Why I Think Like an Architect in the Music Studio

BY Parvati

I would like to change things up a bit this week and share something I have learned that deeply influences my creative work. I believe it is universal to all art—be it music, vlogs, embroidery or street murals.
My artistic energy has had a singular focus for the past couple of years: creating the content for the Global Education Strategy (GES) for MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. Embracing the power of modern media, the GES is intended to generate the necessary momentum to create MAPS, the world’s largest protected area, and safeguard our planet’s air conditioner, the Arctic sea ice.
Obviously, the success of the GES means the world to me—literally! So I have been bringing all of my experience and training together for this purpose. Through this, I have been considering the essential elements at the core of all lasting works of art. What were the keys to success in the music of pioneers like Prince, timeless classic movies like Star Wars, and masterpieces like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Picasso’s Three Musicians? I realized that they share three common principles, ones I first came across in my previous career: architecture.
Though I was a lifelong musician with conservatory training, architecture was the field in which I studied and began my professional life, until I had the courage to follow my heart and soul urging me towards music. I graduated from the highly competitive co-op program at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. In many ways, I still think like an architect as I approach my songwriting and musical compositions, the books I write, the costumes I design and build, and the shows and videos I produce and direct. My architectural training has taught me that the three keys to artistic works that last are creativity, technique and culture. Why is this?
Creativity is perhaps the best recognized of the three. Maybe we even think it is the one that matters most. It has always run deeply within me, whether at the piano, with a paintbrush in hand, or storyboarding a video. My friends joke that when they collaborate with me, they come up with ideas in 3D and then I make them 5D! There is no doubt that creative spark is essential to capturing the attention of our audience. But I have learned through experience that raw, creative talent can only take us so far as artists. We also need technical skill, the technology of our craft.
While Pablo Picasso was hailed as the forefather of abstract art, he said, “There is no abstraction in art. You must start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality.” His abstractions, which seemed to transcend structure, actually relied deeply on his sophisticated understanding of form. He had mastered traditional techniques so that he could make informed choices about how to depart from them.
No matter what our creative medium may be, we soon realize that to create with innovation and push artistic boundaries, we must know what we are and are not putting in our works of art. Not only do we need to know what colours or notes we have decided to use in our expression, we also need to fully understand the palette that we have decided not to include.
At a certain point in our creative process, we come to realize that clarity in technique supports and frees up our expression. In music, if we aspire to compose string arrangements that are woven together with rich and inspiring harmonies, it helps to know musical theory. To produce interesting urban or electronic dance beats, we benefit by understanding at least the fundamentals of rhythmic structure and patterning.
Because of my musicality, I reached the Royal Conservatory of Music ARCT performer and teacher level after just a few short years of piano study. But before I could move forward, I was told that I had to take a year to exclusively practice piano scales so that I could catch my technical skills up with my musical talents. The idea felt like death to my creative zest. But I knew I needed to cross this threshold if I was going to be a professional musician. I now greatly appreciate the time I have spent doing scales and studying composition. They are like the structure of the mast from which my sails can catch the winds of creativity.
Though my creative spark and some skill allow me to design and build elaborate live show costumes, I am fully aware that if I wanted a full-time career in fashion, I would need to know even more about pattern-making techniques. I paid for my first apartment with commissions to paint murals and illustrate published books. But to have a lasting career in fine art, I would need to invest more deeply in understanding painting and drawing.
Today as I write, compose and arrange music I feel so grateful for the foundation I have in many art forms, including musical theory. With the help of some technique, I am more able to sculpt the best sounds I can, so that I avoid conflicting frequencies and dissonant instrumentations. At the same time, I do not create in a vacuum.
Though many art forms are birthed in isolation, we are always part of a bigger cultural conversation. My architecture studies really drilled this home. As we create, we contribute to culture, so we are asked to know the context to which we offer our art.
Still vastly popular over 400 years after they were written, Shakespeare’s plays show how connecting with his audience’s favourite stories and preoccupations allowed him to speak to timeless aspects of the human condition. He then added his own creative spark and technical skills to become a hallmark of English literature.
My background in classical music helps me also better understand today’s pop. I am keen to know how today’s music evolves. I do the same as I develop books for GES, considering not only the techniques of successful fiction and self-help, but the world into which my books will be launched, what other books speak to me and how the literary conversation is shifting over time.
This is how I am doing what I can to ensure that GES meets its goal and MAPS is realized now.
Let me know in the comments below how you incorporate the three keys to lasting art–creativity, technology and culture–in your works. Continual learning is part of the fun of being in a creative field. May we build our artistic lives upon these three keys so that we may fully share our creative voices with the world and shine.