Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Visual Music - The City of Joy by Deems Taylor

As the age of fully intangible media inches closer and closer, I've spent too many years now lamenting the death of physical packaging.  Oh, sure, we can still get pathetic reproductions of covers on pocket-friendly surface sizes, but they don't really exist, and publishers of all stripe have been forced to reduce the complexity and artistry of covers and posters to be recognizable by iLight while trying to fall asleep.  Before anybody accuses me of Old Timer's Disease, it's important to note that I'm 25, and what may sound like crippling nostalgia coming from a man much older than myself should be a grave problem coming from the 18-34 demographic.  The music publishing industry has seen many cutbacks and simplifications over the years, and is currently in a black period what with IMSLP and the Sibley Music Library putting up public domain music online for free; the meat-and-potatoes standard rep almost entirely predates 1923, the U.S. cutoff date for copyright.  The inferior funding, combined with the standardized use of template-based digital imaging software, has made the prospect of interesting packaging for classical music dead in the water.  I have this theory that when people are unable to rely on templates for design they get more creative with form and content, and that whizz-bang graphic design software is largely responsible for the embarrassing, crippled state of movie posters and book covers we see today (don't even get me started on "floating head syndrome").  My point is that in order to find great, original artwork for sheet music, you have to go backwards, more often than not several decades.  Visual Music is a series dedicated to great sheet music cover art, and before you say one word about old one-sheet pop songs from the turn of the century I'll assure you that the series will stick to classical music.  Antique stores are chockablock with one-sheets, and even a cursory glance at the internet's selection will reveal hordes of wacky and stylish pop music covers from the days of yore.  Great covers for classical music are harder to find; I'll get into the why when I feature evidence for that fact in a later article.  For the maiden voyage, let's showcase a piece by a guy you probably only know by sight: Deems Taylor.

(Click for larger view)

Deems Taylor (1885-1966) is primarily remembered as the bald, bespectacled man who hosted Fantasia, as well as a music critic and general promoter of classical music.  He also composed his own works, and they are largely forgotten today because of their general mediocrity, aside from the orchestral suite Through the Looking Glass.  A setting of poems by Charles Hanson Towne, The City of Joy (1916) contains some quite nice music, and much like Looking Glass it's vernacular is a laid-back, plush tonalism reminiscent of early Hollywood scores.  Taylor originally wanted to become an architect, and perhaps because of this training he was able to do his own decorations for this score.  As the poems are a celebration of urban life, the view from the cover's window depicts residential Manhattan with excellent linework, limited-yet-appropriate coloring and an eye for detail and perspective.  The placement of the image off to the left is an inspired modern choice, and the font points towards the Deco stylings of the decades to follow.  Taylor also made small decorations for the title pages to each song, such as this one -

While the engravings and cover wouldn't be too out of place among illustrated literature at the end of the 19th century, the latter has a slightly jazzy feel, and much of the music is reminiscent of lounge piano writing of the first half of the 20th century.  Perhaps these elements factored in to this performance of "The Roof-Garden", song no. 4, uploaded as part of a revival attempt of Taylor's music by the pianist George Small.  I don't know if he plays in this video, but I do know that the singer took to the music by way of modern jazz, and strangely enough it doesn't seem too jarring.  It's a nice little song about the envious seclusion of a private urban garden, and moments of pause and unusual harmonic movement suggest an awareness at the stark inequality of the owners of such miniature paradisi to the own-less.  There are many more covers to come, so if you sharpen your eyes between now and then we'll all have a great time.


1 comment:

  1. Great to see this. The City of Joy Song Cycle, from which this youtube performance comes, is available here: