Tuesday, 9/25/01

As might be apparent from previous writings in this space, I have no short supply of admiration for comic artists and others skilled in the visual arts. Occasionally, I like to make tenuous, self-indulgent analogies between their artistic medium and my own, namely, music. I think I'll do that now.

During my recent forays into the realm of multitrack arrangement, I found myself thinking of what I was doing as "coloring" my music. I realized that I was drawing a parallel between raw piano music and monochromatic, or black-and-white, artwork, and likewise, between multi-instrumental music and colored artwork. A little thought shows the analogy to be rather apt, both in terms of the creation process and the reaction of the observer.

Monochromatic work, in both camps, can be created with a single tool and little fuss. The artist picks up a pencil, the musician sits down at the piano, and they both start to doodle. Eventually, they will form an image in their minds of what they want their creation to look like, and they will produce a sketch. This sketch is the starting point, I think, for all work produced by either side. With the sketch, the artist has chosen the subjects and placed them in space, perhaps given some thought to a background, but the details, the shadows, the fine placement and sizing, are absent. The musician likewise has chosen the themes and knows where they will go, but the details, the exact phrasing, the embellishments, the chord voicings, the fine timing, have yet to be hammered out.

From this sketch, the creators can go one of two directions. They must choose the final piece to be either monochromatic or colored. Choosing the path of black-and-white means figuring out how to render the details using a single color. This requires some finesse, particularly in maintaining the distinction between background and foreground. The artist must ensure that lines that are part of some background object don't appear to be attached to a foreground subject; similarly, the musician must make sure that notes that are part of a counter-melody or even just for establishing a chord don't distract the listener from the primary melody. This can be difficult when all lines and all notes respectively look and sound pretty much the same. For both artist and musician, the challenge in creating a monochromatic work (of at least moderate complexity) is representing a layered set of distinct ideas using essentially homogeneous building blocks.

But finally, the artist draws and inks the final draft, and the musician decides which keys get hit when and writes up the score. For a monochromatic piece, the process stops there.

Turning the sketch into a colored piece requires a very different set of considerations. The first step is simply selecting the colors, or in the music world, choosing the instruments. Colors must be then assigned to the objects in the picture; instruments must be assigned to the layers of the music; both must be mixed just right. In both camps, visualizing the colored piece and coloring as to avoid clashes requires a very different "sense" than was used to produce the sketch. It is basically working in a completely different dimension. Sometimes, this step is even done by a different person -- in the art world, this person is called the "colorist"; in music, it's the "arranger" or "sound engineer". These people may not have the intuition to create a piece from scratch, but they are very good at working in this other dimension, and know which sets of colors and which sets of instruments work together.

But it is interesting to note that the coloring immediately solves the problem of distinction mentioned above. If a foreground object and a background object are different colors, then is trivial to see which is which. Likewise, if a saxophone or voice is playing the lead, then a counter-melody on the piano can never be mistaken for part of the primary melody. In this respect, creating a colored piece can be easier than monochrome, especially if the piece is "busy" and complex, because it provides an easy method for keeping independent ideas from running into one another, even if they are superimposed.

As for the reaction of the observer, it is always the colored piece that catches people's immediate attention. It's flashier. Whether it's eye candy or ear candy, it's appealing and people go for it. I think that part of the appeal as well is that it is inherently simpler to take in, due to the distinction effect. With a monochromatic work, the observer's senses are greeted with fundamentally a homogeneous collection of lines or of notes, and it requires substantial subconscious (and in bad cases, conscious) mental processing to sort this collection into distinct foreground and background objects, or melodies and chords. With colored pieces, the hard work has already been done for you! Everything has already been dissected, classified, and labeled; you simply need to sit back and observe.

When one thinks of "real art" and "real music", the kind that is found in museums and record stores, one almost always has colored work in mind. However, some of the best examples of both media are monochromatic pieces, which somehow are able to achieve a level of beauty that is beyond the colored, flashy pieces. Just look at black-and-white photography, or classical piano sonatas.

Scott McCloud, in his excellent book Understanding Comics, makes some interesting comments about the use of color in art that I think apply equally well to music:

In a piano piece, the listener's ear is attuned to the placement and strength of each note, because it is these subtle nuances that convey the expression in the music. A full band, instead, is characterized by the array of instruments and layers of sound; the musical expression in each individual layer goes undetected. This, I think, follows exactly what McCloud is saying about the objectification of colored artwork. My experience in the recording studio seems to confirm this theory. Passages that sound flat or awkward when played back solo sound just fine when combined with the rest of the band. It's less a matter of harmonization than of distraction. The listener simply can't pay attention to the expression in a single instrument when immersed in a virtual "playground" of sounds and acoustical textures:

In a single-instrument piece, subtle expressions are conveyed directly to the listener, without distraction; it is perhaps the purest way of transferring musical ideas from musician to audience. As additional instruments are added, the sound of the instrument itself takes on more significance; the world becomes a mix of intertwining sounds as well as notes. And no single instrument or small band can rival the sheer power and majesty of a full orchestra.

More and more, I find myself thinking of music like art. As superb as CoolEdit 2000 is, when approaching the task of arranging and editing music, I've always instinctively thought in terms of Photoshop. This used to be very strange to me, but now I'm starting to understand why.

Site updates: In an attempt to introduce a modicum of usefulness to this site, I've packaged and posted the source code for bpublish and CyberDJ. Since the code for CokeOS is already available, that means I just have to finish touching up the Life On The Farm source before all of my major software projects are officially laid bare before the world.

I figured that as long as I'm practicing arranging music now, I don't necessarily need to just color my own. I suppose this is, to borrow a term from another lexicon, "fanart". This tune has been in my head all week. Maybe now it'll be in yours. It's Shala's Theme from Chrono Trigger. Note that I don't have the original to listen to as reference, so this may or may not sound anything like it.

As I was working on this yesterday, it started to lightly rain, which created a very nice ambience for this particular tune. But then the rain turned into a lightning storm, which was less nice, and then the power went out and didn't return until this morning, which just didn't help much at all.

Shala's Theme (1:28, 1383Kb)