Today, I saw…

…something on the Internet that nearly made me spit take. It was a new tumblr, Jony Ive Redesigns Things, where users submit Ive-ified redesigns of everyday objects, logos, etc. Check out this Korean flag, for instance:


All of this, of course, is referring back to Apple’s latest redesign of its mobile operating system, iOS 7. Ive has completely revamped the look of Apple’s mobile platform, and with it has polarised denizens of the Internet’s darkest, and presumably sweatiest of corners: tech blog comment sections.

The big to-do has to deal with a design sensibility known as skeumorphism. For those who don’t want to comb a Wikipedia article on the term, skeumorphism is a term describing when something is made to look like something else. Well, that’s oversimplifying it. Maybe you really should just read the article. It has a sweet station wagon pic right at the top!

Folks are concerned because the new iOS will not feature the skeumorphic elements that prior iterations featured. People are also concerned about its Lisa Frank-esque color palette.

The whole battle of skeumorph vs. abstract got me thinking about similar trends in classical music. I was sent a photo a couple of years ago that kind of eluded to this:


Pay no attention to the complication that a Steve Reich/PC comparison brings up for a moment. I think that the real focus should be on the apt comparison between John Adams and the Apple design aesthetic. I look at screenshots of iOS 7 and totally hear John Adams’ music in the background (well, his early stuff at least. Harmonielehre, mostly.).

iOS 7 reminds me of a beautiful post-minimalist soundscape. Of course, this made me wonder whether there could be a musical analog to skeumorphism, as well. To me, the battle of skeumorph vs. abstract reminds me of the Nineteenth Century battle of absolute music vs. program music. The idea that musical ideas can carry extramusical meaning is a lot like skeumorphism, at least for analogy’s sake.

This analogy points out my trepidation with postminalism as a aesthetic, a topic on my mind as I begin to work on my dissertation. For many, the notion of “new” in music is equated with a pared down, ultra-streamline aesthetic. The music has very slick lines, and its welcome pulse and inviting harmonic language are just like iOS 7’s friendly neon color gradients and curves. It’s all just a little too…antiseptic to me. It’s so harmonious, that I don’t believe it to reflect anything real. It’s like anamnesis in reverse. Or something.

The skeumorphism conversation always brings to mind composers using spectral techniques, shedding the semiotic information of the instruments in the ensemble in favor of abstract timbral construction. Some of the sounds that come from Saariaho and Grisey are beautiful beyond description, but it seems like such a waste that they eschew all that context, which can be just as powerful an expressive tool.

It seems too easy, to me, to truss up midcentury aesthetics in wild colours and get away with calling it the music of our time. We live in a world that couldn’t be any less reflected by the uniformity and simplicity prescribed by modernist doctrine, and yet we fall back on it as a signifier for “new.”

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that iOS 7 is supposed to be a tool, and that it needs to be functional above all else. What concerns me is having art that behaves the same way. Is utility a quality we want to appreciate in art? Is it already one that has made its way into our society’s conception of art?

I, for one, would prefer something a little more wild, a little more unbound. I think that we should not shy away from filigree and ornate, overt decoration when it serves our purposes. Perhaps its time that a horn reminds us of a horn.

  2 comments for “Today, I saw…

  1. 07/01/2013 at 9:07 am

    I don’t think a preference for simplicity necessarily has anything to do with mid-century design. People have been arguing about ornate music vs. stripped-down music for a very long time — think of galant composers calling Bach fugues “fussy,” or early Renaissance composers casting aside the chromaticism and elaborate rhythms of the Ars Subtilior. Unlike in the past, though, we now have a cultural landscape in which just about everything is considered “new” by somebody. There are composers of ultra-complex modernism who think tonality is obsolete, composers of stripped-down postminimalism who think ultra-complexity should have died with the end of the Cold War, composers of polystylistic music who think anything with only one harmonic language fails to reflect our information-saturated world, etc. etc. etc. You’re talking as if our society universally agrees that “form follows function” is the way to go, but when I look around, I see warring aesthetic factions everywhere.

  2. 07/01/2013 at 9:12 am

    Also — could you clarify what you mean when you talk about music reflecting something real?

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