Nile Rodgers and Figure-Ground

There’s a formal principle in art called “The Figure-Ground Relationship.” In a painting, for example, the figure is the subject of the painting and the ground is the background. But great artists don’t think of the background as something that is secondary to the subject. Instead, they think that backgrounds are just as important. This is why designers value negative space. This is why academics value context. A subject is made more meaningful when placed in a ground or context that’s handled with care.

The interview above with music producer Nile Rodgers illustrates this concept of figure-ground. Rodgers talks about how his rhythm guitar grounds the melody, the figure, in a song.

“The main role that I learned to play in  R&B music was to support those stars that came up on stage and play more of a secondary role. But I wasn’t playing a secondary role. In fact, I was playing a primary role because a lot of the stuff that I was playing — if you take that part out, the song goes away. It’s just not there any more.”

He’s not being arrogant here. He’s just articulating the importance of each piece to a composition. To hear more NR, click here

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