Thursday 30 December 2010

Ian Anderson (Part II)

Autechre’s album cover “Oversteps” is one of the 50 nominees of Best Art Vinyl 2010. 200% asked Ian Anderson, the designer of "Oversteps", to shine his “light” on this year’s nominees and to pick his favourites – and the reasons for their selection – in no particular order, well, apart from the first one.

Autechre – Oversteps – Warp
Because it's the best.

Anberlin – Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place – Universal Republic
Clean, clear and immediate, but keeps you guessing as to the narrative. I trust things that implicitly aren't what they seem – they appear more honest. I mainly like it for the name of the record label, nice idea.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – Mercury/Merge
I don't like to hear Arcade Fire, but I love the intense stillness of the cover image. It conveys so much about the subject, or better, it creates a format for the viewer to fill in the blanks and own the image of their own suburbia for themselves. There's a sense of intense suffocation there for me similar to minutes leading up to the explosion scene at the end of “Zabriskie Point”.

No Age – Everything in Between – Sub Pop
I like this simply because it's almost identical to and therefore, gives me an excuse to mention the “do not destroy” imagery TDR [The Designers Republic] originally created for Funkstörung’s Grammy Winners project that we still use as part of the Brain Aided Design rolling revue.

Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra – Kollaps Tradixionales – Constellation
Everything's skewed – I like the balance and the drama in between, and I love the visual play of the typography. It has caught my eye all year but I liked it more before I realized the image was simply upside down trees.

Devo – Something For Everybody – Warner Bros
Everything up from the “focus group approved” sticker is potentially too clever, too literal to a basic idea, and some find the “ironic” involvement with Mother New York Advertising agency a little too close for comfort, but for me, it works. It delivers against what it sets out to be in the same way TDR launched The Peoples Bureau For Consumer Information not to sell merchandise, but to test theories and better understand consumer behaviour from the other side of the fence. There’s a sense with this project that Devo are engaging with, and immersing, their public into a greater-concept album – like Sigue Sigue Sputnik's “Flaunt It!” album’s between track advertising: this is more encompassing than the usual songs-about and pictures-of approach to most album’s narratives.
The cover image is a perfect expression of all this with its nods toward “The Stepford Wives” world.

Glasser – Ring – True Panther Sounds
I don't know if I do really like this but it’s a well crafted abstract image that sits well on the cover that catches the eye and I'd probably like it on my wall. Maybe I don't like it because I can't justify it – maybe that's the point. So, I'll vote for it anyway, unless the image is supposed to represent (shards of) glass – then I'll have my vote back!

M.I.A – /\/\ /\ Y /\ – XL
More punk technology is more punk technology. It's deconstructive and a beautiful afront to what, for too long, has been considered default good record cover taste in design magazines for way too long... Out: vile demons! Out: Helvetica 6pt “properly” kerned! Out: intelligent use of negative space! Out: “tastefully correct” cropping! Infact... Out: design designed for other designers! This is where PSB should have been all along :-) This, and the Goldfrapp cover for instance, both tell you a lot about the music – it sheaths ambition... the difference between this and Goldfrapp's is that /\/\ /\ Y /\ is designed to knock people off the fence, whereas Alison Goldfrapp’s music seeks approval by association with whatever already seen pre-known chameleon theme's lodging in her head at the time.

Mark Ronson – Record Collection – Columbia
I don't like it but I think it's good. It's humorous and tells a story, although not necessarily an obvious one for his audience. It’s a clever way to convey both the idea of the title, the idea of the modus operandi behind it and the making of the album, whilst keeping the focus on Mark. Honestly, I'm not saying I like it!

View all the 50 nominations of Best Art Vinyl 2010:

Thursday 23 December 2010

Alex Ross

In his features for The New Yorker, the music critic Alex Ross covers the whole music scene, with articles ranging from Verdi and Mozart, to Björk and Radiohead.
After his bestseller, “The Rest Is Noise”, Ross’s second book “Listen to This” gives “an introduction to crucial figures and ideas in classical music, and also provides an alternative perspective on modern pop”.
Triggered by reading one of the book’s chapters,  “Listen to This: Crossing the border from Classical to Pop”, 200% spoke with Ross in London to understand what he considers to be the greatest examples of where Pop meets the Classics (Björk – “An Echo, A Stain”, Radiohead – “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and The Beatles – “A Day in the Life”) and where the Classics meets Pop (Steve Reich’s minimalistic music and Igor Stravinsky – “The Rite of Spring”).

200%: Do you have criteria against which you are able to say this pop band uses classical elements in their pop music very well and this band not, here it becomes kitsch?
Alex Ross: It is the same criteria I use judging any piece of music: the dimensions of technique, expression and emotion. I don’t have a scientific method that I follow. It is more an instinctive reaction.
First of all: Do I have the sense that the music is technically well put together; are things just being thrown together at random, or is there some thought to the process. Even in a three minute song there is so much you can do and so many ways you can employ musical technique. Take a simple idea, start developing it and looking at it from different angles instead of repeating the same idea over and over again. I’m interested when there are variations on a strong idea and someone is thinking it through in musical terms.
Secondly, the emotional dimension. Is there some point to all this, is there a core, a burning conviction and passion in the music? Is there something at stake? And when I feel all those things together, that’s what carries me.

200%: When it comes to pop musicians who incorporate Classical music into Pop music, you seem to be more interested in those who use classical elements planted at the core of their music?
Alex Ross: Yes, if you are going to make this move, I do tend to get more out of it when I feel a classical idea has been integrated from the very beginning, rather then added at a very late stage of production – as when a producer decides “let’s put some strings on top of this”.

200%: In your book you say that The Beatles were by far the best of throwing in bits of pieces of classical music into their mix. Could you explain why you consider that they were by far the best?
Alex Ross: They were the first to attempt to do it in a serious way in the rock world. They were very thoughtful about how they incorporated classical music into their work and it felt very organic. I love “A Day in the Life” because they used the orchestra as a medium of chaos and not just as a grandiose, richly varied musical picture. When the orchestra appears in the song it seems to erupt from the nature of the song. It is part of what the song is aiming to express.
I also like the ruggedness of how they used the orchestra in “I’m the Walrus” as it’s insistent, rougher in tone. Not using the orchestra as beautification but making it pungent, like a blow to the solar-plexus. Also the raw recording of the classical instruments is very striking.

200%: What do you consider to be other good examples of contemporary pop musicians who integrate classical elements in their music?
Alex Ross: Musicians like Björk, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom are making very intelligent and purposeful use of classical elements in their songs that are comparable to what The Beatles did in terms of incorporating it into their music. It was not because they felt “Oh, it is time for us to have a song that has an orchestra attached to it” but they had something that they musically needed to express, which could only be done with classical components.

200%: Could you mention a great example of a song where one of the contemporary musicians integrated classical elements in their music?
Alex Ross: All of Björk’s album “Vespertine” is full of these moments: sometimes it’s hard for me to decide if it’s pop music that is making reference to classical music or a case of a composer who happens to use pop music as a medium on this occasion. For instance, at the very beginning of the song “An Echo, A Stain”, if you start listening to it without knowing anything about Björk, you might say “this sounds like a contemporary classical composition”. You hear a chorus: it is not a simple harmony, it is a very spread out, dense chord, somewhat dissonant but also dreamlike, through which electronic sounds are filtered. After thirty seconds, Björk’s voice enters and you realize “Oh it’s recorded in a way that’s typical of how pop voices are recorded”; however, the way her voice moves musically, she is not singing a pop ditty – it’s fragments of vocal lines, with the chorus constantly moving in and out. For me, it’s wonderful as it’s so hard to classify: it could be a pop song, it could be a contemporary classical composition: in the end you realize it doesn’t matter what you call it. The important element is that this is Björk, this is her individual personality that is being expressed by means that are interesting to her.

200%: What do you think of Radiohead’s rock version of “Arpeggi”, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which was based on their atmospheric string based composition “Arpeggi”?
Alex Ross: It is a great example where I think the classical element is a little bit more under the surface. You have a guitar, you have voice – your first immediate sense is “here is a rock song”. There is a mellow, dark kind of mood and, as the song continues, it becomes more and more uneasy in a sense that into which category does this “rock song” falls because of these minute changes that are constantly taking place. It never quite goes in the direction you think.
Rhythmically, it is very complicated; there are cycles of patterns happening that are constantly spilling outside of the frame over a very regular one, two, three, four beat and the multiple cycles fall on top of each other. It’s very tricky as it keeps slipping out of your grasp, but it also never breaks the mood completely either. In their music there is always this constant flux and unease and I think this is also a very significant achievement as Radiohead – whilst they are a rock band with a huge commercial career, sell-out arenas wherever it goes – they seem never contented to do the same thing over and over again. Within each song they are thinking; “ok, this has gone on long enough in a particular pattern, but let’s throw in a new element, whether it’s a rhythm or harmony, so it is constantly changing.

200%: What do you think of the arrangements in Marvin Gaye’s 
“What’s Going On”?
Alex Ross: That’s an incredible song. It makes me think of the great tradition of Motown and the beauty of many of those arrangements. It has something in common with the great Frank Sinatra arrangements where you begin with a voice of great colour, a voice with so many nuances and layers to them, and, the arrangements seem to complement it.

200%: Could you mention some good examples of where the Classics meets Pop?
Alex Ross: In the twentieth century you had classical composers who were engaging with popular music, like Maurice Ravel, who loved jazz and he referred to jazz, and George Gershwin, who is primarily known as a composer with a dual career in popular and classical music.
After the Second World War, many composers were affected by Bebop and modern jazz. In the 60s and 70s, the strongest example you had were the American minimalist composers who grew up with Bebop and Rock and Roll and wanted to find a new kind of American contemporary classical music that reflected their world. Steve Reich created pieces that didn’t sound like anything else, but when you go below the surface, you realize he is picking up an idea from John Coltrane [American Jazz saxophonist and composer] taking a very short motive, repeating it insistently and then starting to vary it. Reich also makes reference to West African music, such as rhythmic ideas. The fascinating thing is that Reich immediately had this enormous influence on pop music, on Brian Eno, David Bowie and Sonic Youth, who were definitely affected by the New York minimalist music scene and so you had this great back and forth. I think minimalist music remains incredibly influential to this day as there is a lot of electronic dance music where you hear this sort of pattern starting and you think, “Oh that’s Steve Reich”. It’s important to have a contemporary composer who grew up with pop music, listened to it, incorporated ideas from it, and then affected it, influenced it, progressing from there. For me, that’s one of the most exciting moments in all of twentieth century music – the series of influences that took place in, and around, American minimalism.

200%: Do you consider Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to be a piece where Pop meet the Classics?
Alex Ross: That’s a very special case. The rhythms are so potent: we can’t be completely sure where Stravinsky got them, as it feels as if he could have been listening to African music or even Indian music. This idea of a pattern starting and than an extra pulse being added and subtracted – these are not things found in a lot of non-Western musical traditions; this very vibrant, unexpected and sort of propulsive syncopation in “The Rite of Spring”. It appears that Stravinsky made it up – he wasn’t listening to, or had no knowledge of, African music. Jazz didn’t yet exist and he didn’t know anything about Ragtime.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Stravinsky felt the need for this rhythmic dynamism, to reject a romantic grandiosity, and find an energy that came much more from the ground, from the earth in a sense, and he put that into the world. That piece has gone on to have a strong effect on Jazz and Rock musicians. They may not be directly influenced but there is something uncannily familiar about it, where it feels like a progenitor of Rock and Roll or Bebop. It’s a classical piece, but it seems like a prophecy of things to come in the popular music world as well.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers, with contribution from Louis Warner.
Listen To This by Alex Ross, Fourth Estate

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Ian Anderson (Part I)

Autechre’s album cover “Oversteps” is one of the 50 nominees of Best Vinyl Art 2010. 200% asked the designer of “Oversteps”, Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic, to share some insight into the creative process as to how the artwork originated. 

200%: Did you hear the tracks of "Oversteps" that Sean Booth and Rob Brown of Autechre created before you started to work on the artwork of the album?
Ian Anderson: No. I chose not to listen to it all until I wanted to populate the basic idea. I usually don't listen to the music first. I'm interested in the motivations and inspirations of the artist and I'd rather refer to their source material than their output. I'm more interested in what they want to communicate to which audience, and why. I want to create something that exists in parallel to their response to their input, rather than reflecting, or attempting to, represent their output.

200%: Were Sean and Rob involved in the creative process of the album’s artwork?
Ian Anderson: Yes, they had to understand what I was doing, and be ok with it. Over the years we have developed an understanding, and they know that I'll probably get closer to that which they aspire if they don't tell me what they want. Of course we discuss their work, and where their heads are at before starting the project.

200%: From where did the idea of the black circle come? Was is inspired by Kazemir Malevich’s painting “Black Circle” from 1913?
Ian Anderson: No, the similarities are not intentional. The “Oversteps” artwork relates to Autechre's work.

200%: Malevich was also the founder of “Suprematism” – the "grammar" of this art movement was based on fundamental geometric forms; the square and the circle. On a forum discussion on the artwork of "Oversteps" someone wrote: "Have any of you armchair conspiracy theorists noticed that Quaristice's [Autechre’s album before "Oversteps"] artwork involved a series of squares whereas this album [“Oversteps”] is all circles?" Is that a correct observation and was it done deliberately?
Ian Anderson: In both cases there was a sense of reducing the essence of the visual communication to the raw data of simple geometry but there was no plan. “Oversteps” was a reaction to “Quaristice” only by the same degree as the music, and Sean and Rob’s intention.

200%: Was the black circle painted by hand or created with Corel Painter on a computer? How many circles did you create before you said: "this is the one" for the cover of the album?
In fact, did you create not one but 14 slightly different black circles corresponding with the amount of tracks on the album – just like the artwork of “Yes, Pet Shop Boys.” where the 11 squares on the cover stand for the 11 tracks on the album?
Ian Anderson: The number of circles relates to the number of iterations for various mediums in which we needed to use the cover image, or a version of it.
Across the limited edition vinyl packaging and vinyl labels, and over the CD packaging and to digital only releases, ads, posters, merchandise, point of sale, etc, the same circle never appears twice. We painted around 72 circles on various media with various brushes.
With “Quaristice” the combinations of squares and colours and relative size did not relate specifically to the number of tracks.
We didn't aim for any revelation in finding the “one” [circle] image for the front of any of the formats. We painted some bigger circles for bigger reproduction and some smaller ones for labels and digital.

200%: What is it that you want to communicate with the "Oversteps" artwork?
Ian Anderson: Human imperfection in the quest for technical (or technological – in Autechre's case digital) perfection.
For me, Rob and Sean are two very human characters, full of the contradictions that define us all, and yet for two people, vivid in their own ways, they seem, to me, to strive to become subordinate to science and technology, reveling in finding ways to create templates that will, by mathematical equation, extract or divorce them from the creative process; by building theoretical machines (software) that they can operate to build sound.
And yet, for all this, they have crafted an album that,  for me, has an ambience of something human-made and organic sounding, a sound that can be felt and experienced three-dimensionally. For me, there is a spirit of the improvised meandering of a pre-service church organist accompanied by the barely inaudible murmur of the congregation – this is a creative response not a review.
So... that two, naturally, perfectly “imperfect” people, in awe of, and adept at, harnessing the potential that science has to inform new sounds, new approaches and possibilities, making and using those sounds, coupled with constantly evolving technology should, inadvertently, make an album so full-circle, rich in the soul of real life, inspiring an human attempt at digital perfection in the design and the artwork.

200%: What is your definition of a good record cover? Does the album artwork (for you) have to express the mood of the music?
Ian Anderson: It has to both compliment the product and expand the consumer experience. The artwork should engage, on whatever level, from the listener’s experience throughout duration of the album, or by repeated exposure. It should be something equally cherished to the music, and intrigue to the viewer all the way from purchase to first play, and beyond.

200%: What was the idea behind the raw typeface and its positioning on the album, sometimes, being overlapped by the circle?
Ian Anderson: The font is Norm's Replica font – the hyper grid-ism of Replica with its cut corners conveys the dry modernism of the future emphasizing the man-machine perspective, that is, the fascination with being the machines we create from the Futurists to science fiction to Gary Numan, early John Foxx etc.

200%: Are you happy that "Oversteps" is nominated as one of the Best Vinyl Art 2010?
Ian Anderson: I'm not sure how I should answer this question. Yes, I’m pleased people see value in what I do, and I'm sure I'd be even more pleased if it won, but honestly, I don't give a fuck about prizes – I don't design to enter, or win, awards, and how good what I've done isn't dependent on the say so of a jury. I'm more excited that it has provoked dialogue in the press and on blogs, and I'm stoked that Sean and Rob like it. It does its job.

Pictures: Artwork for Autechre "Oversteps", The Designers Republic
In Part II, Ian Anderson, shines his “light” on this year’s nominees of Best Vinyl Art and to pick his favourites – and the reasons for their selection.

Friday 10 December 2010

Stewart Copeland

Stewart Copeland’s new composition “Microkosmos” premiered at “An Evening with Stewart Copeland” – the opening night of the Tromp Festival in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The night was in honour of a most influential drummer who developed from a rock star, being the drummer of “The Police”, to become an all-round and prolific composer, with solo albums including “The Rhythmatist”, to composing scores of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish”.

Whilst Copeland didn’t perform ‘Microkosmos’ that night – this was  done by Elbtonal, a stunning German quartet of skilled percussionists – he performed with the New York/Brazilian band Forro in the Dark, BEAM, violinist Daniel Hope and string quartet ETHEL!

In “Microkosmos” several aspects of Copeland’s compositional skills come forth: the rhythm is omnipresent and gives the melody a drive throughout, thus creating Copeland’s own percussive microcosm. The composition, which consisted of four short pieces, started gradually, growing into a bombastic apotheosis of notes and chords. The two quiet pieces were more repetitive, minimalistic and the use of marimba and vibraphone was rather unnerving at times, whilst the two faster parts were more dynamic, pulsating and impressive.

200% spoke with an animated Copeland in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Amsterdam, three days prior to the concert.

200%: The information posted on the website “Drummerworld” doesn’t say much about the period before you started playing with The Police. What was the drive to take up drumming?
Stewart Copeland: The very beginning – a magazine from the Slingerland Drum Company that had pictures of drum sets. The first page was with the small sets, the beginner’s item and, when you flip the page, there’s a larger set with all the tom-toms and bass drum; then, finally, you reach the last page to see the largest drum with two tom-toms on the front. It looked like a chariot of fire.

200%: Your brother Ian was already playing the drums?
Stewart Copeland: No, Ian had a bunch of buddies who played in a band called the “Black Knights” – American kids coming to the American community school in Beirut. Their drummer left town suddenly for some reason. Then, Ian, as the “coolest kid” in school, was the band’s obvious choice to be the drummer – but he couldn’t play.
I remember that they dropped the drum set off at our house and Ian would blast away on it trying to get it together. I was outside the door listening to what he was trying to do. When he was out I would sneak in – under penalty of death – play on his drums trying to do the things he was doing: but there was something really strange about it: I could do it! I’d hear Ian tap ‘tsitsidada tsitsidadda’ and he’d exclaim: “Oh no, try it again.”

200%: How much do you have to be innately talented (i.e. possess natural rhythm) to play the drums, or do you consider that anyone can learn to play the drums through practice?
Stewart Copeland: I think people have gifts for different things, in a different mix. And maybe people don’t even find the combination that takes what they have as an individual. It works. Drumming is maybe a cluster of genetic traits in the neuron system; which means, for some reason, I find certain aspects easier than another person. It’s not because I am smarter, or I work harder or practice more. I just sat on it until I could figure it out. There is a biological, neurological difference that means it happens.

200%: In the documentary “Does Everyone Stare” about The Police you say your style comes from Lebanon. Can you tell a little more about that?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, the Baladi rhythm. It’s not like reggae, it comes from a completely different cultural source and in the roots there are no overlaps with the beginning of American music. Baladi and reggae, though, have two aspects in common. They share the use of ‘negative’ space, which is when the rhythm is constructed in a certain way – in that there is a gap in the construction which the drummer can fill with his own interpretation. The other aspect they share is that they emphasize the third beat in the bar – to which they gravitate – not emphasizing the second or fourth beat.

200%: Did that influence the way you were playing at first?
Stewart Copeland: Well, in Lebanon I wasn’t specifically listening to Arabic music, but I was surrounded by it. My ears were gravitating to my own cultural roots, i.e. American music [Copeland’s father was a CIA agent stationed in the Middle East where he spent his childhood years]. Whilst I had no memory of having ever lived in America, I was an American kid in Beirut, who thought “I am an American, God damn it” and, with all the other American kids, we could at least try to pretend what it’s like to be an American.
We had the BBC with an hour a week of the “Sounds of the 60s” and there was the “Voice of America” [An American radio station] which included two or three slots per week of American music. Everyone at school gravitated around those shows and understood whatever was going on. That American stuff I was listening to was just three or four hours a week. The rest of the time, every taxi, every shop, everywhere was this Arabic music, all the time. So that is kind of infused (in me).

200%: Does this influence your current work?
Stewart Copeland: Oh, it’s all from there. When you’re creating something, you have on one hand a target, what it is you want to create; whilst, with the other hand there is the resource, the oil well of whatever it is that it supplies – so you balance those two aspects to achieve a result. And that Arab music is part of the resource. 

200%: You also recorded under the pseudonym Klark Kent. Were the songs written before, or during, the first The Police album?
Stewart Copeland: Before. The Police was already a group at the time. Sting was a big fan, very supportive of Klark Kent. The Police, though, wasn’t going anywhere (for a while). I had these songs: I knew this guy with a studio, so I recorded them. One of them [“Don’t Care”] became a minor hit in the English charts. Radio One had it on the play list and suddenly, with Klark Kent, for the first time in my whole life, I was gaining some recognition – having a hit: loved it. That was a great experience. Initially, the Klark Kent songs were ideas for Police songs that didn’t make it to our first album ‘The Police’. They were the rejects – the ones with dumb lyrics.

200%: Do you have an explanation as to why Western drummers are drawn to African drumming and rhythm?
Stewart Copeland: I don’t know particularly that they are. A few American musicians (not just drummers) have been curious about the roots of American music that came from Africa. There was a part of American music that was a cross between European chord structures and African rhythm, which produced music that dominated popular music for fifty years. But, as to what’s the African part…? We know the Mozart part, we all know that. We all know from where G and the C-major chords come, and the well-tempered scale. We know how harmonies are built from a Western concept of music. But it’s not specific from where the African influence originates.

200%: In terms of playing together, is there a special bond between the bass player and the drummer in a band?
Stewart Copeland: A mystical relationship between them, you mean? Strangely, it’s actually true. I have nine best friends who are bass players, maybe one or two guitarists, and actually a few drummers now. For some reason, some of my best friends are bass players: Stanley Clarke, he is one of my best friends; Armand Sabal-Lecco, Les Claypool [the bass player of Primus and Oysterhead] – he is one of the closest people to me – Trevor Horn, who is a producer, but he is also, basically, a bass player. Then there is Sting. On stage it’s a matter of getting the feel of each other and there is a particular mission that the bass player and the drummer need to do. Part of the punch of the bass comes from the kick drum, and the melody from the kick drum comes from the bass. So in a way we are both playing the same instrument.

200%: What is your favourite drum song?
Stewart Copeland: I would say ‘Take Five” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. One of the reasons I enjoy saying that is because it’s one of the most sublime pieces of recorded music and the drum solo is just amazing. Anyone who loves John Bonham [the drummer of Led Zeppelin] should have to understand the connection between simplicity and sublime power.
The other reason why it’s fun to mention is because most jazz people would howl DAVE BRUBECK? Apart from that song maybe “Blue Rondo a la Turk”.
My friends would call it ‘wrong’ jazz. I like to criticize jazz because a lot of my friends are jazz musicians. With Stanley Clarke, who considers Dave Brubeck the epitome of wrong jazz, we “go at it”, insulting each other’s music: but that’s what friends can do.

200%: You were also inspired by Buddy Rich.
Stewart Copeland: Buddy Rich is the master. He’s the Mozart of drums. He is the guy that took it to the point “Okay, that’s what you can do with drums”. And everything else came from that. So Stanley has to get over that one. [laughs]

Interview conducted and written by Marcel Harlaar.
Picture: Friso Keuris.