Story: 3/29

Michael Gordon

Clouded Yellow

Cantaloupe, 2018

Migrating butterflies & Witnessing 9/11

An album of contemporary classical music can often contain several pieces, each with it’s own strong and unique theme. This creates an great challenge for the graphic designer – how do you represent each of the pieces with a single cover image?

Michael Gordon’s release Clouded Yellow – with four pieces performed by the Kronos Quartet – is one of my favourite examples of using an intuitive approach to find a visual connection between the works. The pieces on the album were very different: the eponymous work imagined floating in a dense cloud of migrating butterflies while another Sad Park used recordings of very young children telling of their experiences of witnessing 9/11.

The programme notes revealed some common musical themes in the four works: blurred harmonies and melodies, thick atmosphere, chords sliding in and out of tune and complex interlocking patterns.

With the title work in mind, I searched images of yellow butterflies, close-up butterfly details, then blurry pictures of butterflies. These all seemed too literal so I searched images of clouds, then of air turbulence, then intersecting turbulent clouds. I’d created many sketches but nothing had really moved me yet. I started to search random patterns of movement, fractals and chaotic pendulums.

Eventually I found a stock image of rose petals fluttering on a black background, these shapes reminded me of butterflies without actually being butterflies. The image was too sparse so I worked on repeatedly layering and blurring parts of the image until I had created a cloud of shapes that I was happy with.

I continued to work with the compostion and placement of this cloud. When the shapes finally sat at the top of the frame, suddenly an image of papers and debris falling from the twin towers and the idea of a cloud of yellow butterflies collided in my mind. There was an ambiguity in the emotional tone of the image now that made sense to me: both celebration and mourning could be present.

David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet initially rejected this cover. I was downhearted and prepared myself to start the design process from scratch. After a couple of days though, I received an unexpected email:

“Dear Denise,
I’m home now and have revisited your proposed cover for ‘Clouded Yellow’ … Also, I re-listened to the entire album again with your cover in sight. Then last night I saw the closing of the Winter Olympics. As you know, everything we do is constantly bathed in light cast by all sorts of things—not least of which is the high school massacre and 45’s stupid, evil idea to have our teachers armed with guns in their classrooms.
This is all a way to say that I’ve changed my mind and think we should go ahead with your cover exactly as is.”