Filling in the Blanks of a Cryptic Brian Eno Album Cover

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Brian Eno Album Cover

Just as great records are sometimes brought low by awful art, so do mediocre albums often benefit from covers that outperform the music they advertise. Then there are records whose jackets (real or digital) hang loosely, with at best cryptic connections to the music.

One such cipher is Brian Eno’s 1978 album Music for Films, an early collection of ambient tracks. Its cover is a murky beige with brown Helvetica lettering at the top edges. It seems designed to recede visually, asking listeners to project whatever they want to see onto its blank surface; more plainly, it looks somewhat like a paper bag. Eno apparently intended the songs to soundtrack imaginary films—perhaps adding strong visual cues on top of musical ones would simply have overdetermined things.

John Bertram, an architect who runs the blog Venus Febriculosa (and is also behind a project to reconsider the problematic cover of Nabokov’s Lolita), recently launched a competition to redesign the cover of Music for Films. This is not because he thinks it’s fatally flawed; indeed, he describes it as perfect. But he’s interested in visual alternatives that engage more directly with the music, filling in the blank that’s there now. (He also writes, “[W]e prefer difficult projects.”)

His jury includes several Eno collaborators; the Print columnist Rick Poynor; Julia Hasting, design director of Phaidon Press; and Geeta Dayal, who recently wrote a book on Eno’s 1975 album, Another Green World. (Poynor himself wrote about the contest earlier this month on Design Observer.) Entries are due September 1, with a $500 cash prize at stake; more details can be found here [PDF].

I recently spoke to Bertram about the creation of the mysterious album art and why he started a competition to redo a cover he loves.

How did you first encounter the record?

In college, in the mid-1980s, my friend Tim McGowan (an integral figure in my musical development) owned a bunch of Brian Eno albums, and he introduced me to Music for Films. I probably purchased the CD in the early ’90s, during my Eno phase at architecture school. At any rate, it’s only in the past several years that I’ve really begun to appreciate the album. Admittedly, it had previously taken a back seat to Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, not to mention Before and After Science and Another Green World.

I don’t have a physical copy of the album anymore, but Wikipedia credits the cover photo to Ritva Saarikko, then Eno’s girlfriend. What do you know about the creation of the cover?

I know nothing about the cover itself, and there’s no design credit (which I think is an important tidbit!), just the photo credit you mention. Actually, it’s a bit of a shame about the photo on the back cover. I would prefer that it not be there at all. Everything else about the album is so mysterious, in a way, and then there’s a photo of Eno (a very nice photo, by the way) with a big fat border, and it nearly gives away the cleverness of the cover.

The cover is a monochromatic beige with Helvetica lettering. You write that “it’s not so much designed as intentionally left blank.” Why do you think he made such a departure from his other visual output? And how is it in dialogue with the music?

I’ve been looking at the cover and listening to the album quite regularly for several weeks now, and it remains as marvelously enigmatic as ever. The title, the cover, and the music are wonderfully unified (I’ve always wanted to throw around the term Gesamtkunstwerk!) If you accept the conceit that the pieces were intended as film music, and were collected together for that purpose but otherwise have no relationship to each other, the “blank” cover is consistent with the notion that this work is not intended for an individual who will sit down and listen to the entire album as a musical suite. The fact that the 1976 promotional version of Music for Films (of which 500 copies were produced) was supposedly sent to film directors for their consideration reinforces this. And while it’s debatable whether these pieces actually were intended as film music, if you take the cover to be an extension of that conceit, it was clearly meant to appear as if it were not appealing to a consumer in a record store. But of course, there’s a lot of potential meaning in a blank cover, and in this regard it seems to mirror the music. I find that the pieces invite my participation in a way, and perhaps one can imagine filling the cover’s blank space with one’s own images, thoughts, ideas.

You write that “Music for Films perhaps already has the perfect cover.” Why then hold a contest to redesign it?

I think there are other ways of looking at the album. For instance, what if Music for Films actually is a unified collection of pieces (as I believe it is) and the title is not a generic descriptor but something more evocative? In my opinion that completely changes what the cover can be. My personal belief is that Music for Films is not, in fact, an album of music for films. (If this sounds banal, keep in mind that in the mid-’70s the art and business of film music was very different than it is today. Music supervisors did not exist, and musicians were not scrambling to write film music. Now, of course, the number of well-known musicians scoring films or creating music pretending to be film scores is scarcely smaller than the total number of well-known musicians. As a result a lot of music has become “cinematic,” which is perhaps not such a great thing.)

Shortly after its release (as noted on later versions), Eno rearranged the order of the pieces into what he felt was “a more satisfactory track sequence.” That’s a strong hint right there. So my narrative goes something like this: Brian Eno had an album’s worth of material lying around that he wanted to release—rather short, mostly quiet pieces that did not make it onto Another Green World or Before and After Science, but he needed a concept to tie them all together. That concept was “music for films,” which is e
ven less literal, when you think about it, than “music for airports.”

How do you expect designers will approach the cover? How would you?

I have no idea, and that’s really the fun of it. I can’t wait to see what people come up with. It’s also an honor to have Rick Poynor, Russell Mills, Geeta Dayal, Frith Kerr, Julia Hasting, and Brad Laner involved as judges (most of whom have some relationship to or affinity with Brian Eno), and I am excited to see what their take will be!