Harmony and Semantics

Selected posters for the Music Biennale Zagreb, 1961–2011

Visual forms are not so distant from the field created by harmonic structures, on the contrary: the sense-making chain (organizing the structured message or emotional experience) of a piece of music is very much like its counterpart in graphic design. Communicating through music can be compared to visual communication, especially since modern culture has produced synaesthetic combinations of previously unrelated (even nonexistent) creative disciplines. From Wagner’s multimedial theatre through Johannes Itten’s devotion to music, or the experiments of Cage and Cunningham at Black Mountain College, the relations of the visual and the musical have been under careful scrutiny. An awareness of the connection between these two structures of communication is clearly visible in the graphic work promoting the activities of the Zagreb Music Biennale production.

The significance and importance of the Biennale for contemporary Croatian culture cannot be contested. It is especially relevant for that segment of cultural production usually related to modernity - seen as a creative effort to establish some new and previously unknown relations in the face of every ideological interference. The Biennale has reached its fiftieth anniversary, but has always rejected to function as a classical institution, preferring the path of research and experiment in the field of contemporary music. Furthermore, it has always been aware of the need to embrace the visual component in shaping its public image. One can say that from the very beginning the Biennale’s communication strategies were multimedial. The very first Biennale poster bears proof that the public image of the festival on posters or invitation cards would not follow the standard models.

The idea to create a poster with several versions of the same format showed an awareness of the fluid semantic field of the kind of music the Biennale wanted to promote. The dynamic of the forms Milan Vulpe often used for his commercial promotional images pointed to a new meaning. In the same medium Vulpe was conveying another message, telling about the experimental and research-oriented character the Biennale stood for. Throughout this halfcentury the Biennale refused to acquire firm identity and communication standards and
insisted on inspiring new graphic artists and designers to bring innovations into the graphic and promotional presentation of its programme. The posters of Keser and Bourek were typical of an artistic and expressive approach to poster communication, while Bućan, Ljubičić and Šutej reflected a more deliberately rational idea of visual communication closer to the idea and practice of design in the narrower sense.

The relation of the musical and visual can be affirmed by comparing the closeness of the Music Biennale with a manifestation in the field of the arts - the New Tendencies – which appeared in Zagreb at about the same time - in the Sixties. One could also refer to the simultaneous international affirmation of the Zagreb Film Animation Studio. Through these three artistic fields – music, film and visual design - many artists embraced multimedial strategies – among them Aleksandar Srnec and Zlatko Bourek (the latter being one of theauthors of the Biennale poster).

Thus the visual signifiers of music became an important strategy of a music festival which throughout its fifty years has insisted on the decompartmentalization of creative artistic disciplines. Contemporary music shifts the boundaries of sense impressions, and the shaping of visual communications contributes to a better reception of messages. The harmonies of music may lead to understanding, balancing and subduing differences and contrasts in the arts, but in the social context as well. Semantics as a system of meanings expressed in languages, codes or some other form of presentation, incorporates the field of a unified system of signification. In accordance with this, the visual messages of the Zagreb Music Biennale posters may be compared to those created by other festivals, and seen as representative in the Croatian context. A good example of this are Boris Bućan’s posters for the Eurokaz theatre festival in Zagreb, the Split Croatian National Theatre and the Split Summer at the beginning of the Eighties, followed by his works for Eurokaz and the Contemporary Dance
Week starting in the second half of the decade. In this way a relation was established between high-quality cultural events and equally valuable visual promotional material. Bućan created a public identity for cultural institutions and events and confirmed the very high standards of their visual promotion.

The Biennale posters can be compared to other visual communications promoting music which doesn’t belong to the mass industry of popular music. A good example is a series of posters by Mihajlo Arsovski made for the Student Centre Music Salon in the Sixties and Seventies. Another good example are the series of posters and laser disc jackets of Nenad Dogan for jazz productions related to the activities of Boško Petrović and his club and festivals.
In a strictly formal sense these examples differ in motive, genre and creative vision, but in all of them we find a common purpose: to participate in the public cultural domain and to promote clear and recognizable criteria of visualizing music. They also clearly define the identity of the event they promote with the ambition to create semantic constants referring to individual music productions, events and media.

In conclusion, one might say that the production of visual media promoting the Biennale, the posters in particular, are a significant contribution to Croatian visual culture relating to music and the arts, as well as to the creative industry which we call design.

Feđa Vukić, PhD