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Classical music and atheists: Art and context

It’s the holiday season again. And concert halls are bursting with various classical music concerts. Seasonal favourites include things like Händel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But have you ever stopped to consider how these pieces might sound to non-Christian listeners? If you haven’t, here’s a little tongue-in-cheek demonstration.

Of course, there is a lot of classical music with themes that are not religious. So the claim about “most classical” here might be a slight exaggeration. And then there are pieces that are so beautiful that one is just swept away by the music no matter what the lyrics are. But there are lot of average pieces that are not so lucky.

Usually for me it is important to understand the context of an art piece in order to really enjoy it. And if the context happens to be something completely nonsensical like “our beard-dude is great, all praise him” which is then repeated for the next 60 minutes, it can get quite boring, or ridiculous, and usually both. And it’s not that I would not understand it. I was brought up in the Christian religion and culture. I just let go of the religion when as I was old enough to make my own decisions.

Of course, there is lot of other culture too which is silly or does not make much sense. But I think the effect is worse in Western classical music as it is often taken so very seriously. The whole dressing up and being all pompous combined with the nonsensical content reaches a completely new level of ridiculousness.

It is sad to think how much energy, effort, and talent has been spent on this inane stuff in the last 500 years. Hopefully our culture is finally moving on from that. Perhaps we can now spend the next half a millennium writing really beautiful pieces about the Easter Bunny.

Happy midwinter everyone! Our journey towards light has begun again.

Visiting Alois Senefelder – inventor of lithography

In Berlin, there is a metro station named after him and a statue in his likeness. Another statue of him can be found in the town of Solnhofen. But if you actually want to visit Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, you need to head to Munich’s Alter Südfriedhof cemetery. And what could be a better way to spend a sunny autumn afternoon.

Alois Senefelder's grave in Munich.

Alois Senefelder invented lithography in the late 18th century and with this planographic printing method revolutionised the printing industry. Today, lithography has been replaced by offset printing, but it essentially follows the same planographic principles of Senefelder’s invention. Some people like to emphasise the difference, but basically offset can be considered merely an extension of lithography. Also modern process colour printing (CMYK) is a kind of continuation from chromolithography.

Before Senefelder printing was done mainly by letterpress, which was invented by Gutenberg. Letterpress is a relief printing method, where the printing area sits higher than the non-printing background. The basic relief method was invented by the Chinese already in the early centuries CE, and was used in Medieval woodcuts. Relief printing was followed during the early Renaissance by the intaglio method which was used, for example, in drypoint engravings. Here the printing area consists of engraved cuts which sit lower than the non-printing area. Ink is first applied to the entire plate but then the plate is wiped clean so that ink remains only in the grooves. When damp paper is pressed against the plate, the paper sucks the ink from the grooves. In planographic methods the printing and non-printing areas are on the same level and the separation is done chemically. In the original lithography the printing area was drawn with an oily substance on stone slabs. When ink was applied it would stick only to the oily areas and wash away from the plain stone surface.

Infographic of three main printing methods: relief or letterpress, intaglio or engraving, planography or litography

Several books erroneously state that intaglio replaced letterpress, woodcuts, and other relief methods because is was supposedly a ‘better’ or ‘more accurate’ method. This is incorrect. Letterpress and relief methods remained the common printing methods until about the mid-twentieth century. Intaglio was never a commercially viable option for printing texts. In a limited and purely technical sense, intaglio does allow to print images with ‘higher resolution’ or in other words with more details. But it is impossible to mix printing methods. Intaglio can not be printed together with relief in the same print run. Technically, one can print text with letterpress and images with intaglio but this means putting the pages through two different print runs on two different machines. Or printing image pages and text pages separately and combining the pages during the binding stage. This means higher costs and complications. Perhaps viable for artbooks and such special publications, but not at all for regular newspapers and books.

So for a long time letterpress coupled with relief image blocks1 remained the staple printing method. That is until litography came along. Even then letterpress remained the champion of printing methods for a few hundred years. But now we have moved to an era where letterpress is only done by few specialist shops and hobbyists, while planography has taken over. Most of the printed material we encounter today – books, newspapers, posters, etc. – are produced with some planographic method. And all of these methods can be considered offsprings of Senefelder’s invention.

If you are a fan of Senefelder you can visit Munich to see his old neighbourhood and his grave. The grave is quite easy to find, it sits almost at the north-eastern corner of Alter Südfriedhof behind St. Stephan’s church.

Senefelder's grave can be found at the Alter Suedfriedhof cemetery in Munich

Another reminder of Senefelder can be found a couple of hundred meters from the cemetery. Next to the southern U-bahn entrance at Sendlinger-Tor-Platz you can find a little plaque on the wall indicating that it is the location where Senefelder died.

Today the block has all kinds of shops. You can go home bragging about how you enjoyed a coffee or a kebab at the location where Senefelder died. Or pop in to the gay bar Kraftwerk just around the corner. The annual gay Christmas market Pink Christmas is also held in front of St. Stephan – pretty much half-way between the memorial plaque and Senefelder’s grave. Seems Senefelder rests in lively surroundings.

  1. This is why Thomas Bewick’s method of wood engraving was such a big deal. It allowed higher quality for relief printing. []

Twitter favourite button and meaning of symbols

Twitter changed their favourite button from a star to a heart. According to them, their test groups loved it. Perhaps it makes more sense to new users. Perhaps it reflects our contemporary culture where Facebook sets the standards with their ubiquitous like-button. Maybe, in the long rung, the change might be a good thing from an UI/UX perspective. But several people have expressed that they feel uncomfortable with the change. They note that favouriting something is not the same as loving. While others might not see what the fuss is about. After all, stars are also often used to express love and admiration.

What I find interesting is how, with this seemingly simple change, Twitter has hijacked and distorted the past actions of their millions of users. Because a rose is not a rose by any other symbol.

I think the main problem here is not just that the symbols – or signs to be specific – would have different meanings, but that they differ in the range of their meanings. A heart is more monosemic while a star is more polysemic. Monosemic sign has a unique meaning that everyone agrees on. Like our everyday Indo-Arabic numerals: we do not need to have a debate about what 3 means. In contrast, a polysemic sign has multiple meanings, leaving its interpretation somewhat ambiguous and subjective. We could also talk about pansemic signs, like abstract art, which do not have any precise meanings but are completely subjective. (Read more about this, for example, in Jaques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics.)

Some treat these three as distinct categories, but I think it’s better to see these as points, or areas, with fuzzy boundaries on a continuum. Even the basic numerals can mean different things depending on the context. Mostly they are clear and unambiguous, but there are occasions where they take on numerological, mystical, or metaphorical meanings. For example, think about trinities in many religions, a 1% badge, or 88 which can be used to express good luck, love and kisses, or xenophobia and hate.

So I wouldn’t say that a heart is fully monosemic. It can have some different meanings. But among these meanings, at least in today’s Western culture, the link with love is quite dominating.

In comparison, the star does not seem to have such a strong link to any single meaning. Instead, it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can be used to express love and admiration, but it can also be to simply mark something as important.

This latter meaning has been reinforced in recent decades by software and web interfaces. The star has been a symbol of bookmarking in Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers. Also in Gmail you can mark messages with stars to signal that they are ‘important or to indicate that you need to reply to them later’.1

This is far from loving things. There might be content that you would never ever endorse, but might want to bookmark. Actually, you might sometimes bookmark content because you vehemently oppose it. For example, you want to show the unbelievable stupidity to other people, or you want to store it for criticising it later.

No wonder some people are rattled. Suddenly Twitter claims that they love things that they merely bookmarked in the past. Of course, to those who always saw the star button as comparable to ‘like’ on Facebook, the symbol change does not make a big difference.

I myself belong to the first group. The change made me feel horrible. I wasn’t even sure what was in my old favourites, but I just didn’t want to take a chance that there was something I object to.

And by hijacking my past actions, Twitter suddenly turned into one of the bad guis. I felt similar disgust towards them than I do towards politicians who promise something before the elections and then do the opposite when they are in power. While Twitter’s actions are hardly as significant to what happens in politics, there are similarities. Both cases are about distorting past opinions of their supporters/users.

The solution? Delete all past favourites. You can do this individually by clicking them, or you can use something like unfavinator to delete them in bulk. Googling will also offer you other alternatives.

  1. Of course, this is not an universal UI convention. For example, the Character viewer in OS X is the opposite, using the heart symbol for Favourites. []