If architecture is frozen music, as Goethe said, then Peter Adjaye has been busy taking a blowtorch to his brother’s buildings. The result, released this week in the form of a limited-edition vinyl album, sees 10 of David Adjaye’s projects melted down into a liquid cocktail of electronic sounds, plucked strings and deep percussive beats, in a series of experimental soundscapes composed by his musician brother over the last 15 years. Ranging from ambient scores to more jazzy tracks, the results form an intriguing album, as meditative, brooding and spine-tingling as some of David’s most evocative spaces.
“I see rhythms and melodies in everything that surrounds us,” says Peter. “Music is how we navigate the city. Every space has its own soundtrack.” He is sitting in the top-floor cafe of his brother’s Idea Store library in Whitechapel, where, looked at through a musician’s lens, the double-height timber columns form something of a syncopated beat against the green-tinted windows, themselves echoing the tarpaulin canopies of the market stalls outside. A grid of exposed concrete beams runs across the ceiling, forming a robust rhythm of its own, punctuated by a big open skylight.
The score Peter composed in response to this beacon of public life is as much of a fusion of cultures as the streets outside, where Bangladeshi clothes stalls jostle with Pakistani fruit sellers, and kameez-clad worshippers spill out of the East London Mosque. Woody eastern flutes meld with the tablas and sitars in a track that feels as bright and optimistic as the lime-striped building itself. (And could that glitchy electronic sound be a reference to the defunct escalator, intended to sweep people up from the street, but closed off since the building’s opening?)
Peter, AKA AJ Kwame (“because you can’t call yourself DJ Peter, can you?”), began his musical career in the early 90s as part of the breakthrough trip-hop group RPM, fresh from a degree in engineering and a PhD in mathematics – in which he investigated that most architectural of subjects, the golden ratio. Signed to Mo’ Wax records, the same label that produced DJ Shadow and DJ Krush, RPM were pioneers of sampling and turntablism, layering live strings and vocals with otherworldly sounds to form a bold new style, described by Mixmag as “hip-hop in a flotation tank” and “Dr Dre on magic mushrooms”.
“My career took off before David had even begun,” says Peter, at 46 the younger brother by three years. “I was DJing in clubs while he was still qualifying as an architect. But now he’s rocketed away, while the music industry has collapsed thanks to online streaming. He’s even been asked to appear on Desert Island Discs – though, as his musicologist, I’m helping him with the selection.”
Speaking on the phone from Rome, where he currently has a residency at the American Academy, between time spent in his New York and London offices, David recalls their globe-trotting childhood, growing up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and London, the sons of a Ghanaian diplomat. “We were all immersed in music from an early age,” he says, describing how their older brother James, now a genetic scientist, listened to a lot of jazz fusion, while David liked everything from the Police to dubstep. “We were all into maths and sciences, and very competitive,” he adds, “but I realised I couldn’t compete with the two of them, so I chose architecture as the way out.”
Shooting to prominence in the late 90s with a series of private houses for the likes of Chris Ofili and Ewan McGregor, David has since made a name for himself in the US, adding Kofi Annan and the Obamas to his address book. He has built a house for the former in Ghana, and was hotly tipped to design Barack Obama’s presidential library – until he was pipped to the post last week by New York firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien.
His first collaboration with his younger brother came before global fame, in the early 2000s, when Peter created a soundscape for David’s wooden Asymmetric Chamber pavilion at Manchester’s Cube gallery. The score follows the three-part journey through the space, which visitors entered up a ramp into a meditative central chamber. Rising strings represent the inclined entrance, over a pulsating heartbeat of a harp and koto, a Japanese stringed instrument with a woody sound, used to evoke the texture of the pavilion’s recycled timber. After being immersed in a central zone, to an abstract melody of an African kalimba, visitors came back to earth with a cascade of pizzicato violin, piano, synth pads and kettle drums.
“It was a real shock to hear it,” says David. “It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but there was something very compelling about it. The structure of the music really heightened the experience of the space. It was a bit of an epiphany for me, hearing someone interpret my work not through words, but music.” Further commissions followed, including a score to help mask the background hum of electronics in his interactive exhibition for Oslo’s Nobel Peace Centre in 2005, and a soundscape for his Horizon pavilion in 2007, for which he asked for a track “based on silence”.
Things get a bit more spicy in the music inspired by some of his early private houses, which remain his most radical work. For the Dirty House, designed for provocative artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster in 2002, the score begins with an unnerving cello line straight out of a horror film, reflecting the building’s rough exterior walls, which are smothered with black anti-graffiti paint, before breaking into a more lively, uptempo beat to reflect the bright, airy world within. “It’s basically dirty house music,” Peter jokes.
Peter is also helping David design a house for himself, complete with an infinity pool, set on a hillside in Ghana overlooking the coast. It will take the form of a pyramid, he says, “because pyramids have incredible acoustics, focusing sound and channelling energy from the earth”.
In the meantime, looming on the horizon is the imminent opening of the most important project of David’s career: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, due to open in September, two days after his 50th birthday. “I’ve already started working on a score for it,” says Peter. “It’s a dream project. The story contains the entire history of black music, from blues to jazz to hip-hop and beyond. In fact, I’m a bit frightened of it.”
His dream would be to perform live in the building, although there is already an all-star lineup competing to play at the opening. “The stakes are high – and I’m not sure I’m ready to take on the likes of Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones.”