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A New Instrument

Competition Concept Sketch, 2004


Someone tells me that as a child, when dragged to summer parades with marching bands, she would walk alongside, in the zones where the sounds of the band that had just passed merged with those of the band that was to follow, trying to find out what it was that created this bizarre fusion of rhythms and sounds which made the else monotonous pieces so much more tolerable. At other times, strolling the streets filled with buskers and performers, dispersed in the squares and corners nearby, was like wading through overlapping sound fields where several concerts faded into an intriguing concert of several.
When describing The Forum for Music, Dance and Visual Culture one will most likely include the thought of an extension of urban experiences, where sequences of spontaneous and planned performances fade into each other and build up a network of polytonal overlaps. An open structure, the Forum lets its urban surroundings (and with them visitors and curious passers-by) freely ooze into a labyrinth of interconnected piazza-like pockets.
Land- and soundscape are wound around each other in convolutions that both separate and provide a maximum of potential connectivity between the two. (While the city seamlessly connects to the forum’s urban cave (“Space B”), the sound cave (“Space A”) is filled with streams of sounds which at times are concerted in one of the sealed auditoriums and at others flow within an open labyrinth and are let to resonate long after their origins have faded away.) “A” and “B” are, as it were, not antagonists but the cavities opened up between one surface.


As sounds travel through the sound cave, intended and unanticipated resonances are mixed in what is not a hierarchically organised rigid container for concerts but a buoyant set of bottom-up relations, where slight changes between adjacent pockets may greatly affect or even generate the larger concert.

sound box (n.) Music. A hollow chamber in the body of an instrument, such as a violin or a cello, that intensifies the resonance of the tone.
—American Heritage Dictionary

In a sense, the forum can be understood as an aggregate of sound boxes which are gradually turned on and off (simple, continuously variable opening/closing of partition elements), charging the forum with the potential of an acoustic labyrinth. Changing the degrees of opening between these sound boxes works similar to a trumpet’s mute. At the other end of the spectrum, when closed, these individual sound boxes become acoustically insulated islands (“hermetically sealed boxes” very much like traditional concert halls) where simultaneous events can take place independent of each other.

Playing the Building like an Instrument, Concept Illustrations, 2004


The sound cave turns the concept of a concert hall into one of multiple interrelated bodies. With simple mechanisms which allow for a permanent reconfiguring of spatial and thus acoustic constellations: (I) – (I+II) – (I+II+III) – (III) – (I+IV) – (III+IV) and so on, the new instrument can move between harmonic closure and open polyphony. The several auditoriums are designed to provide an “acoustically controlled” experience when in their hermetically sealed state and an amazing range of interdependent tuning experiments when opened. Performance scenarios range from the traditional classic concert (main auditorium, closed) and small (simultaneous) independent events to organ concerts (auditorium, opened at several sides to create acoustic coupled rooms with cathedral-esque reverberation times) to a polyphony of polyphonies.


The artist creates his own maze; he may even settle in an already existing maze since any construction he inhabits he cannot help but mould to himself.
—Pierre Boulez

The music forum becomes an instrument itself. Not unlike the tuning of an instrument, the forum’s acoustic performance relates to the way in which the sound boxes are interconnected. While, traditionally, most large concert halls have been designed with means to acoustically adjust to certain types of concerts, in the Forum Ghent, performances emerge as they are played on a building-become-instrument. Conventional hierarchies and fixed settings are replaced by a decentralised network of sound waves.

The danger inherent to calling the forum an instrument is its objectification, whereas, despite its presence, it probably is just the opposite: Neither interior nor exterior, it is the continuation of its surrounding spaces into a labyrinth reminiscent of intestines or the ear’s semicircular canals and cochlea; bodily parts which constitute the threshold zones between inside and outside.

Ghent Forum: Visualisation of the Interior

The new status of the object no longer refers its condition to a spatial mold — in other words, to a relation of form-matter — but to a temporal modulation.
—Gilles Deleuze

During the design process, the studies of sectional series that we undertook to explain the spatial phenomena emerging in front of us were at the same time intriguing and puzzling for their sheer inconceivability. They were telling of the Forum’s intrinsic interrelation of movement in time and space. (The fact that, essentially, the building defies a description by a single section, reminds of the necessity of time inherent to any musical piece, although such a simile does not necessarily seem appropriate.)

Competition Panel, Toyo Ito and Associates, 2004

Later, there was doubt whether, if representation in general means reducing the represented by one dimension, it would suffice to use the surfaces (e.g. sectional drawings) as the base on which the composer writes the notations, on which the choreographer designs the performance’s scores. A not less likely scenario imagines the composer who, upon receiving the forum’s 3D data uses acoustic analyses of the model to write the composition while “learning how to play the Forum”. (And thus constitutes the shift from the “Sonata for Violin in E” towards a “Sonata for Violin at Constellation (I)-(I+IV)”, and eventually towards “Scores for the Forum Ghent” which fully exploit the building’s potential as an instrument.)

The Forum’s temporal character, its freely adjustable constellations, open up ways to break away from confining sounds to one “hall” and move on towards “playing the Forum”. In other words, new compositional modes might arise with composers, artists and choreographers who conceive of the Forum as an instrument for or with which they compose or play.

Competition Model, Toyo Ito and Associates, 2004

There is a strange fusion of the tactile, the visual and the acoustic. With the Forum’s spatial continuity, hearing, seeing and moving become an interdependent set of relations. For the audience (and the performers likewise), wandering through the Forum means actively tuning the performance with the surface that surrounds us becoming the concert’s unconscious score. As the conventional concert hall’s formal character is replaced by the informal of the streets, the concert becomes a non-linear process for which the question of authorship might perhaps cease to be relevant. Ultimately, in exploring its spatial confinements and diverse constellations, the performed work remains open, always still in the process of composition; not so much, however, in the typically modern sense of a work in progress, but rather as continuous modulations and oscillating intensities. Not unlike those inside musical instruments or our ears.

FB, Ghent & Tokyo, 2005