Spring 2001

Envisaging soundscapes: classical album covers

Jeremy Hall
Art direction

When designers and marketing teams attempt to visualise serious music, they reach for fine art, photography or artist portraits. How do these selections affect the listening experience – and the buying impulse – when there are more classical recordings in the racks than ever before?

People neither hear nor buy music in a vacuum: for almost all the music they consume there is an accompaniment of visual stimulus. When someone chooses to attend a concert or buy a cd, the advertising, the concert programme, the venue, the CD cover are all part of the purchase. And the packaging, this visual wrapping, affects the way listeners take in the music, however minutely. The classical ideal of pure music – that it adheres only to its own internal logic, without reference outside itself – cannot be sustained in a market-driven world.

The first commercially available recordings were presented in separate sheets in a boxed ‘album’ with thick, pasteboard covers; information about the music within appeared in text only on the front and spines. This pure, almost devotional approach (which regularly resurfaces as a reductionist statement) could only communicate basic, factual information about composer, repertoire and artist; it disappeared in the late 1930s with the decision, largely initiated by Columbia’s first art director Alex Steinweiss, to move the advertising imagery he was employed to design on to the record sleeves themselves (see Reviews, Eye no. 38 vol. 10). With an image printed on the accompanying packaging a new dimension is added to the appreciation of the music: it now arrives firmly wedded to a picture which, over years of use, becomes a part of the experience: the two elements fuse together and feed off one another (a third element, explanatory text, appeared on the back of the LP sleeve, but is now concealed within the cd booklet or omitted altogether for economic reasons). The image and design of a cd cover is therefore a crucial tool, guiding the purchase decision, reflecting the preoccupations of the record company and destined, for better or worse, to affect how that music is heard.

Variations without a theme
In the non-classical world, a unique sleeve design tends to be created in conjunction with the album. Iconic rock, pop and jazz covers are difficult to imagine without the sound, while the contents can feel lost without the original sleeve images and type. With music from the classical repertoire the situation is quite different. The performers may have opinions about what should go on the covers of their CDs, but the music itself does not reside in the recording: it has an external existence as a published score. Any recording is only one interpretation among many, and only one recording among many.

At the present time there are more recordings, of more pieces of classical music, than ever before: obscure repertoire is not only recorded, it is recorded several times, and with outstanding artists. So the same piece of music may appear in many different versions and many different sleeves, with subtle or marked differences in performance. With Bach’s Art of Fugue this extends to widely different instrumentation, from chamber orchestra to solo harpsichord. In addition, the same recording may be recycled, over and over again, in contrasting packaging dictated by changes of taste, of art director, of market, of price range.

For a record company, the principal role of the front cover is to help the purchaser make a considered choice – preferably of their version. Yet it also reflects changes in attitudes towards the recording and selling of classical music. Virgin’s recording of Byrd’s four-part Mass reproduces, in its third incarnation, a detail of the much-exploited Wilton diptych from London’s National Gallery, which says that the music is sacred (angels), English (for those who know their Wilton diptych and can place medieval art) and old. In fact the painting predates the music by a couple of centuries, but at this distance, who’s counting? A closer reading might see in the gold, and the use of angels, a reference to Byrd’s Catholicism, and at a more intuitive level the image communicates the Christian serenity of the music. And, of course, it is a nice picture, and contains a satisfying visual pun in the angels’ wings. So what are we to make of ECM’s monochrome photograph of a rocky outcrop for the same piece of music? It says nothing about the cultural background of the music, and seems designed solely to provoke an emotional response.

Familiar stories, acceptable faces
Alex Steinweiss, who more or less invented the record cover, felt that the imagery he created should reflect – fairly literally – the music: either the ‘story’, if the music were programmatic, or elements symbolically related to the composer’s life (which usually meant clues as to his nationality or appearance) for abstract or ‘pure’ music. He had the advantage of loving music and knowing about it; he also had the confidence of his bosses (at Columbia Records) and was given a remarkably free hand to create his record covers.

Now, in a saturated and depressed market each new classical release must fight hard for survival. Many – possibly most – of the decisions on choice of image and approach are made by marketing teams and product managers rather than designers. Mark Millington, head of design at Decca / Philips, receives a project brief for each new release with information about the repertoire, about the cover copy and, sometimes, a clear indication of what sort of image is required. Paul Mitchell, senior designer at EMI Classics, receives a ‘product outline’ from the product manager responsible for the recording artist. Both Millington and Mitchell will read around a subject with which they are not familiar, but both have backgrounds in design rather than music history and theory, and depend partially on information supplied to them to understand the product they are designing.

For both EMI and Universal (the new parent of Decca, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon) it is assumed that a new recording with a major artist will present the artist’s portrait on the cover. Decca’s highly sophisticated photography with photogenic young artists such as Andreas Scholl not only removes any last relics of classical stuffiness but gives a human face to the music. The music may be difficult or elusive but the artist, who understands it, is approachable and charming. But artist covers, displaying the familiar faces of stars such as Bartoli or Alagna, are essentially marketing tools and their effect, in conjunction with the music, is to transfer the music’s significance to the artists themselves. On EMI’s 1998 recording, Schumann’s Dichterliebe becomes the personal tragedy of tenor Ian Bostridge, not least because he looks so close to tears. Two contrasting covers for the same disc underline this effect. The Nonesuch recording of Barber’s Knoxville was clearly conceived as a vehicle for the soprano Dawn Upshaw; nevertheless the original sleeve (the recording dates from 1989) shows a quiet photograph of a window looking out on to a hot midday; it is a homely but largely meditative image which conjures solitude but security, heat and stillness, all present in the music which describes a small boy’s experience of hot summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee. For those who know the background to this piece the empty chair is also significant; for those who don’t, the image still reinforces the hallucinogenic stillness and slight disquiet of the music. Buyers in the UK are offered an alternative: the illustrative photograph is dropped in favour of a dreamy studio portrait and as a result, the cover now interacts with the music on a more superficial level.

In the more conservative reaches of music design, classical labels continue to package their music with library fine art. The relationship mirrors that of classic literature: a well researched image places the music historically and culturally, and reinforces the sense that it is in some way sacrosanct; that (like the cover) it is high art. Adrian Shaughnessy made passing reference to the familiar Vivaldi / Canaletto nexus in Eye no. 21. vol. 6. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with illustrating Vivaldi concerti with Canaletto’s panoramas of Venice: Vivaldi lived and worked in Venice and the paintings depict his milieu; dates correspond, and Canaletto’s clear and detailed style is in tune with Vivaldi’s writing in a way that, for example, Guardi’s later, looser style is not. But the familiarity of this imagery, its consummate acceptability, renders it impotent: it provokes no response. The appearance of paintings on cheaper price lines only reinforces the second-rate status of fine art as an image choice; its default position as undemanding, uncontentious cover material. The interesting stuff goes on the full price covers which, as new recordings, need to shout louder to establish themselves in the marketplace.

Underlying messages
More insidiously, the use of fine art perpetuates messages of cultural superiority and unattainability: of works created for a more cultured, more moneyed elite that we can buy into. The act of selecting and ordering a pre-existing image from a picture library is a passive one: an image commissioned and created implies a more active engagement with the music, an engagement which is then passed on to the purchaser. It is noteworthy that ECM and Nonesuch, two companies who combine small classical lists with jazz, contemporary music and world music, take a more ecumenical approach, presenting what was once called ‘serious’ music as part of a wider spectrum.

The development of historically informed performance – period performance – in the second half of the past century is illuminating: major companies began to buy or develop separate labels to explore
the wilder reaches of early music or, at the other extreme, classical and romantic repertoire performed in a style, and with replicas of the instruments, for which it was written. The detailed historical and musicological research that underpinned these recordings surfaces in cover imagery which replicates, as nearly as possible, the visual art of the time. For Decca, with its separate label L’Oiseau-lyre, images were often selected by the artists themselves or by the label’s producer Peter Wadland. The structure of the sleeves, with a decorative border surrounding a fine art image, was revamped in 1990 by Decca’s then head of design David Smart, into a simple and extremely elegant series with small but well-researched pictures reflecting closely the cultural references in the music. The expanse of white background served to underline the purity and stripped-down nature of the interpretation.

But then a curious thing happened. At the instigation of conductor Christopher Hogwood, three recordings of piano concertos by Mozart use paintings not by artists of Mozart’s time, but abstract works by Paul Klee, whose own interest in the music of Bach and Mozart led to an attempt to find visual representations of musical form. The effect of these images is to remove the music from its cultural context and force a more active interaction between the sound from the disc and the attempt to visualise it on the cover. As an experiment it was short-lived. For the series as a whole individual recognisability, so crucial to the image / music mix, was considered too low and the label was reconceived with a deliberate appeal towards a younger, less musically literate audience. L’Oiseau-lyre’s design now employs stock fine-art photography, the picture researcher’s brief being to skirt an academic, close association with the subject (particularly a religious subject) and to substitute a more abstract representation of mood. For a new recording of Vivaldi’s Gloria, a sunrise serves as a secular visual analogy for the spiritual uplift of the music; for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, traditional paintings of the Nativity give way to a black and white photograph, by Michael Trevillion, of three camels in a Moroccan desert. The camels were added by Decca: Trevillion only provided the desert. This populist approach not only reflects the recent collapse of boundaries between ‘period’ and contemporary performance, but underlines the fact that the repertoire is no longer destined for a specialist market, but is to be enjoyed on its own terms. Nonetheless, the deliberate avoidance of spiritual content in the Bach cover is curiously unsatisfying.

Restoration and reassessment
The proliferation of recordings in the twentieth century led to a broadening of musical knowledge that Edison with his primitive cylinders could not have begun to contemplate. Timothy Day’s recent study A Century of Recorded Music (Yale, 2000) charts the effect both on the public, introduced to infinite riches of repertoire and interpretation, and the performers, forced into new performance practices. Just as the elimination of the division between ‘early’ and other music removes the need for period imagery on period performance labels, so the greater familiarity with the core classics opens the field for wider and less reverential approaches elsewhere. The universality of music is restored, and with it the problem of how to represent it. Listening to recorded music at home is a private and personal experience.

This thinking underlies the ECM label, whose distinctive look now spills over on to the covers of other, previously more conservative, rivals. The ECM aesthetic, outlined in Sleeves of Desire (Lars Müller, 1996) and an earlier article by Shaughnessy (Eye no. 16 vol. 4), is characterised by Peter Kemper as ‘loneliness, intense silence, a weightless, severe tranquility’ that is consciously apart, in terms both of recorded sound and imagery, from the aural and visual onslaught of the late twentieth century. The covers are ‘quiet’ so that the music may be heard; they are effectively objects of contemplation. The monochrome imagery used on the ECM sleeves often concentrates on the natural world – rocks, grass and sky – to produce a sense of austerity and reserve. The bleak landscape that looms on ECM’s 1994 Byrd cover (by photographer Tom Fährmann) is in keeping with Byrd’s spiritual isolation as a recusant but the overall effect is of spiritual desolation, a late twentieth-century spin on late sixteenth-century religious turmoil. The element of surprise – what musicologist Nicholas Cook, in Analysing Musical Multimedia (Oxford, 1998), characterises as ‘conflict’ between the visual and aural constituents of the cd package – encourages a quite different approach to that of the Virgin angels; it forces a reassessment of the music and colours the experience of listening to it. ECM sees neither the cover nor the music as communicating meaning, so there is thus no possibility of the cover imagery representing in pictorial terms what the music is ‘about’; rather, the two elements are considered as different routes to one more profound goal.

Earthy simplicity
A more whimsical corollary is offered by Naïve, whose designer Valérie Lagarde eschews ‘a picture … representative of the composer and his period’ to capture instead the spirit of the performer, using ‘strong, up-to-date images’. For a new recording of Bach Trio Sonatas, with chamber ensemble the Rare Fruits Council, this means a black and white photograph of five beetroot from Plant Kingdoms, a collection of photographs by Charles Jones (Thames & Hudson, 1998). As an image it is homely and arresting: the conjunction with the formal chamber music forces correspondences – about the music not being precious, about Bach’s domestic life, about a certain basic earthiness – which the sleeve note, by the group’s leader Manfredo Kraemer, reaffirms. The intent is to shock, to debunk, to clarify: so we read about the risqué songs which were apparently sung at Bach family gatherings, about Bach’s prodigious consumption of beer, about his famous journey (on foot) to Lübeck, to see Buxtehude. In a year when worship at the J. S. Bach shrine has become almost compulsory this pleasingly irreverent approach, and the vigorous attack of the performance, encourages a fresh concentration on the music.

The identification of Vivaldi with Venice is more than a search for geographical information; it represents, for many of Vivaldi’s instrumental works, the only visual clue in the music. While the determinedly popular Four Seasons provides adequate material for cover designers the non-programmatic concertos – those with no story to tell – yield no footholds beyond their composer and location, or the instrument for which they were written. Thus self-referential images of music notation and musical instruments continue to proliferate on record sleeves, for no better reason than that a visual landmark is needed. The dramatic cover of Decca’s 1999 recording of Honegger’s Pacific 231 rams home the image of locomotive power, despite the fact that the train of the title occurred to Honegger only after the piece was written, and at six minutes 32 seconds Pacific 231 represents a very small part of the cd programme. Professor Cook argues that ‘pure’ music, music that is complete in itself, is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with meaning. The cover image provides a medium through which we may approach the music; where the connection is not directly obvious the tension between cover and content generates, at worst, irritation, at best, reappraisal. To the art director or picture researcher under pressure to locate an appropriate or commercially successful cover image the net has to be thrown ever more widely. There is a world of material between angels and root vegetables.

Jeremy Hall, art director, London

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy.


Tracker Pixel for Entry