Music about architecture

Elvis Costello once said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. If that is the case, then what is music about architecture? Asthmatic Kitty Records’ compilation Habitat, a collection of experimental electronic music written around the theme of architectural space, answers that question with two discs of original music by a variety of artists, and an equally varied different takes on electronic music in general.

I first read about Habitat on It’s Hard To Find A Friend. I was immediately sucked in by the idea of music written around and within architecture, and KO’d by the fact that proceeds went to Habitat For Humanity. And if that wasn’t enough, the power of the titles compelled me. Titles like “Your God Is A Lion Recently Fed, Drowsy” and “Utiliterranean“. Even “Staircase And Water Pipes, 42 Broadway“, which sounds more suited to a high-contrast black and white photograph than to a song, seduced me with its evocative loveliness.

The CD shipped promptly, so much so that it surprised me in my mailbox (you know the feeling). The CD was a present from myself, arriving early and unexpected. Rushing upstairs, I popped the CD into my laptop and  began to listen.

The first track, entitled “A Cross Section Of Clown Mountain“, is partially the work of Asthmatic Kitty’s most famous son, Sufjan Stevens, whose work introduced me to the label. This, his collaboration with cofounder Lowell Brams and Bryce Dessner, The National’s guitarist (the three together under the moniker Tidal River) is a captivating opener, expansive, stately, and rather epic.

On that night, not too long ago, the first CD had progressed to its third track, “Little Furnace” by Jim Guthrie, a mellow industrial track evoking the titular machine, which I imagine as a stationary Little Engine That Could. As I listen, I read the artist statements for each piece, each one only slightly less nebulous and impressionistic than the piece it’s meant to represent. “Little Furnace,” for example, is “combustion at the bottom of the sea onboard a tiny metal submarine. Each note competing with the one before it; reverberating heat in an otherwise cold abyss.” Sigh. Bliss.

Meanwhile, my roommate, watching television in the living room, asks me, “What’s that noise?” I looked at her strangely. Oh, you mean that semirhythmic clanking in the other room? Just some ambient music I’m listening to, in case you didn’t find my musical taste strange enough.

The tracks are almost wordless to a man, with a couple of exceptions. One of my favorite tracks, “A Long Way From Home” by Moth!Fight!, is one such, but the words are Dadaist, chaos-filled. “I flew … to the castle … which was the only way to get there … the only way was to fly,” a male voice declares before it devolves wonderfully into something that sounds like a schizophrenic blend of the Polyphonic Spree, Animal Collective and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah after three straight espresso shots.

According to Moth!Fight!’s statement, the song revolves around creating the atmosphere of a new home. This isn’t a conclusion that can simply be pulled out of the music, which for the most part lacks revelatory lyrics. Like most of the tracks on the album, “A Long Way From Home” relies on the narrative power of sound to create a sense of the exploration of space and architecture. The tracks use the statement, only posted online (not part of the album booklet at all) in the absence of lyrics, to sharpen and pinpoint the reader/listener’s understanding.

This leaves the tracks sounding something like architecture – without a specific narrative, but storytelling nonetheless. Definitely not for everybody, but I love.

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