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 clichéd 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:

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