Unsettling the Score: Experiments in Notation, Part I

Unsettling the Score: Experiments in Notation, Part I

Example 1: 12th-century Beneventan staff. All images courtesy of the author.

Editor’s Note: The following text aligns with the Center’s interest in and investigation of the concept of “restaging”—applied here to mean the variable re-performances encouraged by certain forms of musical notation. Click here for part II of Gutkin’s piece.

I once led a lecture-workshop with artist Eve Essex titled, “Experimental Musical Notations.” I didn’t really like that title. It implicitly suggested the existence of some kind of stable, “conventional” notation against which “experimental notation” could be cast. While it is true that a form of five-line musical staff notation, still in use today, became increasingly standardized over the last few hundred years and widespread in the West (and beyond), this form is the result of a long history of modification, and it has never been truly static. So for our second lecture-workshop, at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Eve and I chose simply to talk about “experiments” in music notation.

In my use of the term “experiment,” I don’t wish to anachronistically connote the scientific method or the self-conscious avant-gardism associated with 20th-century “experimental” movements—although as we will see, these latter avant-gardes have been an especially rich source of notational innovations. I wish only to indicate that because notation has rarely been understood as an end in itself, it has been particularly open to tinkering.

Not a History of Notation

Example 2: Late-12th century Pérotin, Viderunt omnes.

The history of notation in the West can, with many exceptions and counter-currents, be viewed as the development of a technique to represent music or dictate its performance with increased specificity. In the 9th century, the neumatic notation of plainchant did not stipulate discrete pitches or specific rhythms, but instead portrayed something of a chant’s melodic contour; a singer reading these neumes would have to already have learned the chant by ear. These early notations, then, were more functional memory aides than records of musical “information.” With the introduction of the musical staff around the 11th century—at first just a single line—neumes could begin to represent pitches more precisely. [See example 1 above.] Systems for notating specific rhythms began to be developed between the late-12th and 13th centuries. [See example 2 above.] By the 17th century, a notational form closely resembling modern staff notation, and dictating many of the particulars of performance, was in use.

1/2: Example 3: Baude Cordier, 14th century.
2/2: Example 4: Cordier circular canon.

There were many notational developments, however, that cannot be so easily integrated into a narrative of ever-increasing precision of representation. For example, in the later 14th century, some composers associated with the so-called Ars subtilior wrote musical scores with audacious pictorial elements—a love song where the musical staff forms a heart, or a “perpetual canon” (a work that could be hypothetically repeated ad infinitum) with a circular staff. [See examples 3 and 4 above.] Later, with the ascendency of notated instrumental music during the Renaissance, an extremely practical method to notate music for lute and keyboard instruments was found in tablature: a notation depicting the strings or keys to be played rather than the abstract pitch content. (There have been many versions of tablature outside the West and pre-dating the Renaissance, and many kinds of tablature are still in use today, especially among guitarists.) Even as modern staff notation was crystallizing around the 17th century, the scores contained many “indeterminacies” that would be realized differently from one performance to another. Two harpsichordists performing from the same “figured bass,” given in numbers and signs below the staff, might find different “voicings” (arrangements of pitches) for the specified chord. And they would certainly interpret the rhythm of an “unmeasured” prelude somewhat differently. [See examples 5 and 6 below.]

1/2: Example 5: Figured Bass, from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, late-17th century, but modern notation here.
2/2: Example 6: Couperin, unmeasured prelude, mid-to-late 17th century.

According to Lydia Goehr’s landmark study, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, it was in the early 19th century that art music in the West began to be conceived as a repertoire of repeatable and highly determinate “works,” and no longer as an activity of ever-changing performances. In a Romantic translation of Platonism, musical works began to be thought of as entities that existed in a kind of ideality beyond their worldly, empirical instantiation. A corollary of this, although contradictory in some respects, was the elevation of the material score. In order to be “true” to the composer’s work, performers were expected to strictly adhere to its notational representation. And in fact, from the early 19th century onwards, composers employed increasingly detailed and regulative notations that stipulated not only pitch and rhythm but ever finer qualities of dynamics, tempo, and articulation.

Performative Indeterminacy

Example 7: Sylvano Bussotti, Piano Piece for David Tudor #3, 1959.

Many composers up through our own day write scores that stringently regulate performance, whether in traditional or idiosyncratic notational forms. But perhaps the major revolution in post-World War II composition coming out of the notated tradition has been to shatter the “work concept” and admit many kinds of performative indeterminacy and improvisation back into the performance-score dialectic.

Schematically speaking, the experimentation with so-called graphic notation on the one hand, and text-based scores on the other, might be construed as the two dominant poles of these post-war innovations in musical notation. On the “graphic” side we might take “Piece 3” from Sylvano Bussotti’s Five Piano Pieces for David Tudor from 1959 as a prime example. The score consists of approximately one-hundred hand-drawn, rather irregular, horizontal lines that collectively form a rectangle. Scattered among and within these lines are little figurations: an arc, a parallelogram, a profusion of dots. [See example 7 above.] There are no instructions for performance. Confronted with this score Tudor, the titular pianist who made a specialty of playing non-conventionally notated, avant-garde works, cut right to the chase: “Should everything be interpreted? Black and white? Only black? Only white? All lines?”

Although the entire effect of Bussotti’s score would have been compromised if he had added instructions, some composers chose to accompany their graphically idiosyncratic scores with increasingly lengthy directions. In fact, for many, text would eventually constitute the entire score. The text (or mostly text) scores by Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, and Dick Higgins, among others, were inspired by John Cage’s work and exemplify a shift in emphasis from aesthetic to social forms that accompanied the “deskilling” of traditional notational competence. Thus the “anti-aesthetic” impetus, and often explicitly political content of “neo-avant-garde” art practices of the period partially stemmed from notational developments that had once been tethered to the narrower field of music.

Click for part II of Gutkin’s piece >