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 project.

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

performance space.

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

performance.

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.

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