Visual Design

Album Cover II


I’ve finalized the cover for my Canon album.  You can see how the final design (above) has changed since the versions I included at the end of my previous post, Album Cover. Here’s a recounting of some of the steps I went through in forming this design:

  • Started with an extensive search for artwork to use and eventually decided on Jamnitzer’s polyhedra (I’ll say more about this below).
  • Created an initial version of the cover with a very dark background. Received feedback from my friend Angellyn Grant that the dark background gave the cover a rigid, “boxed-in” feel.
  • Created a new version with a solid, off-white background and repositioned the text under the image.
  • Searched for a font that would better match the image. Realized that a font I had fallen in love with back in 2010 and purchased then for a hefty sum (impulse buy, without any specific use in mind) might now in 2017 actually come in handy!
  • Decided to sharpen the image and adjust the color balance in Lightroom. Found it interesting and somewhat fun to give myself complete freedom to edit the image in this context, whereas I have fiercely avoided doing any sort of image manipulation in my art photography.
  • Temporarily abandoned the Jamnitzer image and went on tangent, seeing if I could design an alternate cover featuring a snake image I had found. Went through a whole series of emotions and shifting perceptions and eventually returned “home” to the Jamnitzer cover.
  • Decided to use a wider crop of the Jamnitzer image including the empty paper around the drawing. Figured out how to use cloning in Photoshop to make the paper appear to seamlessly extend to the dimensions I needed. Several iterations here.
  • Noticed that the paper appeared to grow lighter towards the bottom edges in the image. Used cloning again make the appearance more uniform.
  • Made many adjustments to text sizing, spacing, kerning, etc.
  • Experimented with a drop-shadow on “CANONS.” While I find drop-shadows unpleasant in many contexts, I actually loved how the drop-shadow worked here.  Adjusted shadow angle, color, blur, etc.  Tested the cover at different sizes.  Found the drop shadow turns into a blur at extremely small sizes but decided to keep it nevertheless.
  • Realized that I need a square cover for online use but will need a rectangular cover for physical CD digipaks. Having done the square design, I found the rectangular design didn’t follow immediately — I needed to make lots of adjustments to the image and text proportions to get the same concept to work in the rectangular frame.
  • Experimented with a lightened version of the cover but found it slightly sterile looking; decided to go with antique feel of the current cover.

Having now spent so much time with this cover, I’ve grown increasingly confident that Jamnitzer’s Perspectiva Corporum Regularum was the best theme to use among the many I considered. Here’s why I feel Jamnitzer’s imagery has such resonance with this album:

  • Jamnitzer’s work is a catalogue of possibilities.  It’s a celebration of variety, an exploration of the many complex polyhedra that can be formed from the building blocks of the Platonic solids. In the same way, the canon album aspires to be catalogue of the many possibilities of the canon form and exploration of how many different musical worlds can arise from the same foundations. Importantly, while Jamnitzer’s work includes polyhedra that are radically different from one another, it also includes some possibilities that look similar and only reveal their differences on close inspection.
  • Jamnitzer’s work is at once calculated and whimsical.  It’s calculated in the way polyedra are so precisely conceived and projected into two dimensions. It’s whimsical in the way Jamnitzer devises an intricate stand or pedestal for each shape.  These pedestals aren’t really necessary for the purpose of showing off the shape itself, but they add another level of interest to the work overall. The shapes are balanced on the pedestals in a precarious, almost impossible way, giving the otherwise static images a sense of drama. Similarly, I view the canons as highly calculated musical constructs — the product of planning and many iterations of design — but also whimsical and improbable. Whimsical in how I let my ear pull me in unexpected directions during the composition process; improbable in how changing one single note in many of the pieces could completely derail the composition.
  • Jamnitzer’s work have the quality of being old and new at once. The engravings have an antique look (and indeed they are “old,” having been published in 1568), but as they show geometric constructs they can never be “outdated.” The canon itself is an “old” form and I view the album as a tribute to its history, while being, at the same time, an exploration of its unvisited possibilities.
  • Jamnitzer’s work finds beauty in constrained structures, and that too is an aim of canon-writing. The fulfillment of such a quest for beauty within constraints is what makes a successful canon so appealing.
  • In a purely practical sense, Jamnitzer’s work has been convenient to use as an album theme because it happens to be available in the public domain and because it’s extensive enough as to supply not only a good option for the album cover but also material to use on other parts of the album: back, inside flap, tray, CD surface, and so on.
Music, Visual Design

Album Cover

I’ve been searching for art to use as an album cover for the set of canons that I’ve been working on since 2014, now performed beautifully by Matthew McConnell on harpsichord. The images I’ve considered so far reveal a lot about the album itself, so I’d like to share this story of the hunt that’s now lasted five days.

In a musical canon, there’s one part that leads and another that follows.  This second part is a copy, image, reflection, or translation of the first part. One visual theme this brings to mind is the idea of an object and its shadow… preferably a curved or wavy object that evokes the ups and downs of a flowing melodic line. Indeed, when I first began my canon project, I made a cover using my own photograph of a curvy bike rack and its shadow. This is an image I captured back when I first began exploring photography with an iPhone 3GS and it’s one of my favorites from that time:


I continue to use this cover for the collection of computer-generated recordings of my canons that I maintain on Bandcamp. I love the cover and have received many compliments on it, but since it’s already in use I need to find a different image for the new album of Matt’s harpsichord performances.

As I searched around on the theme of shadows, I came across these vintage diagrams showing how to make hand shadow puppets. They were amusing to find — I admire their variety and intricacy! — but they’re not quite what I’m after…

Moving on from the shadow concept, mirrors and reflections are another visual theme that resonates with canons. Here are two intriguing mirror illustrations I found in a nineteenth century science text, El mundo fisico gravedad, gravitación, luz, calor, electricidad, magnetismo, etc. by A. Guillemin:

I really like these images, but I don’t love them enough to use on the album cover. I’ve always enjoyed the way vintage scientific engravings seem to straddle the line between art and merely functional illustration. These images strike me as falling somewhere in that happy region, but lacking the magic that would make me return to them again and again.

A friend asked me why I’m spending so much time obsessing over the album cover when most people will care more about the music itself than the cover — wouldn’t any decent cover suffice? My first answer was that I’m doing this for myself: if I am going to be looking at the cover for years to come, it’s got to be something I really love. My second answer is that I’m still committed — rationally or not — to the idea of an album as an integrated whole, including cover art, liner notes, and audio, so… every choice is important.

Continuing with the theme of mirrors and reflections, art history includes a multitude of portraits involving mirrors. Here’s a depiction of the painter Iaia of Cyzicus (“Marcia”) working on her self-portrait using a mirror. It’s from an illustrated French translation of De Mulieribus Claris, known as the earliest collection in Western literature dedicated to biographies of women:


Again, I really like it (the three images of the painter’s head, the depiction of art in the making, replete with the painter’s tools, the tiled floor and patterned background), but I don’t love it in the way that would make me choose it as a cover. Another mirror portrait that comes to mind is by Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, but the Tallis Scholars already used it on the cover of their Ockeghem album which I’ve listed to a lot:


One portrait involving a mirror that I do love is En nøgen kvinde sætter sit hår foran et spejl (I can’t pronounce that, but I can cut and paste!) by Danish “Golden Age” painter C. W. Eckersberg. I’m so fond of the painting that I added text and made it into a real candidate album cover, thinking for some time that it was “the one”:


In addition to its use of the mirror, and its overall elegance, I like this image for the canon album because it has the sense of timelessness — rather, that sense of being old and new at once — that I’ve been seeking in the musical compositions themselves: each canon looks back to principles of traditional counterpoint from the Renaissance and Baroque while at the same time exploring modern possibilities. The painterly technique as well as a few details (the subject’s hair style?) tell us that this work is from an earlier time, but when specifically?  The image is spare and simple enough it does not seem dated — we could almost be looking at a contemporary scene rendered by an artist conversant with traditional techniques.

This option seems to have the “classical album cover look” and I love it, so why not use it?

The painting just doesn’t feel like a perfect fit for the music. It’s an intimate scene that makes the viewer feel he or she is almost intruding, and that’s not how the canons make me feel — they don’t create the sense of witnessing a “private moment.” The Eckersberg is a sensuous image, and while I like that in some ways — first, it would be attention-grabbing as an album cover, second it insinuates that the accompanying music is beautiful and compelling — it doesn’t capture an important aspect of the compositions: their mathematical nature, the way they are carefully crafted structures, born of calculation and artifice. We can’t know what the woman in the painting is thinking, but if she’s fixing her hair in front of a mirror we could guess that she’s considering her appearance, and perhaps thinking of who she will see later in the day, and how they will see her: the image conjures the personal, the world of human concerns and relationships, but yet the canons seem more abstract than that. I’d love to use Eckersberg’s painting on a cover someday — for a different album!

Turning away from such a promising option, what else is out there?  Here’s a thought: the bike rack in my original album cover looks something like a snake. A snake is evocative of a musical canon in the way it makes beautiful patterns by folding on top of itself, or in the way the motions of two snakes — or even different sections of the same snake — seem to copy or imitate each other.  Here are my favorite snake illustrations:

My concern here is that many people — rightly or wrongly — view snakes as menacing, and I want the album cover to be inviting. In deference to the ophidiophobes among us, I decided to look further.

All of the canons in the album are named after gemstones or minerals: “amethyst,” “malachite,” “obsidian,” “silver,” and so on. This is a naming convention I adopted to impose some uniformity on the collection and also to keep myself from getting stuck trying to find the perfect descriptive name for each piece — an endless and in some cases impossible task.  Given the way the pieces are named, one possibility is to use an illustration of gemstones as the cover, preferably a print from a vintage science text:


What I like about this option — an image showing a dozen or so different stones — is that it evokes the variety of the album: each canon is in its own mood and compositional style, and while there are similarities and some common themes, the pieces are not tightly connected — they each stand on their own.  And when you have 45 independent, miniature creations all together, they make a kind of miscellany, sort of like a collection of beautiful stones of all different colors, textures, and shapes as shown in this image.  In listening to the album as I prepare the release, my one concern has been that listeners might find it to be something of a hodgepodge, with many pieces clamoring for attention but not flowing logically from one to the next since they were not written with that aim in mind. I like the way these gemstone illustrations actually set the expectation of an assortment — a beautiful, intriguing collection that’s fun to explore and that makes no promise of tight integration.

On the other hand, I worry that gemstones don’t have an obvious connection to canons other than the fact that I’ve happened to use them as canon names. Gemstones on the album cover might be a bit perplexing until the viewer — if he or she persists — comes to understand the finer details of the album.

In searching for other old science illustrations I was delighted to come across Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Naturwhich reminds me of one of the joys of my childhood: looking through my grandfather’s old botany textbooks and the drawings he made when studying to be a botanist before he was drafted. Haeckel’s images are so entrancing that I’m not surprised some people adapt them as tattoos! Unfortunately I couldn’t find a Haeckel image that seemed right for the canon theme. Here’s one I love though:


Another theme I considered are geometric patterns like tilings, mosaics, and Escher-like tessellations:


But I don’t want something too regular and seemingly deterministic. The canons have patterns in them, but what makes them interesting is how patterns are broken or redefined: ultimately each canon tries to escape its mechanical, calculated nature and become something more.

Some of the canons are perception-bending, and I even wrote one piece (#11 “Hematite”) that is designed to imitate the effect of Penrose stairs where you think you’ve been ascending until you discover you’ve actually descended:


Using Penrose stairs or some other impossible object or illusion on the cover is a strong possibility but yet I don’t want to convey the sense that the album is all about perceptual trickery and/or disorientation.

Another possibility is to use an image of the harpsichord, but that doesn’t add as much from an interpretive standpoint as I’ve been hoping the cover art would add.  Beyond the harpsichord, I could use a fantastic or imaginary musical instrument:


The above image is an automatic organ proposed by Athanasius Kircher in Musurgia Universalis. I’m intrigued by this speculative musical automaton but I worry that it would make a confusing album cover as there could be the implication that this instrument, or something like it, is actually used in the recording.

There’s also the possibility of using music notation on the cover, like the circular score of John Bull’s puzzle canon, Sphera Mundi:


Or the score of Baude Cordier’s canon Tout Par Compas from the Chantilly Manuscript, used on the back of a wonderful album by Ensemble PAN:

A solid prospect, but I’m reluctant to use another composer’s work on the cover as it could imply that this music is recorded on the album.  Also, as I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping for an image which reveals some kind of interpretive perspective on the album — sheet music seems too straightforward from that standpoint (though the circular scores above are certainly intriguing).  A friend suggested taking a photograph of one of my own scores, and possibly showing it reflected in a mirror — a great idea! — but I’m a perfectionist about my photography and I’m trying to get this album cover done without delay.  I’d rather not embark on a photographic project unless I absolutely can’t find some existing art to use.

Turning back to the theme of mathematical constructs and searching through many old geometric illustrations, I was very excited to come across the fantastical creations of 16th century German artist Lorenz Stoer, published in Geometria et Perspectiva:


WTF? It’s a beautifully bizarre combination of perfect polyhedra in the foreground, with abstract curved structures that somewhat resemble the arches of ruined buildings in the background, beyond which we see trees, a village, mountains — where is this? What is this?  I so want this to be my album cover, but alas, the aesthetic is not the right match.  The image is too sprawling and seemingly chaotic to match the canons which I view as constrained and tightly constructed, even minimalist in that they’re very short and they only use only two voices.

Yes, I’m a tough customer, but my demands are not impossible to satisfy. When I came across the geometrical illustrations in Perspectiva Corporum Regularium (1568) by Wenzel Jamnitzer, I knew I might find my cover within:


Jamnitzer was a famous goldsmith working in Nuremberg in the 16th century. His Perspectiva Corporum Regularium explores the way myriad forms can be created from the building blocks of the five Platonic solids. The work shows his remarkable ability to visualize complex geometric constructions and project them convincingly in two dimensions. I love the way he chose to balance his structures on intricate and seemingly precarious stands. He didn’t have to draw those elaborate stands, but he did, and doing it gives the images an element of whimsicality and improbability that really speaks to me. What we see here are possible structures (these are not like the impossible Penrose stairs we considered earlier), which could possibly be balanced the way they are… but only for a split second. If we are to treat this drawing as depiction of a real scene, we must be witnessing a fleeting moment while the structures were balanced on their stands before they promptly toppled off; else we are observing a more perfect, fantastical world where things just remain in balance

Why do I like this image as an album cover?  It’s old, but yet timeless in the geometrical perfection of the objects shown, and almost modern in the surreality of their balancing act. It reminds me of the way the canons themselves are balancing acts, and how each canon seems to me, in some sense impossible, and yet somehow my process of creation has wrung them all into being, and Matt has recorded them so beautifully, and they’re available to witness!

Only problem with this Jamnitzer cover is, my mom just told me she’s not crazy about it… likes it but finds it a little lackluster. I’ll keep my eyes open for other possibilities, but for now I’m treating this as “the one.”

Here’s an updated version (still in progress) incorporating some advice and guidance by my friend AG:


Music, Visual Design

Twelve Glyph Challenge

Challenge: design glyphs to represent the numbers one through twelve.

Consider the numbers arranged on a clock face.  Your glyph system should have the following properties:

  1. The glyphs for two numbers that are opposite on the clock face (like 12 and 6) should have some visual qualities that bind them together as a pair.
  2. If you look at the glyphs for any two numbers that are adjacent on the clock face (like 1 and 2), it should be easy to see which glyph represents the “lower” number in clockwise order, and which glyph represents the “higher” number.
  3. The glyphs for any three numbers that form an even division of the clock face into three parts (like 12, 4, and 8) should have some common visual feature that makes them recognizable as a group.
  4. The glyphs for any four numbers that form an even division of the clock face into four parts (like 12, 3, 6, and 9) should have some common visual feature that makes them recognizable as a group.
  5. The parity of a number (whether the number is odd or even) should be somehow discernible from its glyph.

Thinking of this problem in musical terms, the glyphs could represent the 12 notes of the octave (assuming 12TET).  Looking at any glyph, you should be able to quickly discern the following things about the note it represents: which of the four augmented triads does the note belongs to?  Which of three fully-diminished seventh chords does it belong to?  What is its tritone, and what is that tritone’s glyph? What are its upper and lower chromatic neighbors, and what are their glyphs?

I haven’t solved this.  But, to jog your imagination, here’s one of many glyph systems I’ve come up with while considering the problem.  Do you think it has any nice properties?  Can you do better?

12 Glyphs

Language, Visual Design

Swearing Prohibited

Swearing Prohibited (Censored)

I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.

Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?

Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most of my friends were willing to take this sign at face value.  Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message.  (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)

For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!

Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — nig[BLEEP] — in his own mind.)

Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse.  And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign.  Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing?  Or do they really, really agree with it?

Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?

As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears?  I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.

As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:

Swearing Prohibited (Uncensored)