Picturing Music: The Return of Graphic Notation

Picturing Music: The Return of Graphic Notation

Notations 21, an upcoming book and website explores the history of graphic notation in the 40 years since the publication of the legendary John Cage/Alison Knowles anthology.

Written By

Alyssa Timin

Shoe String Song by Alison Knowles
Shoe String Song
by Alison Knowles
photo courtesy of Miguel Abreu Gallery

Back in 1969, Something Else Press published Notations, an anthology edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles that collected excerpts from hundreds of notated musical scores, many unconventional, ranging from the cautiously conceived, highly complex works of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati and Cornelius Cardew to the almost mischievous directives of artists such as Nam June Paik and Allen Kaprow. Now, forty years later, comes Notations 21, which features the work of approximately 150 contemporary composers who have developed unique forms of graphic notation.

Theresa Sauer, a musicologist who had turned to studying graphic design, found herself looking at many graphic scores as examples of visual art. She decided that the upcoming 40th anniversary of the first Notations was the time to reintroduce the public to the topic, as well as to publish some of the many individual innovators who have arisen since the first book. The new anthology will also include examples of music notation from outside the realm of contemporary music such as ancient Egyptian notation, which is based on color and has rarely been seen outside its native terrain. Sauer also commissioned essays from Steve Beck, the mystical Danish composer Henrik Rasmussen, and sixteen others. Currently at print, Notations 21 will be available at the end of March and will be accompanied by a series of concerts at the Chelsea Art Museum during the first half of October. In the meantime, there is a growing website dedicated to the project.

Unconventional notation appeared in contemporary music in order to address a range of experimental concerns. During the first decades of the 20th century, Henry Cowell made early innovations in notating tone clusters and other extended techniques, and Charles Ives and Harry Partch developed notation for microtonal composing. The 1950s and ’60s were something of a golden age for graphic notation, when the composers of the New York School—John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff—began experimenting with indeterminacy and investigated graphic notation as a way to restrict and reinvent the information given to performers. Another important inspiration for experimental notation was the advent of electronic and tape composition. At the time, copyright laws required that a visual document be registered for each new work. However, for electronic composition, a score was after the fact and thus essentially decorative. Many early electronic works by Ligeti and Stockhausen, especially, have beautiful graphic scores.

Soon after, the Fluxus movement took the concept of the score into the realm of the absurd. Paik, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and many others began creating unrealizable scores, as well as scores for actions that abandoned traditional musical instruments—and musicians—entirely. The original Cage/Knowles Notations reflects prolific experimental and cross-disciplinary creativity by both visual artists and composers. Knowles recalls the fertile, collegial atmosphere of the period and remarks, “People don’t really understand how much interaction there was.” Once married to Dick Higgins, she was one of the founding members of Fluxus and shares with the group an interest in “intermedia” projects, a love for permeable boundaries between art and life, and a sense of humor. Rifling through a file cabinet at her home in Soho, she discovers “Swell Song,” a short, poetic score written for her by the late James Tenney.

Onion Skin Song by Alison Knowles
Onion Skin Song
by Alison Knowles

Knowles creates and performs her own scores. They are visual artworks rich with chance and the material of everyday life. In Onion Skin Song, which hangs on her wall, the vegetable’s veined, transparent layers are scattered in flower-like shapes across a large sheet of paper. The minimal Shoe String Song, which she says was “John [Cage]’s favorite,” features a single, snaking brown line. Knowles points out a break in the lace, where the frayed end evokes a burst of energy. Both scores were made by tossing the “ingredients” into a blueprint machine, although she also creates versions of Onion Skin live by pressing new skins between layers of plastic wrap, projecting the results on a screen, and performing from them.

The artist also makes her own instruments: reddish, sculptural pouches she calls “Bean Turners.” Filled, indeed with beans—discovering that soy disintegrated, she turned to adzuki—that tumble from one end to the other, the stiff sacks create washes of noise that slowly crescendo and fade. Knowles’s abstract scores have also been performed on traditional instruments, and sometimes in combination with more unusual objects. She has always thought of herself as someone who brings visual art into the sonic world, though not exactly as a composer. When asked if she has any expectations about how her scores will be performed, she replies, “I like to be really surprised.” Graphic scores, she said, first crossed disciplines by becoming “useful in galleries,” where visitors could appreciate their beauty and see what performers were working from. However, the interest now flows from both directions. Recently, her work has attracted interest from music departments as well as the fine arts. “Music is so lively now because it’s open,” she adds, and she affirms that she enjoys working with any student who likes “making things.”

The 1960s and ’70s produced composers and artists who were in constant conversation with one another. In addition to its dialogue with other disciplines, composition and notation began to feel the influence of jazz, especially regarding improvisation. Earle Brown, who began as a jazz trumpeter and began exploring open notational approaches in the 1950s, describes his work both as influenced by the dynamic aesthetics of Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder and as “secretly” exploring why classical musicians could not improvise. By removing certain expected information from his scores, he hoped to bring improvisation into the world of his interpreters. (There’s a short video featuring performances of these works on the Earle Brown Music Foundation website.)

Wadada Leo Smith, one of today’s seminal jazz composers, developed a system of notation during the 1970s that he calls Ahkreanvention. Its colors, symbols, loops, and lines represent specific improvisatory cues, although it is impossible to learn the system without studying with Smith himself. Another giant of the AACM, Anthony Braxton, also uses an idiosyncratic graphic system to notate his compositions. The titles of his works are esoteric signs that combine shapes, letters, and numbers, and Braxton himself must decipher them in order to discover how they should be played.

Douglas Wadle Amphiboly

Improvisation continues to be one of the primary partners to experimental notation. Douglas Wadle, a Los Angeles-based composer and one of Tenney’s last students at CalArts, suggests that the link between the two has in fact grown. Like Brown, Wadle transitioned from jazz performance (via comparative literature and ethnomusicology) to experimental composition, and brings a cerebral, interrogative sensibility to his work. At a philosophical level, he is interested in language—and notation—as a code and method for making sense. Wadle creates graphic scores, he says, with an eye and ear for how a performer will decode them. Unlike many other composers, he adds, he is interested in “analytic types of thought processes.” In his Logos prior Logos No. 4, for example, the interpreter overlays two or three layers of transparencies with straight and curved lines on top of a background score dotted with musical cells. Each line represents a parameter of the performance, such as temporal placement or breadth of sound spectrum, and must be read from one end to the other as a continuum. The score is then ordered by the position of the cells relative to the lines.

Wadle retains an ethnographer’s interest in performing research. He describes his composition as a process of finding ways to collect information about a perceptual question he has formulated. Recently, he wondered about how performers exchange meaning between visual and aural senses, and in pursuit of answers, his composition turned into painting. In fact, the score for his work Amphiboly was the first painting he made in ten years. When a guitarist took up the score for performance, Wadle was shocked when his “cubist-like bracketing over the notes” were interpreted as phrase markings. It wasn’t off the wall—it was obvious. “How could I have missed that?” the composer wonders.

From Marina Rosenfeld's series WHITE LINES (2005-7)
From Marina Rosenfeld’s series WHITE LINES (2005-7)

The legibility, or illegibility, of notation also interests composer Marina Rosenfeld. She is currently at work on a large-scale sound installation that will be produced in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial this March. According to Rosenfeld, Teenage Lontano “covers” or “remixes” Ligeti’s Lontano as a work for teenage voices and electronics. The teens will sing while listening to “individualized headphone scores” that the composer is creating, thereby moving experimental notation off the page and into an entirely different technological register. The arrangement, she says, “[Will] allow them to create all kinds of dissonant tone clusters without having to hear each other specifically. Every singer is in a way in his or her own world, with headphones on and iPods, in that unique interiority of listening within a headset while in a social situation.”

Rosenfeld has used graphic notation throughout her career, particularly as a way to include musical novices in her ensembles. For her Emotional Orchestra, for example, she developed a notation for bowing that articulated a few essential motions and distinctions, allowing women who had never played a string instrument to quickly establish a rudimentary level of control. The score for White Lines takes a more lyrical, abstract approach, with pairs of vertical bands changing widths over a video montage. For many years, Rosenfeld has pursued a conceptual strain of composing that owes much to the cross-disciplinary dialogues that began half a century ago. Her work poses critiques of the musical insider, the value of expertise or virtuosity, and “the ideosocial construction of music-making itself.”

Score by Stephen Vitiello
Listen to a performance here.

Stephen Vitiello is another artist who has found a provocative niche between music and image. Although he got his start playing in punk bands and has found it advantageous at times to describe himself as an electronic musician, he most accurately falls within the category of sound art. “For the greater part of my career,” he says, “opportunities have come from the world of (audio) visual arts, far more than music.” This means that Vitiello teaches in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University and is represented by galleries in New York, London, and Paris. It also means that composition has arrived relatively late in his career.

Vitiello created his first graphic scores for his recent collaboration with flutist Molly Barth, formerly of eighth blackbird. She and her new ensemble, Beta Collide (with Brian McWhorter, trumpet, and Phillip Patti, percussion) invited Vitiello to write for them. “It had been a very long time since I notated anything properly,” he admits, so he cast about for a way to produce a score. He continues, “I was in Maine last summer and took some photos of reeds in water. When I looked back at the photos, I could see rhythms and long intersecting drones. More important, I could see a mood, which to me equates very much with a sound.” He turned two photos into scores and sent them to Barth, who was “maybe a bit confused.” Vitiello went to Oregon to rehearse with the group and says, “In the end, the scores were more like still images from a video that they were creating a soundtrack for. Philip dipped gongs and triangles in and out of water, and Brian poured water into his trumpet.”

Wadle and Vitiello’s scores will be included in Notations 21. As Sauer notes, there is indeed “something timely” about graphic notation. This fall, eight months after she began collecting scores, the inveterate interdisciplinary New York venue, The Kitchen, held an exhibition of graphic scores called Between Thought and Sound, and paired the show with several performances. Matthew Lyons, The Kitchen’s assistant curator, remarks that it took two and a half years to prepare the show, and that it had been an interest of the venue’s director, Debra Singer, for some time. Still, he says, interest does seem to be collecting around graphic scores. In addition to Notations 21 and its series of concerts, he notes, sound art curator Christoph Cox is planning an exhibition similar to The Kitchen’s for 2009 or 2010 at the Houston Contemporary Art Museum.

Still, why does experimental notation seem to be making a comeback? What happened after composers of the 1960s made notation an object of radical investigation? In recent years, computer notation software programs such as Finale and Sibelius have made standard notation more convenient than ever, further marginalizing the possibility of more experimental approaches. While computer notation programs are ubiquitous among composers these days, there has also been a backlash of composers who treasure the handwritten manuscript and remain resistant to the depersonalization of digitally manufactured scores. At the same time, the most sophisticated computer notation programs now contain the ability to accept symbols entered by a user, and the most techno-savvy composers now have the tools to create their own programs.

Two young composers working with unconventional notation reflect radically different approaches to our digital era. Ann L. Dentel, a long-standing member of the Southern California “Art/Anti-Art” collective Big City Orchestra, continues the contrary, DIY spirit of the Fluxus tradition with her epic 365 collection. She created a piece of music every day for a year on paper by hand, which veered heavily towards the side of graphic, bringing a highly apostatic sense of craft to notation. On the other hand, Andre Vida, an American now living in Berlin, synthesized the individuality of experimental notation and the opportunities of computer programming by creating a series of animated scores. They’re available with performance instructions on his website.

From the tentative revisions of the early 20th century to the proliferating, idiosyncratic practices of today, graphic notation has offered composers—and artists—a way to express what standard systems cannot. It has enabled them to say not just more, but also sometimes provocatively less than traditional scores. Sound art and the current flexibility of disciplines allow the visual components of music and the aural possibilities of space to manifest in beautiful, complex documents. At the same time, open scores have their own appeal for improvisers and others in search of answers to profound, evasive musical questions. Ever occupying the margins of sense and perception, graphic scores play an important role in bringing adventurous minds to music.


Alyssa Timin

Alyssa Timin is a freelance journalist living in New York. Her writing on music and art has appeared in a variety of publications including PMP Magazine, the Finnish Music Quarterly, Visual Arts Journal, NewMusicBox, and Sequenza 21.

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