Modernism, Pianos and Nothingness

Sheffield is fortunate to be dotted with a multitude of modernist buildings. Their uncompromising designs adorn the city, punctuating the skyline. Arguably one of the most iconic buildings in Sheffield is The Arts Tower. A brutal slab of aluminium and glass that is as beautiful as it is foreboding; it truly is a masterpiece of modernist architecture. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of The Arts Tower, to celebrate this myself and several other composers will be working with the School of Architecture and the Modernist Society to produce a series of events in some of Sheffield’s best landmarks. Utilising several upright pianos that have reached the end of their usable life we hope to create a variety of site based compositions/installations which interact with the vibrant modernist spaces Sheffield has to offer.

What do pianos and modernist architecture have in common?

My introduction to this project began with a tour of the (in)famous Park Hill Flats. This sprawling brutalist structure is gradually being renovated however the majority of the building currently sits derelict and abandoned. Unfortunately many of Sheffield’s modernist landmarks are similarly empty or worse in the case of Castle Market, nothing more than a pile of rubble. The pianos we will be using for this project are instruments that have decayed over time and have now been abandoned by their owners. These dead pianos and the derelict modernist buildings of Sheffield have a number of interesting metaphysical similarities which I hope to explore throughout the duration of this project. Although I currently have no clear idea of how this relationship will play out into a composition/installation, it does form an interesting starting point for experimentation.


John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing states that nothing “is like an empty glass into which at any moment anything may be poured”. Empty buildings are interesting as they ultimately serve no purpose, they may have had a purpose and they may do in the future but at this time they are a void. As metaphysics is the study of what exists it is strange to try and apply this to an empty space. How do you deduce what is there and what it is like if there is nothing there. However, a buildings nothingness provides it with something, the potential for anything to fill that space at any moment. Similarly a piano without a player no longer serves its purpose and yet even a dead piano still has the potential to do something. Both a dead piano and an empty building still exist even if they do nothing, how can their nothingness interact to provide each with a purpose?


Cage, J. (1968). Silence. London: Calder and Boyars. pp. 109-127

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