Illustrating music and working small: a Soundcloud thumbnail

Illustrating music and working small: a Soundcloud thumbnail

This week’s project is two exercises in one: it’s about illustrating music, and also about creating an image that still looks good as a small thumbnail. Actually, make this three exercises, since it’s also about creating something for someone else, unlike all the projects I’ve tackled so far this year. Someone else being Olivier, aka my husband.

Olivier loves music, all kinds of music. With a special predilection for what I can only describe as mathematical or abstract music. Think contemporary composers like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, or in a less obvious way, rock bands like King Crimson. Speaking of King Crimson, O. recently spent hours re-creating one of their tracks, Discipline, by playing all the parts on his electronic piano, the musical equivalent of copying master painters to understand how they work. He uploaded the work in progress on Soundcloud, where it sits looking all sad and anonymous with a default thumbnail.




So my mission, should I choose to accept it, was to create a new thumbnail. Interesting challenge. How do you illustrate music? Especially music that is not particularly narrative or evocative? I took a very straightforward approach: I chose to illustrate what I hear at the beginning of the piece, and took into consideration how the piece is built, which this Wikipedia article describes better than I could: “a repeating theme with subtle variations introduced over time, creating a hypnotic effect (…) The composition undergoes many time signature changes. There are two main guitars (one played by Robert Fripp the other by Adrian Belew) which often are played each in a different time signature, giving the song a chaotic and intense feel. Many times the guitars play similar patterns, but one drops a note making them go either out of sync or change time signatures.”

Feeling a little lost? Tell me about it. I can’t even imagine how those guys manage to play that on stage without getting confused. Something about being a pro, I imagine, and rather special even among the pros. Here’s what the music looks like on screen in Logic Pro, the music application O. used to stitch all the layers back together.




Below is an overview of how my image evolved. My first idea was to have cubes represent the notes played by the guitars, like the little dots on the image above, with curves representing the bass. To illustrate the subtle rhythm variations, I superposed shifted cubes, and used blue and red because I wanted it to look like a slightly blurry 3D image as seen without the proper glasses. The bottom row shows another version without the bass, that insists more on the rhythm variations.





In the end, here are the three main contenders in situation:



Just let me pause a moment here to notice that those two could be pattern material.






I generally rely very heavily on colors and textures in my work, so working smaller was interesting as the perception of colors in relation to each other changes, and the texture is far less visible, even if it still makes a difference in the final result.

O. seems happy of the result (phew), now all he needs to do is pick his favorite. And as you may have noticed, there’s another track waiting for a thumbnail, Electric Counterpoint, by Steve Reich. Even more abstract. I see lines moving forward and going back in circles. Anyway. If I stay on track, I’ll be back next week with another image that must look good as a small thumbnail, but nothing to do with music this time. And now I’ll go listen to my own favorite King Crimson song, Starless, in all its 12-minute long glory. See you next week!