Contemporary music's Grand Canyon Suite?
Glance at the retouched CD sleeve above from EMI's new budget priced American Classics series. What is the music? - Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite or, perhaps, Copland's Rodeo or Billy the Kid? No, as the original sleeve below shows, it is three masterpieces from that most cerebral of composers, Elliott Carter.
The marketing trick of 'every cover picture tells a different story to the music' has been around since the dawn of the LP age. It continues today, in the twilight of the CD era, with, for example, the excellent Warner Apex budget reissues of Boulez resorting to soft focus library images of flowers. But if the cover image doesn't affect sales why not use typography, as HatHut do with their [now]Art label? And if it does affect sales why couple an easy on the eye photo of the Grand Canyon with an excellent CD containing what a perceptive sleeve note by Martin Cotton calls 'a tough listen'.
Connecting with new audiences for contemporary music is quite rightly a pre-occupation on the blogs and elsewhere. But how many floating listeners will buy this £8 CD expecting to hear contemporary music's Grand Canyon Suite, only to feel misled by the visual 'recommendation'? Isn't it better to manage expectations than flatter to deceive? In today's credit crunch markets cost is the excuse that covers all manner of sins. Yes, library images are cheap. But so is the creative use of typography or royalty free deals (as are used so aggressively by the record companies for the music itself) with ambitious young artists and photographers. Independent label Soli deo Gloria shows how it can be done with their attention-grabbing covers using the powerful photos of Steve McCurry.
Surely a new series celebrating the music of America, that most graphic of countries, just cries out for contemporary graphics? Coverless MP3 downloads may be the new wave, but not yet in the budget market where these American Classics CDs are over-the-counter impulse buys. Low priced re-releases like this are an important vehicle for expanding the market for new music, and as Alan Rich explains in his excellent book Music - Mirror of the Arts the visual arts are a powerful tool for making contemporary music accessible.
'The listener who feels out of touch with some of today's musical developments can, beyond any question, enhance his understanding of this music by observing contemporary developments in painting, sculpture and architecture. For the separate arts do not exist in isolation. Together they provide a key to the prevailing creative impulses of their time: a firsthand report, worded directly from the inner consciousness of the creators themselves. Together they form a body which draws upon the spirit of the time, each in its own way. Together they attest strongly to the integrity of the whole of artistic creation.'
The feeble imagery on this EMI re-issue is the greater pity because the music and performances are so good and the price is so affordable. If you don't have Carter's Concerto for Orchestra, Violin Concerto and Ives influenced Three Occasions for Orchestra in your collection this is a 'must buy'. If you have the works but not these performances by Oliver Knussen, the London Sinfonietta and violinist Ole Böhn you are missing something quite special. And the gorgeous sound captured by engineer Tryggvi Tryggvason in Henry Wood Hall and Blackheath Concert Halls in 1992 is confirmation that the fine art of sleeve design may be dead, but the black art of great recorded sound lives on.
Now this is what I call great sleeve art.
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