DVD REDESIGN: PHILIP GLASS

Really loving a film but really hating its DVD artwork is the motivation behind this series of unprompted DVD packaging redesigns, usually performed over the space of an average lunch break. Quick and fun. More nerding out here.

Glass_DVD_Final_1Seeing Chuck Close’s Philip Glass portrait above made me want to jump on the redesign of this documentary on the musician. Close’s amalgam of patterned micro dots perfectly captures the process of listening to Glass. Simple repetitions that don’t seem all that drastic or different when seen next to each other, but create a rich narrative when taken in as a whole.

Chuck Close’s unique technique of working within a pixilated grid system came out of a suffering from seizure in 1988, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. Close continues to paint with a brush strapped onto his wrist with tape, creating large portraits in low-resolution grid squares created by an assistant. The two artists have been friends and Close has painted Glass many times. They met in 1964 but didn’t become friends until 1968, when Philip Glass was pluming their lofts.

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Close first painted Glass in 1968 (above) – using a hyper realistic technique. Before his accident,  but still dividing the huge canvases in small sections. Photo on left, painting on right.

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I was able to see the 4 hour opera in September of 2012, written by Robert Wilson. Above is my redesign of the from cover of the cd box set, and below the back cover. It stands as one of my favorite artistic experiences and I was completely taken aback when I heard Wilson talk about his source inspiration for Einstein’s mysterious text:

“One of the biggest influences was when I met Christopher Knowles, a 13 year old child who was living in an institution for brain damaged, brain injured children. He was preoccupied with mathematics and geometry. Especially with language. And the way he was arranging words and sounds was not unlike Mozart. “Classical compositions” and things placed not arbitrarily but for content of the language but also very much with the sounds. And that’s when I introduced words in my play (his previous play was a 7 hour silent opera).

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I asked Chris once – who is Einstein? And he said – I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. Chris who is Einstein? And he said I don’t know. And I said, Chris who is Einstein? And he said – let me think.

And then he wrote 12 chapters and he gave them to me a couple of days later and it went something like: Would it get some wind for the sailboat. And it could get those for it is. It could get the railroad for these workers. It could be a balloon. It could be Franky, it could be very fresh and clean, it could be. It could get some gasoline shortest one” … which became the text in the piece.

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Five comments and observations taken after seeing Einstein on the Beach:

1 – Surprised that the Opera had already started when the doors opened, as people found their seats. Reminds me of a comment made about India music concerts. People are openly encouraged to come in and out whenever they want. An that there is an interesting moment that happens as the musicians tune up and people settle in … where the concert finds itself already started.

2 – Puzzled about people brushing their teeth and suddenly sticking out their tongues in the piece, till I saw this photo taken in 1951 where Einstein was persuaded to smile – but instead did this:

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3 – Movement and music. Not about narrative, but setting of mood – the delight in how they interact with each other. How the whole image / frame was flickering, little movements here and there from characters. Always mixing slow motion with normal speed, always in deep state of repetition. The effect is that it only takes a small shift in the image to suddenly OPEN up the piece. Setting it up where a sudden turn of a character’s head becomes an element of drama. You have to carefully build towards this kind of effect.

4 – Wondering about all the train imagery in it, then read Einstein’s train thought experiment: “A flash of light is given off at the center of the traincar just as the two observers pass each other. The observer on board the train sees the front and back of the traincar at fixed distances from the source of light and as such, according to this observer, the light will reach the front and back of the traincar at the same time.

The observer standing on the platform, on the other hand, sees the rear of the traincar moving (catching up) toward the point at which the flash was given off and the front of the traincar moving away from it. As the speed of light is finite and the same in all directions for all observers, the light headed for the back of the train will have less distance to cover than the light headed for the front. Thus, the flashes of light will strike the ends of the traincar at different times”.

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5 – The emotional highlight, and eventual payoff for me in experiencing the 4 hour Opera is found in the last piece called Knee Play 5. For some, Einstein on the Beach could be called modern, abstract and maybe even a little clinical in its presentation. There are highs and lows of emotions, mostly felt through the music – but its narrative doesn’t lean towards sentimentalization. And it’s all the better for it. In our over saturated world of plastic over-dramatization experienced in advertising and Hollywood films, knowing how and when to present proper drama to invoke genuine emotion is unique.

The last minute and a half of Eisnstein on the Beach does such a thing and explodes in an outpour of tenderness. The scene features an old couple holding hands on a park bench, expressing their love for each other. The emotional pull is all the more impactful because the piece has not abused, and maybe even refused to indulge in allowing such relief. The 4 hour build up of cryptic image making allows for the last minute and a half to give you contrasting kick in the face, but a gentle one full of heart.

 

 

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RECORD COVERS: THROBBING GRISTLE

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Throbbing Gristle is one of the most enigmatic bands I’ve ever come across. From 1976 – 1981 they released harsh, noisy challenging music that explored the darker side of human behavior. In contrast, this record cover has to be one of the oddest visual representations of them. Confusing, bland, odd and cryptic all at the same time. Keeping with the spirit of the music on the record, something seems off with almost all of its decisions. The image is deliberately forgettable and aimed to please absolutely no one.

“From the very beginning an aesthetic of bleak, post-industrial and dehumanizing references to contemporary life were utilized in our graphics. Peter Christopherson (TG band member) worked as a part of Hypgnosis at the time. They specialized in lavish, conspicuously expensive and elitist photo-surrealist covers for the likes of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Led Zepplin and other super groups. His job also gave us, as an anarchic and status-quo-challenging cultural unit, access to the highest end of graphic design techniques and labs to execute all our packaging to the same level of quality as his other clients. This is important to remember especially in reference to the finished cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats”. – Genesis P-Orridge

The reactionary gesture is rooted in a relentless push towards alienating and violating expectations. On the surface of it all the whole enterprise ultimately allows them to break with their own past, but not without a suspicious feeling that something in the image is about to fall apart.

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The squeaky clean scenery takes a bleak turn when the backdrop is identified as Beachy Head, notorious for being a popular suicide point because of its steep dive down. The cliff there is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 531 feet above sea level. From 1965 to 1979 (the year the record was made) Beachy Head had a suicide count of 124. Approximately 14 jumps a year.

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“There was a photo that was a Hollywood still, this Hollywood still from Brigadoon that had Robert Mitchum standing wearing tweeds on a rugged clifftop … I was interested in this because it’s got a weird vibe, but I wanted to give it a bit of a twist. We were talking about having bodies in the bracken, in the grassy surface.” – Peter Christopherson

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In a very Duchamp-ian turn (who also did a piece that featured a cryptic body of a naked woman lying in a field) the above black and white image turned out to be an alternate cover used in a box set and a cd reissue. It is possible that the body was superimposed on the photo after the fact.

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Along with the revelatory bleak location and puzzling fifties retro look (before retro lounge references were trendy) the band mentions the Range Rover as being a key element of the puzzle. It was rented  (“at considerable expense, actually”) and drove down to the site of the photo shoot as part of the performance aspect of the event.

Where usual record sleeve designs try to open doors and suggest helpful paths to guide the listener in, 20 Jazz Funk Greats seems carefully considered to do the opposite. It’s a frustrating but liberating idea. The hardest thing to decode is the band’s own stance toward the image, but this distancing effect and clash perfectly sums up the spirit of the music.

In December 1978 during a visit to my parents my mother, Muriel, who was well aware of the controversial nature of our images mentioned to me after hearing that we were making a new record – Why can’t you make a nice record for a change? Something nice like flowers and why can’t you you all smile for a change? For some reason, for all the wrong reasons, this idea stuck in my head.” – Genesis P-Orridge

* Notes and comments above were taken from / after reading Drew Daniel’s book about the record, part of the 33 1/3 music book series.