Music notation as art.
November 11, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Music is art for the ears. But what about music notation as art?
posted by SpacemanStix (62 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
THE FAERIE'S AIRE AND DEATH WALTZ! w00t!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:45 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just noticed the Aphex Twin motivational meme is actually sheet music for the Death Waltz...
posted by samsara at 11:46 AM on November 11, 2011


This has been going on for a long, long time. See Eye Music and particularly the More Subtle Art.
posted by Iridic at 11:48 AM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Crumb's scores are beautiful and all hand done, which is rare these days. I especially like Black Angels.

The Aphex Twin score, however (and I know it's in the article as sort of a post script), because this is a bit more akin to New Complexity, which usually features scores that are purposefully so insane looking that the performer must kind of pick and choose how to play it, as opposed to actually trying to be true to it. See Ferneyhough, for example. The John Stump stuff maybes fall in between these two - it's a bit different than being score art qua score art.

All of that said - I used to have a print of a score that was a Cathedral of some sort, and have been trying to hunt it down for forever. Anyone know what I'm talking about?
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:48 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's like an eye test. And I failed it.
posted by tommasz at 11:52 AM on November 11, 2011


I found this on Facebook.
posted by martinrebas at 11:53 AM on November 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Possibly related Youtube.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:53 AM on November 11, 2011


Next up: What about SAT bubble answer sheets as art?
posted by The World Famous at 11:59 AM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Those are really neat looking but I can't help but wonder if some musicians look at them the same way some statisticians look at certain infographics that some of us like -- "Yes, I understand that's pleasing to the eye but it's really ultimately not very useful from my perspective."

I'm not sure that they are necessarily right or wrong, but it was the first thing I thought of.

I just think they are cool.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:03 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Um, the "Aphex Twin" score is "Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz." Whoever made that image is a total idiot shitswab, because it's not even wrong. It makes me wince and seethe the same way I did as a kid when my uncle asked if I liked that "drug music" made by "those guys in that band, what was it, Pink Flow?"
posted by invitapriore at 12:05 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is even a question? Ever since Baude Cordier at least in the early 1400s.
posted by LMGM at 12:07 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are music notations in Haskell and even a guy who DJs by livecoding Haskell.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:08 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Next up: What about SAT bubble answer sheets as art?

Ha, here you go.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2011


Those are really neat looking but I can't help but wonder if some musicians look at them the same way some statisticians look at certain infographics that some of us like -- "Yes, I understand that's pleasing to the eye but it's really ultimately not very useful from my perspective."

Yeah, that's exactly it. The first picture on the first link has some passages that are literally physical impossibilities. It's clearly a surreal joke -- there are notes scattered throughout the "sheet music" instructing the musicians to do things like "release the penguins" and such. The youtube links you may see scattered around posted by groups trying to "play" it are just sheerly people being goofy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:11 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought the post was going to be full of stuff like this.
posted by mothershock at 12:14 PM on November 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


This has been going on for a long, long time. See Eye Music and particularly the More Subtle Art.

I make this correction with no ill intent, but it should be noted that, in practice, ars subtilior is really the only accepted term for ars subtilior. I've never seen it translated and I don't think anyone who knows what it is would immediately know what the "More Subtle Art" is if it were mentioned to them in conversation.

Those are really neat looking but I can't help but wonder if some musicians look at them the same way some statisticians look at certain infographics that some of us like -- "Yes, I understand that's pleasing to the eye but it's really ultimately not very useful from my perspective."

For what it's worth, everybody I went to music school with is a big fan. After years spent solemnly reading scores whose tempo indications and directions are made up of a handful of words from Italian (or, if you're lucky, French, and, if you're unlucky, German), finding "Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz" was a handy salve for my soul.
posted by invitapriore at 12:20 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The first picture on the first link has some passages that are literally physical impossibilities. It's clearly a surreal joke

In other words, this bumper sticker doesn't apply in this case.
posted by NorthernLite at 12:27 PM on November 11, 2011


Morton Feldman created his own notation for work done in the early 1950's, here's an example of a piece from 1951 on display in an art gallery.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 12:30 PM on November 11, 2011


This article is even more surreal if you read it while you've still got Robert Crumb in your head from a few posts down.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:39 PM on November 11, 2011


No mention of M. Frog (Jean-Yves Labat, the keyboardist/synthesizer player for Todd Rundgren on the Utopia LP) who attempted to create a new musical notation of colors and shapes for playing synthesizers.
posted by wcfields at 12:40 PM on November 11, 2011


There's some neat stuff still accessible in the second two links of my previous post on similar notational art.

And maybe now more people will get this joke.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:42 PM on November 11, 2011


Also, while we're also-ing, Notations and Notations 21 are out at the ha-ha-only-serious end of this meme.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:44 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Correct link to previous post)
posted by Wolfdog at 12:46 PM on November 11, 2011


Of course, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji actually produced scores that looked like that. On the liner notes of the old Musical Heritage Society recording I had of his music (I think I actually had three), Sorabji marveled that the pianist had memorized his pieces: "I couldn't f-ing do it." I need to go see what's available in the digital age.
posted by ancientgower at 12:47 PM on November 11, 2011


Lutoslawski: Ode de Cologne.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:52 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]




Cornelius Cardew's scores are really beautiful.

Also Iannis Xennakiswho invented granular synthesis's scores are incredible.

Got to go before leechblock kicks in.
posted by pmcp at 12:56 PM on November 11, 2011


Crumb's scores are beautiful and all hand done, which is rare these days. I especially like Black Angels.

Which is, incidentally, the piece that's sort of responsible for the Kronos Quartet.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:00 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Those are really neat looking but I can't help but wonder if some musicians look at them the same way some statisticians look at certain infographics that some of us like -- "Yes, I understand that's pleasing to the eye but it's really ultimately not very useful from my perspective."

Sometimes this is the case, other times, as in Crumb's Black Angels, or even the circular piece from cosmos, it has a certain utility, i.e. playing it over and over again, or in the sting quartet, Crumb bends the staffs together whenever the strings are playing in unison.

The first picture on the first link has some passages that are literally physical impossibilities. It's clearly a surreal joke -- there are notes scattered throughout the "sheet music" instructing the musicians to do things like "release the penguins" and such.


A joke, maybe sometimes...but in things like Ferneyhough and the other new complexists, it's an integral part of the performance - it's just a different way of getting something out of musicians.

What a work is, ontologically, is a very interesting question, and it is not the score. The score is a tool to try and get out of performers some certain performance, and the methods and notation is always evolving. For purely traditional type music, standard notation has settled in to a pretty solid way of achieving that - but it still has its limits. Folks like Penderecki had to come up with new notations because they were experimenting with extended techniques that didn't exist when notation was becoming standardized in the 18th century. People like Cage experimented with putting insects on a projector and having performers interpret their movements through music. You know, it just depends on what you're going for. It is not at all the case that all composers want the exact same performance each time, in fact, for some of them the opposite is true (and of course, even for more conventional musics, the performance is never exactly the same and there is always a level of interpretation). And so these composers are just using the chance element of performance as an actual element in the work, as opposed to pretending that it can be surmounted by any amount of specificity in the way the music is written down.

A score is just a set of instructions. There is no intrinsic reason that 'legato' or some such thing is really any better than writing 'as water molecules in a freezing lake' or whatever. You cannot get the same sort of performance with expression markings and the like as you can with something like 'release the penguins.' Music is a very abstract medium, and there is an infinite number of ways to put down on paper what you mean to achieve through sound. We must talk about music through metaphor, for there is no other way, and saying a certain tone is high or low, or that a music is sad or happy, is no more true than saying that a music is releasing the penguins.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:01 PM on November 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


Which is, incidentally, the piece that's sort of responsible for the Kronos Quartet.

Yeah, it's one of the reasons I love them, that Harrington got them together for this explicit purpose. It's a shame that they don't do modernist music anymore. They were so good at it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:02 PM on November 11, 2011



Lutoslawski: Ode de Cologne.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:52 PM on November 11 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


THANK YOU!
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:03 PM on November 11, 2011


Lutoslawski, any idea what a John Zorn score looks like? I've never thought to ask but he certainly asks his quartets (for example) to do some unorthodox stuff with their bows.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:25 PM on November 11, 2011


I'm framing this and hanging it over my piano.
posted by lordrunningclam at 1:33 PM on November 11, 2011


Lutoslawski, any idea what a John Zorn score looks like? I've never thought to ask but he certainly asks his quartets (for example) to do some unorthodox stuff with their bows.

Hmmm, I've seen some Zorn scores, but not a lot, but I think for a lot of the unusual but somewhat now-in-standard practice bow type stuff, like smacking the back the bows on the strings with ricochet and stuff like that, he just uses variations on pictograms and sometimes with instructions (in this example, usually a line with little dots following it or something). It's pretty common these days to have a notation glossary included with pieces that use a lot of extended techniques, and there is honestly a pretty wide range.

And with Zorn, it probably really depends. He writes such a crazy range of pieces, everything from rock music to pieces I've seen where someone is whacking a huge broom thing against the stage. A lot of that is probably just written out in some sort of instruction, like "whack broom on stage" and then the rhythm is written out with x noteheads or something, or even like a Pendercki thing with seconds in between whacks instead of beats, etc.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:36 PM on November 11, 2011


Also: I love Zorn's music, I really do, but he is one of the biggest assholes I have ever met.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:38 PM on November 11, 2011


I'm thinking of like the grinding the bows thing that he does in a few different pieces.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:41 PM on November 11, 2011


Sorry, not meaning to thread hog, here, but here is the set of instructions for Zorn's Cobra,which is a cray all improvised thing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:43 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Threadhog away! You seem to know more about the subject than most.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:48 PM on November 11, 2011


I'm not sure what Zorn used, but I've written pieces with the whole bow grinding thing before, and what I've done, which I took I'm pretty sure from Crumb, was to use a square notehead instead of a regular notehead which showed the pitch and duration i wanted but it meant "grind the bow into the string" to get that scratchy sound, and then I just included a note about it in the notation guide. I used this kind of method for all sorts of stuff, like if I wanted a saxophone hissing sound I would use a triangle notehead that would still indicate the pitch I wanted fingered and the duration, but the performer would know to hissing through the horn instead of making an actual tone.

Some of the details for those things are not super standard, but I think this is the basic method most composers use these days - it stays within traditional perimeters while still saying to the musicians, oh hey, when you see this type of weird notehead, that means play it like x. Which, at least in my experience, has been the most pragmatic way of going about it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:52 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I should also note that often getting string players to grind their bows into their strings, often of their six figure instruments, is sort of another trick that I still haven't mastered.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:54 PM on November 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


A score is just a set of instructions.

When I started at music school, one of the required courses for first-semester students was Music Notation. Unless you tested out of it, you spent the semester learning how to draw notes and rests and all kinds of clefs that you figured you'd never use. It was basically an art class, and it was taken seriously: You did all the homework or you didn't pass the class, and there was a final exam. Back then grade inflation was less prevalent, and it wasn't an issue for first-semester students at my school because the dropout rate was something like 65% anyway.

They changed the curriculum a few years later. I had left and come back, and now the first-semester Music Notation class was gone. Instead they had added a Music Preparation class and listed it as a concentrate requirement for my major. I objected that I had already passed the old notation class, but they told me this was a different curriculum. They were right. The first few weeks included a condensed version of what I had already learned, but then we got into very advanced principles. The layout of a score is incredibly complex. Notation isn't a science, it's a language. There are myriad ways to notate and the question isn't whether a given choice is "correct," but whether it's smart.

But the real skill is in copying. A "score" is the entire orchestra's music, every instrument laid out simultaneously on one sheet of paper. For the individual players, you copy out "parts." This sounds simple: The clarinetist only needs his music, not what the violins are playing, so you just copy (and transpose) his part onto a separate pad and give him the pages. It's mechanical, right? Well, sure, that will work. But it's not helpful or smart. For example, what if the clarinetist has nothing to play for 82 bars in the middle of the piece? There is a shorthand notation that saves you having to write-out 82 blank bars, but then you're relying on the clarinetist to know the piece closely and essentially count-off 82 bars. Ideally he could, but it's not realistic to expect that he will. It's vastly more helpful to include cues—for instance, maybe the drums enter after 40 bars, so you can indicate his halfway point; and maybe five bars before he re-enters, you can indicate a rhythm that the brass picks up.

It's a balance of information. You don't want to provide too much, because sometimes there's already so much to notate just within a single part and you want to keep it as simple as possible. At the same time, you want to make sure you provide enough "extra" information that the player has a clear idea from that paper not just what he's playing, but also how it fits into the larger orchestra.

There are all kinds of minor considerations that click into this process, too. For instance, you want to make sure that major signposts (rehearsal letters, beginnings of phrases, etc.) fall on the left side of the paper, at the beginning of a new line. But the music isn't always composed symmetrically, and so sometimes that's difficult to arrange. It takes massaging. There are tricks. There is software that can automate this whole process, but the last time I looked at the technology, it was horrendous and couldn't come close to approximating what a real, studied copyist can do. A skilled copyist can save you untold amounts of rehearsal time. That equals money.

I loved it. I ended up getting into copying pretty seriously for awhile, at a time and in a place where almost nobody was doing it by hand. I could do it quicker and better than software alternatives, which will export parts quickly but take forever to input. Composers often have terrible notation and messy scores; and I could take your messy score, skip over the entire step of cleaning it up—which was unnecessary, since you'd be conducting the performance and the piece wasn't going to be published—and crank out coherent parts for the individual musicians that they could read cold and sound good. It was fun. There was one shop in the city where copyists bought our supplies, and one woman in the country we all bought paper from. (She passed away in 2007.) There is definitely art and craft to music notation, even for the simplest music. It's problem-solving and can substantively help bridge the gap between composition and performance. For a composer, a good copyist can be like a good editor for an author.
posted by cribcage at 1:54 PM on November 11, 2011 [18 favorites]


I'm also looking back at old scores of mine now, and I see I've also used a "z" looking symbol to notate the crunch tone, replacing the notehead. I'm pretty sure that I stole from Pendercki, who I basically consider to be the father of 20th century extended string technique.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:56 PM on November 11, 2011


This is an excellent book by the amazing David Cope on this topic, btw, which includes a lot of the standard-ish notations for this stuff. It cites who came up with what notation and things like that. I get a lot of my notation from it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:59 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


> I could do it quicker and better than software alternatives, which will export parts quickly but take forever to input.

So do the examples in the fpp have enough in them to actually specify the music? If I did go to the trouble of typing them into Finale or Sibelius, would they play?
posted by jfuller at 2:01 PM on November 11, 2011



So do the examples in the fpp have enough in them to actually specify the music? If I did go to the trouble of typing them into Finale or Sibelius, would they play?

With most, no. In fact, most of those you couldn't even get in to Finale or Sibelius. You could do an approximation, which is arguably all you get anyway, but that aside, Finale and Sibelius are absolutely horrible for contemporary notation of this kind. Even simple things you have to draw in their yourself with the draw tool. Hell, I often just print the damn thing out after I get the basic stuff on there and then do the rest with a sharpie and scan it back in.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:03 PM on November 11, 2011


I haven't written much but I can't imagine trying to do it with Sibelius. It takes too damn long when all I want is a fucking quarter note.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2011


no xenakis and no stockhausen = fail
posted by Pastabagel at 2:11 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


WFMU has a gallery of graphic musical notation.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:23 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


WFMU has a gallery of graphic musical notation.

That is very cool. I had never seen the oldest song in the world, having been aware only of the oldest complete musical score.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:27 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about mathematical notation as art? I've long felt that there's some commonality between musical and mathematical notation, although it may just be that they're both hard to typeset.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:44 PM on November 11, 2011


madcaptenor:

One thing math and music have in common is an acceptance for indulging an author. A reader is expected to be familiar with conventions, but then the author can be all like "here a filled dot will stand for ...". Similar to poetry more than prose in some ways.

A difference is that the relationship between the notation and result is much more complex and overloaded/underspecified in music. Oral tradition, context, whimsy and implication are ubiquitous.
posted by idiopath at 3:00 PM on November 11, 2011


So do the examples in the fpp have enough in them to actually specify the music? If I did go to the trouble of typing them into Finale or Sibelius, would they play?

The Crumb scores actually do specify pretty closely what the music should sound like — though as Lutoslawski points out, Finale would barf on them pretty hard. But with human musicians who have the flexibility to keep reading around the spiral or whatever, yeah, if you asked two pianists to play the spiral-shaped piece, you'd get the same sequence of notes from both.

The other scores in the original post are basically pranks anyway. They've got bits in them that are meaningless as notation. It's not just, like, "That's wrong because nobody's hand is wide enough to hit all those notes" or "That's really difficult because it specifies a complicated rhythm." It's more like "That's not even wrong. It doesn't even specify an unplayable piece, much less a playable one."

Maybe math would be a good comparison here too. Crumb's scores are like writing 1+1=2, but deciding to get all artsy and writing it like
 1 
+1=
 2
The Death Waltz is like writing --------{----(@) and then handing it to someone and saying "Here's your math test. Those are all mathy-looking symbols, right? So calculate me the answer!"
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:11 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Treatise, by Cornelius Cardew, has some of the most beautiful notation on the planet, if you like minimalistic line drawings and circles.

On preview, pmcp beat me to it.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 4:04 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Death Waltz is like writing --------{----(@) and then handing it to someone and saying "Here's your math test."

I thought it was more like writing out the integral of e to the power of x times y and then handing it to someone and saying "LOLSEXY"
posted by speicus at 11:44 AM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


But yeah the Death Waltz et al. is clearly parodying a kind of mid-20th century notation that maybe let's say prized visual style over musical utility, though Crumb's scores are eminently playable and beautiful to listen to as well as read.

What's interesting is that the same kind of notation was used to push in two directions simultaneously -- one toward increasing specificity, which Ferneyhough is arguably the apex of, in which there is so much indicated in the score that it is practically impossible to play accurately.

The other direction is one of increasing ambiguity, where much is left up to chance and/or the discretion of the performer, like John Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra (hard to find links to images of this piece!). Many people throw up their hands at scores like this because it initially seems like a prank or joke like the Death Waltz -- how could you possibly interpret that? But what Cage has actually done is to present a puzzle for the performer with many potential solutions.

I think my favorite notation from that piece may be BT, which shows the outline of two pianos superimposed with a bunch of dots which seem to be parallel to the keyboard of one piano but intersecting the interior of the other piano. How the heck do you perform this on one piano? Which piano is the "real" piano? What about the dots inside the piano, or the ones outside altogether? Obviously preparing a score like this takes a huge amount of dedication, and fortunately Cage had one of the greatest performers of the 20th century at his disposal, David Tudor. Tudor performed this piece several times over the course of his life and I don't think interpreted this passage the same way twice.
posted by speicus at 12:09 PM on November 12, 2011


For the record, this is a link to a group of Colorado music teachers attempting to perform the entire score as written for some kind of function (attended by what must have been a very confused group of audience members; the conductor gives a very lengthy and tongue-in-cheek preface, which if you'd like to skip, the song proper starts here.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2011


Oh, crap. The song proper starts here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:19 PM on November 12, 2011


I just thought about Earle Brown's December 1952, which if I'm remembering right asks you to interpret the lines as being distributed in a three dimensional space. It's intended that the arrow of time moves into that space, so that thinner lines are further away and some are presumably on the same plane or close to it. I forget what parameters or indications are attached to the length and thickness of the lines, or whether there are any.
posted by invitapriore at 4:22 PM on November 12, 2011


There is software that can automate this whole process, but the last time I looked at the technology, it was horrendous and couldn't come close to approximating what a real, studied copyist can do. A skilled copyist can save you untold amounts of rehearsal time. That equals money.

It's not perfect, but it's much better these days. Parts can be generated automatically and are actually within the score file, so a change to the score will affect a part and vice versa. You can copy a passage and paste it as a cue, complete with smaller noteheads and instrument names. There's some automatic collision detection so you don't have to move objects around quite as much.

You definitely still need to tweak stuff (and it looks super amateurish when you don't), but it's still much much faster and just the thought of going back to doing it by hand is enough to make me shudder. If I was more into doing graphic design maybe I'd feel differently.

So yeah, you don't have to be OCD to start composing, but if you do it seriously for any significant amount of time you definitely will be at least a little OCD coming out the other side.
posted by speicus at 5:09 PM on November 12, 2011


Somebody needs to make a tricycle with tires that have notes on their surface. Then you could ride it through a puddle of black ink and then over and around on a long, wide sheet of paper with staves for all the different instruments. Then you take that to the concert hall, hold it up, and everybody plays their parts.

I'd call the first one "A Triptych for Jackson".
posted by Twang at 7:24 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't believe I missed a whole discussion on notation on MeFi! Damn! Still, some interesting points here. I can remember the first time I heard Crumb -I must have been 14 or 15 and it blew my mind, it was the most sonically stunning music I had ever heard. Then I saw the scores! You can do that? Wow! The thing to bear in mind with Crumb is that everything works, it's all in the service of the sound-world, so whilst these things seem gimmicky on first glance, they're really quite practical. I think that's the key to non-standard notation. It can be a very powerful way of communicating musical ideas, but only if the emphasis is on player-psychology and what's best for the ultimate goal which is the sound of the piece.
posted by ob at 9:04 AM on November 13, 2011


Twang: "I'd call the first one "A Triptych for Jackson""

Which Jackson do you mean, Mac Low?

Anyway, the idea is so Fluxus that I am pretty sure that something similar was done in a Fluxus context in the '70s (they were all over that nihilistic self mockery schtick).
posted by idiopath at 2:45 AM on November 15, 2011


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