The Architecture of Happiness (2014)

3333 4331 13 harp, piano, strings (doublings: picc, cbsn)
20 min.

The Architecture of Happiness borrows its title from a book by the Swiss-British writer Alain de Botton, which I found around the time Hannu Lintu asked me for a new work to open the Finnish Radio Symphony’s 2014-15 season. Somewhat perversely, I’d suggested a virtually static piece with little in the way of climax. Flashing his trademark smirk, Hannu replied, “Write me something…” and held his hands wide apart to suggest a monumental statement of some sort. “Of course, if you want, a big adagio somewhere would be appropriate.”

Normally drawn to the outside world in composing, de Botton’s writings turned my thoughts to the ways in which we build our domestic environments, and what our living spaces express about us. I began to think formally in terms of construction versus “natural”-sounding evolution, materials and forms crafted and connected rather than simply found or stumbled upon. (Though I often compare my way of writing music to the processes of nature, just as often I look upon a new piece as a house I’m forced to inhabit for a set period. The ways in which I make that time pleasant are just as artificial and planned, in a way, as a walk in the woods.)

While de Botton’s book is ostensibly a historical primer on aesthetic values in architecture, his central theme is beauty: how we perceive it, how we create it, what it means for a thing to be beautiful, and for us to find it so. As he says in one of his lectures, “To become sensitive to beauty is also to lay yourself open to a lot of disappointment and pain.” One emerges with a deep sense of the contextuality of beauty, how the meaning of the word fluctuates with time, and yet whose essential nature is somehow immutable. Other threads include the reconciling of tradition and innovation, as well as the broad consensus on aesthetic values necessary for a piece of public art – an orchestral piece, for instance – to resonate.

That said, the book was merely a starting point, and any further resemblance is very much in the ear of the beholder. The music begins with a hushed chorale of diatonic string chords, material from a recent, rather fractured ensemble piece that I had wanted to take in a more architectonic direction. Out of this wash of sound a simple, repeated-note pulse arises, and from these two building blocks – harmony and rhythm at their most basic – I drew the blueprint for the rest. Much of the tension of the piece derives from the contrast between motion and stasis, and the fluidity with which the usual markers of these two states are made to take on characteristics of the other. Fast pulses become a static field, joyous motion takes on larger arch-shapes that make the process sound slower, and a landscape of still, quiet chords covers more ground in a few bars than much longer spans of rhythmic activity. My intent was to create a flow of music that, while frequently quite busy, manages to remain quite still. (This perhaps also illustrates a certain stubborn need to ultimately get my way, while still happily fulfilling dictates from patrons.)

Though I strove to focus purely on the beauty of abstract forms, I should acknowledge one personal note. The “big adagio” idea suggested by Hannu, a near-ambient, tuneless mass of slowly morphing harmonies beginning halfway through the piece, took on elegiac tones following the death of my first teacher of composition – of music – whose influence was central to my formation. As one of the principal architects of my current happiness, I hope this piece serves as a monument to his life.

The Architecture of Happiness was commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). It is dedicated to Hannu Lintu, and to Robert Frederick Jones (1947-2012), in memoriam.