behind the Black and White keys

The piece I have played above, Juliette is Happy, was composed by an incredible composer, Niall Byrne, as a soundtrack to the movie Cairo Time (directed by Ruba Nadda). I fell in love with the melody when I had first seen the opening scene to the film. Simple in rhythm, light in tone, it is as delicate as the plot suggests. It is pieces like this that pulls me back into the discipline of learning the keys time and time again.[1]

As a child, I used to sit and listen to my mom play the piano on the weekends. We’d have the door and windows open to bring in some cool morning air and there she would sit on the black stool and uncover the top and begin to play theMaiden’s Player. It was a piece I knew that one day I will learn to play.

Finally when I turned six, she took me to a piano school a block from our house. I remember how happy I was on that first day, bringing home my very first piano book. It was a first love for piano and for music. Though I never pursued to be a professional pianist, piano has always been a part of me – each chord resonates with each passing day, week, and year.

abstracted diagram (piano tectonics) – Anesta Iwan

When we look at the architecture of the piano, we see a space made of wood seemingly held together by tension cables that stretch an arms’ length. Soft dampening cushions rest with each set of cables, only released to allow for the cables to vibrate. Water-drop shaped felt tips connected on long sticks, somewhat like large Q-tips, strike the cables with each tap of the key. Each cable is tied at its ends on pegs which are anchored on a large iron plate. A strip of hardwood bridges under each cable, similar to those seen on a violin, helps transfer the resonance of the cables to the soundboard.[2] The soundboard (large piece of softwood – i.e. Sitka Spruce) serves as the amplifier – without it, the vibrations from the strings can barely be heard. From the tap of a finger, the micro-movement transfers through each component until it produces an audible note.

It is pure architecture –space, wood, and music work as one entity.

Swiss Sound Box – Peter Zumthor + Daniel Ott 

Cable and wood seem to also resonate with architect Peter Zumthor in his Swiss Sound Box Pavilion (2000).[3] Like piano strings, the steel cables of the pavilion are held in tension by springs, which in turn hold the wood strips in place through pure compression, eliminating glue and other excessive screws for connections. The springs thus allow for the structure to self-adjust as the wood shrinks and swells – each element has a function and works together as one composition. [4]

As an architect, I see composition as a curation of individuals, the “musicians,” that make the building or concert. For the Berlin Philharmonic, architect Hans Scharoun had worked closely with the acoustic expert Lothar Cremer[5] on the overall design form. Like the casing of an instrument, the concert enclosure should also serve to resonate the sounds of the instruments within. The billowing ceiling along with the petal-seating arrangement (with a central stage) serves well to engage the audience with the music – a pattern that is to be replicated in later concert hall designs, such as the Jean Nouvel’s DK Koncerthuset (Copenhagen) and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles, CA). It is through the collaboration and curation of not only architects and acoustic engineers that a great space is conceived, but rather includes the musicians, conductor, sound producers, and composers as part of the design team.

 Berlin Philharmonics – Hans Scharoun (1963) – image credit Anesta Iwan

DK Koncerthuset – Jean Nouvel (2009) – image credit Anesta Iwan

Just as an architect composes spaces for music, a composer makes music that form to the space. What makes the Swiss Sound Box even more amazing is the sound component of the piece. It’s not a concert “hall” per se, in which people enter and take their seats to enjoy the performance. Working in conjunction with composer Daniel Ott, the pavilion presented a hall in which the musicians moved about the spaces, breaking the rules of the “stage” –

Swiss Sound Box – Peter Zumthor + Daniel Ott

“a place offering a tasty little something from Switzerland for thirsty or pecking visitors, and live music ”unplugged”, moving and changing throughout the space, a relaxed atmosphere as well as beautifully dressed attendants. The idea of creating Gesamtkunstwerk had fired our imagination. Dramatic music played by musicians moving around.”

– Peter Zumthor[6]


Now I sit here in front of the piano, it is 9pm on a Sunday (��), thinking of a way in which architectural construction can be composed as a melody –where the note D # simply translates to door openings and a higher octave refers to an upper level… but for now I shall continue to indulge in Byrne’s Cairo Time album for the night.



[1] “Niall Byrne – Listen”. 2016. Niallbyrnecomposer.Com.

[2] “HOW A PIANO WORKS”. 2016. Frederickcollection.Org.

[3] Gwizda, Marta. 2016. “Exemplary Project – Swiss Pavilion ‘Sound Box’ Designed By Peter Zumthor – Folio”. Folio.Brighton.Ac.Uk.

[4] Lutz, Jim. “Thinking Outside the (Music) Box. ACSA Proceedings.

[5] “Acoustic – Berliner Philharmoniker”. 2016. Berliner-Philharmoniker.De.

[6] “Swiss Sound Box”. 2012. Evermotion.Org.


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