Saturday, October 5, 2013

Graphic Scores

Regular readers will have noticed that I always get a kick out of reading the latest music journalism. Today, it comes from an unusual source, the Financial Times with an article on graphic music scores.

I don't remember the source, but I recall reading a commentary once where the writer was pointing out that if you read the newspaper or watch a tv program that deals with something where you have real professional expertise, you will be horrified at how much they simply get wrong. Now think about how this also applies to all those things you don't have detailed knowledge about: foreign affairs, economics, science?

When the topic is music or any of the arts condescension and snobbery are layered on top of the ignorance. Which brings me to today's article. It begins:
Music notation is at best a compromise, at worst a lie. In western culture a five-line stave suspending a pattern of dotted notes established itself as the universal language, the most efficient way to communicate musical ideas, and for centuries it went largely unquestioned. But, in the 1950s, a number of composers – Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage among them – began to treat notation with less reverence, using it more like a tool that could be played with, personalised and, perhaps, improved.
Conventional music notation, that lying compromise, is one of the most remarkable achievements of Western music and one that made possible a great deal of the rest. If there were no really efficient and accurate way of notating music, then the accomplishments of Bach, Beethoven and all the rest would really have been impossible, now wouldn't they? And in addition, we would not be able to enjoy their music today.

The truth is that when you approach a graphic score like the one from the article that I put above, you have remarkably little information to go on. And you have no idea what any of it could mean. It is really nothing more than an occasion or inspiration for improvisation. The actual musical performance could turn out well or not, but the quality of the performance and the quality of the score have very little, musically, to do with one another. The article makes particular mention of a piece by John Cage called  Water Music. Here is an excerpt from the score:

 The piece, originally named "Water Music" was re-named "Water Walk" for some later performances. We have a version of the piece, by John Cage, on YouTube. This is just an excerpt as the whole clip, which you can see here, contains a great deal of introductory commentary that isn't really relevant.

Now I mostly don't doubt Mr. Cage's sincerity, I really do think he was interested in exploring sounds in this way. But a whole lot of it is also astute marketing. The thing about modernism is that it was invested in opposing itself to all the traditional ways of making music. A composer could make a name for himself far more easily by doing something like this than by just writing another string quartet. The cost of this kind of procedure is that you give up the possibility of doing something with actual harmony, melody and rhythm. A pretty severe restriction, once you think of it. The tight control of the events with a stop watch (as discussed in the complete clip) is just a hilarious way of distinguishing this piece and performance from someone just mucking about with various sound-producers. But of course, it is a distinction without a difference!

I discussed Cage and this piece in more detail in this post.

Here is a paragraph from the Financial Times article discussing Water Walk:
“Some people might feel that graphic scores are in some way vague or abstract but I don’t find them vague at all,” says MacGregor. “Everybody thinks Cage is all about making it up and leaving it all to chance but ‘Water Music’ runs with a stopwatch and you know exactly what you should be doing when.”
MacGregor is Joanna MacGregor, a pianist who plays the piece.

The article ends by wandering off into the mystic wonderfulness of images:
It follows that moving images could offer a more truthful and piquant expression of creative ideas than words or notation. “Having worked with a lot of composers who write things down in a very traditional way, they’re always looking for ways to express a musical notation,” says MacGregor. “I had a discussion with Michael Finnissy about this years ago, about how music notation is never going to be entirely, scientifically expressive of what you, the composer, are trying to do.” 
Of course, it doesn't "follow" at all. If you want a "truthful and piquant expression of creative ideas" then graphic scores won't do it in the world of music because, very simply, they don't tell you anything musical. They usually don't tell you what notes to play, what rhythms and what harmonies. If you are ok with that, as Cage often was, then fine. But ask yourself this: given this kind of ambiguity is there any possible way of distinguishing a really horribly bad performance of, say, Water Walk, from a spectacularly brilliant one? What if one performer gets all of the timing wrong? Forgets to use a stopwatch or just misses all the timing points? Would it make the slightest difference aesthetically? Would the audience be able to tell a good from a bad performance? Once you recognize this then the mystic allure of graphic notation pretty much evaporates.

Traditional music notation, however, is a very accurate depiction of what a piece will actually sound like. Here is Rubenstein to show us how it works with a Chopin waltz:


Rickard Dahl said...

She seems to contradict herself by saying: “I had a discussion with Michael Finnissy about this years ago, about how music notation is never going to be entirely, scientifically expressive of what you, the composer, are trying to do.”
How can graphic notation possibly tell more about how a piece should be performed if it's much more abstract than regular notation? It opens up alot more possibilities of interpretation which means that it's much less likely that it will sound like what the composer wants. And why would performers having their own interpretation be such a bad thing. Why restrict the performers' freedom (expression) to make it sound strictly like the composer imagines?

Bryan Townsend said...

Nice catch! And that phrase "scientifically expressive" stops me in my tracks! What could that possibly mean?