Visual Design

The Allure of the Ouroboros

Why is the ouroboros – an image of a serpent swallowing its own tail – so alluring?

To understand this, we need to consider why the image is so potentially alarming.

Looking at the ouroboros, we see an animal engaged in an act of self-destruction. Is this a deliberate act or an unwitting act? Does the snake not recognize its tail as a part of itself? Will it feel the pain and release itself before the process of cannibalism is complete?

These are the questions that might come to mind if we interpret the image literally. But if we allow for some magic in our view, we need not be sure the snake is pursuing its own demise. We might also imagine that the snake is giving birth to itself. At the point where the tail seems to enter the snake’s mouth, we could see it emerging from that same mouth, as if the mouth appeared first and spit out the rest of the snake.

We could also imagine that these processes of consumption and emergence are concurrent – that as the snake swallows more of itself, more is generated.

If the ouroboros were intended as a literal depiction of a snake devouring itself, we should expect to see the snake’s body enlarged in the place where it contains the swallowed portion of the tail, but that’s not how it is typically drawn.

The fear of snakes – ophidiophobia – is not without foundation. Snakes move quickly and some carry a deadly venom. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent carries the venom of temptation. 

But the ouroboros is a symbol that dates back to ancient Egypt: it can be seen on Tutankhamun’s tomb. Surely it is not the serpent of the Book of Genesis: it’s too preoccupied to threaten or tempt. If a person is afraid of snakes, perhaps they could take some small comfort in seeing that the ouroboros is in no posture to attack. 

Considering all of this, a viewer might still feel unsettled by an ouroboros when the symbol is presented all alone. But another remarkable quality of the ouroboros is the way its circular structure allows it to enclose another image, so that it functions as a picture frame. In this case, the ouroboros absorbs some of the character of what lies within.

Sometimes the ouroboros is used as a frame around the mythical Tree of Life. In a new image I have commissioned, the botanical features of the Garden of Eden lie outside the ouroboros — a double one — and a rosette window, offering a view of the cosmos, is enclosed within.

Creativity, Music, Personal Development, Visual Design

An Experiment in Engagement

“Marketing is the final extension of your art.”

This quote is from Derek Sivers, in Your Music And People.

The way an artist discusses their art, distributes it, and promotes it — all of this is a continuation of the creative act.

If I take Sivers’ point seriously, what does it mean for my own efforts at sharing my music? If I really think of marketing as an expression of my creativity, rather than as a chore, what would a “creative” marketing effort for my album Meteorite look like? And what would I do if money and time were no object?

It’s taken me a year of personal change and family tragedy to come to answer. I’ll save the backstory for elsewhere and jump to the vision I’ve arrived at.

To be clear, this isn’t a vision of how I’d handle the nuts and bolts of PR, like how I’d grow my mailing list, what I’d post on social media, how I’d reach out to journalists, etc. I don’t need a vision for that, I need a schedule. What I’m presenting here is a vision for how my album, or really any album, could be more engaging, to more people… how, to some extent, it could be set up to market itself.

The vision is that the album is more than what I’ve made. My music is the inner core. Around it, there’s a whole sphere of music and art — made by other artists — that connects to it and plays off of it. That will be true if I succeed. Imagine this:

Along with a great album cover, there’s a portfolio of visual art that goes with the album. Maybe there’s enough art for a gallery exhibit, or a small book. There’s enough art that an interested viewer can spend as much time looking at the album as they can spend listening to it. Each piece of art has a story about how it connects to the music. Each track in the album has its own illustration, and there other artworks that depict musical processes, moods, common themes at play. There are many connections among the artworks and you can see some artists responding to work by others.

Along with music in the album – 35 compositions written by me and performed by my collaborator on clavichord – there’s other music surrounding the album, music that connects to it, echoes it, reinterprets it. Other musicians have taken themes and fragments from the album and created their own remixes. Maybe there’s an EDM track where you can groove to one of my tunes against a dance beat. Or maybe there’s a fantasy or a fugue that a classical composer has built from one of my canon themes.

Along with the music there’s also choreography. You can see videos of dancers moving to the music. Maybe there are animations. Photographs. Maybe there’s some poetry too.

The idea is that the album would be more than just my music, my creativity – it would be a larger constellation, including work by other artists, work that plays off of mine and engages it in a kind of counterpoint. Each piece of art or music in this larger sphere could serve as an entry point, helping a listener get interested in my own material, but it would go both ways: my material, my project could help a listener discover another artist.

To achieve this, I’d basically be taking my PR budget and not spending it on conventional PR but investing it in artists. I’d take any advertising funds and use them instead as a commission fund. I’d hire other creators to make something that expresses their own creativity while connecting in some way to my material, using a fragment or idea from my material and developing it in a new way. I might define how this should be done and provide detailed feedback along the way, or leave it all to the artist — each piece would be different. Along with commissions, some of these projects could be structured as collaborations.

This is not to say that all these artists would be a big group of friends or that they’d all even have to know about each other and be on board with the larger vision I’m presenting here. In some cases, I might simply hire someone to make a piece that I want made, without their needing to be aware of the larger context; in other cases, the artist could become a co-creator with me in this larger outreach experiment.

How would any of this help with marketing or promotion? A few ways:

  • Each artwork in the larger sphere is a chance to “reach” a new listener or viewer who might respond to its particular style
  • Listeners and viewers who encounter the project would have a whole universe of interrelated art to explore
  • Each artist involved in the project might share it with people they know, because their work is part of it
  • People might take an interest in the project because it’s an unconventional way of doing outreach and they want to know if it works

The main point is that art is powerful. That’s why I make art. But the particulars of style and format can limit the size of an audience. Not everyone responds to canons on clavichord or even knows what those things are. The question is, if you were to bring the full power of art, music, and dance to bear in translating and amplifying those canons on clavichord, would all that power be sufficient to gain a wider audience, well beyond the small group of people who already like this sort of thing? I can only believe the answer is yes.

Am I really able to do something like this? Is it pie in the sky?

Earlier I wrote: “What would I do if money and time were no object?” I believe that a good way to lead one’s life is to ask that question, write down the answer, and then find a way to do that thing anyway, even if money is an object and time is an object.

My answer is, if money and time were no object, I’d do what I just wrote about. I’d commission artists to make stuff. That’s because the only thing more exciting to me that creating new stuff is supporting, inspiring, or encouraging other people to create new stuff, especially if it’s stuff we both like and stuff that helps us both.

I didn’t quite know all this about myself until recently. I’ve been finding it out. I began learning it from another project that I started in 2022 (still ongoing) to actually buy music from independent musicians. And I’ve learned it from some mentoring that I do at my day job, totally unrelated to music.

As I write these words, I’ve commissioned three pieces of visual art for Meteorite and am starting to collaborate with a friend on the first EDM track based on material from the album. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, making my album felt pretty amazing but doing these commissions and collaborations has felt, well, equally amazing. So I’m going to figure out how to keep doing this, in whatever ways I can, with the resources that I do have available.

Commissioned art as of 2/25/2022: Meteorite Impact, Magic Mirror, The Garden and the Cosmos

Creativity, Music, Visual Design

The Garden and the Cosmos

This image by calligrapher and illustrator Svetlana Molodchenko, made with watercolor and gold paint on paper, is two things. It’s work of art made from ancient symbols. And it’s a cover for a musical album, a collection of 35 canons composed by Rudi Seitz, titled Meteorite.

“Looking at Svetlana Molodchenko’s artwork is like stepping back to a long-lost era of finery and grandeur – a Renaissance painting, a medieval cathedral or perhaps even an Ancient Greek villa. Rich in detail but with a light touch, there’s a sense of craft and luxury in everything she draws. The viewer plunges into another world, where past, present and future merge.”

Album Cover:

As a cover, the image includes many references to the contents of the album. The rosette is a reference to the sound hole of a clavichord. The double ouroboros represents the two voices of a musical canon, engaged in an infinite cycle. The birds, the comet, and the multi-colored stone stand for the three largest compositions in the album: the birds refer to Birdsong, the comet refers to Meteorite, and the multi-colored stone refers to Ammolite. Considered together, the eight gems could represent one octave of a diatonic scale; they also refer to the naming scheme used in the album, where canons get their titles from gems and minerals.


Independent from its purpose as an album cover, this image is a self-contained artwork. As such, it can be interpreted in whatever way the viewer finds most appropriate, but here is one interpretation:

The songbirds and botanical pattern we see in the periphery of the image, against a background of gold, represent the living world – they are things we might find in a garden, possibly the Garden of Eden. But the serpents we behold in this garden are not free-roaming symbols of sin or temptation; rather, they form an ouroboros, a symbol that traces back to ancient Egyptian iconography. These serpents are living beings, members of the garden, but the fantastical way they consume each other, and in turn give rise to each other — an eternal cycle of renewal — sets them apart from the ordinary world. Viewed by itself, an ouroboros might bring to mind the discomfort of an animal being devoured, but when an ouroboros is used as a frame around another image, it takes on the character of what lies inside. Here, the ouroboros encloses a rosette, the geometric pattern we might see in a Gothic cathedral window. As the only man-made element here, the rosette represents an expression of reverence through the pursuit of symmetry and balance. The multifaceted gems embedded on the rosette echo its geometry. These are not gems of ostentation; rather, they are bearers of color and possibility, showing the different components of the white light we see in the stars. If the “outside” of the ouroboros in this image represents the living world, the “inside” represents inanimate beauty, mathematical perfection, and the heavens. The ouroboros itself is a transition between these two worlds. In a highly symmetrical design, the eye might might seek exceptions to the perfect order. Asymmetry can be found in the arrangement of the stars, the comet tail, and the blending of colors in the top stone. Taken as a whole, the image depicts a window for gazing at the cosmos, and represents the way art — and music! — can be such a window, such a device for contemplating the infinite.

Music, Visual Design

Magic Mirror

This image of three birds hovering over a “magic mirror” was created by artist Andreea Dumuta to accompany my composition Birdsong. Listen here:

The music is a sequence of inversion or “mirror” canons based on my transcriptions of bird vocalizations. A mirror canon is where one part echoes the other in an upside-down way. In the illustration, we see how the mirror transforms the appearance of the birds, adding color, and in one case showing a reflection that the mirror could not “see” — that’s why the mirror is magic. This magic is reminiscent of how the musical process of inversion reveals new qualities in a melody while preserving enough of its essence that it is still recognizable.

This is the second illustration I’ve commissioned for my album Meteorite, following Jon Wilcox’s depiction of a meteorite impact. My goal is to curate enough art connecting to the album that anyone who’s interested could spend as much time looking as they could spend listening. The visual art and the music will engage in a counterpoint of their own — they should be mutually enhancing. Each image will feature a visual signature: the presence of at least one bird, one meteorite, and one ammolite gem or ammonite fossil. Notice the way Andreea has incorporated all three elements here, with the last one being the subtlest.

When I first got a look at Andreea’s completed piece, I was immediately drawn in. I knew it was “right” for the music. But I wondered about one detail: could the arrangement of crystals and meteorites be simplified? That’s the same question I ask about every piece of music I write — can any elements be consolidated or removed without compromising the essence of the piece? Here, we tried making the crystals smaller, omitting some of them, and moving the remaining ones away from the birds, but in every alternate version, the piece seemed to lose something. Is there a lesson from this? Yes, sometimes the appearance of complexity makes you think there’s an opportunity to distill and refine, but when you try to do it you realize that the complexity is part of the magic. We can speculate about what might happen if we make this change or that change to a work of art, but often we don’t know until we try, and we might learn that everything is right just as it is.

Music, Visual Design

Meteorite Impact

This image shows a meteorite impact sending gems and birds flying in all directions. It’s the new cover for my album Meteorite. It was created by the fantastic illustrator Jon Wilcox and we finalized it Monday, Jan. 2, 2023 after a month of development.

Here are all the things that had to come together to make this image what it is:

  • It had to show a meteorite impact in a way that seemed positive — suggesting creativity and potential — without evoking destruction or appearing like a nuclear disaster. Why a meteorite impact? That’s because the largest piece in the album is titled Meteorite and I think of the track list as a kind of explosion outward from that huge, central, and somewhat disorienting piece.
  • It had to show birds flying away from the scene. Why birds? That’s because the second large piece in the album is titled Birdsong and it’s based on my listening to lots and lots of bird calls.
  • It had to feature the rainbow-colored fossil Ammolite prominently. Why Ammolite? That’s because the third large piece in the album is titled Ammolite and I think of that piece as a kind of “rainbow” of experiences and scenes.
  • It had to include a variety of other gemstones and minerals with different shapes and textures. Why gems and minerals? That’s because I use a gem and mineral naming scheme for all my canons. Topaz, Amber, Garnet…
  • It had to depict the meteorite itself in a way that couldn’t easily be confused with other things (sun? giant meatball?) which is challenging given that we’re used to seeing meteorites as flying objects but, if you think of it, there isn’t really a common, widely accepted visual stereotype of how a meteorite is supposed to look as a rock.
  • The overall color scheme had to be reserved enough that the Ammolite colors could really stand out.
  • It had to include musical notes, suggesting that this is a musical event.
  • It had to have a strong sense of depth and expansive motion.
  • It had to have an element of surreality while still being legible.
  • It had to embody the idea of “ordered chaos” and neither be too busy nor too plain.

It took a lot of steps to get to this final product. But through Jon’s amazing work — this whimsical set of ideas and requirements for an image has become a real, living design that I just want to look at every day. It’s such an exciting feeling to now be able to share it with you, dear viewer.

Visual Design

Album Cover III

This is the third in my series of posts about the visual design for my Canons album. I’d like to share some photos of the culmination of the process: the physical CD.

Instead of a conventional jewel box, I decided to go with a four-panel digipak, which actually has six design components: front cover, back cover, spine, inside flap, cd tray, and cd surface.

I debated whether to include the liner notes in the album but decided against it for a few reasons: wanted to have the flexibility to edit the notes later, wanted to keep printing costs down, wanted to simplify the process of designing the packaging (took a long time even without notes!), and wasn’t sure how many people would read the notes. This was still a very difficult decision because I think that printed notes are one of the main advantages of a physical album over digital, and I know I’m more likely to read notes when I can hold them in my hands.

Even without the notes, the physical album still has a blurb on the inside flap and a painstakingly typeset track listing on the back cover. I acquired a special font that has the OpenType feature of Tabular Figures just so I could get the numbers to line up perfectly. (Anyone interested in the notes, please read them here.)

I’ve posted the square version of the album cover before, but here you can see the rectangular version that I made specifically for the physical CD. You’d think that taking a square design and making it fit a rectangular template would be pretty easy, wouldn’t you? But even with a slight change in aspect ratio, I found I needed to resize the fonts, rekern the text, and reposition all the elements and it was almost like starting from scratch.

I’m delighted by the way the digital designs translated into the physical object: I feel that the real, printed thing actually looks better than the designs!  There’s only one very small detail that didn’t come out with perfect accuracy — can you guess what it is?

All right, I’ll tell: it’s the self-eating snake that I placed on the CD surface close to the center. That snake is an ouroboros, a medieval alchemical symbol of eternal recurrence. In the context of this CD, it’s meant to evoke the way some canons proceed in an infinite cycle. The ink got shifted slightly in the printing process so the gap that should be present between the two colors of the snake isn’t preserved all the way around. No big deal. Overall, the look and feel of the physical album is precisely what I aimed for. A debt of gratitude to my friend Angelynn Grant who guided me through the many questions that came up during the design process that spanned several months!

See my previous posts on the design: Album Cover (all about my search for cover art) and Album Cover II (thoughts on the Jamnitzer’s drawings as they relate to the album).

Visual Design

Making a CD

[Facebook Post from March 1, 2017]

For much of my life I’ve wanted to make a CD — not just in the abstract sense of “an album,” but a real physical thing with cover, spine, notes, etc. I’m glad to be getting in while there’s still a chance! In anno domini 2017 there are still some people, in some places, who possess the hardware required to play these shiny discs, and there are still some companies that manufacture them. I remember when CDs first came out. This was in the 80’s. I was in computer camp. Five-and-a-half-inch floppy discs were all the rage, overtaking cassettes. In a magazine, I read about some newfangled optical storage technology that was on the horizon. I went around telling the other kids how many megabytes of data we were going to be able to store on these new discs–amazing!–and they called me a nerd for being so excited about it. Yes, the kids in computer camp called me a nerd, how about that? Fast forward. I’ve just spent a month working on the visual design for my CD. I uploaded PDFs of the design to the manufacturing service and they generated this 3D virtual-reality preview of what the CD is going to look like. How cool is that?


Addendum — April 3, 2017

Here’s what the boxes of CDs looked like when they arrived at my house. I posted this image on Facebook with the note: “Help. I ordered an album by this obscure composer and they sent me 600 copies! What do I do with all these?”



Addendum — April 7, 2017

I sold a few copies of the CD to Brattle Bookshop in Boston. Here’s what they looked like on the shelf. Having grown up in the 80’s and 90’s and having spent countless hours scouring record shops, there was one thing I wanted to experience in my life (well, more than one, but this was a big one): I wanted to see my own CD on the shelf at a record shop. I posted these photos on Facebook with the note “Brattle Book Shop is one of the few places left in Boston where those of us who are still attached to the experience of shopping for physical CDs can indulge in our increasingly archaic pastime. Should you choose to go to Brattle and peruse their eclectic collection, you might notice three copies of the album Canons by Rudi Seitz and Matthew McConnell on the shelves, while supplies last.”