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Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE

COMBINE is the name I give to the aesthetic effect that arises when what we see is reinforced by what we know. That simple term “what we know” includes all those subjective things resulting from culture and education that something we look at makes us think of, remember or recall, regardless of whether or not some designer wants us to or not. If the result is some sort of aesthetic pleasure, then we’re talking about the mechanisms of aesthetic response and in this and similar posts I plan to probe the sources and types of that aesthetic pleasure. I’ll cover Aesthetic Effects Nos. 0:SEPARATE, 1:UNITE, 2:DETACH, 3:ATTACH, 4:EXTRACT in later posts and will start with 5:COMBINE because it’s one of the easiest to understand. I’ll talk about its uses in architecture at the end of this post.

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But first, some Shakespeare. I have Helen Vendler’s forensic analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets to thank for these next thoughts. [Vendler, Helen (1997). The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press] It’s brilliant. She takes nothing for granted. All mystery is there to be analysed. She identifies the structures, techniques and skills that underlie Shakespeare’s Sonnets and which make them Art. People like me welcome this. Some others would rather not know, preferring they stay inexplicable and allow them to remain in awe of the magic and mystery of the creative process. 

The following is an extract from an interview in Paris Review.

During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.

For now, just consider the line “When I do count the clock that tells the time” from Shakespeareʼs twelfth sonnet.

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Upon hearing this, an attentive person with no understanding of English might think the iambic pentameter of the line reminds them of the ʻtick-tockʼ of a clock because the stress on every second of these single-syllable words makes that sound. (Not everybody will recite it this way but that’s okay – it’s a subjective and pluralist world.) Appreciating the meaning of those words depends, of course, upon understanding English. The meaning of that line – its “lyrical content” – is reinforced by the clock-like pattern of sound that illustrates it. We have a combination of tangible and intangible. The tangible sound can be heard by anyone, but the intangible knowledge must be present if any connection is to be made. An attentive listener might also think that the meaning of each line gets determined only on the final word of each line and this forms a secondary rhythm not unlike the swinging of a pendulum. Analysing poetry is tough work. 

Interestingly, there were two or three sonnets Vendler wasn’t able to crack. She said it  was unlikely there was nothing to find – it’s just that she “hadn’t yet managed to find the spring that opens the lock”. Her book shows us that none of this poetic beauty is beyond explanation. Beauty is not the result of magic or inspiration and creativity, but the result of the creative application of knowledge and mastery of the craft. What we think of when we encounter Art may sometimes be spontaneous and uncontrolled, but a poem or any other aesthetic endeavour usually only affects us in a certain way because someone has designed it to do so. That person responsible was following certain rules either consciously or unconsciously and with some aesthetic goal in sight. COMBINE is one of those rules.

* * *

Music has many examples of COMBINE, particularly in opera where characters or events are regularly given signature keys or motifs that shift and develop as the drama unfolds. In Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for example, the climax of the Act I love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly occurs when, after much conversational and harmonic to-ing and fro-ing, Pinkerton and Butterfly gradually sing together and then in unison for the first time, declaring their love. When that happens, they are also for the first time singing in the same key (her, in his) implying that the entire exercise was, after all that, a seduction. Sure, it’s all very well to say that, in opera is a fusion of music and drama and voice, but COMBINE is how they are fused.

.Or how about the famous “Slaves’ Chorus” from Verdi’s Nabucco? In this clip you get to see a bit of what goes on inside an opera house – in this case the one in Oslo by Snøhetta.

The power of this comes from the combination of everybody singing the same song in the same way, made more forceful by the knowledge that they are (playing the role of) slaves. Each person has no identity other than as a slave. The composer is forcing a single status onto the diverse range of human voices and making them into a single instrument where all sing the same.

The juxtaposition of a tangible phenomenon along with some reinforcing knowledge is also found in more recent songwriting. Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye has the line “How strange the change from major to minor”. This is a very literal example of a type of musical illustration that has been in and out of fashion since the Baroque.

The Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song “Canʼt get you out of my head”, famously sung and even more famously performed by Kylie Minogue, makes its eponymous point by beginning with the chorus – unusual enough in itself for a pop song – but also with a fade-in as if the nagging chorus is working its way into our consciousness as would a headache. Click here if you’d prefer a higher res.

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Here’s those efficient lyrics, in full.

“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

Every night
Every day
Just to be there in your arms

Won’t you stay
Won’t you lay
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

There’s a dark secret in me
Don’t leave me locked in your heart

Set me free
Feel the need in me
Set me free
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
I just can’t get you out of my head
I just can’t get you out of my head…

Repetitious lyrics and the repeating of lyrics are two tangible ways of illustrating and reinforcing the meaning those lyrics are conveying. Not only that, the very sparseness of those lyrics also works to highlight the criticality of the problem stated. (Repetition also features in the opening CGI sequences of the video but this is merely the use of a visual means to reinforce the combined effect of sound and lyric. It’s done well.)
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All these examples have the same combination of a tangible phenomena and some type of knowledge combining to create a powerful aesthetic effect. COMBINE is merely one effect in a songwriterʼs bag of tricks.

Or an architectʼs. In this next example, each of the radiotelescopes has the same alignment as the others – a tangible unity. If we understand what it is a radiotelescope does, then we’ll know their alignments are also united in the common purpose of observing the same thing – or so we imagine, since we can’t see it. The power and grandeur of these radio-telescopes is due to their Alignment generating this aesthetic effect COMBINE.

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Here’s an example of COMBINE for Position. It’s a lighthouse standing on a singular landscape feature. There’s the obvious physical unity of one thing and one place but, since we know what lighthouses do, we know it’s not there to look pretty but to warn ships of submerged dangers. This knowledge makes the lighthouse seem more “at one” with its position. The position of this simple building suddenly has that thing called “depth” or – to state the obvious – “meaning”.

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Both these examples require knowledge of the building’s function and purpose. Actually so does this next example of COMBINE, again regarding Position.

church-on-hill

One building dominates one hill. However, if we know it’s a church and have a idea of the basic tenets of Christianity, then the fact that the building’s at the top of the hills means it’s that much “closer to heaven” and thus in an appropriate position to mediate between God and the laity below. Knowing it’s a (Christian) church gives intangible meaning – some might say “depth” to its physical positioning.

This feeling of “at one” with its location is much valued in architecture. Clients like it, reviewers like it, historians like it and (therefore) architects like it.

Much talk about architecture is couched in the language of ideas that forge conceptual unities that reinforce some physical unity between building and land or cityscape. 

Much of this talk is talk about Shape, but Colour and Pattern are also commonly spoken of as “resonating”, “respecting”, “recalling”, being “redolent” of, “chiming”, or “echoing” with some nearby feature. The above examples show how Position can “resonate” with a location and Alignment can resonate with an orientation. So whenever you hear any of these words implying some sort of conceptual unity, just check that it’s not just some simple visual analogy trying to create the impression of a logical design process that led to an inevitable solution appropriate for a particular location. Take a second to ask yourself “Does it really?” If it doesn’t resonate quietly and strongly, it’s most likely just a soundbite or meaningless text to accompany an image.

The effect of COMBINE is a simple yet powerful sense of purpose.