Audiences expect to hear new music at MusicNOW concerts, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series, which opens its 2016-17 season Oct. 10. But this year something else will be new. The series’ curators have commissioned original art, designed expressly for the four MusicNOW concerts, to be used for program books and promotional posters.
Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, who joined the CSO last season as CSO’s Mead composers-in-residence, immediately thought about adding visual art to the MusicNOW palette. “Illuminating conversations can often be found at the intersection of multiple art forms,” Adams said. “It was an opportunity,” said Ogonek, “to really begin to develop some original artwork that can tie a particular visual language to the series.”
A visual component already had been built into MusicNOW programs. “There are the projection screens, and the physical program notes are very different from what you find at the CSO,” Ogonek said.
The CSO approached one of Chicago’s leading design firms, Thirst, for the project. Founded in 1988 and located in the West Loop, the design collective has produced work ranging from sleek murals for O’Hare Airport’s international terminal to marketing materials for the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird. For the Music NOW initiative, Ogonek and Adams collaborated with John Pobojewski, one of Thirst’s principal designers, who also happens to be a trained a classical musician, with degrees in both percussion performance as well as visual communications from Northern Illinois University. “We started speaking with John about a year ago,” Adams said. “Since he’s such a seasoned designer, we wanted to give him the space to ‘do his thing,’ so to speak.”
Pobojewski also has experience in developing materials for other classical-music groups. For more than two decades, Pobojewski and Thirst designed marketing materials for Lyric Opera of Chicago. “We wanted to work with someone who was based here and familiar with the city,” Ogonek said. “It’s turned out to be a fabulous collaboration on so many levels.”
Pobojewski and Kyle Green, a Thirst designer, came up with ideas for four posters, each reflecting the music to be played on one of MusicNOW’s four concerts. “Our thought was why not create a series of four unique illustrations, one for each of the concerts?” Pobojewski said. Adding to the anticipation factor, each MusicNOW poster will be “unveiled” at its respective concert. Ahead of each program, details from each poster will be used to tease interest.
Some concertgoers also will receive a souvenir. A limited edition of 150, 18-by-24-inch, high-quality art posters, featuring the design for that program, will be passed out for free on a first-come, first-serve basis after each concert.
Thirst’s team decided to go with the concept of a collage, with “the collages being a sort of direct metaphor for the process of putting a concert together, the idea that you create a new experience from several small pieces,” Pobojewski said.
For the season’s first concert, which features music by Chicago composers, the poster is a collage of photos of famous Chicago sites. The design reflects the concert’s role as the closing performance of the Ear Taxi Festival, a six-day event presenting works, most of them world premieres, by more than 80 Chicago-connected composers, which began Oct. 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
“The Ear Taxi collage is a cut-and-paste collection of cellphone photos of Chicago architecture,” Pobojewski said. “The idea is that people would actually be putting together their own impression of Chicago through these visual fragments. That’s a metaphor for the concert itself, which is a collection of works by composers who have a Chicago history.”
The poster for the next MusicNOW concert, on Nov. 21, which is devoted to works by minimalist composer Steve Reich, is a black-and-white design that plays with the letters of Reich’s name. The image mimics the way Reich repeats small melodic and rhythmic fragments in his own music. For the April 3 concert, devoted to modernist master Pierre Boulez, the CSO’s longtime conductor emeritus, Pobojewski used strict algorithms, echoing the intricately plotted structure of Boulez’s music. For the fourth MusicNOW concert on May 22, will feature the world premiere of a violin concerto by Ogonek, the poster depicts a geometrically deconstructed violin and the vibrations generated by string instruments.
The fact that Pobojewski is a trained musician made the design process especially rewarding for Adams and Ogonek.
“We had pretty regular meetings with John,” Ogonek said. “We actually got to see the project grow. The most amazing part of the whole process was that Sam and I got to talk a lot about our curation of the concerts and the ideas that were most important to us about the pieces we chose. And John took that information and ran with it. When he came back to present the work they had done, he explained the visual language he had developed in basically the very terms we had used to describe the music we had programmed. It was really, really cool.”
Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 t0 2006, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: A collage of the four MusicNOW posters (clockwise from top left, for Oct. 10, Nov. 21, May 22 and April 3) designed by the Chicago-based company Thirst.