Saturday, February 28, 2015

An Aesthetic Conundrum: Design and Music

I just read one of the New Yorker's mega-reads, this one devoted to Sir Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple and one of the most powerful and influential people in the world. As the fellow who designed the MacBook Pro, iMac, MacBook Air, Mac mini, iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, Apple Watch and iOS 7, he has been instrumental in Apple's growth to the point where it is now by far the largest company in history (by market cap), making up 10% of the NASDAQ, and personally responsible for the sale of one and a half billion units of technology. Like Steve Jobs, he is famously fastidious in his taste. Quoting the New Yorker:
a hundred thousand Apple employees rely on his decision-making—his taste—and that a sudden announcement of his retirement would ambush Apple shareholders.
Speaking as one of those Apple shareholders, Jony, please don't retire!

A huge part of his talent and responsibility is in fact, the possession of a highly-developed taste. Quoting from the New Yorker article:
Ive manages newness. He helps balance the need to make technological innovations feel approachable, so that they reach a mass market—Choo Choo—with the requirement that they not be ugly and infantile. Apple has made missteps, but the company’s great design secret may be avoiding insult. Antonelli, of MOMA, described Apple’s design thoughtfulness as “a sign of respect,” and added, “Elegance in objects is everybody’s right, and it shouldn’t cost more than ugliness.”
These are tasks that are heavily freighted with aesthetics, are they not? Not ugly and infantile implies beautiful and, hmm, useful? Practical? Efficient? Certainly the word "elegance" strongly involves aesthetics. Everything I prefer about the iMac over the host of PC designs has to do with aesthetics understood in a wide sense. There is never anything insulting to the eyes, for example. (One clue as to who is winning the design wars is that you see Dell copying Apple all the time, but never the reverse.)

Now, finally we come to the conundrum: when did good taste and music, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor become utterly estranged? And how can we get them back together? I say this because the people that create things of such superlative industrial design that I have no hesitation at calling them beautiful (such as the iMac and the iPhone), seem to have no exceptional taste in music. The design studio plays a mix that includes Counting Crows, Hootie and the Blowfish, Yaz and the Rapture (according to the New Yorker article).

What about Ive's musical tastes? Again, from the New Yorker:
Ive told me that, since childhood, he has been “consumed with work.” It’s unrewarding to question him about the movies, books, and night clubs of his youth, although at some point he acquired an abiding taste for dance music, and he has since become friends with John Digweed, the British d.j., and the members of Massive Attack. (He is also a friend of Yo-Yo Ma.)
What should we gather from this? I suppose the overwhelming fact is that his musical tastes are accidental and uncultivated. He "acquired an abiding taste for dance music". I'm not quite sure what this means: ska or EDM? In either case, something that was just in the environment, not sought out. Being friends with someone like Yo-Yo Ma probably doesn't mean that he is a Bach fan, it probably just means that they move in similar social circles.

"Work" includes a life-long devotion to knowing and understanding everything about industrial design. And, for the last few years, software design as well, as Ive has been given responsibilities for not only the box, but what comes in the box: the user interface.

What happened to music? Why is it that the powerful and influential people in the world listen to elemental pop music (called in the article "douchepop") played through superbly designed sound systems while they design superb phones and computers? Why is it that industrial design is so highly cultivated while music is not? We listen to what we are used to and what we are used to is pop music. Sorry, if I am offending anyone by calling Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish "pop", but from my perspective, if it ain't Bach or Shostakovich and it's got a back-beat, it's pop:

Is this all just sociological? Somehow classical music got tarred with the wrong associations: chamber music and the aristocracy, Hitler and Wagner, stuffy clothes and no clapping between movements? And then came the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen and everything had to be either psychedelic or authentic and Prokofiev was neither?

I suspect we might need a small army of musicologists and sociologists to sort out the history of this.

I am left with the disturbing image of a room full of the best designers in the world, crafting through sheer brilliance, imagination and very hard work, absolutely superb products like this:

While listening to this?

I think I could hoe corn or polish silver while listening to that, but certainly do nothing more complex. As I quoted in the Miscellanea yesterday:
you can't write with music playing, and anyone who says he can is either writing badly, or not listening to the music, or lying. You need to hear what you're writing, and for that you need silence.
Is design something that requires no thought? Is it more like hoeing corn than writing? I doubt that.

But the conundrum remains: why is it that the standard of today is to have extremely sophisticated and cultivated tastes in things like design, but to have unsophisticated and uncultivated tastes in music?

Or do you disagree? Do you think that enjoying pop music is actually as cultivated and sophisticated as listening to Gothic organum or Mozart trios?

Please comment!


Anonymous said...

certainly an intriguing post;on a related note a couple of links:

keep up the good work!

Bryan Townsend said...

Very interesting links! Thanks, John. I wasn't aware of this influence. Makes one realise once again how very far music tends to be away from the visual arts. Could we imagine a composer, such as Stravinsky or Sibelius, having a similar influence on design at a company like Apple?