable. It has a total cast of only three singers, just nine players, a very small orchestra. As I like to say, sort of a two station wagon opera. And why? We wanted the piece to be able to be put on in various of Kahn's buildings. This was an important thing for us, requiring an absolute minimum -- as a matter of fact, requiring no traditional theatrical space at all. No drops, no orchestra pit. A flat space that can hold an audience, that's really all we were thinking about. We would be delighted to have it put on in theatrical venues. Although it would be impossible in a large opera house; it would just be lost at the Met or virtually any traditional opera house.

Two of the Kahn buildings have already shown great interest in having performances, so we just have to raise some money, and do all of the planning. It won't just happen overnight, but those will be the next stages. I hope this piece has a long and varied life.