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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 -


26 Apr

Composer Jeff Harrington has led a varied and fascinating musical life exploring and celebrating the outer frontiers of music. Here are some of his insights into, and experiences of sharing music through tracks and trails often not used by the music establishment, perhaps to its detriment.

Jeff writes: “I was asked this weekend by someone teaching a course in Digital Musicianship to explain my music distribution strategy and how it developed. Here's the text I just finished for anybody who's interested. Please pardon the informal nature of it...

My strategy... is basically to get my music into as many people's hands as possible without expectations of remuneration. What happened to my wife and I in the early 80's informed the process where I invented the free culture system.

We'd both had to drop out of college, me from Juilliard and Elsie from Pratt because of money problems. We were quite angry about this and started a street art project. This was 1982. At the same time we started showing Elsie's paintings on the street in the West Village, right on Spring Street to be exact in the heart of Soho. We showed these huge paintings with a sign saying, "Not for Sale."

This was pretty shocking to people and we started getting more and more interested in seeing where that could take us. We created series of non-destructive art works in chalk and with rubber stamps and displayed them all over NYC. Eventually, we became so famous (or infamous) that we started a whole mini-art movement in NYC and started receiving death threats... we ended up having to flee NYC, broke and regroup in New Orleans.

In New Orleans we continued giving our art away through the mail art networks. These were exchanges where you'd send a piece of art to somebody and then they'd send you something back. These turned into zines eventually, and from there into multiples and even gallery shows. When the computer networks started up in the early 80's with BBS's it was a natural progression to take our art give-away there.

I was probably the first serious artist to use the BBS system to distribute art, although I'm sure there were a few more; nobody at the time seemed to have come from the street art/mail art networks. I uploaded the score (as a set of GIF images) to my Variations for String Quartet onto a BBS in 1987 which is probably the earliest music give away. I started distributing MIDI files of my pieces around this time. It was very interesting to upload a MIDI file or a graphic and then watch it get uploaded by a fan to another site. At about the same time I started embedding my music into synthesizer patch downloads. I first distributed my Acid Bach series as a component of a synthesizer patch library I created for the purpose of having a compelling download. That is, I designed the patch library so that people would want it and coincidentally listen to my music. This way they'd have a high quality musical experience akin to the MP3 playback today through the use of the same synthesizer.

In the early 90's I started using FTP sites to distribute Postscript files and MP2 and later MP3 files. The first IRCAM website actually distributed for a short time the MIDI file to my piano piece BlueStrider. In 1995, the LA Times, wrote an article saying that David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet had set up a website where he was engaging in guerrilla action to freely distribute contemporary music. I called them up and corrected them - it was me they were writing about and I was only distributing my music that way.

Since then, of course the whole music world is used to free downloads. My strategy has always been that I'd love to sell my music, but I'm more interested in getting new listeners than I am in making a few thousand dollars. I've told people that there is a greater risk that you'll miss 1000 listeners by selling your work than there is a chance of you making $1,000.00. As far as my scores go, I have a few pieces that are published, but I am not that interested in pursuing publishers especially with the risk that they might stymie the discovery of my music or even have them get locked up in limbo. I distribute my PDF files at several different locations and get hundreds of downloads of them a day.

This has still been a fairly risky proposition, but in no way as risky as being unpublished, unheard and ignored. I have to constantly run searches on Google to find performances. I only recently learned of a premiere in New Jersey of my big piano piece BlueStrider last October. I find that some of my MP3 files have lost their indicators of authorship. My quartertone electronic piece, Acid Bach is found all over the web, and is often found without my name. People believe because you give your music away that they can perform it without notifying you.

I keep my music copyrighted with reserved rights and non-derivative rights because I don't want my music to be used in commercials or in any commercial activities. I also sell my scores through and I accept donations. I believe it helps create a more professional appearance in that it suggests supporting the artist and slightly obviates the appearance of being a cultural anarchist.

When you look at the consequences of self-publishing the costs can be quite huge for a successful composer to give their pieces away. When I dropped out of college however, I effectively destroyed any hope of becoming a truly successful composer in America. Without the network of college affiliation, a composer is at a very serious disadvantage. In effect, my pricing is a discount into the advantage my competitors have, that is, I have to compete with well-networked, famous people, thus I have to discount my work in order to garner attention.

Regarding social networks, I was also the first composer to set up online communities in order to promote my new music in general and my work. I helped establish the newsgroup, in 1991 and was the moderator for for its first 5 years. I established an online community for new music NetNewMusic in 1994, which was basically a links list with forums. I added news feeds and publishing in 2000 and it later became the hugely successful Ning group, NetNewMusic which I was forced to destroy because of trolling and harassment in 2010. I also set up the first websites for the American Music Center, and was webmaster of Sequenza21 between 2005-2009. I set up these networks and participated in them to draw attention to my music. My idea was that if you established yourself as an interesting or provocative person you could draw attention to your music. Today one can use Twitter or Facebook in the same manner.

In the end my philosophy is that my main problem is lack of exposure. I believe that if people knew my music that they'd like to play it. The biggest consequence now is something that everybody suffers from - the lack of both serious criticism and the lack of curation. I get performed between 20-60 times a year all over the world and composers much more famous than I get less performances and more exposure. The network which supports them either through academia or through affiliations with famous composers such as Philip Glass, etc. enable their careers to have a stronger referral and promotional network. It's very hard to generate a 'buzz' without being mentioned in magazines or NPR. I don't know what the answer is except more exposure.

I was lucky enough to get in on this early and make a certain reputation. I recently attended a workshop put on by the American Music Center where representatives from a well known orchestra gave a presentation about developing an online presence. They went on and on about having compelling graphics, about how to submit professional materials - it was all very ordinary and expected. Finally I raised my hands and asked them, "When was the last time your orchestra played a piece that was submitted by email or that you discovered through their website or through social networks?" They looked surprised and honestly confessed, "We have never played a piece that was submitted by email or that we discovered from a composer's website."”

Find out more about Jeff’s music here:


16 Oct  

Ok, we all need to wake up and take note of what may be coming our way. No one, surely, can have failed to notice that the UK University sector is about to take the biggest hit imaginable from the forthcoming cuts instigated by the current coalition government. According to Universities UK head, Professor Steve Smith, the Browne Review sets out figures that "confirm our worst fears” signaling a £3.2bn or 79% cut from teaching and £1bn from research in the immanent Spending Review, and according to Professor Smith, there “remains is a terrible danger of the valley of death becoming a reality for all institutions.”

What is less obvious is that arts and humanities are to endure the worst of this slaughter. If I am correct, it is evident that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and mathematics) can tangibly demonstrate at least an 8-fold return on investment and so the terminally unimaginative amongst the ranks of our elders and betters will seize upon this as confirmation of their need to stem the tide of messy and pointless pursuits such as humanities and arts. The fallout from this could see an implosion of arts and humanities studies and research in HE, mass redundancies of academic staff, closures of arts departments and even of some whole universities.

The impact on us as composers could be catastrophic as we take hits from both sides: massive cuts in arts funding in general which will dry up commissions and projects, and then our possibilities for earning from teaching taken away by the Government's wholesale butchery of the university sector.

If anyone has any insights on how to offer a solid and convincing case for supporting and funding arts and humanities to the same extent as science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, please do add your comments. It may be obvious to us that the destruction of these irreplaceable, precious resources is going to have horrendous consequences for the UK in decades to come, but it needs to be pointed out to those making the decisions now.

Below is a useful range of links on this:


16 Aug