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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Furniture Form in Contemporary Composition

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

I once watched a TV programme about the furnishing of historic aristocratic houses. Something that was commented on is that there wasn’t typically a unified interior design idea to the furnishing of such houses. Instead, the house has accumulated a collection of furniture and accessories over the years, of various different styles. They are not placed willy-nilly—some thought has typically gone into what goes where—but, things are retained for their own aesthetic value, rather than being chosen because they belong to an overall design concept.

And—this is the important point—the expert fronting the programme made the point that as long as the individual pieces are of high quality, the assembly doesn’t matter that much. Each “stands alone” in its context, and has sufficient heft to act as an independent aesthetic object as part of a collection of furniture in a room.

We are perhaps more used to this in architecture. It is seen as aesthetically naive to demand that buildings “fit in” with their neighbours. If a building is seen to have sufficient quality, then it will make an impact—a “statement building”—in a context of buildings of many different styles. A number of such “statement buildings” in different styles can fit together to provide a meaningful whole composition. Again, placement and look are not arbitrary—there is some consideration, for example, to the overall massing of a group of buildings, and a fine building can still look bad in the wrong place—but, we rarely demand the same kind of surface aesthetic coherence that we might demand of a contemporary interior design.

I’ve been influenced a lot by this idea in thinking about musical composition. How do we put together “musical material”? Styles of music are characterised to some extent by “form”. Classical music has ideas of “sonata form”, where a couple of pieces of (melodic+harmonic) material are introduced, then varied/developed/combined, and then re-presented at the end. Traditional pop songs have a structure that alternates verses and choruses, perhaps occasionally also including an instrumental interlude. Much electronic dance music is based on a layered form: there are various pieces of music that “fit together” are placed on top of each other (a drum track, a vocal, a piano break, a sustained synth part) and tensions and dynamics work by introducing and dropping these layers. Jazz is often structured around alternations of a melody and solos that are grounded in the underlying harmony of that melody.

Typically, all of these forms rely on some relation between the different components in the form. Could there be a “furniture form”, where different strong pieces are presented in the same environment, without a strong relation between the different pieces? There is a resonance here with ideas such as happenings, John Cage’s Musicircuses, and collage. Perhaps a piece such as Michael Finnissy’s Molly-House is a good example:

Here, we see various different sub-groups in a large ensemble presenting different kinds of music. The different musics have been carefully created so that the performing of them in the same space at the same time makes sense—this isn’t an arbitrary pile of musics. Indeed, the composer describes it as an “assemblage”. Nonetheless, the relationship between them isn’t really anything to do with traditional musical form and structure—they aren’t related harmonically, or developed out of each other, or anything. Like the pieces of furniture, or the buildings around the town square, they make sense alone, but reinforce each other by dint of being in the same space.

Graffiti for Conservatives

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Why is graffiti such a conservative medium? The vast majority of time when I see some graffiti, it looks like this:


This looks very similar to the graffiti that people were doing when I was at school in the ’80s—we had a “graffiti wall” in common room, in a futile attempt to dissuade pupils from graffiting all over the school. Going further back, when I see the well-known images of graffiti on US subway trains in the 60s, again the overall look is very similar. For example, letters are bulbous and surrounded by a firm outline.

Naively, we see graffiti as a fast-moving avant-garde practice. We would expect it to be a rapidly changing medium, and we would imagine that there would be a rapid change of styles. But, this isn’t the case. Of course, there are exceptions, but the mainstream of graffiti looks essentially static compared with the mainstream of commercial design. Anyone with the slightest eye for design would be able to distinguish a number of design styles in the last 50 years, whereas a similar look at graffiti would fail to pull out much distinction. Graffiti seems to be a timeless, fashionless practice, more like a traditional medium like embroidery or baking than a high-fashion practice.

Perhaps the idea of avant-garde is more parochial than we think. We tend to assume that all practices will progress in the same way, with a cutting-edge fringe pushing ideas forward, feeding ideas into the next generation of the mainstream. But, of course, a lot of practices are not like that; instead, they are characterised by absorption in a craft tradition, showing deference to previous masters, etc. Perhaps graffiti is more along these lines.

Tattooing is another area where similar arguments can be made.

We Don’t Take Comedy Seriously Enough

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Despite the rise and rise of complex, richly engaged comedy, people in other artforms still don’t have any respect for it. For the last few years I’ve been interested—in a rather inchoate way—in how comedy and contemporary classical music might interact, in particular whether the forms and structures of comedy provide an interesting and novel analogy for the structuring of a piece of music, or whether music-theatre can learn from comedy performance practices. I’d be interested, for example, if the tension inherent in a Stewart Lee performance, and the sophisticated use of reference and callbacks, could provide an emotional flavour that could be delivered in a musical way, or whether the emotional trajectory of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling performances could give us an idea of how to hold an audience for an extended period of time.

Very few people take this seriously. When someone raised a point like this with Larry Goves at a tutorial last summer, the response was incomprehending. What could the mere stimulus-response of joke-laugh have to do with a sophisticated artform such as composing a string quartet? Similarly, at a meeting the other day, the idea that a contemporary music group might put on a joint event with a comedy group was treated rather distastefully—”I don’t know if we want to be associated with that sort of thing”, whereas collaborations with poetry and art groups were greeted with enthusiasm.

I don’t want to suggest that all comedy is deep and profound—there is a big place for “summat as meks yer ears laff”. But, when some people in contemporary comedy are making a rich and distinctive contribution to new ways of taking an audience on an emotional trajectory, it is a pity that this is ignored by other artforms.

Art (1)

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

I was pleased to hear that my artwork Internet Search Result 2012-08-14 (‘square’) was accepted for the art exhibition associated with the Contemporanea Duemiladodici contemporary music festival in Udine later in the month. There should be an online version of the exhibition later this month.

square from the Udine exhibition

The piece consists of a square image selected from Google Images search results from the word “square”. I’m getting increasingly interested in this sort of “auto-generated” art, both for what the process says about creativity (what role am I playing here? What role the individual creators of the images? What the computer infrastructure?) and for the serendipity of images thrown up by this process. More discussion of this in a paper coming out soon in Digital Creativity; email me if you want an advance copy.

Unfair Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

“Video art is a con. It’s just a way of getting people to spend way more time in front of your piece than in front of other pieces, so that your piece sticks in people’s minds more.”

How to be a Crashing Boor (1)

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It is interesting that, despite the general impression that “anything goes” in art and culture of recent decades, there is still a very strict sense of etiquette and propriety in different cultural forms. Whilst material can be offensive, boundary-pushing and provocative, things that push against the formats in which we are acculturated to present work are instantly seen as boorish and outgroupy, and very much not pushing-the-boundaries of the cultural form. Some examples that I’ve come across in the last few years:

  1. Someone wrote a piece of contemporary-classical music that consisted of multiple sections that were to be played in between the other pieces on the program. The composer got a lot of flak for forcing themselves across the concert as a whole, rather than accepting the traditional notion of a single slot in the concert. It was seen as crass and arrogant. I can imagine that a similar uproar would be met by some visual artist who insisted that a work occupy lots of different small spaces in the gallery.
  2. Even in the most in-yer-face offensive styles of comedy the comperes are unfailingly polite and respectful towards the comedians. I’m surprised that no-one has broken this yet; it seems that even when you put the most cynical comedian in the compere role they start talking about the “love in the room” and all that hippyshit.
  3. Anything that goes against acknowledging the work that went into a performance or the hierarchy therein: a composer/playwright taking a bow before the performers have had their chance, a piece of work that fossicked around with the labelling of art in a gallery, or similar.

Inspiration (4)

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Idea for an art piece. Take things that are designed to be at a very slow pace and speed them up: relaxation mp3’s running so fast that you can only just hear them, those little new agey indoor fountains with a pressure hose attached, a wind chime spinning at ten to the dozen. In the next room, the opposite; things that are designed to be fast, very slow: high-RPM dance music slowed to an ambient pace, a treadmill running at a snail’s pace, a food mixer moving at 1 RPM, etc.

Inspiration (3)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Idea for a performance: one day, from first light until the sun is below the horizon, stand next to Greyfriar’s Bobby doing the “rabbit ears” gesture over his head.

Inspiration (2)

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Idea for an artwork: a house which, as far as possible, has been equipped entirely with “Christian” versions of normal household goods, procured from the evangelical shops.

Product Idea (1)

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

An alarm clock that wakes you up with a rant about how much more you could have got done if only you have woken up an hour ago.

Moment Form and Dementia

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Momentform is a description of a style of musical composition devised by Stockhausen and first used in his piece Kontakte. The key idea is that a piece is constructed so that each moment is appreciable in its own right; by contrast, most traditional musical forms are based around the idea of some kind of temporal structure such as narrative or development.

I wonder if there is some scope for this as the basis for a musical form that would be appreciated by people with memory problems and dementia. One of the features of many kinds of dementia is that patients find it difficult to form a coherent structure from what is happening in the world. Perhaps, rather than trying to force a narrative-based musical form on such a person, we should be inventing forms that are appropriate for them.

Inspiration (1)

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Idea for an artwork: do a careful study of the history of a website and present it in the form of a hardback book in the style of an archaeological study.