Prospect and Refuge by Eliza Brown
When Quince asked me to propose an interdisciplinary piece concept, I knew I wanted to involve my sister, Hannah. Hannah is an architect, and we have been discussing the relationships between music and architecture for many years. I proposed a spatialized
piece that could be adapted to the specific characteristics of any performance space, with Hannah as consulting architect. Quince concurred.
Hannah and I began work on this piece by visiting several hypothetical performance spaces in Seattle—all distinctive public spaces with a wide variety of architectural styles and intended uses. I expected our discussion to focus on analyzing these spaces—parsing them into categories and articulating their structural, ornamental, and acoustic features. Instead, I found that Hannah’s approach to these spaces was fundamentally interpretive. She synthesized the architectural elements of each space into a larger narrative about its history, function, and social meaning, imagining the role the space would play in the lives of individuals at various points throughout its history.
To give a few examples: In the lobby of the Paramount Theater, which exemplifies the
superficial opulence of early 20th-century movie palaces, we imagined moviegoers
mingling in a buzz of social activity before a screening in the 1930s, the messiness and
uncertainty of their private lives spilling over and contrasting with the intentionally
haughty grandeur of the space. In the gracious hall of King Street Station, we recalled
that our great-grandfather had passed through the same space, en route back to Kansas
from his missionary post in Alaska, accompanied by his infant son and a coffin bearing
the body of his young wife, who had died in childbirth. For me, this image from our family
history imbued the previously neutral-feeling white walls with sorrow. I imagined the
specific anxiety one might feel trying to hush a fussy baby in this booming space, whose
acoustics magnify intimate utterances to an unnatural scale.
A theme emerged over the course of our site visits: public spaces are sites that can
catalyze unexpected meetings, transformative chance encounters, and moments of
introspective reflection among the ever-changing constellation of people within them.
Hannah’s interpretive approach to architecture led me to this conception of public
spaces, which also intersected nicely with my own interest in musical narrative—i.e. how
music tells stories, both with and without words—and really changed my conception of
The result is an experimental music-theater piece, primarily intended for re-purposed or
non-traditional performance venues, that depicts four private individuals meeting in a
public space. The dramaturgy of the work—how it is interpreted and staged by the
performers—is to be adapted according to the social history and/or function of each
My challenge in writing this piece was to compose music for four voices that is inherently
narrative—suggesting musical characters and relationships that change over time—but
that is not tied to a specific scenario or location. For this reason, and to maximize the
expressive capabilities of sound and music themselves, there is no text, only phonemes
that help shape the musical character and narrative of each singer.
Each singer portrays a character with some defining musical traits and a related
psychological back-story. Carrie and Amanda’s characters are friends whose
relationship is not secure. Carrie’s character is brilliant and frenetic and likes to be the
center of attention; Amanda’s character is deeply empathetic but is mourning a loss.
Both characters are, in their own way, unsuccessfully seeking comfort and affirmation
from the other, and their musical material converges and diverges as they navigate this
fraught relationship. Kayleigh’s character is a seeker—always challenging herself and
looking for the next hill to climb—but she has trouble realizing when she needs help to
attain her goals. Musically, this character is fixated on certain pitch goals, approaching
them slowly but tenaciously, often without regard for the other characters’ pitch material.
Liz’s character has a rich inner life but struggles to communicate or connect with others;
her musical material is the least syntactically cohesive and she does not always engage
with the other characters, but as she observes them from a distance, she begins develop
her own voice. Each character thus has strengths, weaknesses, and needs that she
brings to this encounter.
The challenge (or invitation) that this piece offers the performers is to interpret the music
anew in each space it is performed, creating versions of their characters that might have
inhabited that space at some specific point in its history. In King Street Station, for
example, the characters might all be travelers at some mid-point along a journey, set at
any point in the station’s history; the musical interpretation would also have to take into
account the booming acoustics of the hall. In the Paramount Theater lobby, the singers
might portray women gathering before a movie in the 1930s; the grand staircase and
multiple levels of balcony would offer incredible opportunities for staging. Constellation
Chicago, where the piece will be premiered, is a music venue that used to be a theater;
here the piece may become a meta-version of itself: a piece about the act of
My conversations with Hannah were not entirely devoid of technical and theoretical
discussion—in fact, the title of this piece, and the ways the performers’ relationship with
the space are described in the score, are adapted from prospect-refuge theory, a set of
ideas used in interior and landscape design as well as architecture. Prospect-refuge
theory posits that humans are aesthetically drawn to environments that offer both refuge
(a safe, relatively enclosed space) and prospect (the view of a landscape that provides
both sustenance and potential danger). In this piece, prospect and refuge become
metaphors for the varied inclinations of our psyches when encountering others: at times
we hold back, seeking refuge within ourselves, and at times we venture out of
ourselves—through self-expression, or by directly engaging those around us. With this
metaphor, however, it is not always so clear whether the internal or the external world is
the prospect or the refuge, as both offer potential comfort, sustenance, and adventure,
but also potential danger and personal risk.