"Real Artists Ship"

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for January, 2021

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.

(A)battoir Worker to (Z)oologist

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

When I was at school, there was a set of filing cabinets in the corner of the school library containing information about careers. It was arranged alphabetically. The first entry was “abattoir worker”, which we found an ongoing source of amusement. I think it went all the way through to “zoologist”.

What I liked about this was that it presented a “flat” view of possible careers. There wasn’t some notion that some careers were more important, prestigious, favoured compared to others. As pointed out in Judith Flanders’s fascinating recent book A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (ISBN 978-1509881567), the fact that alphabetical order removes hierarchy from collections was seen as radical, uncomfortable, or just “wrong” when it was first introduced. Surely, an organisational system that ranks “angels” before “gods” much be deeply flawed?

Of course, we don’t have any such qualms about alphabetical order these days. But, I think that we also neglect the power of listing things things in this flat, neutral, arbitrary way. One thing that our school did very well was to present the whole gamut of careers as a set of possibilities, and that the role of careers advice was to help us to think about the career that suited our skills, aptitudes, and temperament.

It is easy to criticise this as naive. Surely, we should be warning people from a comprehensive school in the middle of a council estate that they would face certain challenges if they choose a career that is “inappropriate” for them socially. It it really right to encourage such people to think that they could be barristers or whatever? Surely, the social barriers are too great.

But, I think that this gave us the naive confidence to bluster through these barriers. Because we hadn’t been warned, we blundered—I’m sure somewhat naively—into a huge variety of careers. I think a certain naivety can give you confidence—if no one has told you that you will face barriers, you can blunder though those barriers.

Perhaps we should give alphabetical order more credit!

Autistics and Theory of Mind

Thursday, January 7th, 2021

Autistics are usually characterised as having a weak “theory of mind”. But when it comes to writing instructions and guidance I’ve found that autistics are much much better at being able to imagine themselves into the position of the target audience, think in a careful way about what needs to be said, diagnose what assumptions are missing, and work out how set things out in a step-by step way.

By contrast, neurotypical people write guidance that is full of missed assumptions and absent steps, and then blame the target audience for being thick or ignorant when they fail to follow the shoddily written guidance.