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Blog » Taking Notations

6 Apr  

Given the recent controversies around musical notations, I offer a few brief thoughts of my own about the subject. The wonderful thing about the various kinds of notation are also, perhaps, the vector of current problems, and much confusion seems to be abroad regarding what they actually are and do. Notation in music can be many things and hold very different uses and meanings for different people. The disadvantage of this broad flexibility is that some can attempt to make them a repository for counterproductive subjective agendas. The effect of this can be to bring about a general corrosion of access to this remarkable cultural phenomenon, which should be available for everyone in whatever way is useful and rewarding, no matter what their background. There is an enormously pressing issue around deteriorating access linked particularly to advantage or lack thereof, but this should not be conflated with the practice of using notations themselves or blamed directly upon them.

Musical notation embodies a highly developed, flexible, transferable visual mediating point, available to many differing musical approaches and traditions, and yes, in the context of recent debates, in this case relevant to much current, recent and historic European-related music. For some musicians, merely a small fragment of notation acts as a skeleton starting point such as found in lead sheets used by many Jazz and pop musicians, and similarly, this kind of approach was in use in the late C16th to the first half of the C18th in the figured bass tradition. For others, the score is a dense document of highly detailed instructions seeming to take in every particle and parameter of a piece of music. Other musical scores occupy territory somewhere in between, and still others leave either most of or the entire usual lexicon of symbols and conventions behind and seek to provoke more improvisatory or chance-affected responses through a whole range of visual strategies, from abstract shapes and contours, to suggestive figurative symbolism, to measurements of duration, to instructions in text, to technical diagrams, and/or mixtures of all of these. For music existing before the advent of sound recordings and outside strong oral traditions, notation in scores represents the only documentation made at the time of its creation and this includes many historically, culturally and artistically important pieces of music that could not have been re-created without them, and a loss of the ability to read notation in any significant way could eventually see live performance of this music come to an end. There also follows a further category of music that no longer relies upon notation, but nonetheless cannot escape the traces of musical ancestry that did use it, and another that relies substantially upon the diagrammatic properties of notation to provide a series of transmissible evolving templates indispensible in both codifying its principles and developing them. This last category is that of contrapuntal music, which would almost certainly not have developed to such extraordinary levels without being able to be written down.

As a composer, my relationship to the score is a complex and constantly changing one. In my youth, I can remember being much more invested in the cosmetics of the document. As I have aged, in some ways I am far less concerned with this and much more with the process of composition (sometimes expressed as notation), the sound and also practicalities for players. However, I have also developed a separate practice of using notation to create graphic scores that are predominantly visual artefacts, and in effect, silent ‘imagined’ music with the visual effect predominant. A life without access to the use of notation would likely not have yielded this area.

In terms of the process of musical composition, there are times when the characteristic organization of notational containers and scaffolding do have an effect on the direction of my imagination, and as do a host of historical musical tropes realized in notational configurations that inform my thinking. However, there are also plenty of times when musical sound comes unbidden and un-notated into my imagination, and other times into my fingers while improvising affected by the disposition of shapes and contours of the piano keyboard and by a host of physically learned and performed formulas and sounding historical tropes, either remembered or unconscious. Yet more external to this is my long practice of engaging with visual artworks as repositories of potential ideas for processes and approaches, which, in turn, adds another layer of filtering for the approaches affected by notation and physical rendering. Notation is just one element, yes with its own limitations, but also such an extraordinary open and flexible tool, widely sharable, often seamlessly merging with other approaches, sometimes worked against, sometimes emphasized in is own right.

In my teaching, I find myself working with students both with and without notation(s). Some read, some do not. One particular student stands out: he did not read staff notation and worked in a field not very familiar to me, making and producing dance tracks using glitchy, minutely detailed experimental electronica. Our sessions provided, from my perspective, the best example of engagement between different fields gaining enormously from one another. I felt immediate respect for his diligence, workmanship and attention to detail and his intelligence in terms of grappling with larger aesthetic and formal concerns and the compositional process, and in this we were able to find so much common ground that sessions frequently ran over time. He in turn, showed me nothing but respect for my own points of reference, and was eager to learn as much as he could from relevant examples of staff-notated music that we explored along with the tracks that he brought of examples from the field that he worked in. There was no colonization imposed upon his creative territory, no indoctrination, no assertion of quality of one style over another, no patronizing toleration, just exchange of ideas mediated between two different interfaces, one on page, the other on screen, each informing the other. To me, the above is a wonderful example of openness, engagement, sharing of very different approaches, respect and careful listening on both sides, and any assumptions that those of us who work in fields relevant to the use of different notations have not thought deeply about historical and current conflicts and injustices that permeate our own domains are simply completely wrong.

In the starkest contrast, it seems as if the most extreme of the shrill voices leaping to judgment on what they perceive to be the practice and purpose of using notations, call for separation, diminution, exclusion and impoverishment, taking tools away, not adding to the sum of human knowledge. In attempting, supposedly, to correct a notion of an injustice of inherited and/or unfairly gained musical privilege, it is very hard not to apprehend this as seeking simply to usurp an extraordinarily rich and varied realm of practice and to replace it, this time with a domain under their control. I hope very much that I am over-reacting; I hope that I am being unfair and making unfounded assumptions and inaccurate generalizations; I hope that I am wrong. Erasure would simply push the reading of music (of whatever kind) and access to a huge, valuable and important cultural tradition with a lasting legacy more emphatically into the sole domain of the wealthy and privately educated, and rob us of the tools to be able to explore it and to be able to re-apply its rewards in new creative applications, including creative acts and processes that react against its use. Notations should remain a presence in order for them to be of either lesser or greater importance: it is the tension between past and existing structures (whatever they are) and evolving reactions to them, violent or muted, building upon or breaking free from (or both simultaneously), that is essential for processes of making. Taking this away simply yields a drastic reduction in options, experience and resources and a watered-down expediency of low expectations imposed upon everyone not a member of the privileged few.

(Image: graphic score, 'To Enclose', after Richard Serra -

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