Brad Nathanson, “Music Technology and the Built Environment”

This installation can be heard/seen in the basement atrium of Lincoln hall until Tuesday, May 23rd.

When I place myself in Nature, I find myself in my childhood house. This environment of mine feels the most natural, and to be in a place much different than this – say, in a forest for example – I can’t help but feel as though I am on an unusual adventure. In 2014 for the first time in human history the number of people living in urban areas surpassed those living outside of cities – and this number is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050 ( The truth is that natural environments of the majority of future humans on our planet will be urban areas, and while non-anthropocentric spaces are the places from which we came, it would be idealistic to think that the way in which Humans have drastically altered the physical world by means of the built environment is not a natural process. Often when we place ourselves in Nature we find ourselves in the places of others – environments of non-human species, whose space and sound are fascinating for their novelty. I intend to make natural music which directly confronts architecture’s role as an environmental mediator.

In my personal artistic practice I am interested in exploring the commonalities between the architect as a composer of space and the musician as a composer of time. Composer John Cage asserted that we see no difference between time and space; it is this notion that drives my own investigations. An elaboration on Cage’s statement, I see no difference between a musical instrument and a building: for both of these constructions, space and time are defined by structural systems which account for proportion and join materials together. I admire Alvin Lucier’s process for his ability to set up scenarios which reveal the beauty of underlying scientific properties and behaviors. It seems that all of the music of post-modernity operates in a similar manner to Lucier’s process, which is only an exaggeration of what is already happening. I feel that post-modern architects deal with similar issues, and that architecture as a whole is simply a physical manifestation of an attempt to construct beauty through an understanding of similar scientific properties. I hope to highlight the connections between these two practices (the architect as a composer of space, the composer as an architect of time) to enact a dialog about our compressed experience of space and time. I believe this to be productive lens through which we might think about music and architecture – suddenly we may find ourselves hearing beauty in the “noise” of the built environment.

Architecture can be distilled down to the ways in which materials are connected to one another. These connections not only provide structural stability, visual continuity and a sense of enclosure – they also are a medium for vibrational transfer. Here we can begin to understand architectural constructions as systems which combine disparate objects, each imbued with their own unique resonant mode and sonic characteristics, to form a singular closed self-referential harmonious body.

In any building, vibrations caused by footsteps travel along the floor of a room and through its walls, dissipating into the structure beyond. In most spaces, though, these sounds are inaudible in comparison with the sounds which fill the space. I want to make audible the monumental inhabitable musical instruments which we know as buildings. In the case of concert halls, the sonic characteristics of rooms are shaped to compliment the sounds produced by instruments within; here we see an architectural body and a musical body begin to merge. What would happen, though, if we imagined the total convergence of the architectural space with the space of the musical instrument? What if a room were designed to amplify the sounds of the activity within? Could we imagine that this room might be a space that allows for the musical performance of itself?

For the final project, I have constructed a sonic wall module which acts as the start of a series of future investigations into large scale sonic structures. To appeal to the most common architectural typologies found in the standard built environment, gypsum board and 2 x 4’s are the materials to be listened to. Using conventional framing techniques a typical 4’ x 8’ wall section was erected and augmented with joints that accept contact microphones at the connection points of the outer frame’s four corners. A cross brace connects the midpoints of the two inner studs, allowing a transducer to be located at the very center of the construction. The gypsum board cladding acts as a speaker membrane to amplify the natural resonant frequencies of the wooden supports. The series of electronics forms a network which allows for feedback loops to be created by the contact microphones picking up the sounds of the transducer and each other. The tones produced by the wall instrument are a direct result of the proportions of the structure and the materials used. The wall section becomes a surface to be explored by the listener whose interactions are fed back into the wall itself, taking cues from the seminal pieces “Rainforest IV”, by David Tudor, and “I Am Sitting in a Room”, by Alvin Lucier.  

With this natural music of the built environment I don’t mean to celebrate industrialization, modernity or civilization, but rather I intend to provoke humanity to rethink the potentials of the environment which we have constructed for ourselves.


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