November 17, 2013

Debut Album

Concept and Design

Thank you to everyone for the enthusiasm and support of our debut album.  Both the recording and physical CD represent the culmination of several projects that developed over the course of two years and we are very excited with how it has all come together.

Many of you have been curious about the concept behind the album design and have asked to know more about its significance – I am happy to share that with you.

I intentionally chose not to include explicit descriptions in the booklet, leaving the artwork and design with a certain mystery.  I wanted to let the images and design speak for themselves.  I wanted the physical album to be as much of an aesthetic experience as possible—for the album itself to be a work of art, as much as the music contained within it.

In the Spring of 2011, I was awarded the Presser Foundation Award by the Peabody Conservatory in order to develop a project which can best be described as a multitude of smaller projects combining various artistic disciplines—all of which individually sought to address concepts of meaning and beauty in art.

Through these individual projects, I was fortunate to have collaborated with incredibly diverse and talented people, all of whom contributed a great deal by helping to – in their own unique ways – unravel the larger questions that were the undercurrent for my project as a whole.  More precisely, it is not that I see each contribution as having provided a different answer for the underlying questions.  Rather I conceive of the projects as being part of a larger and multiply-constitutive process of questioning.  The way I see it, every contribution to the project as a whole offered a unique way of questioning: a way of re-examining our personal and institutional concepts of art, beauty and meaning.

The project resulted in a performance at the Engineer’s Club in the Spring of 2012 by the Atlantic Guitar Quartet, which presented the world premieres of two musical compositions, two choreographies and a video installation amidst a site-specific stage-set of lightbox paintings that I created specifically for the performance.  The culmination of these many projects is reflected in the quartet’s debut album, which not only represents the process of questioning that is at the heart of each individual project, but actively embodies and extends such questioning in the same spirit.

More personally, I am fascinated by the idea of musical meaning and how drastically different such ‘meaning’ can be, depending on how a piece of music is construed, presented and ultimately re-interpreted by a beholder.  As a result, we got a lot of mileage out of out of Eclosion, the second movement of Olivier Bensa’s La Grande Terre.  It is an extraordinary piece and one for which I commissioned the creation of two separate choreographies and a stop-motion video by Caleb Freese—all of which use AGQ’s recording of the composition.  One of the dance pieces was choreographed and performed by Junichi Fukuda and the other was developed by the late Carol Bartlett, for a duo of female dancers.  These three drastically different interpretations of the same sounds bring our attention to the fact that musical meaning is not something that is fixed but, instead, something that is actively defined in the process through which – and during which—it is experienced.

The front cover of the CD case is a cutout of what would otherwise be “Atlantic Guitar Quartet” spelled in braille.  However, as a die-cute, it might be thought of as anti-braille.  The colors that show through the die-cut are from the booklet (held in a pocket behind the front cover) and allow for the main cover to be different, depending on how the booklet is inserted behind it.  The booklet can also be folded ‘inside out’ with the centerfold image acting as new booklet covers—again, allowing for the main album cover to be different.  The way in which the otherwise straightforward text is presented changes one’s experience of the cover and allows for a more fluid presentation of meaning.  By either rotating the booklet or folding it inside-out (or some combination of both), there is the possibility of presenting 16 different front covers.

The back cover of the CD case has a 3-Dimensional stamp of a QR code that scans directly to the quartet’s website.  If you look closely, you can see that the code is composed of tiny repetitions of “Atlantic Guitar Quartet.”  You could call it an AGQ wallpaper, of sorts.  This elevated 3D QR code on the back side is the same as the colored image found on the center panel, which is also detailed on the inner left panel of the booklet pocket.  Aside from an additional dimension of meaning that is embedded into what is normally a 2-Dimensional image, the many repetitions of the group name allude to the fact that music – or any art – is not an object; it is not a single entity that can be touched, contained or even properly defined.  More accurately, art (like the QR code composed of countless repetitions of “Atlantic Guitar Quartet”) is an emergent result of the interaction between multiple constitutive elements that are inherently greater than the sum of their parts.  Furthermore, this interaction—i.e., art as the emergent result of the interaction of constitutive parts—occurs not only among the compositional and aesthetic elements of the themselves but on various levels of scale that extend beyond the physical materials that constitute the packaging (ink and paper) or the sounds that we think of as constituting the music.  The interaction by which meaning is created occurs simultaneously between those elements and the perceiver(s)—who themselves cannot be thought of as single, objectifiable or contained entities, but who are actually amalgamations of chemical, neurological, emotional, physiological and perceptual tendencies that come together in new ways at every moment in time and in every single circumstance of interaction and experience.

In the same way that a work of art (and it meaning) is an emergent result of the internal interaction of its raw elements in their interaction with the perception of a beholder, our conscious experience of the world more generally is itself the same kind of emergent result (i.e., of the cumulative interactions of everything that we identify with as being “oneself”).

The group name on the back cover is printed with a special clear ink that gives the impression of what might be thought of as ‘ghost letters’ and which can be properly seen only at certain angles with respect to the light under which the album is being seen—a clear metaphor for the way in which the construction and interpretation of meaning depends on specific perspectives that inevitably influence the way in which any eventual meaning is constructed and understood.  Similarly, the CD itself was printed with a non-colored and textured ink that has an intentional tactile quality—a dimension of ‘meaning’ beyond the semantic or lexical meaning that the text seeks to represent.

The cube on the inside panel is uniquely representative of the entire project in that it speaks directly to ideas about the nature of language, communication, and the construction of meaning—be it linguistic, musical, visual or otherwise.  In fact, it is not just an image of a cube, but a photo of a real object—all of the photographs in the booklet are of the lightbox paintings I made for this project.

Specifically about the cube, I originally thought of creating a single image that would be distributed across four 20 x 20 inch squares, but soon I realized that another pair would allow me to create a three-dimensional piece—an altogether new level of ‘meaning.’  I wasn’t sure what the theme/design for the cube would be, but a larger theme running through all of the individual projects of my Presser Award was the multiple-ambiguity of perception and meaning in art.  This became the basis for the cube and the final product was a result of this initial idea.

Human communication is an extremely complex task.  Brains evolved for millions of years in order to be capable of developing human language, yet language itself remains elusive in many ways.  Natural language is a process that ascribes meaning to codified (but otherwise arbitrary) sound, through complex and historically developed cultural conventions.  However, the lexical definitions of words are usually insufficient to allow for a full understanding of the ideas expressed through people’s everyday use of spoken language.  We must account for communicative cues such as tone of voice, inflection of speech, physical gestures and social context, which often indicate metaphors, jokes, sarcasm, or other communicative contexts whose meanings reside in places far beyond mere lexical definitions.  These additional layers of communication further complicate an already monumental cognitive and computational task of the pure symbolic thinking (traditionally considered to be at the root of language).

The six QR codes that make up each facet of the cube represent some of these complexities—which are inherent in any communicative context.  On a more basic level, the QR codes represent objective codified messages.  However, the various colors and textures of the cube’s faces obscure the codes and prevent a clean reading.  Furthermore, the QR codes are actually printed backwards—as if mirrored.

These QR codes are (intentionally) not decipherable by QR scanners, but if one were to successfully scan and decipher them a user would arrive at six different statements—one for each side of the cube:

I hate you

I love you


Stop looking at me

Please help me

Leave me alone !!!

There is no conceptual order to the way in which the six sides of the cube are mounted, but the many pairs of contradictions embodied in the statements are very important.

On top of the fact that inferring meaning from another human being is a tremendous cognitive task, we are also faced with the fact that humans are notoriously irrational.  People are like buckets of doubts, misunderstandings and contradictions, where knowledge, meaning, memory and agency get entangled in unintelligible and intractable ways.

There is a strong argument to be made for the fact that the normal-case-scenario is one in which people walk around with contradictory opinions and conflicting beliefs while considering all to be simultaneously true.  People are rarely (if ever) truly certain of their own ideas, intentions or desires.  When you put two people together, it is near magic that some kind of productive or objective interaction/exchange of meaning and ideas can take place at all.

All that being said, the QR codes were never meant to be read or decoded, per se.  Actually, the fact that they cannot be properly deciphered—only interpreted—is integral to the idea of the piece itself and the project as a whole.  The message in the QR codes is not what the lexical statement they encode but, rather, the larger conceptual statement they make as an indecipherable set of lexical statements. In every moment, we are actively (and by necessity) inferring and constructing the ideas we have about the world.  Every single moment of conscious experience is an entire world that we build from a set of limited, incomplete and inaccurate data.

That our perceptions are self-created—and that those perceptual constructs are nothing but subjective appendages with which we attempt to apprehend meaning and structure our notion of world—is at the root level of what it means to be human.  In contexts such as written or even spoken language (where the implicit rule is to communicate ‘objective’ information), the fluid and necessarily subjective nature of meaning can present obstacles that are directly antithetical to the proposed task of ‘clean’ communication.

However, in artistic contexts—free from the expectation of objectively communicating data—this ubiquitous and forever ‘threatening’ instability of meaning is able to work in service of a power by which we most often declare art to be so necessary and meaningful: the otherwise ineffable and intangible experience of beauty.

– Jonathan Zwi

Album Artwork

Booklet Images