Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Garden Designers Roundtable: Texture in the Landscape--A Musical Analogy


I’ve been thinking about texture lately.  Texture is one of those generic garden topics like “color” that every garden book dedicates an obligatory chapter.   Photos of hostas, ferns, and other foliage plants often follow.  Despite the rather clich├ęd use of the word in garden literature, the idea of texture in the landscape does not seem fully explored.  So to better understand what texture might mean in landscape sense, I turn to music. 
According to one source, texture in music means “a structure of interwoven fibers.”  In music, texture refers to the way multiple voices (or instruments) interact in a composition.  Texture in music is a way of understanding hierarchy.  Which voice is prominent?  Are they all equal?  How do they combine to create the whole?  Already my mind was spinning about materials in a landscape.  Texture is not just about a type of plant (i.e. big leaf foliage plants), but about the way materials or plants work together to create effects.  That got me thinking: how do we combine materials for artistic effect? 
Music theory describes four types of texture in music: monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, and heterophonic.  Now before you glaze over, each of these concepts has some rather fascinating ways of understanding texture in a landscape setting.  Consider these visual analogies:

Monophonic Texture
Monophonic texture is music consisting of a single melodic line.  This may be sung by one person or several.  Think about Gregorian chant or even singing “happy birthday” in unison.  In the garden setting, this might describe a large mass of a single species like this sweep of the native Heuchera villosa at Pierce's Woods in Longwood Gardens.

Or the repetition of whorled fronds on this massing of Adiatum pedatum (Maidenhair Fern) in a woodland in Vermont.  All of the elements work together to form a single melody.  It creates the effect of legibility and calmness in a composition. 
Polyphonic Texture
Polyphonic texture ("many sounds") describes a musical texture in which two or more melodic lines of equal importance are performed simultaneously.  Think about rounds in music: singing "Row, row, row your boat . . . " in staggered successions (you know, what you do inebriated  at the Irish pub on St. Patty's day).  Composers in the Renaissance and the Baroque used this style in rather complex arrangments.  In planting design, one may combine two different plants with similar textures to heighten and intensify the total effect.  Look at this combination of Hakonechloa macra (Hakone Grass),  Tradescantia 'Concord Grape' (Spiderwort), and Bletilla striata (Hardy Orchid).  From a distance, the two plants read as one mass, but up close, one begins to appreciate the subtley of the contrast.  Combination by Ching-Fang Chen.
Or this combination of two cultivars of Knautia macedonia designed by Piet Oudolf for the Highline. 
Homophonic Texture
Homophonic texture is one we encounter most often in music.  It consists of a single, dominating melody that is accompanied by chords.  Sometimes the chords move at the same rhythm as the melody; other times they move in counterpoint to each other.  The big idea is that the chords are secondary and supportive of the melody.  While this concept is the basis of most music, it is relatively underused concept in planting design.  Consider some good examples of homophonic texture.
Here is a combination of Heuchera villosa 'Brownies' (Coral Bells) and Koeleria macratha (June Grass) by Piet Oudolf for the Highline.  The larger mass of June Grass (melody) is supported by contrasting leaf texture and foliage color in the Coral Bells (harmony). 

Or this image showing how Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum') highlights and intensifies the purple tulips in this photo of Great Dixter.
photo by Marian Boswell
Heterophonic Texture 
This was the most complex for me to understand.  In music, heterophonic texture consists of simultaneous variation of a single melodic line, often with two musicians simultaneously performing slightly different versions of the same melody.  Each version is improvised or ornamented version of the same melody rather than a harmonized version (described above in polyphony). This kind of texture is not very common in Western music, but more often found in traditions such as Japanese Gagaku, the gamelan music of Indonesia, and even traditional Appalachian fold music.  Modernist composers like Debussy and Stravinsky played with heterophonic texture.

The closest thing I can think of in planting design are some of the large rivers of salvia created by Piet Oudolf in many of his designs.  The central gesture of the Lurie Garden in Chicago is a boomerang-shaped river of Salvia nemerosa.

drawing by GGN Landscape Architects
What makes this a heterophonic texture is the mixing of different cultivars of Salvia.  Each supports the larger melodic gesture, but each cultivar adds a slight variation or ornamentation of the melody.  What you get is a feeling of added depth and sparkle that would not be possible with a single cultivar.  From a practical point of view, using different cultivars also extends the season of interest.

image by Archidose
The same effect is done with Salvia in this Piet Oudolf project. The different Salvias provide a kind of heterophonic texture that reinforces and diversifies the larger melody.  This is very advanced composition work, but Oudolf is the master. 


IN THE END, what became apparent to me was how limited our design vocabularly is when it comes to planting design.  While great artists like Piet Oudolf and other designers may be experimenting with some of these ideas, garden and landscape design disciplines lack the language--the conceptual framework--to discuss composition in depth.  Other artistic disciplines have much richer languages for this.  Perhaps, until we develop our own language for planting design, we can borrow from our sister arts to better undertand our own art.

To learn about other designer's take on texture, please visit some of these excellent blogs:









38 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your musical approach to the concept of texture in the garden. This is one of the things I love about Roundtable posts -- the many different ways we find to talk about a particular concept.

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    1. Definitely, Pam. It's always a surprise to see the diversity of ways people handle a topic.

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  2. You're so right we don't have the language to discuss many of the more subtle aspects of garden design. I've often thought musical analogies were probably more appropriate--at least in some cases--even than painting, possibly because music occurs over time like gardening. Thanks for offering a new way of seeing.

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    1. That's a nice way of putting it, James. It does seem to offer some real doors into understanding planting design. Unfortunately, I am so darn musically illiterate. But music theory seems fascinating . . .

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  3. Bravo for an excellent venture into gardening "theory." Thank you for the insight and another avenue to explain the use of texture to my clients.

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    1. Thanks, Teresa. I'm a "theory" lover and music definitely has a better foundation in that than garden design.

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  4. Thomas, another great post, another food for a thought. I've been to Oudolf's garden or seen his projects in real life, and have to say that music analogy seems very appropriate, especially in understanding the scale of his compositions. You need a lot of room to be able to perform his "music", and as it's impossible to perform a symphony, as it was supposed to be performed, but in a closet, having one instrument at hand, - it's impossible to implement big scale designs in small private gardens. Should be different music, different instruments, different - more delicate and compact pieces. But it must be beautiful music in the end, anyway. Always. That's why I find the music reference of yours fitting so well the subject of planting. Very, very inspiring. Thanks again!

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    1. Hi Olga,

      That's a great point about the scale. It's probably one of the reasons I use Oudolf so much as an example: within his projects there are so many great examples of composition--both at the large scale and the micro-scale. Thanks for the comment.

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  5. Liberty RuckerJune 26, 2012 7:58 AM

    I am a musician and really enjoyed this piece. I see the parallels between music and design all the time and it fascinates me. Thomas, you did such a great job of explaining texture this way.

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    1. Hi Liberty,

      I was thinking about you the entire time I wrote this piece. I really thought it should be YOU writing this. If I butchered any of the musical terms, you'll have to forgive (and correct me). It was you who got me thinking that music was perhaps a better analogy to landscape design than the visual arts. Painting is the more common metaphor, but it's pretty limited because of its two-dimensional nature. What other musical concepts should I know?

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    1. Ha! Always clever, Mrs. Gray.

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    2. I often wonder how I would experience gardens without sight. Thinking about your musical analogies makes me even wonder more. If we are still enough I wonder if we can hear the difference between the sound the wind makes blowing the thin leaves of grasses versus some broader leafed plant. Unfortunately, I'm rarely still enough. Thank you for making me think this morning.

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    3. A delicious thought to ponder. What does texture sound like? Thanks!

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  7. I gave a presentation at the NWFGS last year and used musical theory to describe the concept of harmony in the garden. What a joy to read your own version to describe texture! One of the best posts I've read in a long time - thank you!

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    1. Ooh, I'd love to hear that presenation. Thanks for your comment.

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  8. I adore your use of the musical analogy. Brilliant!

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  9. Thanks for putting so much thought into this texture lesson. It makes sense! Becky

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    1. If by "thought" you mean shamelessly pulling from Wikipedia to make a quick point, then you are welcome!

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  10. Thomas, this is a very interesting essay. Perhaps the reason you make a musical analogy when discussing landscape composition is that one cannot design a landscape without considering the living demands of the plants. Music is not really the printed notes on the page, but what is heard when it gets played. Different musicians interpret and play a piece of mucic in their own distinctive way. It may be easier to discuss composition in painting, as the painted composition on a canvas needs no water, and won't grow, evolve and or die. I would be curious to know-are these salvia rivers cut back after the blooming is finished, or left as is? Deborah

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    1. Deborah,

      Yeah, I think you said it very well. Music seems to explain the relationship between living, changing plants better than a two dimensional painting.

      The salvia is essentially left as is. Some of the projects might deadhead a bit to encourage more bloom. But as Oudolf frequently says, "Brown is a color, too." So much of his work is in showing the beauty of plants as they "die".

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  11. Amazing analogy, Thomas. So much to think about!

    I am in the beginning stages of planting my small backyard garden. The plant enthusiast in me wants some of everything. But then I think of the mood I want to set: a calming, Gregorian chant seems most fitting. After reading this post, I'm now asking: How does one make a garden based on Monophonic Texture serene enough to be restful, but not so serene that it is boring and uninteresting?

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    1. Hi Katie,

      I sooo empathize with your dilemma. I'm a disaster when it comes to limiting myself. I think you do it much better. I'm fascinated by your question. What about some kind of matrix planting? You know, a base of one or two plants, then a host of emphemeral bulbs and perennails that come through that base for a few weeks before they slip off. It's easy to describe than execute, of course, but it's my standard answer for serene yet dynamic plantings.

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  12. A fascinating read, Thomas. I know nothing about music theory, but was excited to "listen" to your interpretation. As I was reading your definition of heterophonic music I thought: jazz. I think my heterophonic garden might be a bit more rambunctious (less soothing) than your salvia example...! Thanks for the inspiration.

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    1. Ha, yes. I think the musical term for my garden is "cacophonous."

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  13. Thomas, This was a wonderful explanation of texture in the garden. The analogy with music was extremely helpful, and suddenly I feel as though I can look at my garden with new eyes and understand it in a new way. Thank you, as always, for your contributions to my gardening education; if there were a "gardening educator of the year" award, I would nominate you! :-) -Jean

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    1. I'd only win the "endless metaphors for the garden" award of the year. I can compare the garden to just about anything. My blog is one big MadLib answer to the sentence: a garden is like ________

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  14. Beautiful post. Focusing on small residential gardens makes me think of sublimely composed chamber music and how in a sense site and sound could become one sonata. Dreaming of possibilities...

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  15. Music expresses places and spaces better than anything to me...lyrics optional. A must-re-read post here, but using textures to create a whole view is what I get at first glance. I often compare a poor design (especially plants) as throwing out notes without any music coming forth, like some of the weirder Pink Floyd songs I know...and a good design (especially plants) as putting notes together, reduced to simplicity or weaving wit something unifying, and creating a song.

    I need to finally do my blog post relating songs to natural and build landscapes!

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    1. And you are the Phillip Glass of the desert . . .

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  16. I love this post...one of the most wonderful explanations of texture in planting I've EVER encountered! Seriously, you must have been inspired, so well-written and your visual examples are spot-on!

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    1. Many thanks, Scott. I was inspired. Reading about musical texture explained so much about what we do as gardeners and designers.

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  17. Steven Holl may have an opinion on all this.

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  18. It is fantastic post, I like your idea for designing the garden. I have no more words to praise your ideology Gorgeous work.

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  19. Thomas. Thank you for such an inspired and original discussion on texture in the garden. Texture is always an exciting aspect of putting plants together in spaces. And yes, certain combinations can create rhythm that are very moving. So, your analogy to music I found to be quite brilliant. Great supportive photos as well. I will look for more posts in the future. Alice DeCenzo

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