Pictures paint a thousand...notes?

George ChambersTue 19th February 2013
Pictures paint a thousand...notes?Extract from Mark Applebaum’s The Metaphysics of Notation - a gallery installation for any number of players

Graphic notation still has an important part to play at the forefront of new music

When I moved to London I was impressed /slightly troubled by the number of choirs across the city ready to pounce on a young unsuspecting tenor, but none of them truly excited me. As a composer and a lover of new music, I was searching for a group who could offer something a bit different. When I heard a group was being formed to perform the first ever complete vocal performance of Cornelius Cardew’s graphic masterpiece Treatise, I had to find out more. Although the Vocal Constructivists is the brainchild of musicologist Jane Alden, the heart of the group is controlled by its members, with all musical decisions arising from the group’s discussions and seminar sessions. It’s a fairly radical, social way to rehearse and indeed to construct concerts - but it works.

After a few shandies in the pub last week, a rather traditionalist friend brought up his view that there is no place for graphic notation in contemporary composition other than to temporarily satisfy every composer’s inner graphic designer. He was somewhat horrified by one of the scores I am rehearsing with the group, and in some ways I see his point. How many hours do we composers spend slouched in front of a computer trying to align bars and find the button to add those-noteheads-that-kind-of-look-like-circular-triangles? It’s very easy to get obsessed with the beauty and aesthetics of a score, and opening up the proverbial Pandora’s box of non-traditional notations can be a worrying prospect. You only need to look at the scores of Mark Applebaum, however, to see the fruits of including graphics within a composer’s language. There is no doubt that Applebaum’s scores are aesthetically pleasing, and in a documentary on the composer’s work, a curator from the Stanford arts centre even goes as far as to say that the scores are works of visual art, and with much surprise '… they were drawn by a composer!' It seems that pigeonholing artists into neat boxes is still very much part of the agenda – but for what purpose? To label Applebaum and so many other 20th and 21st century artists as simply ‘composers’ or ‘ visual artists’, then to be shocked when their disciplines collide and co-exist is a futile exercise, but one which we continue to do.

I’m currently writing some large-scale graphic pieces for the Vocal Constructivists. My main aim is to avoid any kind of traditional and recognisable notehead and five-line stave. At first the idea was a bit daunting, but, as for every graphic score I have written, I can always hear the finished piece in my head. Whether this matches the realisation from the performers is irrelevant; it’s enough for me to assert that my graphic scores ARE music. The example to the right of my Nine Euclidian Movements was born of a Messiaen-style exercise, where I began recording and transcribing the birdsong of my home district of South East London, but I never quite got to the root of what I was hearing. I then came to the realisation that the sounds would transform on a daily basis, which was when I made the decision to get rid of the transcribed notation and simply use the birds themselves as the notes. In a similar vein to Applebaum, all of my graphic pieces are transcriptions of sound worlds and soundscapes that I can clearly hear, but find I can’t easily describe. In the example to the right, I imagine a dark, bleak, steady sound accompanied by a small flight of birds, but it is for the interpreter to get to work unpicking the notation, deconstructing the graphics to produce a very personal and individual interpretation of the score. If I can task this to anyone, it’s safe in the Vocal Constructivists’ hands.

It’s very easy to think graphics scores have played their part and now sit in the retirement home of composition. The Vocal Constructivists prove that at the forefront of performances of new music, graphic notation still has an important role to play. Just like any music, the key to success is simply hard work - investing dedicated rehearsal time, seriousness and integrity to building a convincing sonic realisation of whatever is on that page in front of you. Having an open mind about the future of graphic scores and a dedicated eye on the past is, in my opinion, the way forward. Let’s try and encourage composers and performers to go off-piste from the five-line stave now and then to liven things up. I’ll leave the final word to Mark Applebaum; in a TED talk, he was asked of one of his scores, 'Is it music?', to which he simply replied, 'This is not the important question. The important question is, "is it interesting?"'

George Chambers's picture

George Chambers

George Chambers is a composer and singer with a penchant for all things experimental. The Vocal Constructivists are ensemble-in-residence at ‘Time Stands Still: Notation in Musical Practice’ (http://notation.conference.wesleyan.edu) from April 5-6 and are performing at Incubator Arts, New York, on Sunday April 7.

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