Notation, Notation, Notation

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So you may have noticed our attractive new logo; Q2 is becoming slicker by the minute! We have new web products rolling out soon as well, exciting! All of these fancy new duds have got me thinking about the visual representations of things -- how much what we see influences what we feel about something. To that end, this week is all about notation.

I am obsessed with notation. In my brain, music notation is kind of a code or map that the composer gives the performer, a set of clues that ultimately helps the performer to communicate the composer’s intent to a bunch of people who have to absorb a whole work of art in the span of minutes. While some wonderful music has been made that has never been notated at all (see: all manner of improvised music, Bata, folk songs, Meredith Monk, etc.) the weird trick of turning sound into representational squiggles is really exciting to me.

It’s sort of similar to the influence both typeface and punctuation have on a reader. Or something. There are many brilliant composers who have pushed notation in one direction or another, to more accurately represent the type of music they are envisioning. There are alternate types of notation that make it easier for performers to parse the material, and alternate types of notation that make the composer’s point plain, but the performer’s job more difficult. A classic, oft-lauded example of the latter is George Crumb. In my mind, things went down in the following way:

George (to self): hrmmmm, everyone’s writing really complex music these days! I’m thinking about writing this really awesome piece, but I’m worried people will think it’s kind of simple if I write it out normally. I know! I notate everything twice too fast but halve the tempo! That way it’ll look really hard.

Or maybe:

This melody is really so simple, but I want a kind of frenzy imbued into the interpretation. I know! I notate everything twice too fast but halve the tempo! That way it will sound super frenetic.

Or perhaps he was thinking a bit of both? Either way, there’s no way to deny Crumb’s score is STUNNING, from a visual sense. It’s also intimidating for a performer! The more black lines one sees, the higher one’s blood pressure gets. Here's an excerpt from Crumb's Black Angels:

black angels


From the other side of things, sometimes composers want a sort of quasi-cacophonous effect, the sound of a bunch of colliding gestures, almost in unison. If you are Iannis Xenakis and you require this kind of sound, you give every violinist in the orchestra his own line, glissandi that are close but precisely different. (The pic on the left is Xenakis's Metastasis, the one on the right is Lutoslawski's Second Symphony)



If you are Lutoslawski, you give everyone his own line but ask him to produce it based on certain cues, as opposed to pulses, proceeding through their material in an “asynchronous” way.

The net results of these two types of notation are kind of cousins, although there are concrete differences in the way they are expressed and achieved. Both of these concepts represent really interesting departures in notation from 19th century musical mores. Just as our language is a living thing, so is our music notation.

This week we’re gonna take a whirlwind tour though 20th and 21st century notational innovations and stylistic variations. We’ll consider all manner of notational problems and solutions. Which musical scores have struck you as futuristic and beautiful? Can you think of an analogue to notation in another art form?