Denise Burt: Seeing New Music
06 May 2015
Denise Burt is a New Zealand-born, Copenhagen-resident graphic designer who for the past 13 years has designed Classical CD booklet covers, mostly featuring contemporary Danish or American music. Over 12 years, Burt has quietly revolutionised the way Dacapo Records looked at the front covers of their discs, first by replacing the once ubiquitous red frame with a white (or sometimes black) headline template for the text, thereby allowing the artwork to dominate the visual impact of each release. Eventually she persuaded the label to dispense with logos and much of the text from the front altogether – ironically achieving a more unique style than their classical competitors (although this is a not unfamiliar approach in the world of commercial pop and rock). The result is that Burt’s designs now supply a visual guide or hook for the prospective buyer to assess the content on an instinctive, almost emotive level rather than just as a matter of repertoire choice.
By her own admission, Burt had no musical training so in parallel to reprogramming Dacapo’s visual imagery has come her own discovery of contemporary classical music, driven by the recordings she designed the covers for. The process was mutually beneficial, as she herself has said elsewhere, ‘I often listen to new music for my own pleasure now. I've been converted!’ This intriguing new book charts that conversion through 24 of her designs, mostly for Dacapo but also Cantaloupe Music (for composers in the Bang on a Can collective), by illustrating the result and discussing the processes behind each.
What is refreshing about this story is her openness and honesty. Burt includes her mistakes and failures as well as successes, even the white headline template she had argued for at Dacapo, which she came to feel was a compromise of her mission to ‘conquer the cover’. While I had rather liked the now ancient red design, I had noticed over the years when reviewing and purchasing Dacapo discs how the redesign altered my perception of the label into something more modern and forward-looking, less cosily Danish.
The early phases of her conquest of the cover are illustrated in the introduction, which graphically charts the progress from the legacy red-frame design – produced as a footnote on the fourth page (the pages are not numbered) – through a set of nine of her earlier covers from 2003 (her first Dacapo design for From the Merry Life of a Spy) to the first logo-less issue, of Nørgård’s A Light Hour, in 2010. Nørgård issues feature prominently in the selected two dozen designs (reproduced as full page artwork and bereft of logos and – in most cases – wordage), and his music, appropriately, challenged Burt in like kind, whether the ‘torn tricolour’ produced for the opera Nuit des Hommes (2004) or the fractal-like ‘Tree Bender’ used for Libra and carried over onto the rear inlay and back cover also(2012; as was that for Titanic). In one instance, for the disc of Helene Gjerris singing songs by Nørgård, she used a live model – Gjerris herself – in a startling and vivid manner. Other favoured composers include Pelle Gudmundsen Holmgreen (the cover of Mixed Company is almost, by design of Burt and the composer, the abnegation of design!), Julia Wolfe and David Lang.
Lang’s death speaks (Cantaloupe Music, 2013) is a triumph of the designer’s art in taking elements from various sources – including a decidedly creepy late Victorian photograph – and fusing them into a wholly new work of art. Of her latest artwork, those for Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer and Lang’s Love Fail take simple images to encapsulate an element at least of the music as a narrative image, whereas for Michael Gordon’s Rushes or Rune Glerup’s dust encapsulated, ordinary images are sublimated into the abstract to represent something of the composer’s art. In the case of Holmboe’s ‘Chamber Music (I)’, an image of multiplying bacteria in a Petri dish illustrates – illuminates one could say – the internal organic processes of Holmboe’s music while standing on its own as a vivid piece of art.
In a cultural climate
where there is considerable, daily navel-gazing, bewailing even, of how to make Classical music – let alone the frightening contemporary stuff! – relevant and appealing to today’s audiences, this is a book the relevance of which utterly belies the modesty of its scale. Burt’s journey shows familiarity breeds not contempt but informed enjoyment, which she recycles to spread the message further afield in the best way she can, through her art. Seeing New Music
is beautifully produced and I have found it a delight to read – and to return to.