12/8 Tower: Music and Architecture in Creative Tech

August 25, 2014

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A view from inside the 12/8 Tower. Photograph by Oscar QiYuan Li.

By Tim Durfee, Core Faculty

12/8 Tower is an experiment in the integration of media – in this case music – and architecture. In Spring 2014, Guest instructor Andrew Kragness and I taught a 4-week introduction to parametric design and fabrication as part of the program’s new Creative Technology course, within which the 12/8 tower was built by Development Year students Daisy BaoElaine CheungKatie DuffyMargo DunlapJay HongLeah HorganQing Yi LiMorgan MarzecFaith OftadehShan Shen, and Inae Song. (Creative Tech, as we call it, was designed by MDP Core Faculty Phil van Allen and is integral to the MDP’s recently revamped Development Year curriculum.)

Video by Elaine Cheung.

We started by studying composer Steve Reich’s seminal early work Clapping Music (1972). Set in 12/8 time, Clapping Music has two performers repeat the same rhythmical motif, with one of the performers eventually offsetting the sequence one eighth note beat at a time. The piece concludes when the shift has occurred 12 times, thus restoring the synchrony of the two performers.

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The 12/8 Tower in the MDP’s Wind Tunnel gallery. Photograph by Oscar QiYuan Li.

We also investigated two precedents – the bell tower and the pipe organ. The bell tower is an architectural form that both houses the physical instrument of a carillon and serves as multi-directional “speaker” for the acoustical broadcast of the chimes. A concert organ has pipes which – due to their variety of size (large for low frequencies, small for high) – have inherent physical qualities that can be composed to produce form (as with the organ at Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, for example.)

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Photograph by Oscar QiYuan Li.

The idea of this project was to collapse the “bell tower” and “pipe organ” conceptually to the point where the physical form of the tower itself is the “pipes” (in this case, panels to be struck to make a “clap” for Reich’s piece.) With this logic in mind, we used Steve Reich’s musical score as an architectural drawing, informing us of both the rhythm of each row of clapping panels, but also of the offset as the rows ascend to eventually match the original pattern at the top.

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Photograph by Faith Oftadeh.

While this structure is currently a test of the translation from the rhythmical “architecture” of Reich’s piece to the physical architecture of a tower (with each row having exactly 12 panels (one per beat), the second iteration will transform the tower into a performing musical box, in which the white panels will be equipped with servo-driven mallets to produce a “clap” and the dark panels (without mallets) as “rests.” As it performs, 1 row will “clap” the repeated rhythm and every other row will clap its respective pattern in an ascending sequence until the piece is complete, at the top of the tower.

Professor and percussionist Russell Hartenberger (L) and composer Steve Reich (R) perform Clapping Music.