The Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall

Over the summer, the Miguel Abreu Gallery mounted an exhibition called Agape featuring musical scores and performances. Now comes Between Thought and Sound: Graphic Notation in Contemporary Music at The Kitchen—seems a trend might be starting here. Of course this isn’t the first time music notation has been exposed to gallery lighting; I remember a John Cage score opening MOCA’s Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 over a decade ago. I even curated a show which included scores by Cage, Randy Hostetler, and Jean-François Laporte. It’s great to see that notation continues to intrigue our visual art counterparts.

Those who know my music also know that I notate everything by hand. I know how silly that must sound these days, but it’s my thing and I’m sticking with it. Besides, every single score I’ve encountered in a museum or gallery environment has one thing in common: All were hand drawn. I know firsthand that compelling art can be created using computers. The question I have is this: Can a score worthy of gallery wall space be created with notation software?

I have no doubt that a computer-generated score can be as aesthetically beautiful as something done by hand, but not by clicking around with all the presets and limited options that software provides. Artist Chris Finley used to make some compelling paintings utilizing the restraints of image manipulation offered by old versions of PhotoShop, but I doubt this approach to creating a musical score would be very successful. Just as in classical music, every now and then a wave of painting-is-dead sweeps through the art world, which of course inevitably passes. But without the rally cries and flashing alarms sounding, could music notation be in dire need of a defibrillator? Well, it seems to me that Finale and Sibelius aren’t doing it any favors.

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23 thoughts on “The Writing on the Wall

  1. david toub

    While I’m very partial to a lot of handwritten scores (particularly those by Dallapiccola, who was a master in this regard), and used to spend untold hours using a fountain pen and an electric eraser on Aztec copying paper, I do think one can create a great score via software.

    In terms of art, check out here what my groupie, the Web developer and artist Kel Smith did with some of my scores (mine are the last six in the set). I have one of them framed here in my office at work and I personally think he did a great job turning Finale-generated scores into works of algorithmic art.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    A hand-inked score can be a work of art or a mess. The same is true of a score created with software.

    If you want personality, you’ll still find it in the music and the techniques of the software engraver. Look at work of software engravers such as James Ingram or Michael Manion for exquisite scores.

    Some composers created fine-looking scores (and so did I) in ink, but on balance, the editable document simply wins in the contemporary business of music. Of course, assuming it is legible, the ‘art’ score is valid in every way except efficiency — just as the software score is valid in every way except (perhaps, and only perhaps) art.

    Here’s a very recent example for me. A composer delivered the first half of a pencil score for chamber orchestra in mid-July, with the whole thing (not yet fully composed) to be done, with parts, in five weeks. The duplication of his artistic pencil manuscript in the approach, layout and contours of the software score was an enormously difficult task in short notice, but it got done — 28 pages, 20 days. The conductor, however, didn’t want what the composer created. The conductor wanted a traditional score, top-to-bottom, no fancy stuff. So it had to be redone, still looking good and expanding now to 48 pages, along with those 60 pages of parts, in the remaining 15 days. In ink? No way. It was still a yank in software, but it was not only done, it was quite nice looking — and could be fixed on the spot before it went on a plane with the composer.

    But maybe you’re asking more about the future of notation, considering how limiting the tools are in software. Now there you have a critical point, and one that as both composer and software engraver, I find maddening.

    Artists, especially young artists, are sometimes limited by their tools. They know the past and the present and the tools, but their imagination and determination have to be very strong to overcome the limitations built into the tools.

    What an experienced composer considers an artistic birthright — to adjust the notation in ways that express the meaning of the music — the software considers (to give it animus) peripheral or nichey. In the business of pop, film music, and old music redone, the notational advances made since, say, Bartók, are economically insignificant and downright annoying. If, as a composer, your notational learning was accomplished with software, you might tire of the fight, adjusting the notation to fit the tools. That is the evil built into notation software — and audio plugins, and formats, and markups.

    There’s too much to say, really. As one who grew up instead with a copy of Cage’s “Notations” (I was 20 when it was published), I find the limitations of these tools infuriating — not for myself, for whom it’s largely a sometimes costly annoyance, but for those two generations younger, who will associate notational advances with a bankrupt avant-garde rather than with the expressive elegance and imaginative possibilities of the paper amanuensis.


  3. david toub

    re: software limitations
    I absolutely, absolutely agree that often times one might have to adjust notation to accommodate the limitations of software. There are things I used to do with my handwritten scores, such as using cutout notation, that are just too much of a pain in the ass to do with Finale and so, I don’t do it. No software tool I’m aware of has a way to easily provide large time signatures that span several staves, although I’m at a loss as to why this isn’t easily coded by their developers. So yes, I do change my notation to accommodate the software, and miss some of the things I used to do with a pencil or fountain pen that looked really killer and also better conveyed what I was trying to do. When I compare some of my old scores (by hand) with what I do now with Finale, I’m pleased by the ability to back things up, make easy corrections (I can’t tell you how many holes I put in copying paper with my electric eraser in the old days) , etc. using software. At the same time, there are aspects of handwritten notation I miss, and I’m not always sure the notation saves me a ton of time since there’s a lot of work to do to get it to do what I need it to do.

  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    No, seriously… whenever I catch myself accommodating the notation software, I get away from the machine and assemble what I intended in another medium.

    The problem isn’t solving the notational dilemma — it’s recognizing that an avoidance mechanism is in play.

    Sure, paper resists, too. So do electronics. And live performers. That’s the struggle to make art out of the bits and pieces of one’s environment.

    But software, to re-sync Randy’s comment, is in need of a defibrillator. Or, in the case of its authors, a bank of tasers. I wasn’t there when the first versions of Finale were written; I came along in 1992. But 99% of the new nonpop notational developments that are in Finale today, 15 years later, were already in place in that version 2.2. Now the market is driving the program backwards in ways that it didn’t when Finale was the only relatively comprehensive notation software that didn’t require programming or scripting skills. You think we’d get microtones out of Finale if they had to do it today?

    So where do we go with our tasers?


  5. jbunch

    just to play devil’s advocate of obviousness…
    Isn’t the art of music actually contained in the carefully prepared displacement of air molecules (known as performance), not notation? Or at least not notation for everyone?

  6. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Sure. But the art of organized sound is not the same as the art of communicating the intent of and reconstruction of sound organization with a malleable and developing tool set. Unlike words, music’s notation is not so much a statement of meaning as it is kind of a translation layer between imagined and real sound, and one with psychological intent as well.

    Its reconstruction is communicated by shapes and sizes and pointers, all built upon a set of strong expectations. If I write B-flat but don’t mean an altered B, how do I communicate that? If I don’t, will the pitch be distorted by a misunderstanding of its purpose? If I use a barline but mean it as a temporal guidepost, how do I make it clear that it’s not a precursor to some sort of emphasis? If I create a symbol with more clarity than one which exists, how does it become fluid inside the music’s ultimate sound instead of a visual stumbling point in performance? With a deeper incorporation of electronic sound in music, how do I notate my sonic intent when I know the equipment will be gone in less than a generation? How do I make clear the notation of non-Western practices within a deeply Western graphical system? How do I even notate something so “simple” as a swing rhythm?

    These issues were deeply felt for several generations, and even before, as notation expanded to incorporate changes to performance as well as shifts in meaning and sonic intent.

    The sort of postmodern splintering of nonpop niches has conspired with a compositionally conservative backflow (oh, the joys of mixing metaphors) to make publishers and notation software companies fearful. It’s been 35 years since Erhard Karkoschka tried to collect and clarify new music notation in a single volume. Yet most of it remains absent from music notation software.

    Irrespective of where you feel the art of music lives, its communication is accomplished through either oral tradition or notated scores. If 75% of notational symbology and technique is missing from the software that enables computer scoring, what are the implications for 21st century composers who are brought up with Finale or Sibelius, paragons of 19th century notational practice?


  7. rtanaka

    As a communicative medium, standard notation is standard only because there exists agreements that certain symbols are meant to mean certain gestures. Symbols which exist out of the ordinary, if one were to be clear about its intensions, is usually clarified through the act of creating a key, in which then performers also agree to utilize during the course of the performance.

    The fact that graphic scores are inefficient is a very real thing — my experience has been that professional performers are not really all that interested in the graphics of the scores — they just want to play what it’s supposed to sound like and want something that will make their job as easy as possible. Maybe some composers generate some expectations of the wonderful interpretative possibilities of graphic notation, but I think that it most cases it tends to be rather disappointing experience for them.

    As a reaction to this, sometimes people will compose things which are ridiculously pendantic, with lots of instructions notated per every bar or every note. This tends to limit interpretive possibilities and can be somewhat oppressive, although if it’s not overtly hard then it can be pretty fun experience.

    The tricky thing is the fact that most professional performers acknowledge the fact that notation is merely an approximation of what’s there…if their instrument allows for it, they use their ears to tune up or tune down 3rds or 7ths in a chord in order to make it fit the overtone series. Even standard notation isn’t an exact science.

  8. rtanaka

    Basically, oral traditions will compensate for what doesn’t exist on the score. Swinging doesn’t have to be notated because if you’re steeped within jazz traditions, you “just know” that it’s supposed to swing.

    Most musical systems around the world works largely in this fashion, and in a lot of cases notation itself is almost incidental — small jotted notes here and there as a reminder of where the music was supposed to go. Western society particularly stands out as being odd by putting such a heavy emphasis on how the score looks.

  9. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Ryan, I must admit I’m not fond of the two terms you introduced into the discussion — “professional” performers and “standard” notation.

    Neither, it seems to me, really bears on the question of notational development and how scores reflect music through notation, the artistic translation process, and the correct — in the composer’s terms — spelling, syntax and grammar of the music. And that’s even before we get to the concepts of musical and visual art that Randy suggested.

    “Professional” and “standard” are a kind of straw argument for the very resistance of the notation software companies and the limits they place on fluid composition and score preparation. Are many “professional” performers resistant, too? Of course. That’s why they come from conservatories, or stay inside certain areas of comfort. And “standard” notation is a code word for notation at an arbitrary publisher stopping point in the late 19th to early 20th century, more an economic situation related to mass production than an artistic one. It’s likely the same reason that the repeated masterworks largely come from before that time.

    We can argue all day about how the “professional” and the “standard” are confronted by notational development. But if I understand the original question, it was more about art and beauty and meaning than what tradespeople may expect, no? And having been developed within the broad cultures of the West is not necessarily a bad thing, is it?


  10. jbunch

    Altered B?
    I don’t know. I think intentions like that are best clarified in essays not performance scores. I tend to think of a score like a recipe – you tell people what to put into the dish – you don’t have to explain the molecular structure of vanilla extract in order to help someone bake a cake correctly. This is not to say that your aesthetic concepts of pitch aren’t important (or even essential to a proper informed understanding of your music, I suppose) – but a score is not a great medium for that kind of specificity. If you don’t want barlines to hit people in the face – don’t structure your music around them. Ligeti’s 2nd String Quartet does a pretty convincing job of avoiding the sense of regulatory rhythmic prosody. He didn’t need to invent an entirely new means of notation to do so. The fluidity of a notated gesture is a matter of the performer “getting” what you mean. If your invented symbol is indeed more clear than a convention – the question of how to prevent it from being a stumbling block in performance is irrelevant (because it won’t be). Electronic music is a product of its time (just like everything else) – so if it is found to be interesting enough, someone will do the work and translate it. There was a doctoral performance student at the University of Arizona I believe (forgot his/her name – sorry) that went through all the trouble of designing Max/MSP patches to facilitate performances of EA works whose technology has went the way of the Dodo. The problem of extinct technology actually has the potential to create a lot of interesting work for those who are inclined to invest their time and energy into it. Much non-Western music, and the practice of swing performance (as Ryan pointed out) are performance oriented. The desire to notate them reflects a bias really found in the Western mind of the primacy of documentary representations of sound/art. A score isn’t the only means of communicating sound practice – to ignore this fact is to miss out on potentially rich kinds of artistic relationships and practices.

    All that being said – I am entirely in support of artists who treat a score as if it contained some of the substance of the “artiness” (the aura?) of the work. It’s absolutely pointless to take any other stance. And those who do will find other means to introduce alternative syntaxes into their work. Also, there are/will be performers who are captured by the possibilities of such alternate notations. My point concerns the situation of superfluous information. Why write something in F double-sharp Major when it could just be notated in G?

  11. rtanaka

    “Professional” and “standard” are a kind of straw argument for the very resistance of the notation software companies and the limits they place on fluid composition and score preparation.

    Strange you should say this, because you yourself have mentioned the problems that graphic scores face when given to conductors and ensembles. “No Fancy Stuff” is what most professionals want — with limited rehearsal time, limited practice times, and limited budgets, they really don’t want to be dealing with fussy scores that takes hours to decipher.

    Everything I mentioned above comes from 20th century linguistic theories (Wittgenstein, Habermas, Rorty, etc.), which are very much applicable to musical notation because its also a form of a language which conveys something. (Let’s not get into the “is music a language” debate again, but I think it’s safe to say that music notation is a language…?) Note names, such as “B-flat 4” have an objective value to them because it is clear what it is, to those who have become affiliated with that social group. “B flat 4” is an idea, however — it doesn’t actually exist. What actually exists is the sound it self, not the note. The idea of “B-flat” only exists because of a socially derived phenomenon, based on a social consensus.

    In order for notational instructions to have any sort of meaning for the performer, there needs to be an agreement of sorts that certain things are supposed to mean something. So this can be done through clear performance instructions on score, or through oral tradition, but it doesn’t arises out of nothingness.

    The problem I have with a lot of graphic scores is the fact that the fancy stuff is often unnecessarily gratuitous. The swirling staff lines in Crumb’s scores look pretty and everything, but the same effect can be easily gotten just by using standard notation. Supposedly some of these things are supposed to trigger a psychological effect in the performer, but to me, it doesn’t seem like it carries all the way through to the audience.

    My experience has been that most of the time the composer doesn’t even know what kind of effect they wanted to trigger to begin with, so performers are just play “whatever” and anything seems to be fine to them. I don’t know about everybody, but for most serious performers, this sort of thing is demoralizing. What does help, though, is when composers come to rehearsals and talk about their inspirations and feelings about the gestures during the piece. Then that sort of bridges the gap between the oral and notated traditions.

  12. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    JB, I believe the creation and communication of music is far more rich and complex than a recipe. I call it a translation layer because translation is always a struggle to represent the cultural original (in this case, the private culture of the composer) in a manner that loses the least information. It is only in part about literal instructions.

    When I was studying French translation some years ago, I learned that Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre” was often used as a test of a translator’s skills — those who looked at the surface and translated the words alone were not hired. It was not about literal instructions.

    If the complexities of an artform and its translations asks the reader to put effort into understanding it by sorting through ambiguities and multiple meanings and references, then that is the nature of art … and what one signs up for when claiming to be an artist — including, as Ryan calls them, professional performers. Professionals with neither a full understanding of current research nor a curiosity to understand it would not be considered professional in other fields.

    Back to musical notation. It involves multiple translations, but in that process, none of them can be misrepresented without an ultimate failure of musical expression. Compromise, perhaps. It depends on the significance of the symbols and their arrangement in the context of the music (and its era).

    What troubles me in your response is that all the simple examples that I tossed off to which you responded have been part of the notational vocabulary for decades. If they are misunderstood, it’s not that there hasn’t been plenty of time to grasp their significance. Cage, Karkoschka, Stäbler and the Notations 21 project have documented them very well. Even old Gardner Read did some of it nearly 50 years ago.

    Yet when you wrote, I am entirely in support of artists who treat a score as if it contained some of the substance of the “artiness” (the aura?) of the work, it sounded to me weak, almost begrudging, as if it were not the artist’s imperative to make that determination. Who else can, after all? That seems to be the value of the Urtext in historical performance — what did the composer mean?

    The problem needs to be reiterated: Notational development has not ceased as part of a centuries-long process, but in response to the increasing speed of artistic shifts and requirements it has developed more quickly than in past centuries … while at the same time facing declining musical literacy and an economic determination of its validity (mistakenly equating validity with value). It’s as if the spelling-simplication crowd ruled music notation; it may seem easier to spell as something is said, even if one could agree on that spoken version. Yet in the process, what John Ciardi called the “ghosts of words” would be lost. Those mysterious ghosts carry forward meaning from imagination to sound.

    (I won’t argue about whether or not a notational tradition is a good thing; I believe it is our only significant way of communicating how to recreate an imagined acoustic world when there is a breach or distortion of oral tradition.)


  13. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Ryan: Strange you should say this, because you yourself have mentioned the problems that graphic scores face when given to conductors and ensembles. “No Fancy Stuff” is what most professionals want — with limited rehearsal time, limited practice times, and limited budgets, they really don’t want to be dealing with fussy scores that takes hours to decipher.

    Well that’s it, isn’t it? Let’s just clatter through the performance, git ‘er done, and go drink! How authentic do you think that performance will be without the composer’s purposeful effort in front of the conductor? Yes, this conductor has done the composer’s work before. Yes, he has the actual score for reference. Yes, the composer will be there. Yes, the performers have parts no different from either score. It should be fine, yes?

    Yes, probably it will be fine and even authentic this time. But what happens in the future should the publisher issue only the traditional version of the score? All the personal factors at work are absent. Only the document is there to interpret. (I have no personal interest here; heck, I got paid twice for the do-over.) The final section of the score looks confused and jumbled in the older top-down format. Its sense is buried, and the meaning might even be lost in a clatter-through-it future performance. Yet the composer has pre-analyzed the music in his choices. The composer’s score reveals those aspects of the music without ambiguity, leaving the deeper sense to be explored. The older format doubles the effort required to make sense of the music. What artist in their right mind would allow that to happen?

    And I ask that from a practical viewpoint, not from some quaint avanty-gardyness. What today’s musician might find easier, tomorrow’s musician will find insufficient.

    Now about that B-flat. It has several meanings. One is shorthand for a certain frequency at a given time in a given culture, with not so much ambiguity. But is it a lowered B? Why is it not a raised A? Why is it not emancipated entirely from A-ness or B-ness? Why is it not its own symbol? In some notation systems, it is, and in those systems, the composer’s intent — if that intent is not to characterize the note as having A-ness or B-ness — is communicated. But the notational tradition is so deep that the number of musicians willing to invest in learning another is infinitesimal. The composer compromises, hoping that context itself will help that note arise from its anonymity, from the Mr. & Mrs. character of its subservient name, never having found a Ms.-ness of its own.

    I don’t understand your problem with Crumb or other scores with graphical meaning. Really; I’m not making a judgment. I simply don’t understand it, and I can’t articulate how to ‘get’ the distinction between writing such music in 19th century notation and writing it as Crumb did. Perhaps you can begin from the backwards position: that these graphical presentations do have meaning, and that becomes your primary search within Crumb’s translation layer.

    Without speaking for Crumb or others, I can say that my own scores with graphical content are not (or rarely) whimsical, and never accidental. A graphical element can carry as much meaning as a con fuoco, likely even more. Last year, I had the pleasure of working with Beth Griffith in presenting a composition that I wrote in 1973 — graphical but still linear with verbal instructions and little traditional notational expression. Beth is a consummate professional: accomplished, curious and fearless. I had performed this piece many times before, largely reviewing what each symbol meant for new performers of it and hoping to arrive at the end together. Beth wouldn’t let me do that. She already had learned what each symbol meant. Instead, she searched for more about their significance, and how the piece was expressed. The performance was remarkable.

    What troubles me most is that you don’t see this continuing notational development as credible — that somehow it affronts or exploits musicians who have better things to do than, well, actually play the music … those same musicians who might have spent weeks on a single Beethoven sonata, performing it again and again. That’s not efficient. You say, with limited rehearsal time, limited practice times, and limited budgets, they really don’t want to be dealing with fussy scores that takes hours to decipher. That sonata might take a lifetime to decipher. So might something by Crumb. In this process, learning a little symbology has somehow been elevated to a serious problem.

    And I return to young composers searching for expressive tools. The bravery and imagination they will need to exhibit in a musically conservative time with musically reactionary software will be enormous.


  14. rtanaka

    I’m not against pushing the boundaries of notation, but my point was that in many cases graphical gestures have no real functional value in terms of what it’s trying to convey. And the reason is simple: notational symbols work because of a social contract. If there is no contract, then the information has no real communicative utility.

    There’s actually no reason why a “B” can’t be an “A”, or why a quarter-note can’t look like a flower or whatever…as long as both the composer and the performer agree about what it is. Symbols are mostly arbitrary in a lot of ways, but legitimized through the act of consensus. Objectivity is a social process — this is an idea that is well supported in contemporary philosophy.

    Again, the problem is not so much the newness of unusual notation, but that a lot of the times performers are just playing “whatever”. Most performers are too polite to say this kind of thing, but that’s what people are doing a lot of the time unless the composer makes clear as to what kind of mood or idea the piece is trying to invoke. Some things can work, but I think that it really needs to be treated very carefully. If you’re trying to invoke a psychological response, you should know what it is — otherwise it’s probably better to just leave it blank and let the performers interpret it on their own. Having nothing there, in a lot of ways, makes it more open to intepretation.

    Spatial notation, for example, works, because it’s a variation on the Cartesian-based metric rhythmic system and it just adds a finer gradation to it. It is clear as to what it means, and it poses no problems for conductors or performers. Extended techniques most of the time doesn’t really require anything too fancy either, other than a well-articulated key or legend. I would recommend looking at Sofia Gubaidulina’s scores if people are interested in excellent and efficient usages of notational instructions and symbols. (Incidentally, Gubaidulina is supposedly well-versed in 20th century linguistics.)

  15. SonicRuins

    Umm..yeah, I don’t think anyone is trying to argue that the only that matters is how a score looks. Nor is anyone arguing that sound is of no importance. So I don’t see the point of your statement.

  16. pgblu

    straw man
    Ryan, when someone suggests that perhaps you are making a straw man argument about graphic notation, and you reply with nonsense about quarter tones notated as flowers, then you either need to look up the term ‘straw man argument’ or read up a little more on the history of graphic notation.

    If a performer is clueless about graphic notation, I think that’s ok, as long as they’re willing to put in the time to find out what it is good for. Also, the composer has to be very shrewd about communicating his or her intentions. And yes, a lot of graphic scores are a substitute for poor imagination on the part of the composer, but we don’t really need to talk about that music seriously.

    What I don’t think is OK is when a self-proclaimed musicologist is clueless about graphic notation, but still populates discussion boards with comments disguised in populist rhetoric defending his own abstract notion of “the performer” and “the audience,” as if graphic notation was some elitist enemy getting in the way of (his own abstract notion of) communication.

  17. jbunch

    Dennis, I appreciate your thoughtful response. I enjoy reading your posts. But I wanted to clear up a couple of thoughts:

    I don’t mean to suggest that the creation of music or its communication is a simple affair, only that the score is not the sole means of that creation or communication [what about articles, posts, talks, letters, conversations over drinks, performances…]

    Perhaps I’m too under the sway of Nattiez / Pierce when I say that a score – no matter how carefully scrutinized – doesn’t even have the possibility of total communication. When the performer and composer have [as everybody does ] different “chains of interpretants” derived from an infinitely complex collusion of experiences, vocabularies, and quirky connections between words and concepts, then a sense of the ultimate incommensurability of our words and symbols seems unavoidable. If all of ones hopes at musical communication are pinned on being perfectly understood, then I don’t see how any performance could yield other than what you call the ultimate failure of musical expression.

    What enabled me to respond as I did to your examples is the very fact that the questions they raised seem settled to me – that is, they didn’t seem to present notational quandries whose solutions weren’t readily knowable. And when I voiced my support of composers’ whose work is deeply involved with questions of notational innovation – it was not weak or begrudging. I really meant it. I have no grudges. I can’t help it if you don’t believe me.

    Finally, while I disagree with Ryan on many things, I think some people are being unfair to him. How many rehearsals, performances, lessons, readings, and master classes can you sit through and be chewed out about your innovative notation before you realize the very real problem that most of the performers / ensembles we have access to as students have little patience for the kind of aesthetic hair splitting that we’re talking about here? I realize this sounds weak and pathetic, but what are your suggestions? If I wrote scores that looked like Ferneyhough, I’d never get a good performance. Never. No good performance, no good recordings. No good recordings, a shitty CD to send out with your portfolio and CV. Shitty portfolio / CV, no job. No job – flipping burgers or working at Office Depot.

  18. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    JB, Thanks for that. It made me laugh in that kind of ohmygawdhowironic way.

    First, the differences among your comments and Ryan’s and mine show the dilemma for the composer. You see a musical environment in which a score lives and is only one participant. Ryan sees efficiencies and clarity and economics. I see the score as a translation layer between idea and reality, but the prime artifact. Yes, that’s too simplistic, but I’m doing it to show that the views are irreconcilable.

    I’m happy to read your comments.

    But your last paragraph is staggering. Let me repeat it:

    How many rehearsals, performances, lessons, readings, and master classes can you sit through and be chewed out about your innovative notation before you realize the very real problem that most of the performers / ensembles we have access to as students have little patience for the kind of aesthetic hair splitting that we’re talking about here? I realize this sounds weak and pathetic, but what are your suggestions? If I wrote scores that looked like Ferneyhough, I’d never get a good performance. Never. No good performance, no good recordings. No good recordings, a shitty CD to send out with your portfolio and CV. Shitty portfolio / CV, no job. No job – flipping burgers or working at Office Depot.

    This sequence of events is alien to me. I’m an outsider. The last time I set foot in a classroom as a student was 1970. I was driven out of the music department at Rutgers University, sans readings or performances or even a degree, and despite the experience decided I would remain a composer in a small city, doing work for an ensemble that I organized, writing for them in whatever notation best effected a credible performance. I studied composers from afar through their scores (hence my commitment to them), and — without anything to tell me otherwise — invented notation and instruments (acoustic and electronic) to create the musical experience that I was imagining.

    Will this story be encouraging or discouraging to you? I’m not sure. From that experience, I learned that new notation was not fearsome, and was easily accessible to those who arrived without a rigid conception of its appearance and purpose, and without fear. I gave concerts, hundreds of them. I recorded the performances with equipment I could afford. I kept writing and promoting new nonpop, from the Delaware Valley Festivals of the Avant-Garde (1974-78) through Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar (1995-2005) to We Are All Mozart (2007).

    I was always poor and can’t buy my way into performances, whether those Eastern European orchestras or paying a bunch of local professionals. So it has taken more than 40 years to achieve any compositional success in the way you define it. I got my first commission at age 21. First grant, 26. First performance by someone other than my ensemble, 37. First ASCAP royalty check, 41. First commercial recording, 48. First major international performance, 50. First musical residency, 58 — just a few months ago. I have never had an academic job, never taught at a university, never won a composition prize.

    It’s not very encouraging, but also liberating. I don’t have to fret the issues of notation. Either it would be performed or it wouldn’t. With determination and the ability to ignore the naysayers, I’ve had about 240 premieres — fewer than half of the compositions I’ve created.

    But the challenge is a thrill and a joy, and why I so strongly defend musical notation. The score is my interface with the larger world.


  19. rtanaka

    Ryan, when someone suggests that perhaps you are making a straw man argument about graphic notation, and you reply with nonsense about quarter tones notated as flowers, then you either need to look up the term ‘straw man argument’ or read up a little more on the history of graphic notation.

    Strawmanning is the act of deliberately misrepresenting the opponent’s argument, as you are doing now with my “flowers as quarter-tones”, which I have not said in any way. Quarter-tone notation in recent years has become standardized, so it can also be considered standard notation. In fact, Sibelius has it built-into its program at this point, and with the right plug-ins, it even has the ability to play it back. Gubaidulina uses quarter-tones — heck, *I* use quarter tones. But this is not what I consider graphic notation.

    It could be that there’s a miscommunication involved in what we think of as “graphic” notation, so maybe we’re arguing about nothing. Although I’ve seen strange flowery things and graphical “gestures” that go unexplained, under the notion of the composer wants to “see what happens”. Well, my experience has been that, most of the time, nothing happens, because it’s not specific enough. Can someone give me a good example of non-specific graphical notation that “works”? Maybe we can talk about it in more detail if we’re on the same page.

    I did use Crumb’s scores as an example — there’s no reason why his scores cannot be transcribed and simplified into standard notation, because the essence of the music still relies on instructions of rhythm, pitch, meter, etc. The extra-musical things that are in there are not essential to the work, in other words.

    If you disagree, then I’m guess what I’m asking is, what exactly are the graphics in say, Star Child doing, in order to enhance the experience for the audience? I’m not talking about the composer or the performer, but the audience. I’ve known some people who transcribed some of his music into a more playable form. Nobody seemed to notice. I’m not trying to bash Crumb here — I like listening to his works a lot, but a work can still be good despite problems.

    Just FYI, I have done performances using animated scores using Max/MSP patches, projected in front of audience members. The electronic musician was “improvising” the score, while I improvised the music, in a sort of a real-time visual-aural performance. I feel much more comfortable with this because it lets the audience in on the process, and what’s happening to what in relation to what is very clear. There’s also Butch Morris-style conduction which is kind of the acoustic equivalent of that sort of thing. But the audience is at least in on it.

  20. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    How did the topic shrink from graphical notational innovation to “gestures that go unexplained,” “extra-musical things that are in there are not essential to the work,” and how they must “enhance the experience for the audience”?

    I know what you’re getting at, but you’re dancing on the head of a diminishing pin.

    As far as Crumb goes (and I don’t have a copy of the score here), why not compare it with Ferneyhough? There is standard notation complex enough that the effect on the audience is psychologically predicated on that complexity, not necessarily the sounds (even if they are all played).

    How unexplained is unexplained? More or less than, say, the metaphorical con fuoco? More or less than the crosshatch staves in Larry Austin’s Square? More or less than the symbols in Berio’s Sequenza for solo voice, or my own recent Sequenza Nova for French horn (there’s one for you!)? If the staff is curved in Stockhausen’s Refrain, how much is to be explained? Or if it is a curve without staves that looks like a fictional star chart, as in my Aurora Cagealis? And in Stockhausen’s later works, how one is to infuse them with his over-arching Formel? Even in traditional notation, how does notating the H- and N- enhance the audience’s experience, or the performers’?

    These questions are rhetorical. My point is that one understands the surface of a score at first, and over time its depths. One takes into account its environment (as JB suggests) and all the other factors that form its cultural milieu, and sometimes solves puzzles — whether it’s how to perform an enigma canon or comprehend the absent chord resolutions in a Beethoven sonata. In contemporary notation, one expects the performer first to be familiar with the explicit information in a score. The “gestures that go unexplained” may be perfectly well explained by that familiarity.

    Frankly, as a composer, I will not be responsible for a performer’s lack of attention, study or experience. It took 31 years for my Construction: on nix rest in china for two trombones and tape to be premiered because it took that long for it to be understood. A generation of sampling compositions had to be composed before my 1972 sampling composition could make sense to anyone but me, and then receive a staggeringly compelling premiere by Jim Fulkerson and Hilary Jeffery.

    As for the composer wanting to “see what happens,” I think that’s minimizing the process. Remember when you wrote, Swinging doesn’t have to be notated because if you’re steeped within jazz traditions, you “just know” that it’s supposed to swing? The process of improvisation, aleatory, and open scoring with graphical suggestions is part of a tradition of the erstwhile avant-garde, and if you’re steeped within avant-garde traditions, you “just know” how it’s supposed to be done — as would any student of those traditions.

    So we’re down to what? What examples of notation are senseless? What examples have no explanation, even within their own traditions?


  21. rtanaka

    Frankly, as a composer, I will not be responsible for a performer’s lack of attention, study or experience.

    Don’t you think this attitude is rather divisive? Classical music is already a small niche in itself — of that, new music, even smaller, of that, of the particular aesthetic that some composers choose to put into graphical notation…how does one expect to be understood if there is an unwillingness to explain what they are doing?

    I would argue that if these implications really are in the air, as you say, then it would be much better to leave it blank and let the performers figure it out on its own. If it is really an important part of the cultural practice and not just imagined, then shouldn’t the composer put enough trust in the performer that they will do what is necessary?

    After a certain amount of training, jazz musicians and classical musicians who are, say, trained to interpret Mozart scores, require no “explanations” because they have a very strong oral tradition to rely on. These things are actually in the air, because it is legitimized through common practice, and it’s something that you can actually hear. But for individual composers to sort of devise their own notation system, not explain it, and then expect the performers to devote a huge time of their life figuring it out seems rather unrealistic. There is a difference between social groups and individuals, and I think this distinction need to be made.

    Just in the last 2-3 years or so…oh, I don’t know…I must’ve played works by at least 30 to 40 works of living composers. I’m generally excited about the prospects of playing new music, but there’s really too much interesting things out there for one person to eat up the entirety of my musical career. What I don’t understand is where this sense of entitlement comes from…instead of being clear, it’s like they want me to try to read their mind or something.

  22. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Ryan, you make my point. There’s no divisiveness, except between the committed and the uncommitted. Meaning is indeed in the air for those who have studied the music and its context.

    So to your question the answer is an exuberant yes: shouldn’t the composer put enough trust in the performer that they will do what is necessary?

    It’s not an issue of private languages at all; it’s a question of doing what is necessary — irrespective of era, notational advances, or notational losses into the mists of time. The score is the translation layer, but it’s gibberish if the performer or conductor don’t understand any of the languages on the Rosetta stone.

    And in truth, as a composer, I am not responsible for what performers know or don’t know. The closer performers are to any composer (in time and culture and geography and knowledge and sensibility), the greater the likelihood they will comprehend the symbology without redundant explanations. As presenters recede from that environment, they need to make a greater commitment to the artifacts the composer has left behind, and the study required to illuminate them. Sometimes that’s very tough. Arbitrary ambiguity may indeed be built into the notation the composer has chosen, whether it’s a vamp or a suggestive symbol or image. That’s the burden of interpretation.

    But where are the surprises? References exist on how to perform in alien territory. So consider what it’s like to be on the other side of this question, the side where the performers ask what something means when the explanation is right there in the score. The side where performers change the performance when it’s not to their taste. The side where performers mis-play because they don’t care and think the composer doesn’t notice, but the composer does notice but is too stressed and too shocked to say anything. The side where performers reject a piece because they are considering the applause-to-effort ratio. The side where a composer isn’t prestigious enough for their best efforts.

    Let me tell another story. Not long ago, I was commissioned to write an orchestral score. The conductor freaked because it was too hard — no, not the notation, just the physicality of it. I made extensive revisions, but he still wasn’t pleased. He refused to allow me to come to the first rehearsal. His disaffection was contagious. At the second rehearsal, the tension was everywhere, and a dispirited first cellist asked me “do you love the cello or hate the cello?” But they premiered it adequately. The second night was better. By the tenth performance, not only was the piece spectacularly well performed, but the orchestra was in love with it. They had ‘solved’ the music — not the notation, not the technique, but the muscular memory that freed them from stress. I knew it would happen, and hoped they’d have the time. It’s not just the audience that has to be in touch with a composition more than once.

    That’s a little far from notational advances, but it reflects on the issue of any new piece. It is unfamiliar, and if it does not come with a built-in context — and who can provide a built-in context if I am in rural Vermont and my performer is even as close as New York? — it is initially effortful. But how can a composer guess what will be effortful for any given performer? I provide as much context as I believe necessary for attentive, studious and experienced performers.

    Are there composers whose symbology is arbitrary and capricious? You bet. Just now I went through Cage’s “Notations” collection again. There are a couple hundred score excerpts and among them about 80 had graphical notation that wasn’t obvious on its surface. Of those, a mere 28 had enough graphical obscurity or just plain whimsy to be considered arbitrary and capricious. (Some were clearly meant as mind-f*cks, but it was the 1960s after all. How else could you perform Nam June Paik’s Danger Musik for Dick Higgins, which reads: “Creep into the vagina of a living whale.”)

    I must be done now. Tomorrow it’s back to the WAAM project to compose the eighth in a series of tenor guitar performance pieces.



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