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Michael Boyd — Music for Modern Rooms

A conversation about the connection between music and architecture.


Michael Boyd — Music for Modern Rooms

On a recent Friday morning, we sat down with our dear friend and collaborator, Michael Boyd. The scene wasn’t unfamilar. We collaborate with Michael in myriad ways, our studios function as extensions of each other. But our conversation on this particular occasion veered toward something we havent ever formalized with our words: the connection between music and spatial design. Michael — collector, designer, curator, painter, and musician — has been steadily realizing a 35-year effort to form a soundscape library inspired by the buildings he has studied and the things that fill them. He calls this four-part collection “Music for Modern Rooms”. While variant in style, the tracks trend toward the ambient realm, oscillating between something out of Brian Eno’s world and something much funkier and more eclectic. A transcription of our chat with Michael captures the story behind these and how they act ultimately as his love letter to creativity in all forms.

Of course, the album artwork for “Music for Modern Rooms” would not be left untouched by Michael’s creative hands. Each features a painting of his, the likes of which we are fortunate enough to represent in our shop. Beyond this, we’ve chosen to include photographs here of a space of his that we love. We feel this house speaks most holistically to his aesthetic. It happens to be the only Oscar Niemeyer home built in North America and also happens to be the place Michael and his family called home for the better part of 20 years.

We know you so well as a designer, it’s really cool for us to see you through a different lens. Can you start by giving us some background on your trajectory as a musician? How do you see it relate to your work in design?

I was a session musician as a teenager. I played guitar, keyboards, and bass — still do. My hobbies and and my vocation have switched back and forth, but I’m always really doing both. I find that instrumental music has a really atmospheric quality not unlike thinking about design and architecture and of course painting. In all of the art forms I do, there’s not really much difference at the core except scale. Donald Judd talks a lot about this, he lived it. His philosophy is present across every platform at different scales. I love that idea. It’s how a garden plan can look like a piece of jewelry. And then with everything I do, they relate in that I feel like more of an editor than anything else. So with music or design, it’s about removal, in editing back space. I’ve always thought editing is one of the most viable forms of creativity.

I agree. Leaving moments for the person to fill in maybe. I think because of that, music and architecture specifically have always lived in the same world. Do you agree? How do you feel the two disciplines are different?

For me, music and architecture are both about space, about the notes that aren’t there, the void or about adding to the atmosphere of the space. It goes back to the editing thing. They’re sensory and reactive. Musical and physical space are really almost identical because in dealing with both, we go into a room and turn things on or off. You can describe music and architecture in similar ways, you know? Pitch, ratio, space, ambience. The vocabulary doesn’t really change between them. And that makes sense. But yeah, they’re also different. Music is the only thing that gives and gives and gives and doesn’t take. That’s the great thing about it. You can’t be quite as fancy with it as you are with architecture. Architecture takes a lot in a different way; it’s expensive, it’s prestigious, it asks a lot of its inhabitants.

So would you say architecture is more inaccessible than music at times?

Yes, and in an ideal world the music space and the design space are both egalitarian. I’m sick of rockstar designers. It’s about the creativity in general — not museums and galas — but just being creative in the world in every possible way. The older I get, the more obsessed I am with Warhol. I used to follow him around the 26th street flea market just to see everything he picked up and put down. It was fascinating to see how he moved through the world. He’s still the best art director ever because it was always about how he responded and reacted to the world that was already there.

So thinking about the processes of architectural design and your ambient music composition, do you think that one of them has a more collaborative process? We tend to think of design as collaborative inherently and we know you do too. Do you miss that when you’re composing solo?

There are solo aspects definitely, but even when composing I’m collaborating with engineers. It makes me think of Brian Eno. His music can be seen as such solitary sound. But he has these collaborative processes. Take his Oblique Strategies. There’s one that’s a particular favorite. When a piece of equipment is broken, don’t fix it. The new noise and hum that it is making — let that be the sound. Anyway, I love them.

We do too, as you know. I’m going to pivot now to a question related directly to the music. What is the ideal listening space for these tracks? Is there one?

Can I answer this by saying what the ideal space is not? I went to a gallery show in San Francisco. It was so pretentious and forced.. a forced control I’d say. It’s not that, I don’t want the music in a gallery, I don’t want it to be precious. I like the idea of this music anywhere because everything is everything. Is it coming out of a broken speaker? Are you driving in your car? Are you walking around with headphones? Are you sitting on the beach? It’s not meant to be controlling in terms of where it’s being accessed, but is meant to be an experience and a reminder of these physical spaces I’m inspired by. That said though, by definition, I wouldn’t have anything to say about the listener and what they do, so it’s all about openness to how they listen to it. They control the space, they control the volume. It’s different from architecture in that way.

So it doesn’t sound like the music is meant to actually be listened to in the spaces they’re inspired by, is that correct?

Yes. When they’re inspired by Chandigargh, for example, it’s more by the experience of being in the space rather than the space itself. You’re able to go on an adventure with the music without having to be anywhere but where you are. You don’t need to know that the Portuguese you’re hearing sampled is Oscar Niemeyer speaking in order to appreciate how gorgeous the Portuguese language is. It just gives you a feeling. You don’t need to know it’s Le Corbusier with his Swiss French accent, it just sounds rhythmic and intriguing. That’s the point. That the sounds are inherently interesting as tracks and not as tracks about architects. That’s a bonus. There are questions that I ask myself when I’m in the spaces I make music about and I hope they come through. You could be asking yourself these questions whether you’re in the space itself or listening to the music inspired by the space. It’s similar. How do I feel? What is the exotic content I’m looking at? What philosophy do I gain?

So the music is a catalyst for an experience, like a room is as well. Can you elaborate on this?

Well, in both, you’re investigating ideas. It doesn’t need to be complete or right in any certain way. It’s a subjective experience to each person. My dad gave me the best compliment on my music once. He said to me, “I like all your ambient music but I just cant really tell when it’s on”. That’s the goal.

Images of the Oscar Niemeyer Strick House in Santa Monica were all taken by Richard Powers.

Images of the paintings and album artwork are courtesy of Michael Boyd.