The Complete Works

Friday, December 17th, 2004

BBC Radio 3 is planning to devote an entire week’s schedules to broadcasting every piece written by Beethoven.

This is an interesting idea – I first got into classical music through a box set of Beethoven symphonies on LP that I bought with my first student grant in 1987 – £10, quite a bargain (but 1/7 of my grant so maybe not). It was something of a leap of faith; I was of the opinion that as I was about to become an art student I’d better start being arty, so I grew my hair long, taught myself to play guitar and started listening to Beethoven! God I laugh at myself sometimes.

I quickly became engrossed in the third, seventh and ninth symphonies – particularly the second movements of the 3rd and 7th. Reading the accompanying notes I found myself wondering if the people analysing the music weren’t missing the point of it and I think that was the starting point of my scepticism of the sort of language which is used when describing art, design, music and so on.

I bought a book to teach myself basic harmony, and a biography of Beethoven and eventually studied for a degree in music and history through the Open University (i.e. part time at home), which included a module on Beethoven. Doing this I began to realise that there was a point to analysis and an objective explanation for why music ‘works’ – but also that knowing the rules doesn’t mean you wil be able to do it. (I think this is what Matthew Mulder was getting at in his response to my design education post from many moons ago). The best proof of this is my own music, some of which I might post here soon – pretty dreadful stuff but not bad for someone who’s essentially self-taught!

It’s funny how music links so closely to design, and how my growing love of music led me into teaching and to many of my theories on teaching. I might have to think some more about that.

But the ‘everything Beethoven wrote’ sequence is an interesting idea that I’m in several minds about. I had an argument (too strong a word perhaps) with a student recently because I was highly critical about an exhibition of typography I’d seen at the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing). They had about 200 typographers on the wall with photos, potted biographies and samples of their work. I wondered how those 200 had come to be chosen, what was implied about the people who weren’t included, and the fundamental question: so what? They’re typographers – big deal. (It was during a discussion on graphic authorship and I was trying to provoke a response). This student said something along the lines of ‘it’s important to learn who the leading typographers are so you know what typefaces to choose’. I asked if the choice shouldn’t be made based on appropriateness to the job at hand, but this student continued that if she knew which typographers were respected she would look up all their typefaces; ‘so you’d exclude all the other possibilities?’ I asked. I also wondered if she believed that every typeface produced by a ‘famous’ typographer was bound to be good, and whether she’d be able to form her own opinion or be led by concensus to rank the designer and the typeface.

I can’t remember the details of the conversation and I’m not sure I’m putting it across properly but I was in many ways arguing with myself and my own double standards: heaven knows I’d be delighted if I were ever included in a list of the great and the good, and come publication day I’ll be standing in Borders pointing to my book saying ‘I wrote that!’

But I also applied exactly this student’s thinking to my exploration of music and started with Beethoven because I’d received the opinion he was great; and I listened to the fifth symphony because it was famous, then I listened to the rest of the canon of his nine symphonies. The same with Mahler.

I suppose canons give us a starting point, a way into a large field, but they also stifle us and lead us to value things that actually aren’t that valuable.

Take for example a story yesterday that Steve Jobs has been given permission to demolish a mansion designed by George Washington Smith despite protests from preservationists. Apparently the building is not a great example of the guy’s work and is run down. Should it be preserved or not? What are the criteria? Is it worth it just because it was designed by someone who did better things? Should we only preserve the artistic peaks or celebrate the whole body of works? And why focus on the designer in the first place? If the building’s useless as a house shouldn’t it be pulled down to make way for a better one? (I speak as a conservationist, by the way – in the UK we’re still tearing down our architectural heritage believe it or not).

The Beethoven celebration is openly playing all his works without a pretence that everything is a masterpiece. One spokesperson said that to appreciate the ‘hills’ you have to hear the ‘valleys’, and there is much in Beethoven’s output which is frankly rubbish.

Personally I think that’s a healthy and rare attitude to take because we very often rank people by their highest achievements conveniently forgetting their otherwise average or below-par work. The design canon, like the musical one, is full of ‘one hit wonders’ and only serves to highlight forgotten genius…

[I’m thinking out loud here so forgive me. I’m actually writing on this subject at the moment for the closing pages of my book and I’m aware that I could contradict myself – actually, I’m happy to do it, to work things out publicly; but because you are only ever judged selectively (as I’ve said) I could say something in print that I later change my mind about, but forever be quoted as the guy who said the thing I no longer think. If you get what I mean!]

I had a meeting today about illustrations for the book and I originally asked for a ‘rogues gallery’ of the great and the good to go on one page to illustrate the idea of a canon, and opposite a similar gallery of completely anonymous designers who produce the things we interact with daily – the playbills, the money off vouchers, the store point of sale material, the catalogues. I think they’re the real design heroes, and the sort of designers that students are most likely to end up being. But we give them this mythical view of heroism, don’t we? It’s unreal.

Anyway the idea was squashed, partly because the publisher doesn’t want to insult the ‘rogues’ and also because, ironically, we’ve interviewed a couple of them for the book! Ha – double standards indeed…

I’d like to mount an exhibition called ‘10% off’ – so called because it would celebrate ‘ordinary’ graphic design , like your 10% off promotional materials that you see around you, but also because it would ignore the ‘top’ 10% of designers, the ‘heroes’, and focus on the rest. Could be the title of my next book and I can apply my own double standards to that as well 😉

Well that was a rambling post – it was only intended to be a couple of lines long.

For what it’s worth, Shostakovitch is my new love – the 5th, 10th and 11th symphonies, the two violin concertos and two cello concertos… to die for.

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | TV and Radio | Radio 3 plans Beethoven marathon: “BBC Radio 3 is clearing the airwaves to make way for the entire works of Beethoven next year.

Listeners will be able to hear everything from his major symphonies to lesser-known folk songs over six consecutive days and nights in June.

For the first time in the network’s history, schedules will be entirely devoted to one theme.

Radio 3 controller Roger Wright said: ‘Our listeners have huge loyalty, curiosity – and stamina!'”

One comment on “The Complete Works

  1. 1000 black lines says:

    Your idea of an exhibit celebrating ‘ordinary’ graphic designers is a great idea. That is graphic design’s most useful and practical face in the world of visual communication.

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