Writing

Fanfare for the Uncommon Man:
The Official Concert Tribute Album, 2018
Illustration by Jerry Lofaro

A tradition well explored in the visual arts is the connection between music and representation. Music deals with the intangibles of pure abstraction —organized sound that creates a mood – and then disappears. No one actually owns music due to its lack of concreteness. You truly can’t say that you own a Beethoven Piano Sonata, but you can say you own a recording of it.

Artists have always been inspired by music and have applied it to their work. The predicament has always been one of what exactly to depict. Music is not the tangible item like an apple, and it has only been a recent phenomenon that musical representation has not relegated to the realm of figures holding harps or angels with trumpets. Consider works by Kandinsky, who believed “shades (colors) resonated with each other to produce visual ‘chords’ and had an influence on the soul.” His more well known works are among the first to veer into a true “non-objective” style where his goal was for music to translate into color, shape, form, and pattern. Successful or not, his attempts to visually represent music into a tangible form was a heroic effort to move art away from life as we all see it and know it.

The 1960s brought to the visual arts a new approach – what Phillip B. Meggs in his seminal text, “The History of Graphic Design” calls the era of “conceptual art”. Graphic design practitioners moved away from direct life to create visual metaphors that could be easily recognized by a mass media saturated audience. Milton Glasers’s image of Bob Dylan with rainbow hair comes to mind. The image is basic – Bob Dylan is a deep character that creates musical colors out of air. Again, the intangibility of music is now represented through the conceptual devise of a rainbow as hair. Big melodies and their accompanying ideas spring from this troubadour poet’s brain.

Coinciding with this era of Conceptual Art was the birth of a style of music known as Progressive Rock – or to its fans Prog Rock. A mixture of rock and roll, hard rock, traditional and regional, pop, metal, and a healthy dose of classical and romantic aspiration. (As well as a wide variety of other musical references to numerous to list). A true kitchen sink of musical vocabularies from which to draw on for the composer – sometimes one influence at a time, sometimes all influences within one work. Add to the mix fantastical narratives of dreamed up phantoms, wizards, ogres, battles, and dystopian or utopian scenarios.

At this juncture, the meeting of conceptual art and progressive rock proved an irresistible mix. Catering to a fan base of a mostly testosterone-driven, drug induced youth market, illustrators and designers began targeting their work towards this demographic. Consider the fantastical work of Roger Dean or the surreal work of Mati Klarwein. Put the needle on the record, sit back and ponder the hidden and multi-faceted narratives of the album cover that can, may, or might enhance the sounds emanating from the speakers.

Highly powerful is that of visual suggestion. Combine a work of music with an illustration that refers to a battle scene and the obvious consequence will produce results of more battle scenes. Without that visual aid the interpretation may take the listener away from the intent of the musicians. Consider Aaron Copland: take away the title “Appalachian Spring” and its associative American agrarian visuals and you could easily apply it to a factory in the Soviet Union.

Turning attention to the works of the “super-group” known as Emerson Lake and Palmer (aka ELP), the full flower of the kitchen sink finds its realization. Mixing rock, British music hall, blues, pop, and self-indulgent flights of solo instrumentals, the trio produced musical works of determined narratives that defied (or inspired) a visual interpretation. So complex is the music’s story line that album illustration is all but necessary to help this interpretation. Absorb the sonic vibe, refer to the visual aid, and find yourself in serious fantasy land.

Jerry Lofaro, an illustrator with a deep interest in progressive rock music was asked to reimagine an early ELP album cover for a tribute concert performed in honor of band member Keith Emerson’s untimely death. In response he has created an album cover that works itself directly into the genre of the music along with all of its associations.

Based on a 1971 album cover illustrated by William Neal, it takes an armadillo inspired image into a newer current place. The original work rendered with a loose hand and bright colors, easily falls into that first generation of conceptual artists. The image is of an other-worldy hybrid creature of natural and mechanized form self-referentially called a “Tarkus”. A cannon emanates from the creature along with a tense face threatening all that gets in its tank-like way. Skeletal bones are on the horizon show that he is the master of the realm. (it would never be a she in this super-masculine genre).

The threat though is half-hearted – with a wink to the audience – this is indeed a cartoon creature that can cause no mayhem beyond its bright rainbow colored ground. The year the art was created still has one foot in the brightly colored, drug inspired world of the late 1960s. The creature could easily fit into a scene of the Yellow Submarine movie. A nowhere creature, threatening on the outside, but lovable on the inside.

Move forward 46 years to the current day. The years of listening, thinking, dreaming, and obsessing over the music of ELP brings us a new treatment of the Tarkus. With the field of conceptual illustration enduring and growing in sophistication, greater effects of a more literal style have emerged. Abandoning pencil and paint for computer technology – along with the trend of image appropriation, the boundaries of conceptual thinking have expanded exponentially.

2018 is not 1971. The current atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust compounded by social media, have brought about a general sense of dread and tribalism. Attitudes and emotions of current events are found within the iconography of present day artworks – with the genre of prog rock illustration easily taking the lead.

Tarkus has been transformed from the playful-aggressive creature of the past into a plainly aggressive cyborg. Corrosion and destruction displayed in Lofaro’s hyper-realistic form allows the creature—now armed and armored to the maximum—to run rampant over a no-mans land of skulls, brittle ground, volcanoes, storm clouds, lightning, and putrid smoke. The aggression is furthered by the tank tracks being filled with glowing embers and the well worn turrets. The original stood vigilant, as a protector, cannon on display, the new version is rampaging and attacking indiscriminately.

The most evident casualty is the piano keyboard. Ironically, the main instrument for the band is now dust. Tarkus does not think, he just blindly destroys. Another casualty, the rainbow of the 1971 version, is now relegated to a thin horizon and is ready for the graveyard as shown by its smoking remains. Bones are no longer neatly piled, but tossed about without regard for dignity. Strikingly added is an erupting volcano, spewing rainbow lava. A metaphor for the bleeding remains of an open and inclusive society that the beast is set to destroy.

Lofaro, an accomplished artist and photographer has created a perfect work of music-inspired art that embodies the current mood of western society. Aggressive, selfish, quick to react, black and white in outlook, and above all cynical. The music of ELP which once could be described as a kitchen sink of positive energies has been updated for the present where mistrust and myopia are the new normal. Appalachian Spring has been transformed into Nuclear Winter.