USA elements of style

Posted by jerry on May 16th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

The US is a land of contrasts, from the elegance of the parks to the visually rich malls. This elegant park bench is in The Mall, Washington DC

swan bench

as is this floral urn, with its Classical references


And even in the shopping malls there are elements of wonderful design, like these power sockets in the shopping mall

power sockets

And in the shops, there are the fleeting clothing styles, but these bags caught my eye – completely encrusted with beads and ‘bling’.


Interestingly, the design of the stores themselves, also referenced classical architectural style, but did so by creating facades resembling furniture display cabinets, rather than purely architectural buildings. It was like these stores saw themselves as indoors rather than as retail spaces, adding an elegant domesticity that referenced the interior of elegant homes. Given their up-market contents it is not difficult to see why such a style would appeal. But I thought it was an interesting stylistic feature 🙂

mall stores


Music – a Systemic/Functional semiotic approach

Posted by jerry on May 15th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music, Theory

Music – a Systemic Functional Approach

Some years ago, when studying under Michael O’Toole at Murdoch University, I began experimenting with some thoughts on applying MAK Halliday’s systemic functional semiotics to music. To my knowledge, even 20 years later no-one else has sketched out such a schema. So, with some trepidation I thought I’d dig out that early naive schema and seek views on whether such a schema might still be useful as a point of entry into musical semiotics, and as a means of finding a language with which to deal with extra-linguistic artistic works. All that remains of that original lecture is the diagram that I developed and which I will lay out below. Then I’ll try to reconstruct a pathway by way of explanation for each element of the schema.

Music – a semiotic schema






(Ideological base)


i)Form (eg Classical)
ii)Ornament (eg baroque)
iii) Sense (eg romantic)
WORK Type of orchestration/Intertextuality Modality
– fantasy
as expressed by:
-‘weight’ etc
eg song/folk dance/tonepoem/sonata/etc

Interplay of
i)thematic structure
eg: statement, recapitulation,cadence (ending), conjunction

eg slow movement

eg -major
-pentatonic etc



Textual coherence :
-interplay of theme
-to different key
-to different mode
-tonal ambiguities

(Verbal group)



Contrast options:
-dynamic range(loud/soft)


(nominal group)

Play of figures
(nominal ‘characters’)

relation to hearer – ‘gaze’
-pointers to key tonality
-line (melodic sequence)

Tonal qualifiers – flat 5ths/7ths etc

Key statement

Cadences (endings)


Lexical content
recognisable figures

recurrent patterns

Lexical Register:
Modified motifs:
-changed mode
-changed key
-changed rhythm
-position in theme
-posn in movement
-posn in Work


Basic unit of information:


degree of scale:


high/low (pich)
chord/single note

Position in harmonic series





Much of this is self-explanatory, and has to do with the orientation of the music to the listener and to the culture into which it is inserted. Like all modes of signification, music has context, and a relationship to that context, whether to music history, or to style, or to genre. Each individual work is made up of elements each with their defining characteristics such as relationship to the key, voicing, sound/silence oppositions and so on.

The object here is to develop a way of talking about non-linguistic artistic texts in a schema that is relatively independent of a formal knowledge of music. That is, to try to come up with a descriptive semiotics of music by observing how it is structured, and how it functions within the culture.

I welcome suggestions on how I might develop this crude model further. In the meantime, I thought that after 20 years it is high time it got some wider exposure. If you use it, please acknowledge the source, but otherwise feel free to use and modify as you see fit.

And I welcome comments.



Coffee in America

Posted by jerry on May 14th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Theory, Travel

America starts the day with coffee – for some it’s a simple filter coffee, for others a double decaf latte with complications. But it’s always coffee.

Perhaps it’s a pre-breakfast business meeting – notice the power relationship: semiotically (proxemics – spatial orientation – gaze, dress), two have coffees and are leaning forward aggressively while the third has nothing and has his arms folded defensively – this is not a pleasant meeting…

business meeting

Or a couple bored with life and each other – both with arms folded and looking away from each other, lost in their own worlds and present to neither, each tolerating the other’s presence but wishing they were elsewhere.


And sometimes, it’s a bite out of time to escape into a good book and leave behind the mundane for a little while. This woman let her coffee go cold – such was the power of narrative!


Gradually the Mall rubs the sleep from its eyes and begins the day.

Tysons 1 mall

Somehow the off-white tiles stay clean. Every second person carries a take-out coffee and the other half are talking on cell-phones – perhaps to each other.

The stores beckon with the lure of the exotic – Shogun of England, Clarks Shoes (England), Lenkersdorfer, Haagen Dazs – European names and references to that which is not here.





Washington – the quirkies

Posted by jerry on May 12th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

Time for the quirkies – what does one notice as an outsider/stranger to a place?

A good place to start is the humble hotel room. We hold these truths to be self-evident: if you hang your wet clothes from a hotel fire sprinkler they’ll get wetter – a whole lot wetter! So it seemed a bit interesting that they felt it necessary to affix the following sign beneath the fire sprinkler over the bed – is there something they’re not telling us?

For sheer iconicity the US fire hydrant – looking for all the world like a cute ‘Bob the Builder’ with its two arms and red hat takes the prize for turning utilitarian design into an innoffensive and proportionally excellent artform.

Also known as a ‘fire plug’ from its origins in the days of wooden water mains, the modern upright cast iron version appears to have been invented by Frederick Graff snr in 1803 for the then newly-installed Philadelphia water works. The ‘Mathews Improved’ dry-barrel model was patented in 1850 and seems to be close to today’s design.

I spend much of my time looking up at architectural details – many based on classical designs, but I also try to look beneath my feet. And here are a couple of examples. The first a standard water main inspection cover

The second a fuel tank inspection cover in a gas station (petrol station)

The US obsession with the discourse of security is entirely understandable, and there is no doubt that this country has adapted well to its perception of threat. As a visitor one is struck by the blossoming of signs aimed at reminding people of the sorts of credible threats that require signage in case you forget and accidentally feel safe and secure.

Are shopping trolleys covered in the “Other” category? 🙂

And not so much a quirkie, I just thought I’d mention that Haagen Dazs chocolate ice cream is simply delicious! – the Tysons Corner Mall has one of their restaurants – yum!


Beads…and more beads

Posted by jerry on May 10th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

I’ll leave the quirkies for the moment because I made a discovery. Exploring the larger mall at Tysons Corner Center 1 in Washington DC I took a fairly random turn looking for a place to get some food.

It was a bit of a culdesac and I was about to turn back when I saw what looked like a confectionery store – and it was – of an altogether different kind.

Beadazzled bead shop

The place was called ‘Beadazzled’. Yes, a bead shop – a laaarge bead shop!

So naturally I had to do a reccy for Sharon and, well, perhaps the place had reasonable prices too.


Suffice to say – it’s a surprise (so don’t tell her) I’ll let her open the package when I get home 🙂