Absolute Jest

Client San Francisco Symphony
Deliverable CD packaging
Year 2015

This is a case study of the creative client process: a collaboration between composer, conductor, and designer.

Contemporary composer John Adams wrote "Absolute Jest" for the San Francisco Symphony. It's a playful but serious work that takes parts of famous Beethoven compositions, rearranges them, and builds a new piece of modern music. It's a winking sort of mashup and surrealist collage. The composer called it "the world's longest scherzo," the classical name for a playful composition, from the Italian for "joke."

Without a formal creative brief, the client provided the recording itself, plus a statement from John Adams. I went to work interpeting this strange, lively music. The only design mandatory was to include the 3-sided frame device and masthead text which comprised the label's brand.

Early ideas involved collage, humor, punk, surrealism, and carnival acts.

All of these were rejected by either director Michael Tilson Thomas or composer John Adams. Their feedback was often at odds, and it became clear that they had different interpretations of what the music meant. We decided to arrange a meeting between them directly. They talked through it and decided that a circus was a compelling metaphor for what was going on in "Absolute Jest" — specifically, an elephant.

I took this direction and found a few different ways to approach it.

From the elephant concepts, the composer and conductor agreed on their preference, adapted from a Victorian circus illustration.

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