Sound Design


I’ve been reading about the notion of “Communiversity” recently and without delving too deeply into educational systems, I want to point to how streetwear and street culture instruct. Via blogs and magazines and the simple question “Where did you get that?” streetwear shares a considerable amount of surface knowledge among the constituents of the community. There is an emphasis on being “cultured.” And, in that, the people comprising the community (real or not) are unusually aware of things well beyond the homogenized scope of majority life. Understanding how to utilize a dizzying amount of knowing stuff in a constructive manner becomes the difficulty.  

I am always interested in how pedagogy differs from discipline to discipline. An essay dealing with arts education by Alison Armstrong, struck me. “Visual Literacy: Humanities and the Fine Arts Curriculum” (which you can read here if you please emphasizes the importance of humanities training in arts education. Education in literature, poetry and history assist in better visualizing thoughts and theories. Armstrong’s ideas (and those that buttress them) are completely valid. There is danger in over specialization! Not only can it be boring, but creativity too can be stifled.

Armstrong mentions artists in history who are accomplished writers and musicians, but does not discuss music as an integral part to of visual art education. If the literary can expand and push thought, so too should music. The aesthetics of streetwear are so dependent on musical culture (rather than music in the strict sense), that exploring the musical connection appears, at the surface, fruitful.

I saw Nigo DJ for the Teriyaki Boys a few months back. Now, to be certain, Nigo competently covers the decks without displaying any real musical genius. However, his musical forays are indicative of the cross pollination of streetwear and several forms of music (often more accomplished than Mr. Number Two). Theoretically, both the DJ and streetwear designer share similarity in cobbling together bits and pieces of pre-existing material to formulate a new sound, aesthetic and cultural product (and BAPE is famous for liberally “remixing”). But, this is not new to either exercise. Ginsburg and Burroughs played with cut ups well before this, happily experimenting while holed up in a cheap Parisian hotel. Here the literary and aural come together, as the rhythm of the spoken words changes with the reforming of each given work. With streetwear, the music and the visual product remain separate, despite obvious influence and suggestions of compatibility. There are, of course, references to music in much design, but it is a visual created to compliment rather than stem from the sounds.    

Music has, and does, influence art (no groundbreaking thought here). An exhibition of Romare Bearden’s collages at the National Gallery was wonderfully narrated (via audio tour) by Winton Marsalis. This connection, between collage and jazz, simply and clearly relayed by one of jazz music’s great orators hammered down a simple point — artists of different mediums are often attempting to use their chosen vocabulary to explore the same ideas. The joy of the audio tour came in Marsalis reverence for Bearden’s work, and sense of shared agenda.  With jazz and painting connections to emotive phrasing can be challenging for people (like myself) who are not cognizant of the nuances in each.

Streetwear, and much of music’s complimentary visual, avoids this problem all together. Rock (and its many derivations) and rap being the two keystone musical genres informing street culture as it stands, allow for literal to visual interpretation. And so, we get lots of lyric inspired graphic, often text based. This has set the standard. My essential question here is: can sound really begin to push and influence the visual?

I’ve been thinking for some time about this, and reached no real conclusion. Perhaps it is fruitless. There are obvious roadblocks too. For one, the idea of literacy as it applies to non-letter based arts. In some respects, it is so much easier to understand visual arts than to understand (really understand) music. Literary, visual and aural arts all intertwine in fascinating ways, and require separate vocabularies for discussion and dissection. The Annales School, founded by Febvre and Block, championed new studies of history focused on everyday lives. Sound was an important aspect. For example, in my work, I have pondered how electricity changed the environment of the tattoo shop in the late 20th century. Essentially, what people heard, and what people hear, is as important to a full examination of life as what they tasted, felt, heard, read and saw.

Since a vague sense of history (read nostalgia) seems so important in current design, where does that sense of sound history fit in? Above, I identify what we may call the precedents for musical inspiration in visual street culture. Armstrong’s notion of the danger of specialization does not apply as concretely to street culture as it does to arts in the academy. People have broad and diverse interests. They do not, however, often articulate those interests in broad view. The danger comes in narrow thinking rather than narrowly focused efforts. It seems that the wide lens approach of the Annales School could be equally beneficial to design (in the streetwear sense), as it was to pushing history back to the concerns of everyday life.

Let me now attempt to round back to the impetus for this discussion — Visual literacy and humanities education. There are many courses offered in music, and in my experience they rank quite low on the priority of many students. The visual and the literary are privileged, and pop music, especially, has limited appeal to most academics. In reverse, pop music often replaces the literary in street culture. Recognizing that, more creative interaction between sight and sound seems very possible. Promoting and exploring the wonderful dialogue that already exists between music and streetwear beyond the base impact might just be an avenue for creating new cultural forms that some people are starved for. 



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