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How did you find your passion for designing contemporary classical music album covers? When I started freelancing for Denmark’s national record label, Dacapo Records, back in 2004, I knew nothing at all about classical music and practically nothing about Danish culture, either. All the references were totally alien to me! There was no budget to buy pictures—these were the days before online picture archives and image sharing—so my only option was to create or photograph my own cover art. I just did my best with the limited resources I had.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but it took me many years before I realized that if I started talking to composers and enquiring about their artistic ideas, then I would do a much better job of presenting their music. At first, I was very intimidated by the artists and hyperaware of my lack of musical knowledge, but I found that if I was honest with them about it, they were more than happy to explain their ideas to me. Making this new commitment to the artwork meant that I had to be very generous with my time. It paid off, though, because I discovered a world of inspiration waiting for me, and my job became much more fun.

Tell us about the types of covers that were being designed for contemporary classical music albums when you were first starting out. What frustrated and excited you about them? When I started out, Dacapo’s existing cover style really, really confused me. The covers typically involved a solid red background with an old painting set in the middle—no matter if the album was for historical music or contemporary music. The covers were full of text set in random serif typefaces, and as if that wasn’t busy enough, there would be various logos placed in each corner.

Nothing excited me at all about the covers; in fact, I found them totally depressing. I guess that’s why no one else wanted the job. Classical music was just not cool. The covers didn’t just fail at attracting new listeners, they actively repelled them! I was new to Copenhagen, though, and I needed work, so I took the job. On the upside, I had the chance to experiment with a new approach, and I couldn’t make them worse than they already were!
Contemporary classical music is often thought of as elitist and difficult. That is so wrong!

A CD cover is only 4.7 by 4.7 inches. What does this limitation mean for your designs? CDs have a restrictive format—really small and square—so they demand a design that is simple and immediate. That presents a constant challenge for me because art music, by its very nature, is complex. I’ve learned to not say too much in the cover artwork, but rather hone it all down to one clear visual idea. Hopefully, that idea contains several elements of the ideas behind the music. This is much easier said than done; you have to be patient and do your research.

How do you research to create more meaningful album designs for the composers you work with? I have to work quite hard to understand what the composers are exploring through their work. If at all possible, I’ll have a conversation with the composer and dig into her or his ideas. Composers are, after all, the ones with the most insight into their music. If a conversation with the composer is not possible, then I’ll try to talk to the musicians or other experts, read essays and whatever material I can get my hands on—and listen to the music, of course!

For composer Jexper Holmen’s album Oort Cloud, I sat with Jexper and the accordionist, and we talked about this crazy, hour-long album Jexper had created where he pushed his musicians to their absolute physical limits. He said that the music “doesn’t give a damn about you” as a listener. So we decided to take that principle into the cover design and came up with the idea of filling the cover—as well as the inside of the entire 24-page booklet and all the surfaces of the jewel case—with random code. The listener, who is used to finding an informative essay accompanying the music, is instead confronted by pages and pages of gibberish. One reviewer wrote, “If prizes were awarded on the basis of user unfriendliness, this CD would be in line for a Pulitzer.” We counted that as a success!

What tools do you use to create album covers that draw audiences in? I’ll use anything at all to make a cover: paint, cutouts, photos, printing techniques, algorithms, you name it! One time, I made a collage out of gaffer tape. The goal is to reflect the ideas behind the music, so I need to be very flexible in my approach. The musical universes I encounter are incredibly diverse.

Budgets are very small, though, and timelines are usually very tight, so I’m under pressure to find and create visual material both quickly and cheaply. Often, this means looking for images in the public domain to use as my raw material. For example, for the album death speaks for composer David Lang, I wanted to represent death personified on the cover. I found a historic image in the US Library of Congress’s archives of a creepy old man leering over a young girl. But when I cropped tightly in to his hand on her shoulder, it became exactly the image of the album’s song “Death and the Maiden” that I was looking for—tender and haunting like the music.

What excites you about the future of design in the music industry? I like that CDs are dying out. That might sound funny—to be happy that the format I’ve been working with for the last decade is becoming obsolete—but after designing over 300 CD covers, I’m looking forward to working with alternative formats, whether they be physical or digital. Just making a vinyl cover with its much larger scale is exhilarating.

I’m very much a 2-D designer. I like to work with the absolute stillness of a picture rather than moving images, so it’s an interesting challenge to see how 2-D design can work online. Time suddenly becomes a much greater factor. I look forward to exploring how to tell stories through images and music online.

What have you learned from working with composers? Inviting composers into the design process can be great inspiration, but it also has its dangers: the music is close to their hearts, and it can be hard for them “see” it through others’ eyes. That makes my job much more difficult, and there is always the question of who should control the design: the graphic designer, the recording artists or the recording label. It can be a tricky three-way balancing act.

Finding a good solution is a process, and you have to trust it. It helps if you are able to listen to others, stand up for your own ideas when challenged, are willing to accept that your impressions are not always right, and are prepared to put in extra time when the solution isn’t easily come by. I’m often challenged on all fronts when working with contemporary music, which is probably why it has held my fascination for so many years.

What led you to publish your book Seeing New Music: Contemporary Classical Music through the Eyes of a Graphic Designer—and release it now, in digital form? Contemporary classical music is often thought of as elitist and difficult. That is so wrong! It’s contemporary art in musical form and every bit as relevant and exciting as visual art.

I realized a couple of years ago that, through designing CD covers, I’ve had access to some of the most exciting composers living today, and my visual approach to understanding their music could help others discover this amazing genre. So I wrote a collection of short stories where I am very concrete and as honest as possible—I wanted to write about my challenges as well as my successes. For example, designing the album Steel Hammer for composer Julia Wolfe was really a case of me failing again and again to meet the composer’s vision. I was about to give up, but ultimately, Julia changed her mind about how the work should be represented, and my “wrong” design became right.

I’ve just released the full book in its own website so it becomes a living publication that I can update with new stories, and the music itself can also be included. Check it out!

What keeps you inspired? The purity of the assignment. Combining text and image to represent something as abstract as a piece of music is about as perfect a design assignment as I can imagine. You are very constrained in the format, but totally free, creatively. Each assignment is a puzzle to be solved—requiring both conscious thought and instinctive gut reactions.

What advice do you have for young creatives who want to work in the music industry today? My advice is more general: Look at the job you have and ask yourself, “Is it possible to take more initiative here?” Rather than waiting to be told what to do, think about what interests you and see if it’s possible to contribute more of yourself to the assignment. If you succeed, it will make the work more exciting and rewarding.

Get really good at communicating with people about your ideas and what it actually is that you do—it’s a huge part of the job and something I’ve personally struggled with, especially when I was young. Finally, develop and know your own process—it’s the framework for what you do. When you are pushed out of your comfort zone, you will need your process to keep you grounded. Learn where you are willing to compromise and where you are not.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1972, Denise Burt has lived and worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, since 2000. She was educated at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland and spent six years in London as a freelance designer and illustrator, learning the ropes through a variety of advertising and design companies. Since 2003, she has worked as an independent graphic designer for a range of Denmark-based and international music clients. Burt works in many different media and formats, but designing artwork for recorded music has been her main output. In 2015, she published a collection of personal short stories called Seeing New Music: Contemporary Classical Music through the Eyes of a Graphic Designer, which is now available online at seeingnewmusic.com.
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