Saturday, October 19, 2013

Visual Music - Trains by Roy Agnew

In my article on Roy Agnew I was forced by YouTube's wheel of fate to showcase the slower side of Agnew's oeuvre, and so I was delighted to discover that one of Agnew's most driving pieces has one of his best covers:

There weren't (and arguably still aren't) many sheet music firms in Australia in the '20's, as the majority of music for sale was by British and continental European composers, so seeing an exotically marketed machine-age curtain-raiser by a local boy must have knocked off socks from Sydney to Perth.  As you can guess from the snippet above, Trains is a futurist vehicle portrait much in the spirit of the many '20's "airplane" pieces, including works George Antheil, Leo Ornstein and Emerson Whithorne (even though trains predate cars and planes by several decades).  While the piece itself looks perpetuum mobile enough with plenty of pan-tonality to go around, its cover is what makes it distinctive, as it's about as far away from futurism as you can get without tripping into previous centuries.  Made with thick-brushed watercolors, the train looks like a toy, and if it were to follow that track at full speed it'd fly off the rails.  The title presentation is overwhelmingly bold for the engine below (with the bottom of the T's trunk forming the point of a rail spike), creating a child-like sense of mis-proportioned design and the feel of a sketch tucked into the corner of the page of a larger art notebook, waiting to be brought to life.  There's a part of me that wants to attribute this childishness to a youthful sense of wonder at the sight of a train, an idea only vaguely supported by the piece's frightening tone, but the other part thinks that's giving the art department a little too much credit.  The publisher may have felt the cover didn't properly illustrate the modernism the piece itself mustered, so the inner title page take a turn for the sparse:

While this artwork is a far cry from the piece's menace it certainly brings the deco to the table.  Horsehair brushes are swapped for ultra-fine fountain pens, displaying such a pristine touch and eye for space as to evoke the comics of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo, Gertie the Dinosaur).  It's remarkable how much of the physical presence of a train the artist achieves with a single line.  The lettering is the height of sophisticated restraint, as elegant and spare as a Basie solo.  I especially enjoy the word "by", usually an afterthought or ornament but here an alluring typographical island unto itself.  I can't help but admit that both these covers fail to advertise the mood of the music, but I don't really care - each one stands as a minor gem of inter-war design, and in some ways more rewarding than the music itself.  Lord knows the piano rep didn't need another endless parade of 16th notes passed off as excitement, despite their author's considerable talent.  Also, I'd be in remiss if I didn't feature the seal of Trains's publishing firm, W. Paxton & Co., because monograms are always worth your time.


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