Poetry of color

Above: Interior of Interaction of Color from Eye 75. Photo by Noah Kalina.

There are two types of primary colors: additive and subtractive. The subtractive primaries (CMYK) are made of pigment and become darker when combined, while the additive primaries (RGB) are made of light and become brighter when combined. In this formulation, Yale University Press’s new expanded edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color is distinctly additive, brightening the corners of this influential classic and broadening it to a two-volume slipcased set.

With colored bindings inspired by one of Albers’s lessons, these volumes operate in concordance: one carries the text, the other an expanded set of 145 plates created by the artist and his students. The reworked design brings Interaction of Color closer to its original 1963 edition, which, according to Nicholas Fox Weber, the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, was a “set of unbound folders […] heavier and larger than anything Yale University Press had ever published.”

Once again more suited to a museum patron’s coffee table than an art student’s backpack, this comprehensive set changes our interaction with Interaction, insisting we clear a space, spread the book of plates beside Albers’s descriptions, and learn the act of seeing color afresh. In lesson after lesson, Albers shows the mutability and pliancy of color as a creative material, how it is changed by the colors surrounding it, by the time we spend looking at it, by its distance from our eye, and by our eye’s own imperfections as a perceptual apparatus.

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Unleash the Squircle

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When your customers are designers, you know your new logo will get a full crit. But when publishing software giant Quark, Inc. unveiled its new identity, timed to coincide with the release of a beefed-up, feature-rich Quark 7, it got something else: a lesson in the difficulties of designing an original logo in a world more packed with logos than ever before.

The new logo seems simple enough—a circle-square hybrid that we’ve dubbed the “squircle,” resembling a very mod-looking uppercase Q, writ large in “Quark Green,” a.k.a. PANTONE 368, a color that Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, equates with growth and innovation.

But “innovation” wasn’t the first word that came to designers’ minds when the logo debuted in early September. Shortly after its release, the design community erupted in accusations that the new mark had been ripped off. Admittedly, the logo is far from original. It’s very similar to logos promoting tourism to Toronto and the Bahamas, and easily comparable to those of Moen Faucets and AkaDemiks Jeans, not to mention a bevy of design-related logos for Sterling Brands, Artworkers, PhotoObjects, and the popular design blog The Designers Network. And color aside, it’s identical to the mark designed for the Scottish Arts Council by the notable Scottish firm Graven Images. In our checkup, we counted 15 logos we’d call highly similar.

Why, the Logo Doctors wonder, weren’t their fellow designers as outraged at the similarities between those existing 15 marks? More importantly, why have so many different companies chosen the squircle? And is Quark to blame for choosing such a common logo?

The answer to the first question is simple: Designers love to hate Quark, for both its limited functionality and its unhelpful customer service. (We happen to be Quark fans, for the same reason we type our columns in TextEdit—sometimes less is more.)

The rise of the squircle is harder to pin down. Like any abstract form, it can be rationalized into a solution for just about any brand. That creates a snowball effect: the squircle’s burgeoning ubiquity endows it with the familiarity that designers aiming to connect their clients with consumers will build on. Focusing on who unveiled the squircle first misses the point.

But try telling that to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), whose reaction comes as close as we’ve seen to a logo street fight. The defensiveness is somewhat understandable: in 2001, the SAC’s new logo outraged Scots with its publicly financed $37,000 price tag, and the SAC must feel more than a little compelled to defend it tooth and nail.

While a Quark spokesman claimed to Macworld that the company conducted “extensive checks to discover similar existing logos,” this defense is a little tough to swallow. Not only did hordes of enterprising bloggers manage to track down so many within hours, but the shape has been used by multiple companies catering to the same market as Quark.

If you can pardon the company for its total ignorance, the squircle seems better suited to represent Quark than to represent many of the others. After all, it looks a lot like the capital letter Q. (And not very much like the lowercase letter “a” for “arts,” as the SAC claims.) By rationalizing the shape into a monogram, Quark may have used it more effectively than others have. Still, if any mark provokes customer outrage, you can do all the rationalizing you want and the logo is still a failure.

But whose failure is it? While Quark has to shoulder some of the blame and most of the embarrassment, we’d like to suggest that its collaborators at SicolaMartin, a division of Young & Rubicam Brands, should’ve stayed up a little later doing their competitive analysis homework. And we’d extend that advice to them in marketing their own firm. The SicolaMartin website uses the phrase “Good design is good business,” which is trademarked by the furniture manufacturer Knoll. Originality’s a bitch.

As Jeremy Hedley of the blog Antipixel observed, designers are paid as much for the quality of their thought as for the actual Illustrator file sent along at the end of a project. We absolutely agree. If you claim to deliver a blend of differentiating thought leadership along with visual acuity, as SicolaMartin does, then you have to walk the walk. Diagnosis? While the new identity may have its merits, its utter lack of originality is certainly not one of them.

The version of this article that was published on 30 September 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Anatomy of a Merger

On 2 September, more than 1,600 Sprint and Nextel stores opened their doors beneath new signs bearing a common logo. This marked yet another massive telecom merger, following Cingular’s buyout of AT&T last year and anticipating Verizon’s possible takeover of MCI in the weeks to come. Whenever two become one, a new logo is an inevitable offspring, and this merger is no different.

Will the monolithic new company be dubbed “Sextel,” as bloggers once giddily suggested? Hardly. The new branding doesn’t exactly get us all hot and bothered. Like that forgotten soda from the ’90s, it’s basically…O.K.

Then again, post-merger logos are seldom visionary or inspiring because they’re design-by-committee projects mired in politics. So if the committee is actually able to produce a logo that’s on time and un-ugly, they deserve a pat on the back.

And that’s exactly what a team of execs from Sprint and Nextel—along with branding agencies Lippencott Mercer, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Publicis, and Hal Riney—have done. Because a successful logo merger is always a challenge, the Doctors decided to take a closer look at this team’s decision-making process.

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The trick to making a successful logo is keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. In play are three key elements: name, mark, and color. In the case of Citicorp’s merger with Travelers Group in 1999, the name was resolved from the start: the new entity would be called Citigroup. In designing the logo, Pentagram wisely shortened the word to the very recognizable “citi,” keeping Travelers’ red umbrella, a symbol of protection, while playfully using a “t” as its curved handle. The lowercase “i”s are both human forms and points of connection. The colors of both companies are integrated in the new logo. A masterful merger.

JP Morgan Chase’s new logo is more straightforward. Both banks had great brand equity and name recognition, but Chase’s lovely emblem—designed by Chermayeff & Geissmar in the 1960s and still a classic—was preserved as the more recognizable symbol. They compromised on the colors and updated the typography. Well done.

Finally, when FedEx acquired Kinko’s in 2004, they scrapped the copyshop’s forgettable logo but kept the highly memorable name. Since FedEx has no logo aside from its name, Landor Associates (makers of the original FedEx mark) recognized the need for a logo to anchor the new brand and set it apart from FedEx’s. They devised an innovative asterisk made from three arrows coming together. Three of the colors—orange for FedEx Priority, green for FedEx Ground, and purple for FedEx—were already in use. The remaining color, an aqua blue, became the symbol for FedEx Kinko’s.

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In the case of Sprint and Nextel, the left side of this slide shows the assets in play. On the top row, the names “Sprint” and “Nextel,” and the typography of those names: Sprint’s in outdated bold italic, Nextel’s in an all-caps, no-nonsense sans serif. In the second row, the marks: Sprint’s ungraceful diamond-pyramid thingy, Nextel’s mundane cursor. Finally, the color schemes: Sprint’s commonplace grey and red on a white ground is similar to Verizon’s, Nextel’s black on a bold yellow ground is totally its own.

The right side of the slide shows this process of combining existing brand elements as used by another telecom company. When WorldCom acquired MCI in 1997, the new company took MCI’s name but kept WorldCom’s branding. Later, post-scandal, the company ditched the “WorldCom,” but kept its more distinctive look.

This approach wasn’t an option for Sprint and Nextel: While Sprint clearly had the more recognizable name and Nextel clearly had the more recognizable color scheme, neither company had a mark worth getting excited about. The designers decided to create a new one.

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The new logo is a vast improvement over the previous two. It visualizes one of Sprint’s most memorable marketing claims—its network is so clear that you can hear a pin drop—to remarkable effect. In so doing, it also has overtones of Cingular’s “full bars,” a symbol of the completeness of their network. The new mark also resembles a bird’s wing, a symbol of the freedom of cellular communication.

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Here is Sprint’s final logo, with upper- and lowercase sans serif letters that hybridize the companies’ former typography. In virtually every graphic way, the new branding distinguishes itself from its competitors. We hope Sprint will wear it well.

The version of this article that was published on 15 September 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Too Cool for School

New School SG

With alumni like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Donna Karan, Parsons School of Design is no stranger to the power of a great brand. And, since we teach there, we’re certainly no strangers to Parsons. So, naturally, our interest was piqued a few months ago when a faculty email announced that the school would now be known as “Parsons The New School for Design” and that New School University would now be “The New School.” Since it preserved the name “Parsons” but clarified our tie to The New School, the new title sat well with us. The email went on to explain that The New School’s other seven colleges would be renamed accordingly, and a new logo would be introduced. Then we saw the new logo.

The new logo, created by brand veterans Siegel & Gale, scraps nearly every convention in the book. There is no heraldry or traditional academic symbolism. Instead of a school color, there’s a school palette. Instead of a single mark, there are several visually similar marks. And instead of well-mannered, serif capital letters, there is stenciled, spray-painted, graffiti-inspired text that Alan Siegel, speaking to AdCritic.com, describes as “hipster typography and blurry lettering designed to capture the irreverent, urban flavor of the university.” The net effect of all this misbehavior is something that feels less like a school and more like a soft drink.

In a New York Times article spurred by The New School’s new name, our outstanding president, Bob Kerrey, was asked about the recent trend in higher education toward rebranding and renaming. His answer was honest and direct. “My view is that you never argue with the customer about your name,” he said.

What some might argue with, however, is the idea of the student as a customer and the school as a lifestyle brand. Schools didn’t use to advertise themselves much, because advertising’s guileless buying and selling was once considered déclassé and unsuitable for the more refined realm of the academy. If schools did any selling at all, it was based not on differentiation but on a commonly agreed-upon standard of excellence. As a result, school logos have traditionally drawn on shields and flags and other heraldic imagery that suggested legacy, exclusivity, and academic discipline.

The New School’s previous logo took its cue from this tradition. Six turning squares, one for each college, create a modern-looking shield. Designed in the early 1990s by Chermayeff & Geissmar—who’ve created identities for PBS, NBC, and Chase Manhattan Bank—the shield was paired with Matrix, one of the first computer-created typefaces. The logo was celebrated as a modern take on a traditional symbol, uniting the past and future with elegance and simplicity.

New School CG

As colleges refashion themselves as brands, however, their icons must shift from symbols of defense to symbols that attempt to identify and empathize with a target audience. The replacement of the traditional shield by the new logo, with its visual cues intended to link the school with a young urban culture, reflects The New School’s embrace of lifestyle marketing as its method for facing the public and attracting new students.

But the method is not without its pitfalls. In fact, the new logo exemplifies the dangers of exploiting pop culture forms such as graffiti. Like Alan Siegel, many a marketing exec has been enticed by the vibrant street art, but the problem with an institution’s use of graffiti, as The New School case shows, is authenticity. Though Siegel & Gale Chief Creative Officer Howard Belk has emphasized that the graffiti “was painted, not Photoshopped,” that is not enough. Dissertations could be written on what makes an artform “authentic,” but most everyone would agree that corporate graffiti is not. Graffiti is almost always the critique of an establishment rather than the symbol of one. It is telling that one of the only unifying marks for graffiti artists is anarchy’s circled capital A.

Anarchy A

While it may be true, as Belk went on to note, that “graffiti has been a medium for voices with alternative views,” any institutional attempt to harness that subversive quality is doomed. British advertisers Saatchi & Saatchi learned this lesson back in May, when they attempted to introduce a campaign via graffiti in London’s East End. Within days, The London Times reported, street artists hostile to the ad campaign had begun defacing it.

Banksy

Elsewhere in London, however, is a different sort of lesson. While designing the Tate’s identity in 2000, the British firm Wolff Olins created an indentity that’s remarkably similar to The New School’s, with more successful results. Like Siegel & Gale, Wolff Olins was asked to create an identity that would unify several locations with different missions. They were also asked to create an identity that would empower museumgoers rather than the institution of the museum itself. The resulting identity is all about shifts of focus, as the logo’s design suggests. The name, “Tate,” is blurred and the specific locations are sharp, just as with The New School and its member colleges.

Tate Logo

Interestingly, one of Parsons’s most direct competitors for students, the School of Visual Arts, also has a logo with a handmade feel. Created by SVA faculty member George Tscherny, it depicts a sun—a classic symbol of education—painted in fluid, Matisse-like brushstrokes by Tscherny himself. In so doing, the mark references both the hand of the creative artist and the tradition of the academic emblem.

SVA Logo

Both the Tate and SVA succeed by avoiding the thorny language of graffiti, which is impossible for any institution to control. And both succeed in branding to their “customers” with big ideas rather than stylistic rationalizations. While it’s true that higher education is a business of youth, exuberance, and constant change, it’s hardly as fluid as fashion, which is seldom the same from one season to the next. Yet the Chanel logo, designed in 1925 by Coco Chanel herself, is only six years older than The New School, and it’s remained unchanged and in fashion ever since.

Chanel Logo

Diagnosis? In choosing their new logo, perhaps The New School should have asked for a little advice from its more fashionable alumni.

The version of this article that was published on 31 August 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Pro Ed

Con Ed Logo

On 14 August, we’ll celebrate (although that might be the wrong word) the second anniversary of the largest blackout in recent memory. Which makes it as good a time as any to celebrate (and here it is most definitely the right word) one of the most unsung logos in recent memory: the Con Ed logo. It seems like such a classic solution, you’d never guess it’s only three years older than the blackout.

Created in 2000 by branding guru Peter Arnell—the mind behind identity campaigns for Reebok, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, and Samsung, among others—the logo aimed to reflect changes at Con Ed. The company was no longer in the business of generating energy; it was now in the business of moving it around efficiently. The new visual identity debuted in October with a city-wide ad campaign and a New York Times article by media columnist Stuart Elliott. A year later, what started as a simple consumer education effort gained momentum when Enron announced in October 2001 that its stock was overvalued by $1.2 billion. Suddenly the new Con Ed campaign morphed into a mission to restore consumer confidence in private energy firms.

It happens that Enron’s logo had been created by graphic design’s grandfather, the great Paul Rand, who also created IBM’s famous striped letters and the emblematic C of Cummins Engine Company.

IBM Cummins

If you merged these two classics, you’d have the Con Ed logo, which helps explain its timeless quality. Prior to Arnell’s innovation, the logo had been untouched since 1968, when the words “Con Edison” were stacked and emblazoned in sky blue Helvetica. Arnell kept the Helvetica, an impersonal, no-frills typeface that is right at home in the context of a multibillion-dollar utility company. He also kept the sky blue. Not only does the color make us think of unpolluted atmospheres and optimistic futures, it also makes us feel cool, which, in these sweltering summer months, is one thing we all need Con Edison to do. Imagine if Arnell had jettisoned the blue for, say, the bright red of a hot stove.

Arnell did a number of other smart things as well. He convinced the folks at Con Ed to spell their name “conEdison,” shifting the emphasis from a negative, “con,” to a symbol of innovation and ingenuity, Thomas Edison. The capped “E” also slyly signifies “energy,” which is what the company delivers, and “efficiency,” which is what the company plans to deliver it with. The logo itself literally “consolidates” the letters “C” and “E” into a single, coiled unit. Its spiraling quality suggests an emanating force or an infinite loop.

Its form initially struck us as similar to the “impossible fork,” a children’s optical illusion. It also look a bit like the sorts of symbols used by electrical engineers in their schematic diagrams.

Impossible Fork

And it has the same sort of concentric rings as a manhole cover, which harks back to the 180-year-old company’s oldest trademark.

Manhole Cover

The first Con Ed logo wasn’t made by a designer at all: it was made by an ironmonger. Around the turn of the century, the words “Con Edison Co” were imprinted on the city’s manhole covers, just as the stacked logo that replaced them was. Prior to that, the manhole covers had been emblazoned with the name of their fabricator. In a project from the early ’60s, designer Anthony Robinson trolled London streets for these early manhole covers bearing insignias like “C. Whitley, Ironmonger, King’s Cross” and “Jelley Son & Jones, Grindstone Merchants, Blackfriars Road.” These stampings, either cast or branded into the soft molten metal, trace their history back to the earliest printed marks, including stamps made by Greek potters called “graffiti,” and marks pressed into Roman oil lamps that, before the advent of energy companies, once lit the way for citizens of the world’s oldest cities.

In enlisting Peter Arnell, a savvy interpreter of visual culture, Con Ed found a collaborator ready to both embrace the past and set a course for the future. Diagnosis? An elegant logo ready to last another 50 years.

The version of this article that was published on 11 August 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

The “DC Spin”

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The design community erupted earlier this May when DC Comics unveiled its new logo, informally titled the DC “Spin.” Designed by Josh Beatman of Brainchild Studio in New York, it replaces the 30-year-old “DC Bullet,” designed by the legendary Milton Glaser, who is probably best known for his “I NY” logo, now omnipresent in the Big Apple.

Why the hullaballoo? Well, as DC, which is a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, speeds into the vertically integrated world of tomorrow, its considerable array of characters must perform in not just the pulpy rags of its past but the movies, TV, merchandising, and games of today.

When designers start on an identity project, there is often something called a “creative brief,” which outlines what the company needs from the new design. It appears from reading DC’s various public statements about their motivations that the brief in this case is a reactive one: The folks at DC wanted a logo that looks more like the newer logos of companies started well after 1937 and without founding characters like British detective Cosmo, Phantom of Disguise. In short, rather than a logo that leverages the past, DC’s new logo liquidates it.

By contrast, Marvel Comics, in asking motion-graphics guru Kyle Cooper to animate its mark for Marvel Films, displayed a great deal more wisdom. The letters, which bear the hand-drawn feel of comics lettering from the ’50s, are filled with a “flipbook” of Marvel characters reproduced in the coarse Ben Day dots of early color printing. Everything feels old, loved, warm. The motion is created in a precinematic way. The characters are rendered in a predigital form. There is the stuff of legacy and legends here.

DC’s Senior VP and Creative Director Richard Burning had different ideas for DC’s update. In a Newsarama.com interview, he observes, “Due to the computerization of design work, embossed and three-dimensionalized company marks have become very prevalent.” So, instead of highlighting the role of printing in the production of the product, the Spin highlights the role of computers in the production process. In so doing, the Spin pulls a Clark Kent, disguised to fit in with the logos of competitors like Rockstar Games and allies like Electronic Arts. (EA just released a Batman Begins game and is working on another for the folks at WB on Superman.) These gaming logos themselves draw from those of professional sports teams. Not only do sports-related games routinely generate the biggest profits for these companies, but the visual reference to “gaming” helps clue consumers into what they’re buying. Quips one reader of Burning’s interview, “Doesn’t this new logo look like it would really fit as the band for a professional hockey team?” From the mouths of babes.

Sure, they kept the circle and a star. But they added a “glow effect”! The only time we’ve ever seen that work is when the Green Lantern was hurtling through space. Diagnosis? Come back to earth, DC. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

The version of this article that was published on 21 July 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Part Notes

Fratres.mp3

Late in the evening, with a glass of wine, I’m sitting in a dark room trying to consider the packaging of an album by an Estonian composer named Arvo Pärt that will include a piece of his called “Fratres,” which is nearly 12 minutes long. Mine is an imaginary job, a problem for thinking through after dinner. But suppose I were to be faced with it. Suppose I were to try to contain this piece of Pärt’s, a piece that arises from design and vanishes from it just as quickly. How could it be done?

Memories strike first and hardest, and I begin to sort through them. The first time I ever heard Pärt was Thursday, 12 March 1998 on a cold night at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. That night, the sun set at 6:16pm according to the Almanac, but new snow and a full moon kept the city looking bright and blue well after nightfall. Earlier that day I had been at the Walker Art Center to see a show by the artist Robert Gober, and, by chance, I picked up a brochure that said “Sound Visions Spring Music.” I still have the brochure in my files today, and getting out of my red chair, I set down my glass to find it.In my hands is a CD-booklet-sized, 16-page brochure printed in black and cyan only. The typography is neurotic—four weights of Akzidenz Grotesk including the Condensed and Bold Condensed weights, a rounded vernacular gothic, and close-set Clarendon caps. Looking at it today, I think what it said was more important than how it looked. A “rare opportunity,” a “hypnotic vocal tapestry” in an “acoustically superb sanctuary.” The language now sounds as clumsy as the type. But at a time in my life when I thought Minneapolis to be so provincial that any rare opportunity was one worth taking, here was a promise to hear something beyond hearing. I remember walking to the box office to buy tickets immediately. Hours later, sitting in the Basilica, the singers’ voices started the “Kyrie” of the Berlin Mass. There were no words for these sounds, nor shapes to give them form. The music existed as an encounter with thresholds, like standing on the firm earth over a void. The encounter was thrilling.

Once I was aware of him, I began to encounter Pärt more and more often. I remember finding him in the listening library at college by accident when someone had left a CD in the wrong tray. Then again at a friend’s debut recital in New York City. His music seems to inhabit the films I watch: Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Michael Mann’s The Insider, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Julie Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left, and Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. You will find him in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, of Werner Herzog, of Mike Nichols and Michael Moore. I fell in love with a girl as I watched Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, where Pärt plays more than once.

As I consider the package, trying to bring a form from facts, I consider the process of listening itself. It is a process of building and unbuilding. The music I hear is first built for me, note by note, and I simply apprehend it. Then, with more listening and repeated playings, I break the shimmering thing back into pieces in an effort to understand its whole. There is, must be, a reason the filmmakers I watch, the designers I work with, the people I love, hear these sounds of Pärt’s and respond as they do. We all want to know: is what we’re hearing about Pärt or about us? Who is this package for, and what do its contents yield?

Part of me thinks of “Fratres” as a design. Its structure exists independently from its orchestration. It exists already as a piece for strings and percussion, winds and percussion, eight cellos, string quartet, violin and piano, and MIDI sequencer. Its phrases of four, six, and eight notes are voiced in three voices—high, middle, and low—over nine variations, or three triads of three. “Fratres” has three beginnings, three middles, and three ends in each of its three movements, and the arrangement of the three phrase-sets in the three different voices of each of these three movements creates first one, then two, then—just barely—three tonal centers to the piece. More than a third of the tonal experience of “Fratres” comes from the overtones that result from the three perfect intervals played—the octave, the fourth, and the fifth. So nothing exists: no given orchestration, no single experience, not even all of the notes on the page. This is fitting: Pärt often tells the story of a Russian monk he met, who, when asked how to improve oneself, said he knew of no way. Pärt said he tried by writing prayers and setting them to music. The monk shook his head. “You are wrong,” he said. “All the prayers have been written. Everything has been prepared. Now you must prepare yourself.”

This preparation comes from transcendence. In Pärt’s music, what is unknown is summoned from what is known through the natural variance of incantaton—of reciting something over and over—like the casting of spells and the saying of prayers. With no preordained thematic drive to obey, the music literally goes nowhere and operates with great drama by placing you where you are, intoning the same tones again and again to create a world of very few parts, a space that holds only the players, the sounds they play, and the person listening.

Though I am describing the music to myself now, the package I’m trying to design is no closer. Here is what I hear: “Fratres” begins quietly. A beat maps the space, a pulse. Then, a breath, the drawing of bows, timed with the beat. Four notes, arching like a sunrise, then six in a similar pattern, then eight. The four return again, slightly different but hopeful, then six, then eight. The players are quiet and find the pulse again. Now four tones dipping like a valley, more laboured on their journey uphill. The same pattern of six then eight. Four. Six. Eight. The sound is broadening, rounder. The pulse. The beats are a rhythm, an organiser for the arrangement of the notes, sounding as they did before, but more insistently now. Two forces in opposing directions. The movements in this interval are laboured and driving forward. At last, the sound rings. The pulse returns and the first third is complete.

More falling than rising, the opera is greater. The drama of the second third. Beat, beat, beat. Beat, beat, beat. The music insists and refuses to resolve, simmering, then vapourising the structure it found before. Now it finds itself in two states at once. Beats and then the weather. A thunderclap and air fronts inside and out. The music hall trembles, tensing for the storm.

The final third begins. The warmest sounds so far, like a folk dance or children running in a ring, yelling with joy. The pulse of night-time beats with the regularity of vespers. A hushing when the sounds resume. The quieter of the two voices is found lower down. On the refrain, it is quieter still, sounding as if, in an icy forest, someone has just stopped walking. The pulse trails off, drifting. Now, after the storm, the wind settling, the intensity of resting after a hard day, of releasing breath. A good job. The pulse, calm, falls silent.

Ideas from Pärt of a typographic sort: the tabula rasa (or blank slate)—his name for a skittering piece written for the violinist Gideon Kremer. The package is empty. When I was younger, learning to play the piano by ear, I would play intervals that made the best shapes. The beauty of a perfect interval is more than sonic. The Estonian alphabet has 32 letters. Bracketing those that are only used in foreign words, 27 letters remain. Three nines, each of three threes. Pärt’s process for composing much of his music, including “Fratres,” is one he calls “tintinnabulation,” which takes a certain chord and inverts it several times over to evoke the pealing of bells, modulating its register in a manner that suggests overtones. This is the beauty of well-chosen arrangements. The sound is simultaneously static (the chord is not changing) and in flux (the chord is permuting). The triad sounds over and over again as instruments trade its notes, passing them through the auditorium as other, quieter voices wander afield, uprooted. These bell-like overtones are slippery, toning and overtoning and changing between the soundings. Something happens when metal is struck with that kind of force, I think to myself. Something else resonates.

I am searching for answers by considering form. I pour another glass of wine. Digging through a pile of articles I’ve made on the floor, I find Pärt searching for answers, too:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this unimportant thing appear in many guises, and everything that is unimportant falls away.

I am frustrated by the answers I am getting. Maybe it’s enough just to enjoy the music. As quickly as I can ask, “Is Pärt a designer?” I am asking myself, “Should I try to be claiming him as one?”

With “Fratres” on the stereo, I am on the noisy internet, and it is getting later. I find I can type F-R-A-T-R-E-S with one hand. When I translate a French interview with Pärt, the word for “composer” comes out “type-setter.” I find that Pärt’s birthday is 11 September 1935—66 years (two 33s) before the towers fell. In his music, he says, the second iteration of the triad represents “terror.” I find the moment of Pärt’s musical transformation from his early serialism to his later minimalism coincides to the month with my own birth. I find a quote about the packaging of his music that coincides with this coincidence: Alex Ross of The New Yorker writes, “Even the packaging of the disks, all crisp lines and monochromatic fields, is a beautiful exemplar of minimalist style.” I find each of the package designs and note the typefaces: Palatino, Palatino Titling, Trajan, Gill Sans, stretched Avant Garde, Garamond Bold, Akzidenz Grotesk, Times Roman, Frutiger, Rotis Serif. These facts refuse me.

Pärt says,

We must count on the fact that our music will come to an end one day. Perhaps there will come a moment, even for the greatest artist, when he will no longer want to or have to make art. And perhaps at that very moment we will value his creation even more—because in this instant he will have transcended his work.

We reach a consensus on things, and these things should be noted down. Here is one: the Estonaian composer Arvo Pärt. Here are my notes. The wine is done. The room is quiet. As I get ready for bed, I remind myself that there is, in fact, no problem here to be solved.

This article first appeared in Dot Dot Dot #9. © 2004 Rob Giampietro.

In or Out?

Like a lot of designers, I’m fascinated by photography. But, like so many designers that entered the field after the computer had become the norm, I initially thought of myself more as a technician than an artist. I didn’t think of what I did on the computer as being informed by photography; I thought of it as being informed by itself. Design of the past, I thought, legislated design of the present. But if design in the last few years has become more self-referential, this is because its means of production have become more distinct from those of visual art and visual culture as a whole.

Up until a few decades ago, this was not the case. Design and photography as disciplines were commonly taught in the same department. Part of the reason for this was technical—in order to make design, design students had to understand photographic processes—but part of the reason for this was pedagogical. “Graphic design” became distinct from “fine printing” due to the efforts of the Bauhaus, the founders of which equated design with the democratic possibilities of the machines that were reshaping their societies. The ultimate image-making machine at the start of the 20th Century was, of course, the camera. László Maholy-Nagy—himself a designer, photographer, and Bauhaus professor—was not the first to join design and photography, but his playful essay “Typophoto” from 1925 is probably the best articulation of this idea. Essentially, design and photography were like two boys growing up on the same block: everyone just assumed they were brothers. This essay celebrates that assumption. You’ll find no argument here; just a story about how design and photography, for me, came back together again. The writer Lawrence Weschler has a name for these kinds of visual comparisons: he calls them “convergences.”

On a chilly winter several years ago, I enrolled in “Introduction to Photography.” Within three weeks, I was failing the class resoundingly, having shot 40 or 50 rolls of film and not a single photograph of substance. Like many of my fellow verbally literate and visually illiterate undergrads, I could talk about photographs, but I didn’t know how to make photographs worth talking about.

Working this out on a walk with a friend one snowy day, I tried to explain how I thought that mastering the alignment of forms was the first key. When he looked puzzled, I made a frame with my fingers, tilted my head backward to face the blank February sky. Branches littered my view above. “The photograph is not here,” I said, viewing the hastily-cropped tree. I took a few paces forward. “It’s here.” The sky was a page, and, faced with the forms above, the typographer in me moved to arrange them and give them meaning. And while this inclination toward celestial ordering is as old as humankind, it is still very contemporary. Novelist Italo Calvino writes in Invisible Cities that “In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant….” I had now learned this with my eye. Later that week, a grad student showed me Lewis Hine’s photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building from 1930-1931. Motivated by impulses similar to the Bauhaus, Hine’s images brought the workers from heavy industry and the abstract shapes of early 20th-Century design into the a single frame. Against the foggy backdrop of the city, girders became playful diagonals and scaffolding became a modernist grid. There was suddenly, in my mind, little difference between Hine’s workers, miles above the ground, and the Suprematist paintings of Kasimir Malevitch: they were shapes tumbling through space, airplanes in flight. And Hine, later the chief photographer for Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, had given these shapes a tremendous social value through the new medium of photography.

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Above: Lewis Hine.

These initial “convergences”—first the episode of the tree, then my introduction to Hine—were formative. As I tried to work out what they meant to me, my teacher continued doing slide lectures on the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson coined the term “The Decisive Moment” to describe the instant in which the disparate forms of the outside world organize themselves in the camera’s viewfinder to create meaning. The fewer elements in the frame, I reasoned, the easier it was to understand how this moment was created. I began collecting photographs that stunned me with their blankness. Richard Avedon intensified the character of the assorted drifters he encountered in the American West by photographing the forms of their bodies against a stark white of a bedsheet. Walker Evans found the stark blankness of the Southern sky a frame of fitting sobriety for his studies of churches commissioned by Hine for the WPA. With books piling up around me in the photo collection at the art library, I found the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt, whose work surveyed the natural forms of plants. Blossfeldt’s images reminded me of another German photographer, August Sander, whose work surveyed the forms of the German people themselves. Sander, who followed Blossfeldt, seemed to be followed by Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose work surveyed the industrial architecture created by many of the workers that Sander photographed decades earlier. I finally realized that the relationship between Hine and Cartier-Bresson was not a unique one: photographs everywhere began with forms. Russian photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko, like László Maholy-Nagy, was a designer and photographer, and the compositions of his photographs were directly influenced by Malevitch’s paintings. Edward Weston’s pepper reminded me, suddenly, of Blossfeldt.

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Left: Richard Avedon. Right: Walker Evans.

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Left: Karl Blossfeldt. Center: August Sander. Right: Bernd and Hilla Becher.

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Left: Alexsandr Rodchenko. Right: Edward Weston.

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Left: August Sander. Right: Rineke Dijkstra.

I had started to develop a working method for myself based on principles of inclusion and exclusion. First, exclude verbal descriptions from my visual process. Writing about what I wanted to take pictures of would produce a lot of essays and not too many pictures. It’s a visual medium: respond visually. Second, exclude the visually unnecessary. Empty the frame somehow and reintroduce elements to compose as I would if I were starting from a blank pasteboard. Found visual situations were controlled by composition. Constructed visual situations were often inspired by it. Being a designer, composition was a principle I responded to; I naturally began constructing more images. My collection was beginning to swell with works of a different sort. Alfred Hitchcock’s production stills from Psycho had found their way into my file. These images were controlled, blank, but also part of a larger narrative, pieces to a bigger story. Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits referred to these Hitchockian constructions without including the story. More recently, Gregory Crewdson has done for Spielberg what Cindy Sherman did for Hitchcock: appropriated him.

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Left: Production Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Right: Cindy Sherman.

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Above: Gregory Crewdson.

In the end, I survived “Introduction to Photography,” barely, and fumbled my way into “Intermediate Photography” with Catherine Opie, and outstanding teacher and photographer in her own right. In that class, I met two designers who were also in the process of coming to terms with photography in similar ways. Kristin Tomsits saw in lawns what I saw in Lewis Hine’s sky and Walker Evans’ churches. One of her photographs shows the pristine edge of a lawn as it meets the pavement. It is a photograph, on one level, of the way a line divides a plane into two distinct colors. On another level, it is a banal observation of Suburbia. Another of her photographs depicts the electric green Astroturf of a Mini Golf course, complete with a cookie-cutter bench that’s as fake as the grass it’s sitting on. The bench’s fakeness reminded me of Thomas Demand’s photographs. Demand builds miniature recreations of famous sites out of paper and photographs them to look real. When the photograph is complete, the construction is destroyed, giving the photograph an imperceptible sense of loss, which is tied to its referent. Tomsits’ bench looks like Demand’s photograph of his reconstruction of the diving board from the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi-occupied Berlin. Tomsits’ photographs, though, had a sense of loss that differed from Demand’s: full of flat, unvarigated surfaces, textural, and tonal bump-ups, all set at sporting sites in wintertime, they spoke to the lonliness of winter and the suburban landscape.

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Above: Kristin Tomsits.

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Left: Kristin Tomsits. Right: Thomas Demand.

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Above: Kristin Tomsits.

Leslie Tucker, the other designer in Opie’s class with me, took photographs of abandoned building walls. These great, flat walls were venues for typographic observation within a constrained formal set. So in the same way that Tomsits’ photographs shuffled elements like “Lawn,” “Pavement,” and “Goal,” Tucker’s photos shuffled “Wall,” “Tree,” “Fence,” and “Window.” Against a blank sheet of wall, Tucker made squares with windows, lines with trees, tones with fences. The photographs brought beauty out of overlooked urban space, and, as in Tomsits’ suburbs, these spaces were uninhabited. These were photographs in the literal sense. These were picture-writing. They were graphic, sometimes even typographic, like Tomsits’ later photographs for the class, deadpan renderings of signs for “Syosset Lanes” and “Oasis Food.” Tucker’s depictions of used glassware at thrift stores, the patter of forms on lines against a moiré of pegboard, like the Bechers’ watertowers against blank German skies, were a study of sorts, a typology, a reading. Both designer/photographers in my class owed a huge debt in their work to the American color photography pioneer Stephen Shore, whose deadpan observations of walls, signs, houseplants—and everything in between—left some of the nostalgic allusions of black-and-white photographs behind in order to show the present surreality of the everyday.

The designer/photographers in my class—and their visual forefathers—taught me that the process of inclusion and exclusion—really, of editing—was essential within the frame. As I broadened my view of designers taking pictures and the photographers that seemed to influence them, I began to understand how this kind of editing took place in the presentation of their images as well.

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Left: Lesley Tucker. Right: Stephen Shore.

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Left: Kristin Tomsits. Right: Stephen Shore.

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Left: Darren Kuhnau. Right: Stephen Shore.

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Left: Lesley Tucker. Right: Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Rudy VanderLans’ photo-fantasia Supermarket, a found word for a found landscape, folds together themes similar to those of Tomsits and Tucker over the course of a drive through Southern California. These photographs summon a familiar loss and lonliness and raise questions about the everyday and the banal. Here again we see lawns, deserts, skies, and flatness. Here again are some of Shore’s signs and plantlife. VanderLans includes snatches of his sonic environment in his presentation, a kind of audio typography. There is a radio playing in his car as he drives. The D-shape of his car window becomes a major formal element, a lens used to classify the anonymous landscape. In 171 pages, not a single human being is depicted. Instead the work is a catalogue of like forms, the grid of four into which the photos are slid a kind of compound view, like that of a dung beetle or a closed-circuit television. Quadrants sputter alive with speech or images and then return to a blank, sandy beige. Each drugstore snapshot is horizontal, uniform, consistent, like the frames of a film whizzing quietly by.

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Above: Rudy VanderLans.

VanderLans’ project is a formal stepchild to Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, itself a catalogue of forms, of inspirations, of photographic brainstorming, a mapless map of a placeless place, Richter’s mind’s eye. When I first opened Atlas back in the art library years ago, it was like opening my own eyes to the world. Landscapes, seascapes, city plans, and foggy roads. The faces of dead white men. Daubs of colored paint in harsh light. Branches, flowers, and clouds. Glaciers, meadows, and country roads. There is almost no portraiture until the end, when Richter includes studies of his wife and child. It is an album not of people but of potentials, a viewbook and a vantage-point. Like VanderLans, Richter uses a system to organize his images: all are mounted on sheets of paper derived from a single size. This kind of photographic uniformity is aided by design in its conceptual thrust, so the debt in making Atlas is mutual. The clarity of Richter’s worldview is reinforced by its constancy, as it is in the Bechers’ work, image after image of incremental difference; and totality, as it is in Sander’s work, with a breadth that draws not just on the German landscape, but on that of all the world. Richter’s view includes everything we see and everything we’ve ever seen. It is Platonic: not a single landscape, but the idea of a landscape. And it is Socialist: each potential landscape is equivalent.

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Above: Gerhard Richter.

John Baldessari’s work also uses this tactic. His photographs, like Richter’s sixteen different arrangements of a wine bottle and apples by a window from Atlas, show a process of arrangement either by movement of objects within the frame or by movement of the photographer himself, and, because of this legislated sequential movement, the photographs can evoke gameplay and even rudimentary cinematic montage, as VanderLans’ photographs do. Both are simple narratives in which a limited set of forms plays out in succession. In Baldessari’s “Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Rhubarb, 1972,” seven vertical color 35mm photographs represent a simple game. Three rhubarbs are shown, top-to-bottom. Player 1 chooses the center rhubarb. Top and bottom rhubarbs are replaced and it’s Player 2’s turn. The criteria for judgment are deliberately elided, but we can assume them to be formal, or at least aesthetic. Baldessari’s work helped me turn a corner in my own thinking about photography’s use and its reason for looking a certain way. His photographs were neither fiction nor documentary but evidence. The processes governing them were not illusory but arbitrary. Their aim was not to represent a reality but to represent the choice involved in all representations of reality. What, after all, could be more arbitrary, less nuanced, than a rhubarb? We have no sign structure for it. The rhubarb is an operand.

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Top: Gerhard Richter. Bottom: John Baldessari.

Baldessari is upfront about this. His list of quotations from an introductory textbook on photography is telling:

  • What the camera has done is to show us what to concentrate upon; and, consequently, what to leave out.
  • The photographer can change his position, but the result would be another kind of picture.
  • Without design a photograph will be but an announcement.
  • In a mere photograph there is a real danger of losing a picture’s chief attribute, its design.
  • At first glance a photograph will often appear to add up to the conditions of an adequate composition.
  • Here is a typical case of a striking photograph that contains elements from which a good composition can be made; as it stands, it cannot be literally copied without asking for trouble.

Baldessari’s interest, like Richter’s, is not so much in photography but in the epistemology of photography, in which design plays an intimate role. What are photography’s limits? What constitutes a photograph in and of itself? And who gets to choose one from another, Player 1 or Player 2? Players 1 and 2 may have the agency of operators, but they are without identity. It is easy to build identities around them, however. Perhaps one is the viewer and the other the viewed. Perhaps one is the artist and the other the audience. Evidence photography, after all, is not found photography: it is made to look found, but still it bears a maker’s mark. Who is the maker? Who is the photographer? What constitutes a photographer, and how is the photographer involved in the pictures he takes? It’s a conceptual hokey-pokey. Do you put your whole self in or leave your whole self out?

These final issues, of identity and authorship, are dramatized in the American photographer Lee Friedlander’s self-portrait, “Albany, New York, 1967.” Taken five years before Baldessari’s “Choosing,” we find ourselves inside a similar-but-different game. The horizontal frame is split in half top-and-bottom. Below are Friedlander’s feet. Above are three portraits of young men, perched on the edge of a thrift store window. In this simple image, Friedlander raises the stakes of choosing: Are we choosing his identity? Is he choosing his own? Are we choosing ours? Is he choosing for us? In the moment of passing by a show window, Friedlander ties our most basic questions of self to the act of photographic consumption. If we’re playing this game by Baldessari’s rules, after choosing one of the portraits, another two would replace those we did not choose. The process of identification would be ceaseless, and the role of photography in the process would be increasingly essential.

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Above: Lee Friedlander.

August Sander chose to typify the people in his world by vocation, and in our world this standard has gained widespread acceptance. If part of who we are is defined by what we do, what is happening when designers photograph? The process of many art photographers is to use photographs to chip away at notions of self, and they are aided in this by the development of a body of work, of a life in pictures, constructed or otherwise. Designers do not have this benefit; photography is not the thrust of their life’s work, or they would be branded “photographers.” This is not to say that one cannot be both; it is only to say that in being both, in our world, you cease to be either. Photographs that designers take, like photographs that painters take, are consigned by their critics as sketches. “Here they are,” they say, “in the process of working something out.” And there is truth to this. But there is also a great deal of critical gerrymandering. Earlier, I sought to draw formal lines in the sand; now I wish to draw conceptual ones. If we make a distinction between photographs and Photographs, which may a designer take?

The answer to this final complication may not come from the individuality of our selves but from the ubiquity of our machines. Everyone’s a photographer, in other words, because everyone has a camera. Taking pictures, especially lately in the U.S., seems more a right than a gift. I now have a camera attached to my phone, a device no bigger than a chocolate bar. And with it, the city has changed for me. I use my camera to talk to objects the way I use my phone to talk to others. The format is a bit taller than square and never intended for making prints. The matchbook-sized images it generates are paperless, objectless, just data skimming through the air. I meet a friend in a café, and we trade stories through looking at things, like the Academics of the Balinibari School of Languages in Gulliver’s Travels, who speak by trading objects carried on the backs of hearty servants. I beam him a standpipe. He beams back a pumpkin and a floppy disc. My brother calls and his face appears. “Where’s your headshot?” he asks. With a mirror the size of a nail’s head mounted next to the lens, I take a portrait to send back. Back at home, Friendster’s JPEGs are supermarket of acquaintance. Ebay’s are a general store of the everyday. Our populist photographs are more syntactic, more typological. Not photography as such but photography as a thread in visual culture’s vast forum. Photographers are speaking in this forum. And, as they always have been, designers are speaking, too.

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Above: Rob Giampietro.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of AIGA InForm.

On Meredith Monk’s “Dolmen Music”

Meredith Monk Dolmen Music ECM

In recent months, so many important jazz albums have been reissued that it almost seems trendy. The flood of rediscovered albums is a wonderful complement to the complex, eclectic jazz being made today. Often these reissues are not classic recordings at all, but particularly avant-garde works by noted performers that have slipped through the cracks. Such is the case with Meredith Monk’s forgotten Dolmen Music. Following up on the success of Monk’s recent work, ECM has reissued this subtle and complex early recording.

The deepest of the album’s pieces is “Dolmen Music” itself, nearly 30 minutes long, which is as haunting as it is unique. Stonehenge, composed of dolmens (a type of rock structure scattered throughout the countryside in France and England), is the main influence. In this site, steeped in the mysteries of the cosmos, Monk finds a metaphor for the unpredictability of improvised music. Its circular formation is also important here, and the piece alludes to this through its looping vamp lines and in the nontraditional staging of the vocalists, who sit in a circle, surrounded by stones.

In “Overture and Men’s Conclave,” the first of the piece’s six movements, the sound of wind (summoned by an airy cello) becomes a recursive chant, then collapses into the murmurs of a men’s congregation that speaks in tongues. In “Pine Tree Lullaby,” an eerily soothing cello hints both at music’s power to bring sleep and at its vitality, persistent despite the darkness of the forest at night. The two elements—death and life—now brought together are held in tension with the final two movements. “Conclusion” loops back to the beginning, repeating the themes once more and making it seem as if death and life coexisted all along.

Monk’s eclecticism sometimes makes the music difficult to appreciate—as is the case with the other tracks on the album. But when it is poised in a situation as demanding as that of “Dolmen Music,” this eclecticism, a property intrinsic to Monk’s voice itself, shines as both the rock from which the others in the archway are hewn and as the gravity by which those rocks press the earth to reach, together, toward heaven. It is the voice that, pre-lingual, summons music and magic from these stone gates that are agape and singing silently—the mouths of God.

On Brad Mehldau’s “Art of the Trio Vol. 3: Songs”

Brad Melhdau Art of the Trio Vol 3 Songs

Art of the Trio Vol. 3: Songs, released at the end of 1998, marks the third in the Grammy-nominated series “Art of the Trio.” Each album explores the limits of trio music by exploiting the fullness (or emptiness) intrinsic to the trio sound. In his last album, Live at the Village Vanguard, pianist Mehldau blanketed the crowd with sound. Songs breaks from this strategy: recorded in the studio, the album has all the emptiness, loneliness, and introspection characteristic of Bill Evans.

The album hits its high point on Mehldau’s cover of “Exit Music (for a Film),” from Radiohead’s incredible OK Computer. The song, about Romeo and Juliet, carries the same melancholy plot line as the torch-song standards that surround it. Though thematically “Exit Music” draws from jazz, Mehldau rearranges the song into something that sounds more like a piano sonata. A classically trained musician, Mehldau acknowledges that often during composing and improvising he adopts from his favorite composers—Brahms, Beethoven, and Chopin. “Song-Song,” an original that opens the album, is a sad, slow waltz. After the short intro, bassist Larry Grenadier uses a bow to create the orchestral feel of Marccone’s Cinema Paradiso score. In “Unrequited” and “Convalescent,” Mehldau leaves behind the constraints of time signature, chord progression, and tonality, conjuring phrases that seem to flow from sadness itself.

Mehldau only falters when he tries to be traditional. The standards seem forced, despite the efforts of Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy. With “At a Loss,” the album loses steam. But at its best, Songs makes up in originality what it lacks in jazz tradition. Pat Metheny has called Mehldau “the most exciting pianist since Herbie Hancock,” and the ability of a young pianist to make one feel so deeply makes Mehldau one to watch.