73 Juta Street Braamfontein Johannesburg South Africa, 2000
Johannesburg: 26.2041° S, 28.0473° E London: 51.5072° N, 0.1276°
To make something site-specific requires an understanding of what constitutes a site. A process of understanding requires bringing together various forms of knowledge and actors who inform how a space can be read, to be able to create something that listens to and learns from its locale. In this way, site-specificity is already a way of cocreation with those who are present at the site and the things left behind by those who came before. Specificity operates differentially, as sites vary across geographies and through individual perspective. Yet typically, architectural conceptions of a “site” privilege what is concrete and physical, rarely considering how its performative and durational dimensions and how its use animate and indicate the efficacy of its design and the possibility of its program. In this note we ask, what are the ways a musical moment defines a space and orchestrates how people convene?
“The sky’s slow yawn was heard in the cloud report, a celestial ceiling that reverberated with its unsounded expanse. A distantly blue horizon caught most of the day in its stillness until it was punctuated by a sudden drawn-out note that accompanied the Maghreb’s setting sun.”
It was a surprise number by a reed flute that was really numbing down on a nasal note. The first inhalation caused the birds to flock in disturbance, rocking and swaying in the now-calm, then-turbulent air. A lingering frequency formed, reaching far into the neighborhood, a beckon and beacon for the crowd to congregate. The performance parted ways with the silence of the street, firmly finding the melody’s message and mode, a makeshift movement that denoted the first player’s offering.
This reed flute and its player flounced across the center of the square, a short distance from the almond tree but never traversing its shadow. A descending four-note figuration – a jin¹1 – anointed the sand and gently eased the contorted strain in the bold exhalation of the wind instrumentalist’s wheeze.
This continuous trickle of sound eventually summoned the bendir²2 with her drummer in tow, who started pacing in an elliptical circuit, determining the musical limit and the band’s spatial occupation. The audience too began to assemble, each pair of eyes and ears in a proverbial tide, drawn in and out by this orbital orchestration. The drum drawl rose to this combined chorus and question, releasing the musical moment by going into a kneeling position, letting her hips come to rest on heels; while the reed flute turned the tune back and forth, she moved between guttural gush and falsetto fling.
A third player’s drum-pounding beat defined a surge of power, possibility, and permission that grew more insistent during the earlier drummer’s rotation over the north point of her route. This additional beat transformed both the chord group and the crowd into a maqam, or place³3.
A particular constellation that contained in its singular arrangement the possibility of an unheard-of composition, collectively authored in the captive release of its reactive rendition. The question becomes how to unleash the harmonics of the hollow, to spit out or spew forth the tart taste of a new score contained in the throat and get the groove going. The initial familiarity of the band members inhibited the novelty of their nature, falling into repetitive responses that they all knew too well. The melody cycled like so for a short while, the crowd restless in attendance, until it finally gave way to a cut in the chord⁴4.
A sort of liberating comort in the acuteness of their mutual awareness provided the courage for the reed flute to break away momentarily⁵5. A tiny spark caught at the tip of her tongue, a flame-like whisper that built up until complete combustion took over, a play that was tuned into a staccato spike. This percussive attack prompted the second drummer to roll off her route, letting the instrument stumble with the support sagging on its strap as they revealed their recourse to the reed solo. She dug deep into the ground, feet planted, and unearthed a desolate yet fiercely devotional sound. Leaving the two other players behind, a desertion inflicted each note, a blast turned tune that took storm at this point, as if summoned into a momentary gusty duet with the winds around them. Sand had to do with it as well; heat had to do with it too. A proud proportion that blasted the audience and the first drummer into unencumbered encouragement⁶6.
Mute in the moment, this final player fashioned a slow succession of dry timbre touches as she held herself somewhere between incantation and incision that caught fire every third jin. A solo that subtly seemed to seize the gap between one’s bone and marrow. The buildup continued, the crowd teetered, and the tempo tensed while the tune turned and took off.
“The song was sent into the world, a proposal for a future that was abandoned before it could envelop its listeners. It was an address given in retrospect, a gift to be coproduced by the ear and the mind, in sound and in space. ”
The authority of the maqam’s boundary maintained, while the audience grouped more closely together in the band’s increasingly fragmentary improvisation⁷7.
Just as it seemed to climax into conclusion, the not-yet-finished invitation as envoi was taken up by the band as an expressive ensemble. They passed the tune unconsciously between them, as if they shared this extended gasp with a single mouth, an unending intake that continually couldn’t be resolved⁸8.
The melody marched with the trio and their acoustic following, an impromptu play that constituted collectively an earthly extent through sound. The song, resonant in the air, with the sky’s silence echoing its refrain, its signature remaining discernible, albeit in the latent gestural enactment of the crowd that constantly refashioned around them. The air, cut and cornered, a deliberately designed deformation that eluded in its escape. The band sent this newly made song into the world, but with the understanding that the conditions for its hearing couldn’t be met. A signal that was lost somewhere between the ear and the mind’s ear, a gap the possibility of being bridged, as the musicians couldn’t help but be absconded as the music muffled with this forlorn possibility. The pronounced moment ended after it had implicated all those who partook in its enunciated atmosphere⁹9.
Jin is typically a set of four pitches, although at times it can be three or five, similar to the Western tetrachord. It is the base unit from which an instrument can be tuned, and also, it is the word for gender and genus. In its assemblage, it constitutes the minimal moment of distinction and recognition.
A bendir is a Sufi drum held upright and secured with the thumb through a circular opening in the frame.
Maqam translates as “physical place, location” and “place or position or rank in an order or system” and “gathering or assembly.” It is also the term used for the system of melodic modes that underpins classical Arabic music. Written as a scale, the maqam determines the melodic mode of a composition. In bringing together these translations in a necessary simultaneity, a generative potential arises for understanding and creating modes of coauthoring beyond space and sound.
There are several codes of assembly and of gathering in the Sufi tradition of qawwali performance. For example, each person entering the gathering becomes implicated in the performance and has an immediate role to play, assuming and correlating with the melody, rhythm, and breath of the collective to enter beyond into the haal, which means “spiritual ecstasy” in Urdu.
The choreography of this collapse and immediate implication of all partners is a method of making place.
Architecture could be understood as a process of convening – before and during the life of the project – and so that space is an instrument in a choreography with the ability to incite coauthoring in its making and in its use and networked relations to other places and times.
The ways that traditions of melody, recitation, the carrying of knowledges, and music often involve a generational coauthoring. Jazz and the blues in the US have been shown in many instances to be influenced by Africans traveling back from the hajj pilgrimage who were then enslaved and taken to the Americas. Spoken word, melody, and oral stories are archives that are dynamic and alive – open to the embrace and shift in bodies and their embodied agency and cocreation.
The expression of cultural hybridity through place and geography is important to consider. The maqam as a physical place suggests a much more open place than we have come to think of physical place – not a locale that is parochial or provincial but a true interrogation of a deep locale – one that considers the interrelations of place and the implication of its imaginary in relation to an elsewhere.
This diasporic local is perhaps far more agile, far more interesting, and far more generative – suggesting a collapse and a coauthoring with times, places, and forces writing its form.