Notation Optional Composing

Notation Optional Composing

I probably saw something about it on Twitter, but I didn’t look into the recent NPR/Q2 poll to determine the nation’s favorite composers under the age of 40 until a colleague pointed me in its direction. The poll’s NPR page features the following sweeping exordium:

We admit, 40 is a pretty arbitrary (if nicely round) number, but it’s as good as any a place to start a conversation about a group of creative minds born into a world in which Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” was already washing over the sonic landscape, synth pop was starting to rule the airwaves, “Rapper’s Delight” created a revolution, and American homes increasingly had not just a chicken in every pot, but a computer on every desk—all elements that fed into pop culture and made their imprints on everyone, including those immersed in classical music.

As it happens, I’m right in the middle of an extended speculation on the impact of suburban culture on American composers born between 1975 and 1985 that hinges not only on the geographic disposition of the tract house and the shopping mall but also on the ubiquity of mass media and telecommunications technology, so these issues are front and center in my mind at the moment. One of the decisions I made early on in my study was to work with a relatively strict definition of the word “composer”; this constraint enabled me to contrast various contemporary cultural forms and practices with the “anachronistic” (to borrow from Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s barn-burning first interview question) model of written composition. Q2’s definition of “composer” is much looser:

Composer = a self-designated (or applied by consensus) term that denotes those who create music, whether notated, improvised, solo, ensemble, instrumental, vocal, however you like it!

Under this rubric, a composer is basically just the person whose name goes at the top of a musical product, and the affordances of that product will naturally channel the consumer’s desires in more or less efficient ways—in other words, a composer whose name regularly appears on CDs, in blogs, or on marquees in hip places will, one expects, out-perform a composer whose name appears on scores, festival programs, and syllabi. And judging by the comments attached to the NPR and Q2 posts, that’s exactly what happened.

I’m not making this fairly obvious statement so that we can all wring our hands and fret about the downfall of the Western classical tradition. Rather, I’m pointing out that as “crossover” artists continue to take advantage of their unique position, one in which two distinct kinds of cultural capital—the “Western composer” kind and the “hip creative person” kind—are abundantly available in a society that recognizes no inherent contradiction between them, the terms and conditions of production will change for all of us. In the past “composer” had a normative meaning of “person who is commissioned to produce scores that are then interpreted by performers,” and deviations from that model (like Glass’s ensemble) were seen as “unofficial” end-runs or circumventions of a conventional mode of working. Now, however, “official” definitions of “composer” have emerged that consider notation wholly optional. What’s important about the present moment isn’t that high culture and mass culture are so interpenetrated as to render the distinction between them obsolete; that’s been the case for some time. What’s important now is that this situation obtains with, to quote Andrew Ross, “official impunity.”

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7 thoughts on “Notation Optional Composing

  1. mclaren

    Common practice music notation has increasingly become inadequate for what composers do today.

    If you compose music out the conventional 12-equal system, conventional music notation won’t work.

    If you work with Nancarrowesque rhythms, particularly nonlinear accelerandi and decelerandi going on at the same time in different melodic lines, common practice music notation absolutely will not cut it.

    And if you use computer-generated timbres or other types of electronic processing in your music, conventional music notation obscures much more than it reveals.

    Calling someone a composer only if s/he produces a conventional score eliminates people like John Chowning or William Schottstaedt or James Dashow or Alice Shields from consideration as composers. It dumps Conlon Nancarrow or Brian Eno or Tod Dockstader into the “nonentity” memory hole. That’s so ridiculous it can’t stand. People just won’t stand for that kind of narrowminded pigeonholing. As a matter of sheer pragmatism, the defiction of “composer” has to expand.

  2. davidcoll

    This might be a little too self-serving, but really, I need to see what people think:

    I don’t see what the big deal is with using notation for the final piece or not. It just comes down to whether paper is necessary for giving directions. Besides directions, what else is notation besides poetics? And paper is not necessary for this.

  3. colin holter

    I don’t see what the big deal is with using notation for the final piece or not.

    Me neither. For the record, I don’t at all think that notation is a necessary condition for contemporary music, or art music, or nonaffirmatory music, or whatever. I’m just observing that there was a time when only people who used notation would call themselves composers, and now (at least going by the poll’s blurb) that’s not the case.

  4. jmhenson

    We have to remember that early in Steve Reich’s career, he would teach the patterns of each piece to the members of his ensemble and they would perform without ever having seen a score. Most of his early scores were written out so that other ensembles could play them.

    A we can’t forget that Chopin would give concerts of entirely improvised music that he would write down afterwards.

    So, I agree that a piece doesn’t have to be notated to be considered music.

  5. MarkNGrant

    Say fellas, I don’t want to be playing the curmudgeon in these pages again, but whatever the claims are for non-notated composition– notated and nonnotated composition are commensurable? Come on.

  6. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I love this topic, and I just can’t keep myself from jumping into the discussion all nakedly unabashed.

    We probably agree that ‘notation’ isn’t just that stuff that leaks out of the Sibelius or Finale boxes, but is an enormous range of presentations and purposes. The list includes what I call ’19th century notation’, typical printed scores, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says ‘notation’. It’s also devices to jog the memory, instruction plans, action diagrams, computer programs, piano rolls, piano roll notation (which one of my elder students learned to read before ‘standard’ notation, which made no sense to him with its visual equivalence of F and F-sharp on the same line and its symbolic rather than accurate representation of time), sonograms, multi-track ea, algorithms, and so on.

    Here’s what interests me, and the question I continue to ask myself: Is notated music (in any of the above forms) inherently different from non-notated because it is developed in faux-time, can tend to reflexiveness, internal layering, ‘plot thickening’, recursiveness, etc., and can include other people in other times and places in completing it? That is, does the real difference between notated and non-notated music come from its ability to create and sustain internally cohesive, novel-like sound/concept worlds with a high level of replicability as opposed to sonic short stories or musical ‘yarns’ whose surfaces and upper layers can change without the music losing its identity as a ‘piece’?

    There are exceptions on both sides of the question, but I don’t think those exceptions crash the distinction. Certainly deeply acculturated critters like Bach and Chopin could invent their way through evolved forms. And by contrast simple notated music is little more than a distribution medium.

    Lots more questions arise. Does the mapping of Whitacre’s virtual choir constitute a meta-score aside from the printed version? Are the retro-scorings of ea composers actually scores or merely advanced descriptions? What do we make of symbolic scoring of, say, Anthony Braxton? If anything can be recorded, what is the place of a score at all? On the other hand, what’s the purpose of all those note-by-note transcriptions of Charlie Parker?

    The question here seems to be the place of scoring in creating the mutated form of concert music that’s now developing. The process of moving away from the score as the only transmission method began long ago — musicians who couldn’t read a printed note would still ‘write’ songs (even if more accurate terms might be ‘invent’ or ‘compose’) and were creative artists at every level.

    We have already abandoned the Western-score-triumphant age. Composing on one’s feet has made a long overdue return to respectability in the concert music realm, and we grasp its significance: immediacy, invention, imagination and skill melded into a unique experience. We also grasp non-notated but non-improvisational music, particularly ea.

    Given the advantages of non-notated music, what parts of the notated approach remain useful? There is the ability to create a musical ‘novel’, and also impart multiple levels of meaning through representational grammar and syntax, and the ability to reveal both architectural scope and detail. Certainly the New Complexity composers do not exist without it — at least if their desire is to write for others to perform. And one can consider that ea comes out of a scoring culture with, for example, streams and objects developed, mutated, and placed in sonic space. And, of course, some sort of score is essential to allow sounds to arise coherently from large groups.

    Fixed notation of whatever sort is not, though, a very good collaboration tool. With the rise of collaborative culture and the rejection of the ideal of the Great Humungous Solitary Artist, the actual creation of a score — a reasonably solitary practice — constrains rather than enhances communication. In group settings the composer becomes a leader or trail guide, and in solo settings the composer no longer needs the score.

    Okay, I’ve gone on long enough. But as I said, I love this topic.


  7. dB

    Fixed notation of whatever sort is not, though, a very good collaboration tool.

    I think this is now the primary utility of traditional notation. Notation is good at narrowing down what happens in performance, but isn’t great at absolutely dictating the result. That kind of control is only really possible in electronic music, where there isn’t opportunity for performer interpretation.

    David mentioned poetics, which I think is another great justification for notation. A well-designed score can provide a performer with extramusical information that ultimately inform the aesthetic of the performance. I’m primarily thinking of composers who utilized very idiosyncratic notation styles, like Cardew and Stockhausen, but I’d say even a Debussy manuscript features extramusical info (beyond just the composer’s handwriting) that can profoundly impact the way a performer approaches the piece.

    To me, the question of notation is super tied-up with the question of how we want to interact with performers, or if we want to interact with them at all. If I was only writing fixed media pieces, or pieces I intend to only ever be performed by myself, I probably wouldn’t have much cause to notate anything (beyond perhaps some preliminary sketches or notes). Even then, some type of score (or any visual representation of the piece) may help an audience, so I guess there’s more to a score than simple composer/performer communication.


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