Welcome to material practices, I’m Don Armstrong, retired college professor. Over the past 20 years I’ve published articles and book chapters on African American architectural history, design pedagogy, and my current focus: the history of pop music and its journalism.
The title of this blog stems from my broad research interest, materiality in the arts. Borrowing from Bruce Baugh’s “Prolegomena to an Aesthetics of Rock Music,” I define materiality as that aspect of an art work that manifests in its physicality, that which moves our senses and emotions. Folk and popular culture rely more on material traits than high culture and thus should be measured by those traits.
The purpose of material practices is to share my past and present research. Utilizing the tools of webpage design I’ll use these blogs to organize and express my thoughts on those things that interest me. I welcome comment and communication with others who share my interests.
From Architecture to Pop Music
Several years ago the focus of my study shifted from architecture to popular music and its journalism. This leap was both easy and hard. Easy because it gave me an excuse to do what I most love: listening to, reading about, and thinking about popular music. Hard because the scholarship of popular music and its journalism was a new world with its own theories and methods.
But, I discovered that pop music and architecture share a set of concepts. Both have vernacular (folk) roots underpinned by roiling issues of race, class and gender. Existentially, both have the potential to either reveal or veil; expand or constrict; excite or exhaust.
Popular music has enrichened my life just as deeply as architecture. Standing ten feet away from Greg Allman wailing “Not My Cross to Bear” in 1969 was no less thrilling to me than processionalizing through the Seven Stations of the Cross in Giovanni Michelucci’s Church of the Autostrada 35 years later. Hearing Jeff Beck’s “Bolero” live was no less a magisterial experience than stepping into the Narthex of St. Peter’s. Discovering Reverend Utah Smith’s “Two Wings” no less revelatory than stumbling across a century-old wood frame vernacular dwelling on an unimproved county road.
From the moment I first heard Meet the Beatles, and first read Frank Lloyd Wright’s Testament, popular music has led me to architecture, and vice versa. Frank Zappa’s reference to Edgar Varese steered me to Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion with its piped-in Varese soundscapes. Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture gave me all the tools I needed to understand why, in popular music as well as architecture, “less is a bore.”
For me pop music and its journalism have always been inseparable. In my teens I spent almost as much time reading about rock music as listening to it. Hit Parader, Datebook, and Teen Set shared space on my bedroom shelves with Blonde on Blonde and Animalization. Later, Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy!
Such periodicals swayed the tastes of me and millions of rock music fans. These magazines linked fan and music, acted as instruments of cultural intermediation that legitimized – or delegitimized – the artists, recordings and genres they covered. This role of music journalists as cultural intermediaries fascinates me, and drives my current research.