Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Desaturate the Web (It's Only Fair)

In the nineties I founded a music company called BLISTER, so christened because I wanted to convey to Interactive art directors, animators and casual game makers (among our principal clients) the impact the strategic use of branded sound might play on the senses. This in the days when audio was often deemed 'too big' or 'too slow' (not to mention, 'unessential') in the construction of an online experience.

But in the last decade sound has gone from being considered too unwieldy for the Internet to being unquestionably integral to just about any and every interactive experience one can think of. And interactive audio production has become an art form and recognized profession unto itself.

The funny thing is:

We've all visited sonified web sites that provide an option to MUTE sound. But is there just one website that offers us the option to DESATURATE the color spectrum, so that we can view the thing in a more palatable Black and White? No, ha, but I wish there were, because the presumption still is that if anything is going to be annoying; it's going to be the sonic elements, not the visual elements.

Of course, they didn’t say that about my blue hair in 1983.

–But here lies a powerful argument regarding the weakness of design (and subsequent necessity of sonic enhancement). In a previous article I wrote:

"If design is the rocket, sound is the fuel that lifts it into our imagination, serving to imprint the image (of the vehicle it accompanies) into our memories, and even if the sound itself is goes unremembered."

Or vice versa: Practically speaking, Sound and Vision compliment each other, thereby creating an integrated experience; and by extension a seamless memory of, and emotional reaction to, a given event.

But in fact, visual fashions fade faster from our interest than even Top Ten Pop songs. The eye becomes jaded far quicker than the ear. TV commercials from the eighties look ancient. But today's kids and adults alike still enjoy dancing to Brit Pop Robo-Candy such as Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware's wonderfully askew Human League and Heaven 17.

Similarly, Leo Delibes 'Flower Duet' ('Viens Mallika' from the Opera 'Lakme') will likely outlast the famous Tony Scott Directed/ Howard Blake Arranged TV campaign for British Airways (that used the piece as a score).

Were the 'Flower Duet' actually commissioned by British Airways as its core audio branding asset, so much the better, but perhaps original commissions are no longer necessary to establish authentic branding. What I mean by that is, ideally, account executives at the airline, or attached to the airline's branding company, would have long beforehand distilled the BA mission, values and our corporate goals into an Identity Style Guide or Brand Manual that included parameters for execution of audio.

If initiated, the creative brief should have resulted in the commission of an original work that effectively conveyed the BA brand through music (Assuming, also, they secured a living composer whose talent was substantially equal to that of Delibes).

A few other pre-existing tracks have indeed managed to communicate a full breadth of a brand message. Chevrolet's use of Bob Seger's 'Like a Rock' comes immediately to mind. Yet, I think, overall, licensed (or otherwise non-commissioned, existing) pieces work best (in most cases) when they are part of a campaign, not when they are re-purposed as the fundamental branding asset. Although, as mentioned, sometimes such works can indeed be successfully retrofitted as a brand asset.

The argument does not apply to filmed or theatrical entertainment, for the simple reason that cinematic entertainment has longer legs than the advertising for it, or anything else for that matter.

Marketing, as with any campaign, is by its elemental nature, a temporary operation. In contrast, Fine Art, such as Music, is timeless, by default. Sure, any given recording will eventually sound dated, but rearrange the track using modern production tools –or simply play the thing yourself (if you're a musician)– and all of a sudden the music jumps back to life!

Pantone's 2007 Color of the Year was Chili Pepper. This year it was Blue Iris. Next year it will be something else. The eye continuously demands novel ways to distract it. And yet the western ear, give or take a few hundred years, will never tire of C Major.

Not to say some commercial art doesn't hold the same appeal as fine art. Some of it does, and I'd like to think that some of that which is held in such regard also included my participation. But note, a commercial cycle in the US might run for as little as 13 weeks –in the case of a Superbowl spot, ONE day– while every little ditty from a cheap pop song to a symphonic theme is routinely capable of surviving generations.

No doubt, shortly after the copyright runs out on many classic 20th century jingles, future composers will use them as fodder for more substantial works, much the same way Aaron Copeland borrowed the Shaker hymn 'Simple Gifts' as a theme for his ballet score, 'Appalachian Spring'.

Yet I would be surprised if any accompanying video (to those classic jingles) eeked out any further use beyond their value as vintage pop kitsch.

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