Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The joy of fonts

I've posted before about the ins and outs of editorial policy in musical editions. There's much more to an edition than meets the eye; the editor's views on the music will intrude upon the score even (nay, especially) if the edition is supposed to be an objective, scientific, "Urtext" publication. To get the fullest possible view of a piece of music from the distant past, one really ought to consult multiple editions, and to get to know the original sources and notation. For many performers, this sort of work is tedious drudgery; I love it. Working with different editions, you get to know their distinctive aesthetics - the bright primary colours of 1960s Breitkopf scores, the distinctive marbled texture of a Schott cover, the overpriced Alphonse Leduc scores with their unusual page sizes and advertisements for other publications on the back cover, and the particularly stern anti-photocopying warnings on Chester scores. Digital scores may well be the wave of the future, but I certainly hope not; it would be a distinct loss in humanity and personality.

Entirely apart from the editorial decisions that go into the text, I feel that the actual typography of a musical score has a greater impact on performance than has been generally supposed. This was brought home to me recently when I happened to compare scores by Stravinsky and Schoenberg side by side. The Schoenberg, published by Universal Editions, was all thick beams and florid curlicues; the Stravinsky, published by Boosey and Hawkes, was more streamlined, full right angles and hair-thin beams. Besides demonstrating two different approaches to music typesetting, this seemed to illustrate the differences in the two composers' aesthetics, with Schoenberg's nervous Expressionism and Stravinsky's no-nonsense neoclassicism. See for yourself what a difference typesetting can make to the "feel" of a piece for the performer: compare this 1842 edition of a Byrd motet (free on IMSLP):
with this modern edition by David Fraser (free on CPDL):
There are some obvious differences, of course - the older edition uses C clefs, which few singers are now comfortable reading, and Adds! Exclamation! Marks! - but the typography alone makes an enormous difference to the apparent character of the music on the page. Yet there seems to be no musicological work in this area (the psycho-typography of music?), nor could I find a good general book on the typesetting of musical scores, so I turned to a general typographical source: Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style.

Do your eyes glaze over when you contemplate reading a 352-page book about typesetting? So did mine, dear reader, but approximately half of that length consists of appendices (alphabetical lists of fonts, letterforms, great historical typographers, printing terms, and suggestions for further reading). Do you know nothing about typography and fonts, and think the subject must be deadly boring? Fear not, for I was once as you are: I was vaguely aware that Times New Roman is the Coors Light of fonts, but couldn't tell you how it differed from any other typeface, or what was so bad about it. I picked up Bringhurst's book with some trepidation, expecting to be bored out of my skull.

I shouldn't have worried. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, there are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people, and there is no reason why typography shouldn't have just as much power to fascinate as any other craft. Sure enough, the history of typography turns out to be a fascinating tale of technological, social and aesthetic change. Fonts of the Baroque period seem to capture something of that era's prolix style; the "realist" fonts of the modern era are likewise a product of their time:Bringhurst describes the evolution of letterforms, shows how the typographer's decisions can reinforce or undermine the meaning of the text, and provides some general design principles. A fascinating section describes how the physical measurements of pages can be related to the basic geometrical proportions, and how this aspect relates to the aesthetic appearance of the book, and the nature of its binding.

This seems rather technical, and it is, but Bringhurst is a good enough writer to make the book more than a dry exposition of facts. Besides being a typographer, he is a published poet and has an exhaustive knowledge of languages from ancient Greek to Tsumshian. He also has a gift for the refreshingly unlikely metaphor:
Narrow row houses flush with the street are found not only in urban slums but in the loveliest of the old Italian hill towns and Mediterranean villages. A page full of letters presents the same possibilities. It can lapse into a typographic slum, or grow into a model of architectural grace, skilled engineering and simple economy. Broad suburban lawns and wide typographical front yards can also be uninspiringly empty or welcoming and graceful. They can display real treasure, including the treasure of empty space, or they can be filled with souvenirs of wishful thinking. Neoclassical birdbaths and effigies of liveried slaves, stable boys and pink flamingos all have counterparts in the typographic world.
It is worthy of note that I found this splendid passage by opening the book to a page completely at random.

Bringhurst's book is clearly intended for use by professional typographers first and foremost. Most of his advice is useless to me; I don't want to purchase a pica stick and am not interested in spending time adjusting my word processor's kerning tables or remapping my computer keyboard to facilitate the entry of obscure Hungarian diacritics. But the book assumes no prior knowledge (all unfamiliar terms are defined in an appendix) and can be read with enjoyment by anyone prepared to enter the exciting world of typography. Returning home to read The Elements of Typographic Style became, against all odds, something to look forward to with joy at the end of a busy day. If my description sounds appealing to you, Bringhurst's book is worth your investment; if, on the other hand, you now think that I am completely insane, you might read something else instead.


shogart said...

I always knew you were completely insane; this is not news to me.

Dan said...

I happen to adore fonts; thanks for the point!