June 5, 2013
With the development of music notation, music was set free from the delicate bonds of oral and aural traditions. A standardized, underlying structure meant that everything from Gregorian chant to “Johnny B Goode” could be preserved and proliferated with relative ease. However, beginning in the years after World War II, some more progressive musicians and composers began to think that the music staff might be more restricting than liberating and began to experiment with new, more expressive forms of graphic music notation.
American composer John Cage explored the use chance and indeterminacy in his musical compositions with the aim of erasing his own subjectivity from his music, the hand of the artists, as it were. To communicate his indeterminate “compositions,” to use the term loosely, Cage developed elaborate methods of graphic notation involving a series of transparencies. He first used this method in the 1958 score for “Variations I,” which consisted of six transparent squares – one with 27 points representing sound and five with five lines, representing any assigned musical value. The composition was derived by placing the squares on top of one another in any combination. Cage would continue to develop and expand this method throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as seen in the top image depicting the somewhat more elaborate score for “Fontana Mix.” Cage’s notation consists of four multi-channel cassette tapes, ten transparencies inscribed with tiny dots, one transparency bearing a straight line and ten sheets of paper on which colored squiggly lines were drawn, and a graph paper-like “staff.” The transparencies were used to derive coordinates that were then used to determine which tape was used, as well as the values of the sound from teh tape: length (in inches), volume, timbre, and so on. According to the All Music Guide to Classical Music, Cage described the score as “a camera from which anyone can take a photograph.”
Steve Reich’s score for “Pendulum Music” is a straightforward, written set of instructions describing how the piece is staged and performed. The above recording was made by Sonic Youth for their 1999 album SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century. Parts of the handwritten score are a little difficult to read so here’s a transcription:
“2, 3, 4 or more microphones are suspended from the ceiling by their cables so that they all hang the same distance from the floor and are all free to swing with a pendular motion. Each microphone’s cable is plugged into an amplifier which is connected to a speaker. Each microphone hangs a few inches directly above or next to it’s [sic] speaker.
The performance begins with performers taking each mike, pulling it back like a swing, and then in unison releasing all of them together. Performers then carefully turn up each amplifier just to the point where feedback occurs when a mike swings directly over or next to it’s [sic] speaker. Thus, a series of feedback pulses are headed which will either be all in unison or not depending on the gradually changing phase relations of the different mike pendulums.
Performers then sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.
The piece is ended sometime after all mikes have come to rest and are feeding back a continuous tone by performers pulling out the power cords of the amplifiers.”
In 1978 musician Brian Eno created the seminal album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe this atmospheric soundscape and distinguish it from the canned “elevator music” pioneered by Muzak. In so doing, he created not just an album, but an entire genre of music. Eno was inspired by composers like Cage and Reich, but had no formal music training. When asked by an interview why he never learned to read music, Eno, who preferred to composes directly onto tape, replied:
“It wouldn’t be very useful for me. There have been one or two occasions where I was stuck somewhere without my tape recorder and had an idea, tried to memorize it, and since a good idea nearly always relies on some unfamiliar nuance it is therefore automatically hard to remember. So on those very rare occasions I’ve thought, ‘God, if only I could write this down.’ But in fact, quite a lot of what I do has to do with sound texture, and you can’t notate that anyway … That’s because musical notation arose at a time when sound textures were limited. If you said violins and woodwind that defined the sound texture, if I say synthesizer and guitar it means nothing – you’re talking about 28,000 variables.”
In lieu of traditional notation then, Eno created the graphics seen above, which seem to be more concerned with communicating a visual impression of the music and aren’t truly intended to be used as a guide for actually playing the music.
Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” was commissioned by the North German Radio Hamburg in 1961. As the name suggests, the piece does indeed take various forms and changes dramatically from section to section. With “Polymorphia,” Penderecki was searching for new sonic possibilities and, if those possibilities include “terrifying haunted house music,” he absolutely nailed it. The composition is intended for 48 string instruments and emphasizes timbre rather than pitch, and the collision of sound generating bodies made of metal, wood, or leather – what music scholar Danuta Mirka refers to as the composer’s “primary materials”. The notation was inspired, in part, by electroencephalograms –visual measurements of brain activity. It eschews traditional measures in favor of a score divided into sections of variable length and, in some sections, further vertical divisions to mark each second, with a “total pitch space” describing the relative pitch of each instrument.
English composer Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise” was written from 1963-1967. It consists of 193 pages of graphic notation that employs ambiguous numbers, shapes, and symbols that Carew intended to be interpreted by the performer. He suggests that performers agree on their own rules prior to the performance, but provides no other explicit instructions for interpreting the piece. In the “Treatise” handbook, Cardew offers additional, cryptic advice such as “Remember that space does not correspond literally to time” and “There is a great difference between: a) doing anything you like and at the same time reading the notations, and b) reading the notations and trying to translate them into action. Of course you can let the score work on previously given material, but you must have it work actively.” The only constant throughout “Treatise” is the thickly drawn “life line” at the center of the score. It has no intrinsic value but is often used by performers as a baseline reference for pitch or some other musical value. Ultimately, “Treatise” is notation as art form. As Carew says, “The notation is more important than the sound. Not the exactitude and success with which a notation notates a sound; but the musicalness of the notation in its notating.”
In closing, the half notation. I only count it as half because it uses a traditional notation system, just not a music notation system. In 1968 John Cage played a chess match against Marcel DuChamp as part of the collaborative performance, Reunion (pdf), which also featured electronic music by David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, David Tudor and Lowell Cross. Given his interest in chance, it’s no surprise that Cage conceived of the work, but it was composed by the aforementioned musicians. The board itself was designed by Cross and concealed photo-resistors, contact microphones, and connections to sound generators. During the match the movement of the pieces activated lights and electronic music, transforming the exhibition environment according to the movement of the pieces on the board. The art of the chess transformed into music and light, a sort of strategic synesthesia. It’s a fascinating idea. What would the Sicilian Defense sound like? Or a Queen’s Gambit?
The above examples represent both notation for experimental music and experimental notation for music. But they’re just of few of the many modes of graphic and experimental notation that have been explored by artists over the last 60 or so years. While some artists find restrictions inspiring –even if those restrictions are as seemingly limitless as music notation– others find that progress can only be made by shattering the accepted modes of production and communication. And while the results may not be always enjoyable, they’re undeniably interesting and represent a sincere effort to push an art form into unexplored territory. Avant-garde in the truest sense of the word.
May 8, 2013
Since writing last week’s post about the possible origin of the QWERTY keyboard and the viability of new digital alternatives, I’ve been especially mindful of every keyboard I use. As a footnote of sorts to that post, I’ve noticed that there’s a particularly strange feature on the iPad’s virtual keyboard: a raised bar on the F and J keys. On physical keyboards, these raised indicators allow touch typists to orient their eight fingers on the center row of the keyboard without looking. So why would a flat touchscreen have these raised indicators? One word. Skeuomorphism.
“Skeuomorphism” is a design principle in which an obsolete design element is integrated into a new object –often as a superficial graphic detail– even though it’s no longer functional or necessary. For instance, when the ancient Greeks started building in stone, they imitated the forms of wood construction – including unnecessary wood joints and ornamentation; protruding joists were eventually transformed into dentils. The term is certainly not a neologism (although spell check still refuses to acknowledge it) but its use has become much more widespread with the emergence of touchscreen applications. Digital skeuomorphic elements can help give users a sense of familiarity when dealing with a new technology – like a notepad app that looks like a legal pad, the page-turning animation on a digital book, or the sound of a shutter clicking on digital cameras and mobile phones. Soon these elements may outlive their usefulness or take on a new meaning, but for now these vestigial details work as sensory cues.
Let’s get back to the keyboard. In our previous post, it was suggested that the very nature of “keys” is obsolete for touchscreen devices. A case could be made either way, I think, but a graphic representation of the tactile raised bars are most definitely unnecessary on keys that are never physically touched. In fact, most touchscreen devices do not include these vestigial elements. Cursory Googling reveals that the keyboards on the Kindle, Nook, and Surface all lack any sort of tactile carryover. The iPad appears to be unique in this respect, but is in line with Apple’s initial approach to user interface design for mobile applications. In their iOS Human Interface Guidelines for software developers, the company recommends using visual metaphors to “suggest a usage or experience without enforcing the limitations of the real-world object or action on which they’re based” or adding physicality and realism to a user interface:
Sometimes, the more true to life your app looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it….Think of the objects and scenes you design as opportunities to communicate with users and to express the essence of your app. Don’t feel that you must strive for scrupulous accuracy. Often, an amplified or enhanced portrayal of something can seem more real, and convey more meaning, than a faithful likeness.
Recently, the tide seems to be turning against skeuomorphism. Apple has taken a lot of flack for the skeuomorphic graphics in their mobile software, and after a recent executive shakeup it sounds like many of these elements won’t make it into the next iteration of their operating system. Yet with advances in touchscreen technology, there might actually be a chance that the virtual keyboard will once again require those home row “bumps”. Apple and other companies are researching touchscreens that can provide haptic feedback through the use of vibration, electronic impulses, and screens that can literally change shape to create a textured surface. With these new displays on the horizon, perhaps it’s only a matter of time until the vestigial home key bumps on virtual keyboards have their function returned.
January 17, 2013
One hundred years after the French Revolution began, the Eiffel Tower rose above Paris as a testament to the new century’s innovations in engineering and construction. It could be seen from everywhere in the city; an inescapable sign of a different type of revolution. But the Eiffel Tower wasn’t the only technological innovation to dominate the streets of Paris in 1889. That same year, the first modern perfume was created: Jicky.
What makes Jicky modern? As mentioned in our previous post on “The Art of the Scent,” it is widely regarded as the first fragrance to incorporate synthetic ingredients as well as natural extracts, making it one of the most significant perfumes in the history of scent design. Jicky was created by Aimé Guerlain, the son of perfumer Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, who founded the family perfume house in 1828 when he opened a small shop in Paris. At the time, natural floral perfumes were all the rage and the senior Guerlain was a master of the craft whose clients included Queens and Tsars. When Aimé took over as master perfumer upon his father’s death in 1864, he continued to develop new floral fragrances but he also brought his own unique innovations, adding exotic spices from the far East to the traditional Guerlain bouquet. In 1889, with the Eiffel looming above Paris, everything changed with the creation of Jicky, a new scent Aimé named after a lost love.
Breaking with traditions and trends, Guerlain challenged conventions by introducing synthetic molecules into his perfumes. At its most basic, Jicky was primarily composed of lavender and vanilla scents, along with secondary citrus notes and a hint of the traditional Guerlain bouquet. While the lavender was steam-distilled through a standard process, the vanilla scent presented a unique problem—it was an expensive and rather weak extract. So Guerlain sought out an alternative: synthetics. According to The Little Book of Perfumes, when the perfume was being conceived, only a single firm in Paris, De Laire, had the rights to patent synthetic vanillin, which was cheaper, sweeter and creamier than the natural alternative. Not only would these designed components—terpene alcohol β-linalool, coumarin and ethyl vanillin—add to the multi-faceted complexity of the scent, they also made it last longer. Although the process wasn’t perfect, the impurities of the synthetic extract added to the complexity of the scent. It was brave. It was bold. It was the first perfume designed to stir emotions, rather than just recall flowers. And it was worn almost exclusively by men. At first, anyway. Women soon came around and Jicky was actually marketed as a unisex fragrance. The ambiguity became a part of the identity of Jicky and is still referenced in the official description of the perfume:
“Oriental chypre Fresh, dynamic, surprising Filled with contrasts and dualities, freshness and oriental notes, Jicky is a magical perfume that plays on the olfactory ambiguity between masculine and feminine. The subtle spicy notes that blossom with the usual warmth of the oriental facet also play skillfully with the fresh and aromatic notes of lemon and lavender at its heart. Underneath this audacious structure, one detects woody and vanilla notes for greater vibration and character.”
Jicky is still made by Guerlain. And though it enjoys the distinction of being the oldest perfume in continuous production, the modern Jicky is different than the original. According to the authors of The Little Book, the scent was once “raunchier, more curvaceous, less stately.” The disparity can be partly explained by the purity of the vanillin, which improved as the process of creating synthetics was refined. Though measures were taken to recreate that certain je ne sais quoi with the addition of birch tar, the contemporary scent remains slightly different from the original. We may not think about it often, but all scents are the result of rigorous experimentation, trial-and-error and, sometimes, revolutionary invention. By breaking with tradition, Aimé Guerlain introduced perfumers to an entirely new, nearly limitless palette and changed perfume forever. The story of Jicky is the story of modern perfume. It’s a union of science, art, and perhaps even a little romance. And it proves, beyond a doubt, that scent is not only a design discipline but an art. Although it may evolve over time, it seems safe to say that as long as the Eiffel Tower stands, there will always be Jicky.
Previously on Design Decoded: Designing Scent: An Olfactory Exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design
January 16, 2013
While walking through the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition “The Art of the Scent (1889-2012)” my mind was flooded with memories of a nearly forgotten childhood friend, an ex-girlfriend and my deceased grandmother. It was a surprisingly powerful and complex experience, particularly because it was evoked in a nearly empty gallery by an invisible art form—scent. It’s often cited that smell is the sense most associated with memory (both are processed by the brain’s limbic system), and the iconic fragrances exhibited in “The Art of the Scent” are likely to take visitors on their own private jaunts down memory lane. But it might not lead where they expect.
Like any art form or design discipline, the creation of a scent is the result of experimentation and innovation. Yet, perfume and cologne are rarely appreciated as the artfully crafted designs they are. “The Art of the Scent” is the first major museum exhibition to recognize and celebrate scent as a true artistic medium rather than just a consumer product. The 12 exhibited fragrances, chosen by curator Chandler Burr to represent the major aesthetic schools of scent design, include Ernest Beaux’s Modernist Chanel No.5 (1921); the Postmodern Drakkar Noir (1982) by Pierre Wargnye ; and Daniela Andrier’s deconstructed fragrance Untitled (2010). Perhaps most significantly, the exhibition begins with the first fragrance to incorporate synthetic raw materials instead of an exclusively natural palette, thereby truly transforming scent into an art: Jicky (1889), created by Aimé Guerlain. Unfortunately, this fragrant historiography will initially be lost on the average visitor because while scent may indeed be the best sense for provoking memory, it is the worst sense for conveying intellectual content. When we smell something—good or bad—our reaction is typically an automatic or emotional response. Such a reaction doesn’t lend itself particularly well to critical analysis. One of the greatest challenges facing Burr, who wrote the “Scent Notes” column for the New York Times and the book The Emperor of Scent, was to get visitors to move beyond their initial emotional responses and memories and to think critically about scent design.
Or perhaps scent “composition” is a better word. Like a musical chord resonating in the air until it fades away, scent evolves over time until it too fades. And like a chord, scents are composed of three harmonic “notes.” The “top note” is the first impression of the scent and is the most aggressive, the “middle note” is the body of the scent, and the “base note” lingers after the other notes dissipate, giving the fragrance a depth and solidity. However, there is an enormous industry based around designing and marketing commercial fragrances that includes everything from the shape of the bottle to the celebrity endorsement to the samples at a department store. These extraneous characteristics can also shape our perception of the scent, and sometimes even shape the scent itself. For example, the “top note” has become more important over time because of the aggressive way that perfumes are typically sold and sampled in contemporary department stores. First impressions are more important than ever. “The Art of the Scent” strips all of that away. By isolating pure scent and presenting it in a museum setting, Burr hopes to do for scent what had been done for photography over the last 80 years—raise it to a level equal with painting and other traditional fine arts. It’s an ambitious goal that required exhibition designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro to address a fascinating question: how does a museum present art that you can’t see?
Luckily DSR are familiar with both museums and the ephemeral. Although they are perhaps known as the architects behind Manhattan’s High Line, DSR built their career designing installations and exhibitions in galleries and became known for questioning the role of the museum. Their buildings destabilize architecture by cultivating ephemerality and creating atmospheric effects. These ideas are most apparent in their 2002 Blur Building, an enormous scaffolding-like structure supporting continuously spraying misters that give the building the appearance of a floating cloud. The architects called it “immaterial architecture.”
It makes sense then that DSR’s installation for “The Art of the Scent” embraces the ephemeral purity of olfactory art itself. Their minimalist exhibition is, like any good minimalist work, more complex than it first appears. The architects lined three walls of the nearly empty gallery space with a row of gently sloping, almost organic “dimples.” Each identical dimple is just large enough to accommodate a single visitor, who upon leaning his or her head into the recessed space is met with an automatic burst of fragrance released by a hidden diffusion machine. I was told the burst doesn’t represent the scents’ “top notes” as one might expect, but more closely resembles the lingering trail of each commercial fragrance—as if a woman had recently walked through the room wearing the perfume. The scent hovers in the air for a few seconds then disappears completely. And no one has to worry about leaving the exhibition smelling like a perfume sample sale because every exhibited fragrance has been specially modified to resist sticking on skin or clothes. The ephemerality of perfume is reinforced by the illuminated wall texts explaining each scent, which periodically disappear completely, leaving the gallery devoid of anything but pure olfactory art.
The exhibition also includes an interactive salon where the scents can be experienced in a more social setting. Using a custom iPad app designed by DSR, visitors select an adjective and noun to describe each scent, and as their opinions are logged, a collective impression of the scent is revealed as a projected word cloud (see above image). It’s a simple conceit but a critical one that helps fulfill one of the goals of the exhibition—to provide a vocabulary that helps non-experts understand and critique olfactory art. The primary mission of the Museum of Art and Design is to educate the public on the intersection of art, craftsmanship and design. Their exhibition programs are carefully curated to “explore and illuminate issues and ideas, highlight creativity and craftsmanship, and celebrate the limitless potential of materials and techniques when used by creative and innovative artists.” In this respect, “The Art of the Scent” is a success. It re-introduces something familiar to everyone in the unfamiliar context of aesthetic and historical movements. Though I may have entered the exhibition thinking of lost love, I left pondering the nature of harmonic fragrances and the complexity of creating an art history of smells.
“The Art of the Scent” runs until March 3, 2013.
June 7, 2012
Airports are stressful places. That’s why I take red-eye flights whenever possible. There’s just something romantic about sitting in a nearly empty airport, staring out 30-foot-high windows as you wait to travel to a new city. Or, better, sitting at the airport bar, drinking overpriced cocktails and whispering your darkest secrets to a complete stranger, safe in the knowledge that you’ll never see them again. The quiet peacefulness of an airport in the middle of the night contrasts distinctly from daytime, when the miracle of human flight is likely to be sullied by terrible service, long lines, incessant delays, crowds camped out around power outlets and the sound of thousands of passengers rushing loudly through the terminal.
It is with this anathematic environment in mind that in 1978 musician Brian Eno created the seminal album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Eno’s project began while waiting for a flight at an airport in Cologne, Germany, on a beautiful Sunday morning. “The light was beautiful, everything was beautiful,” Eno recalls, “except they were playing awful music. And I thought, there’s something completely wrong that people don’t think about the music that goes into situations like this. They spend hundreds of millions of pounds on the architecture, on everything. Except the music.” The realization launched Eno on an artistic mission to design sound environments for public spaces. When he sat down to actually compose the score, Eno envisioned the empty airport that I find so compelling: “I had in my mind this ideal airport where it’s late at night; you’re sitting there and there are not many people around you: you’re just seeing planes take off through the smoked windows.”
Music for Airports opens with the tapping out of single piano keys over an unidentifiable, warm sound texture—or maybe it’s just static. The notes start to overlap, richer tones begin to echo in your ears. Then silence, just for a moment, before the piano starts back up, now accompanied by what sounds like the gentle strum of a space cello or the resonance of a crystal wine glass. The notes start to repeat. Then overlap. Then silence. Now cue the whispering robot choir.
It’s at once haunting and comforting. The ebbs and flows of the minimalist composition are slow and deliberate; sonic waves lapping at the beach. Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe this atmospheric soundscape and distinguish it from the stripped-down, tinny pop songs pioneered by Muzak—which certainly have a charm of their own, although they are decidedly less soothing. In so doing, he created not just an album, but an entire genre of music. Eno elaborates on the nature of ambient music in the liner notes Ambient 1: Music for Airports:
“Whereas the various purveyors of canned music proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, ambient music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, ambient music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and leveling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.
Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
It must be as ignorable as it is interesting. No small order. The amount of creativity and thought that went into the design of Music for Airports is inspiring. Ambient music could have no discernible beat or rhythm. It could not interfere with conversations, so it had to be higher or lower than the pitch of the human voice. It had to be played for long periods of time while also allowing for periodic interruptions and announcements. All these requirements were considered as Eno constructed his album from tape loops and highly-processed snippets of audio excerpted from an improvisational recording session.
Goethe famously described architecture as “frozen music.” One shudders to think of a true physical manifestation of cacophonous airport noise: canned voices mumbling over an intercom, the incessant clicking of heels on tile floors, alarms, horns, the blaring of canned television news segments, the general hum of people and technology that exists in these strange liminal micro-cities of departure and arrival. Actually, perhaps airports are the physical manifestation of that noise: disorienting structures of metal and glass, at once familiar and unique, whose vast corridors become destinations themselves. In this spatialized white noise, Music for Airports is a phenomenological balm; a liquified counter-architecture.