Monday, July 16, 2012

More Cover Coverage

So, there was this online contest to design the best new album cover for a highly regarded classical CD. The contest promised lots of money and high-profile opportunities for the winner. Thus, I suddenly got hooked on the art of designing CD covers and ended up with a pretty cool Hahn/Lisitsa/Ives CD cover that won me first prize, $1000, and a job as head of marketing at Deutsche Grammophon.

Unfortunately, the only part of that paragraph that's true is the "I suddenly got hooked on the art of designing CD covers" part. This is likely a passing phase, but as I detailed in our last episode, a Proper Discord sampling of text-driven album covers got me interested in trying to create pictures with words. I gave that post the clever title, "A few words = A picture = A thousand words," which of course implies that "A few words = A thousand words." Obviously, there are some problems with my math. Aside from the unsettled question of just how many words it really takes to equal a picture, the slippery part of my equation is to consider these "few words" as just words. In fact, many of the "text-driven" covers are just as much driven by elements of graphic design, which is to say that the words are serving as pictures. There's a kind of slippage between medium and message going on, as my hero Douglas Hofstadter would say; in fact, words often (usually...or, perhaps, always) do more than just stand in for specific ideas, people, etc.

They may not always function as pictures, but they also have sonic qualities which can become musical (some might say "poetic"), whether it's via rhyme, meter, alliteration, etc. Words might also have structural properties that create meaningful patterns - like the fact that the following "words" can be interlaced into a fairly tight crossword pattern: Hilary - Hahn - Valentina - Lisitsa - Ives - Violin - Sonatas. So, there are plenty of ways in which a few words might say more than just a few words. They can also say less, but that's a subject for another day.

When I condensed the "Minute Waltz" down to a minute, inspired by its much-maligned title (maligned because people inevitably read mi-'nute as 'mi-nute), I mentioned that I was translating this piece into the "medium of pieces that last 60 seconds." Aside from providing a good excuse for my mischief, it also reminds us that a medium can often be of interest in part due to its defining constraints, another pet Hofstadter topic. Sonnets, haiku, palindromes, acrostics, canons, piano pieces for left hand alone, piano pieces that last exactly a minute: they all offer a special framework which will likely exert a strong influence on the receiver beyond the mere words or pitches. The medium becomes part of the meaning.

And speaking of media, how about the "CD album cover with no artist photos" as medium? When I created my first text-driven cover, I was inspired by the much-maligned font Comic Sans to create a little dialogue with the person holding the CD:

Though it's not a very good translation of Chopin's music (or a very good picture), it's actually a pretty good translation of the subliminal message such CDs used to exert on me. The digital world means I don't buy many CDs these days, but I still have vivid memories of standing in Tower Records on Pennsylvania Av. in Washington, D.C. holding various CDs in hand and trying to figure out what I could afford to take home. And, yes, an image of someone like the legendary Maurizio Pollini on a cover (or even just the image created by the letters of his name) could exert a mystical kind of hold on me. Of course, I would've been insulted to have an album cover openly saying what I was thinking, which is why the subliminal works better than the superliminal.

...but I'd say my cover is a pretty accurate translation!

OK, but how about an even more restricted medium - the medium of CD album covers that resemble medicine labels? Pretty strange way to go, but Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot has many examples of seemingly arbitrary constraints into which ideas are poured. Check out this curious bit of poetry:
Washington Crossing the Delaware 
A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger! 
The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general's action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row. 
Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold. 
George can't lose war with's hands in;
He's astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

Not the most elegant of sonnets, perhaps even uglier than the average medicine label - until you consider that every single line is an anagram of the poem's title! I know, right? 

I cheated a little bit with my "medicine CD" (see below) by making up my own imaginary recording, though a recording of these Bellini songs does exist. I also cheated by indulging in some superliminal counter-marketing on my cover ("may cause drowsiness," etc.) because it was just more fun that way. Otherwise, I tried pretty hard to work within my self-imposed constraint: create a "working" album cover that looks like a medicine label. It's nice that Bellini actually sounds like the kind of name a drug company might give a product with a mouthful of a generic name like Composizioni da camera. I also had some fun inventing the ominous sounding company LaSonn Ambula (Google Translator tells me Ambula means "outpatient!"), which somehow reminds me of the fictitious drug conglomerate Devlin McGregor from The Fugitive - and which also happens to be the name of one of Bellini's most famous operas.

Since that opera is about a sleepwalker, it ties in nicely with the idea that Bellini® is a sort of natural Ambien - at least for pianists. Note that the pianist in this "recording" is named after a famous Puccini aria about not sleeping, so even the imaginary pianist has been translated into this druggy world; Giuditta Pasta is not imaginary, though also not available for recordings; she is the singer who debuted the role of the sleepwalking soprano in 1831, which I might have included as the expiration date on these songs if I'd been more clever.

If medicine label CD covers is too far for you as a worthwhile medium, let's re-visit my crossword design from the last post:

Though it's coincidental, surely there's some value in seeing all these lovely words cross so nicely, a sort of graphic representation of what happens when a phenomenally talented fiddler and pianist cross paths with a great composer. However, as an album cover it's a bit bland, so I decided it might be nice to cross this "word image" with some photos, and here we have my award-winning final design: 

You might say (might...) it's my own "cover" of this cover:

And that about covers it...

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