by Steve Dollar
As the compact disc approaches its obsolescence as a consumer item, the promise of “perfect sound forever” eclipsed in the blink of two decades, its shimmery surface and palm-sized economy have never been more purposeful as an artistic medium. Back in 1993, when Jeff Hunt first began using the CD as a tabula rasa for his design concepts, the form was pretty much a joke. Record labels still thought of the CD as just a radically downsized version of a 12-inch LP, not an occasion for visual innovation. CD covers were typically a second-generation rehash of the original album jacket image. The surface of the disc itself was an unadorned silver, stamped with black type that dutifully replicated the artist’s logo or the album title with a perfunctory track list and/or production credits in fine print. The cover/booklet that might contain printed lyrics or liner notes was a basic affair: Hard-to-read type, a few photos maybe, nothing special. Cardboard longboxes and tough-to-open hard plastic blister packs added to the surplus of unimaginative junkiness. Design-wise, this was Dullsville. Mediocrity would be a lofty goal upon which to rise.
Against this backdrop, Hunt discovered the potential for a stealthy revolution. One of the earliest designs conceived for a release on his Table of the Elements label, in 1994, won mainstream accolades from Time magazine, which lauded the package as a “mini-work of art.” What caught the newsweekly’s attention? Nothing so complex. The cover used a deliberately blurred photograph on a metallic red background. There was no text. But that’s all it took, because the state of CD design was so bad. Few record labels cared enough to find designers who could appreciate the medium as a unique forum for ideas that could reshape the way of looking at sound.
The exhibit before you illustrates in copious and colorful detail how one designer, with the aid of some gifted associates and the agency of several independent record labels (including his own), took on the challenge. Since 1993, Hunt has worked on more than 150 music packages in various capacities, most often as art director or executive producer, overseeing the now sprawling output of Table of the Elements and its affiliated labels Xeric and Radium, as well as important historical projects with the Austin, Texas-based Revenant label. The music made and cultivated by such artists as Tony Conrad, Captain Beefheart, John Fahey, Cecil Taylor, Rhys Chatham, Charlie Feathers, Dock Boggs, Jim O’Rourke, Faust, Derek Bailey, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Keiji Haino, Arnold Dreyblatt, Charley Patton, Harry Smith, and scores more, is at once among the most radical and deeply rooted of the 20th century, transcending time and place through the agency of the vibrating string, the resonance of the drone, the terrifying beauty of electric amplification, the hypnotic power of repetition, and the revelatory genius of cranky individualism. How does someone begin to represent that in a visual manner?
The trick involves some old-fashioned alchemy. Everyday commodity has to be constructed as both miniature museum and theater. No longer a mere object, it now becomes a site in which one can endlessly indulge a sense of wonder, love and, yes, obsession. It’s not often that someone can cast an influence on a broader design aesthetic — think Blue Note in the 1960s, with its hip Reid Miles album covers — but as this sizable body of work took shape, that’s exactly what happened.
In the beginning, things were fairly simple. The Guitar Series (1993-94) was as basic as it got. These vinyl 7-inch singles, 14 released in two volumes, arrived in a format most popular on jukeboxes during the golden age of rock’n’roll, and later kept spinning by the DIY instincts of punk rock. These black cardboard custom-designed sleeves fold together with tabs – no need for glue – with credits printed in silver ink on an antique movable-type letterpress, using custom manufactured plates. Part of their visual interest is those inks. Metallic inks were not common, because they were very expensive, and difficult to design with. Hunt taught himself how to make effective use of them, learning on the job. This was the most radical departure he could make while still using standard materials and machinery, like jewel-case inserts and offset printers.
The designs quickly began to mutate in novel and pleasing ways. One example is Gastr del Sol’s Harp Factory on Lake Street (1995). The Chicago-based duo featured David Grubbs (post-Squirrel Bait) and Jim O’Rourke (the composer and producer now widely known for his work in Sonic Youth and with Wilco, some of whose earliest solo recordings were released on Table of the Elements). The package sports all gold ink on the outside sleeve and no text – only a detachable, Japanese-style “obi” (the word for a sash that holds a kimono together) covering the spine. Open it up, and the same holds true. Absolutely no text anywhere. All the usual data is laser-etched into the CD’s surface. It was nearly impossible for Hunt to find a vendor capable of doing this in 1995. None do it now. Open the insert all the way, and there’s a surprise: a photo of a waterfall, rendered entirely in metallic inks (gold, silver, copper). There is no white space.
The Gastr design, as well as all the other pieces from this phase, is meant to confound expectation, even as it unpeels multiple layers of concept. Hunt intends for the listener to be lured deeper and deeper into what, more typically, is merely something functional. You have to go through several motions to get to the core of the design, where something is revealed that might never have been imagined in a two-dimensional glance at the record shop. This imbues a flat surface with uncanny three-dimensionality. The releases packaged in this style evoke a genuine sense of purity and clean, aesthetic purpose: a kind of sublimity that chimes with the label’s name and reaffirms the very ascetic art (minimalism and its offshoots) to which it is committed.
Each new release offered stimulating variations in color choices, paper textures, and custom fetishization that chimed with the persona of each artist represented on the recording. Japanese “noise” guitarist Keiji Haino’s I Said, I Am the Son of Nihilism (1995) beautifully “echoes” the obsidian hollow of his sound. The package is done in all-black paper, obi, no printing, with the title laser-etched on the CD. Remove the insert, and you’ll find a custom die-cut shape that opens to reveal the artist in a portrait printed in silver ink. These are not packages you open merely to get at a CD. Instead, they pleasure the fingertips, indulging the listener’s caress. The New York guitar innovator Loren Mazzacane Connors, with Long Nights (1995), is provided with a similar effect in the completely opposite way: text on obi, no printing, and a snow-blind white, clear tray with an oversize poster.
As a variation, check out the Tony Conrad/Gastr del Sol single Ten Years Alive on the Infinte Plain (1995). It looks like a standard 45 (it has two records inside), but the jacket unfurls into a huge poster. The left-hand third has text running as a column from top to bottom. Text is metallic copper; background is metallic violet. The other two-thirds is just solid violet, except for an inch from the right side where there’s a thin copper stroke that runs from top to bottom. The only reason for that huge area to exist is to make room for the thin line. Barnett Newman lives.
The most ingenious design of the period is Faust’s Rien (1995), which takes conceptual gamesmanship to a level unheard of in album package design, which usually stalls out at lenticular looky-looky gimmicks or zippers stitched into a photo of what we imagine to be Mick Jagger’s crotch. This one is utterly extreme, playing on the meaning of the title – French for “nothing” – and the German art-rock band’s notorious reputation for Dada pranksterism. The package features solid silver ink throughout a saddle-stitched book. It’s abundantly clear that this is not an insert but a booklet. This signals a recurring theme: extra material is added to the package to underscore intent. Play the CD, and the first thing you hear is a voice announcing, “C’est Rien du Faust”: This Is Nothing by Faust. Then it abruptly launches into the first track. At the end voices return, in a hard stereo separation, left and right channel, and read the credits in English and French. Spoken credits. The entire package has one word printed, and not on paper; on the CD surface, it reads, very faintly, almost invisibly: Rien. Pushing the limits even further, the design for the gatefold LP version of the release has the title printed once,
on one of the silver LP labels. There’s also a four-foot-tall poster (the largest available) that is a Warholian flood of silver ink.
Hunt’s studies in college with seminal underground filmmaker Stan Brakhage, as well as the influence of alchemist/archivist Harry Smith, fed his imagination, which tripped fantastic on multiple layers of artistic and intellectual intention. “Those big deliberate fields of color equated duration,” Hunt says, “which was appropriate given the minimal nature of many of the recordings.”
These blasts of pure color came with the first wave of CDs that Hunt designed. They were meant to provoke, and win attention for his budding label. But his vision began to mature as he started to incorporate text, and make it purposefully interact with the music it described, while still deploying non-standard materials. Around this time, he began working with another designer and art director, Susan Archie, and conceptualizing the design for a series of releases for the Revenant label – brainchild of guitarist John Fahey and his manager, label owner Dean Blackwood.
Blackwood touts Hunt as Orson Welles to Revenant’s Citizen Kane. “He didn’t write the script, exactly, and, sure, many of his lighting choices were later overruled by the studio,” Blackwood confesses. “But in large part Revenant’s undergirding, its look-and-feel, part and parcel with the ‘raw musics’ in which we traffic, was divined by Jeff. I’m quite sure Revenant never would have gained such a foothold in the inclined’s imagination without Jeff’s vision for what we could be.”
Hunt describes how the projects continued to evolve: “The releases started becoming larger, not just in size and scope, but significance. We were now doing archival, documentary projects that were reassessing and redefining artists’ entire careers. That previous opaque, conceptual style worked for those CDs, but here we were telling people’s stories. We were suddenly working with text, and lots of it, and we had to use it well. That’s when everything became super-legible.” Let’s state clearly that this designer, even at his most willfully abstract, was never down with the whole Raygun magazine/David Carson stuntwork that dominated the 1990s, rendering text deliberately illegible for purely visual effect. “I disliked that, because the point is to effectively convey information, to initiate a dialogue. So that’s when the materials themselves became part of the pallet.”
Such increasingly encyclopedic creations recalled Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosities, or the sublime shadow-box constructions of artist Joseph Cornell — reliquaries of exotic minutiae, crafted with wood, metal, vellum, cloth, foil, embossed stamping and even pressed flowers. The period includes such data-rich packages as Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s 1998 five-disc set Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), which Hunt art-directed and Archie put together for Revenant. The package’s trippy tone was inspired by photographer Ed Caraeff’s images from the sessions for 1969’s freak-for-all epic Trout Mask Replica. Caraeff took photographs using infrared film, images that float in a sea of psychedelic flora, a small detail from one shot that was expanded with Photoshop’s rubber stamp tool: Day-glo inks add an extra layer of psychotropic good times to the project, which also was released in a deluxe double-vinyl series of three volumes.
(Attentive consumers of Hunt’s work will notice the same effect often used in promotional materials for Table of the Elements and on occasional releases, which use a selection of images taken outside the label’s former headquarters in Atlanta – known as The Esplanade, and swamped in kudzu.)
Rather more modestly, yet still intensive, was the 2000 release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music, Volume Four, also on Revenant, which proposed the never-issued final batch of material that Smith had collected and curated for his landmark anthology –the one that inspired Bob Dylan, Greil Marcus, and a generation of 1960s folkies, and was reissued to much fanfare in 1999. The handsome mini-book, hardbound in black cloth, features 96 pages of text printed in an antique font on thick, plain brown stock, utilizing archival photos of Smith, and images of various artists (generallty of 1920s and ‘30s vintage) framed in ornate cameos. Notes by notables (Ed Sanders of the Fugs, historian Dick Spottswood, Marcus, and string-benders Fahey and John Cohen) are clearly legible and cleanly laid-out, and the whole thing fits in the palm of a hand. Much as it resurrects the long-lost souls of mountain ballads and banjo stomps, the project also is designed to re-inspire the joy taken in the well-crafted object. It’s homey. And anyone who ever grew up in the Southern United States might mistake the set as a miniature of a country Baptist hymnal or a family album, left gathering dust and mites on the mantle of a long-cold fireplace.
Stepping up to their most ambitious effort yet, the Revenant gang unleashed the epic Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton (2001), which a few months later snatched up three Grammy Awards, including one for best package design. The L.A. Weekly gushed its praise: “So opulent it verges on the pornographic.” Blackwood had the idea of making the set look like an old phono album. This called for the fabrication of a 1930’s style 78-rpm record album, sheathed in ‘imitation’ leather and “a cloth-like substance.” Its contents include 7 bound kraft sleeves, which hold 10-inch cardboard facsimiles of vinyl records. Each “record” has a tiny rubber dot spindle upon which sits an actual CD. When you open the album, the effect is that of 78s sitting in their sleeves. The package also includes detailed reproductions of period cover art from such vintage labels as Vocalion and Paramount, as well as 6 pull-out perforated reproductions of full-page advertisements for the records from the Chicago Defender, the nation’s top black-owned newspaper in the 1920s. The 128 pages of notes and lyrics are printed in custom metallic inks, and 68 reproductions of decals of the original record labels can be unpeeled. No one had ever done anything remotely like it.
Hunt and Archie trekked to vinyl bins at Wuxtry Records in Decatur, Georgia, and dug up a half dozen old 78s to begin thinking up the package scheme. She created templates for facsimile 78 labels from photocopies of well-worn labels lent by collectors. Fine-tuning the details became difficult once the project went to press. For one thing, the printers, accustomed to no-fuss jobs, thought this was insane. Eschewing black ink, the job employed green, red, brown, and gold metallics to reproduce black-and-white. The printers freaked out, but finally were amazed at the beautiful results. Revenant, with Archie handling later designs, went on to win further accolades from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with its 2004 Albert Ayler opus Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962-70), featuring 10 discs archived in a faux-onyx “spirit box.” Lance Ledbetter, a former Table of the Elements intern, worked with Archie on designs for his own Dust-to-Digital label, and likewise scored a Grammy for its first release, the 2003 rare gospel collection Goodbye, Babylon, with six CDs packed in raw cotton and housed in a deluxe 8” x 11” x 2.5” cedar box.
One major fan of all this was cartoonist Daniel Clowes, whose record-collecting loser Seymour (from the Ghost World comic) would probably spend his lunch money on the Revenant catalog (but only the vinyl editions). “They have such a cohesive design sensibility,” he has said. “There’s a certain unity to all of the CDs, like using metallic inks on the old photos, that makes it somehow unique. There are a million CDs of old music with the same photos – it’s like they just reuse the same five photos that look flat and black on the CD booklet. But somehow, Revenant manages to charge the information with something modern and vital and timeless. I always think: How much could this have cost, and how few people are going to buy it? There’s a load of pain already built in.”
True, but it was all of the “no pain, no gain” variety, a reminder of what Harvey Keitel once said in regards to his performance in “Bad Lieutenant”: You want more, you pay more. And yet, having worked his way up through a sharply minimal approach to embrace the tangibly maximal design of totems like the Patton box, Hunt began to loosen up his conceptual rigor in favor of an ever-expansive variety.
Playful wit is written all over Tony Conrad’s Bryant Park Moratorium Rally (1969), a recording made by the violinist, composer, filmmaker and video artist, in which the historic rally against the Vietnam War could be heard ringing through the window of his 42nd loft, and also coming over his TV set. It’s a document, and also a conceptual game in which differently mediated versions of the same reality are juxtaposed simultaneously (one stereo channel for each). Hunt shunned the obvious choice: an image from the rally, or one similar. Instead, the flat cardboard cover bears a sketch of a 1960s-style TV set, antennae proudly vectored, in black against a white backdrop, with the title done in a simple typewriter-style font in the upper left corner. Open the cardboard and there’s the same TV on the right flap, with an open window facing from the far left. On the back, the same window and Conrad’s name, duplicating the inside design. Liner notes are in typewriter font on watermarked typewriter paper. It’s supposed to look like it could have come out of an office of the era, no plastic, matte paper, matte varnish on the disc surface. The design is insanely simple, yet very elegant in its conception. It also speaks to an ongoing desire and knack for swerving away from the expected, even from the designer’s own established motifs.
Marking the 10th anniversary of its first CD release, electro-acoustic harpist Zeena Parkins’s Nightmare Alley (2004) is an imaginative remake that expands on packaging that was not originally designed by Hunt. The piece is wrapped in a lurid, yellow and orange sash that suggests a canvas freak-show banner. Strip it away, and a custom-made lacquered pine box in midnight blue invites the viewer to slide open a tray top bearing the legend “Ten-in-One Main Entrance. Ten-in-One is carny parlance for the freak show (which is also the title of one of Parkins’s roiling improvisations, and the subject of the 1947 film noir that inspired the album’s title and theme).
Inside the box,the album art and an essay are presented as a folio, each page a separate piece of dark-blue paper, printed with a light-blue metallic ink. The package evokes an ominous, sexy, mysterious mood, perfectly matched to the music and its maker.
The discovery of original ways to illuminate each artist’s intent in a graphic/tactile manner is the distinguishing factor of Hunt’s design, which sustains an increasing element of surprise at this stage. His concepts can as easily riff on pulp culture memes as draw up into the spiritual. Tibetan Buddhist composer Eliane Radigue creates epic meditative drones on an analog synthesizer, and for her 3-CD box set Adnos I-III (2001). Hunt designed a stylized mandala for the cover, with five squares of solid color, printed with five different metallic inks. Inside, a poem by the artist is printed on a folio of five vellum sheets. Each line is on a separate sheet, but layered in such a way that the entire poem can be observed as a succession of slowly fading lines.
Not strictly limited to the compact disc format, Hunt also found new ways to create artifacts out of vintage technologies. The 14-title Lanthanides series, released on Table of the Elements, comprised an assortment of 12-inch LPs, with the grooves pressed onto one side of a transparent vinyl surface that had been screened in metallic or luminous inks. The illustrations were based on centuries-old woodprints of astronomical, astrological, mythological, and meteorological themes specifically suited to the recording – within the realms of fancy and creative license. A live solo electric guitar piece by John Fahey, Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues (1-4), recreates a woodprint of Daedalus and Icarus. As the record spins at 33 RPM, the tragic Icarus flies clockwise up into the sun before plunging into the sea. Again and again and again.
More recently, the landmark An Angel Moves Too Fast To See (2003) gave long-overdue credence to the work of guitarist, composer and bandleader Rhys Chatham, whose long absence from the downtown New York scene he fostered back in the mid-1970s had left his astonishing catalog of performances severely neglected. The 3-CD box set actually consists of two boxes, one fitting inside the other, which sit vertically as if to match the image of a skyscraper that decorates the front. It’s a monolith-in-miniature, testifying to the heft of what Chatham wrought. The color scheme is primarily white with metallic blue accents, but the Robert Longo photographs used throughout the extensive booklet and on the exterior of the boxes have a reflective background that gives off an eerie mirror sheen. This was accomplished by printing on expensive foil-covered paper and board stocks, then overprinting with two coats of white, thus obscuring the foil anywhere but for the background of Longo’s now-spectral images.
In 2006, to commemorate the label’s showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, Hunt conceived A Field Guide to Table of the Elements, a 2-CD multi-artist sampler intended to herald the next stage of the label’s evolution. The standard-sized cardboard packaging is flipped vertically so that it opens like a booklet, displaying a facsimile of a notepad with all the artist and track information briskly jotted in a handwritten pencil script. The discs slip out of simple pockets, with the same manner of text. Disc 2 adds a personalized aspect, with what appears to be an invitation to a party at “The Esplanade,” Hunt’s fabled former residence, whose exterior views onto an ocean of kudzu are reproduced on the cover (infrared thumbnail shot against black and blue background) and the liner note booklet (multiple infrared images against black background). Unspoken but subtly implied in the artwork is a nod to the Southern virtue of handmade pleasures (the pencil script) and regional floral phenomena (the kudzu). You can go home again.
As Hunt approaches the 15-year mark with his label, its vision is expanding. Collaborations abound. Notably, Hunt is adapting the work of the Texas artist Bradly Brown, whose photographs and art pieces utilize technologies and techniques deemed obsolete by a digital age, and resonate with the process of organic decay, scrapheap epiphanies and the reframing of consumer-culture ephemera as accidental poetry. There is also the whopping finale of the Guitar Series, which launched Table of the Elements. Volumes 3 and 4 will feature 12 one-sided laser-etched KPS on clear vinyl in clear sleeves. British artist Edwin Pouncey, also known as the Savage Pencil, will illustrate each disc with separate animals of the Chinese lunar calendar chasing themselves clockwise around recordings by Collections of Colonies of Bees, Ateleia and Benjamin Curtis (from Secret Machines), Thurston Moore, Belong, Rhys Chatham, and Lee Ranaldo.
It’s a fitting burst of activity to celebrate a decade-and-a-half of imperfect sound, an arc that also parallels the rise and fall of the compact disc, and the evaporation of recorded music as something to be represented as a token, a totem, a talisman. It’s really only the beginning.
“It’s like 1993 all over again,” Hunt says. “Everyone is in a panic, predicting the end of album art, the end of art and graphics and visuals accompanying music. Meanwhile, we’re working with designers and programmers, devising lossless downloads, boxed sets for the digital sphere. You’re going to be able to download releases with incredibly deep content, full of video, interactive text, animated graphics — all completely integrated. Content will be vibrant and fluid; you’ll even be able to link to online updates and additions. It will be the album as a living, breathing entity.”
The truth is, and always will be, that people value content, especially when it’s artfully conceived and executed. “You can say that the CD is dead,” Hunt reasons. “But we’re dancing on its grave.”