Thawing Frozen Music

Goethe is usually credited with using the phrase “I call architecture frozen music” in a letter published in 1836. (Eckermann 1836)

A similar phrase “Architecture is like frozen music” seems to have been used earlier in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art. (Schelling 1802-03)

Inversely sound can be made visible in a number of ways.

Chladni Patterns are generated by putting fine sand on a metal plate and vibrating it usually with a violin bow. The patterns occur in locations where there is least movement and the fine sand accumulates.

They can also be generated artificially as 3D surfaces.


Peter Nelson recently gave a seminar in the French Department on Iannis Xenakis with whom he had worked in Paris.

Xenakis was the architect, with Le Corbusier, of the Philip’s Pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels.

Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique was performed at the opening of the pavilion :-

Xenakis gave up architecture to devote himself to the composition of electronic music and the development of his UPIC system (Unite Polyagogique Informatique de CEMAMu) .

There are fairly obvious visual connections between the hyperbolic form of the Philip’s Pavilion and Xenakis’s method of representing Glissandi above.

An excerpt of Xenakis using UPIC can be seen and heard here

An example of UPIC playing an elevational drawing of  Corbusier’s Ronchamp is illustrated below; an example of frozen music being thawed.

Drawing and sound work together, the visual cursor prepares an expectation of the sound because it is possible to look ahead and anticipate.

It can be heard and seen  in the link below, and the sound expectations that the moving red cursor gives appreciated.

Xenakis was the author of the monumental, Formalised Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, (Xenakis 2001) which does not seem to have an architectural equivalent.

The day after Peter Nelson’s seminar I accidentally came across a program called IanniX on a departmental machine (

This is readily available and seems to be an updated version of UPIC developed under the auspices of the French Ministry of Culture. It avoids the use of a digitiser, reminiscent of old CAD systems, and produces Open Sound Control (OSC) events and curves.

Before I heard UPIC play the Ronchamp drawing I thought it would be interesting to modify an existing  animation program to produce music.

Separate Modelling and Viewing

Given that well designed CAD and animation programs carefully separate modelling and viewing it should be possible to see modelling as musical composition and viewing as playing the model.

Modelling –> Composition

Define volumes, shapes and material properties varying over time.

Viewing –> Playing

Where the viewing plane cuts the model at a particular place and time produces a, possibly  moving, 2D image that sound can be generated from. That is the viewing plane can be treated like the line cursor in UPIC. There could be many playings of the same model produced on different physical devices. Each view could also be modified to respond to the model in specific ways analogous to individual instruments.

Playing(s) –> Sound Console –> Conducing

Many individual playings could be collected into a performance controlled by a conductor.

Besides having models specifically designed as musical compositions it would be possible to play 3D models representing buildings either known pieces of architecture or as a means of ‘hearing’ a proposed design.

Experiencing architecture is also analogous to this process. A design is developed,  built and hopefully maintained over time; whilst a multitude of viewers with different interests examine and visit it at different times.


EckerMann, J. P. (1836)  Conversations with Goethe
                             trans Oxenford, J.(1906)
                            Harrison Ainsworth
Schilling, F.W.J. (1802-03) Philosophie der Kunst
                            The Philosophy of Art (1989)
                            Minnesota University Press
Xenakis, I. (2001)
                            Formalised Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition
                            (Harmonologia Series No.6)
                            Pendragon Press

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
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