Cilla McQueen's 'Picnic' for violins, oboe and bass guitar (2006)
Cilla McQueen's 'Picnic' for violins, oboe and bass guitar (2006) © Cilla McQueen

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.

Many of these “graphic scores” were intended to have an aesthetic value in their own right. In 1968, Cage and Alison Knowles published Notations, a collection of experimental scores that is as stylish and self-conscious as any artist’s book. Some of the pieces are on staves, others on graph paper, and yet more are like the febrile scribblings of some musical automaton.

Then, as now, it reads like a Who’s Who of the music world. Works by established names such as Elliott Carter sit alongside lively contributions from a new generation of artists such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Cornelius Cardew. Even The Beatles make an appearance. “We smoked a bit of pot, then we wrote out a multicoloured lyric sheet, the first time we’d ever done that,” Paul McCartney later said of “The Word” (a track from 1965’s Rubber Soul album), notes for which are republished in Cage’s book, alas in sober monochrome.

Since Notations, artists as diverse as Royal Academician Tom Phillips and DJ Aphex Twin have experimented with notation, and the scores themselves have become ever more creative. In 2009, American musicologist Theresa Sauer published her own collection of experimental scores, titled Notations 21, which has itself inspired exhibitions and an ongoing research programme, as well as a forthcoming concert tour titled Graphic Scores that will travel the UK next month.

“I thought to myself, ‘What has been going on since [Notations], on a global scale?’ and that was the inspiration for the book,” Sauer says. “What fascinated me was the interdisciplinary approach: not everyone was trained as a classical musician but they looked beyond the staff and clef to create these new devices to communicate their ideas into sound performance.”

Tom Phillips’ score ‘Ornamentik’
Tom Phillips’ score ‘Ornamentik’ © Tom Phillips

Notations 21 is full of colour and contrast. Cilla McQueen’s scores “Picnic” and “Score for Moths” – delicate, sparse, almost Kandinsky-esque – are a world away from the dense, luminous spectrogram that forms part of Stephen Beck’s “Radhe” music. Then there’s Jennifer Walshe’s “This is why people OD on pills / And jump from the Golden Gate Bridge”, a score designed to be printed on a T-shirt that begins with the directions: “Learn to skateboard, however primitively.”

“Many [of these artists] don’t even like to be described as composers,” Sauer says. “Some are mathematicians, some are architects, they come from many different backgrounds.”

The Graphic Scores tour will unite a number of artists and musicians, with pianist Joanna MacGregor at its heart, and each performance will be accompanied by a projection of the score. As well as more recent works by the likes of Walshe, there will be a performance of George Crumb’s piano piece “Crucifixus”, a short movement written on conventional staves set in a cruciform pattern. Another work to feature is Cage’s “Water Music”, which involves a piano as well as whistles, a radio and a deck of cards, and is directed with small notation sketches and handwritten notes: “3.0825 TUNE RADIO TO 88”, for instance, and three minutes later “6.05 DUCK WHISTLE GRADUALLY INTO WATER”.

“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.”

Some scores are far more complex and involved. Wadada Leo Smith, a composer and jazz trumpeter who developed a notation system of his own called Ankhrasmation in the late 1960s, rejects the term “graphic score” when applied to his work. Having grown up in a musical household (his stepfather was friends with BB King), Smith began performing and writing music at the age of 12 or 13.

“Luminous Axis”, which will be performed as part of the tour, is an example of Smith’s own notative language. Performers must research the colour and shape patterns of 15 different panels, or scores, to prepare thoroughly for a performance that is meditative, almost mystical, but at the same time spontaneous. “They can exchange the parts [panels] with each other, they can do anything they feel inspired to do with the score in order to get a performance out of it that’s unique,” Smith says.

Isn’t there a danger that experimental scores, by departing from an agreed language, represent yet another obstacle between new music and new audiences? MacGregor agrees that they can demand varying levels of knowledge and involvement but argues that many are more accessible than conventional scores. “You may not recognise the Cage piece but you’d follow it without any trouble. In fact, you’d follow it far more easily than you can follow a Beethoven symphony,” she says. “And the shape of the Crumb piece reflects what the music is about, so for an audience who are highly visually literate – as 21st-century audiences are – they are not going to be alienated in the slightest.”

This final point is a pertinent one. Over the past decade there has been a growing obsession with big data and the visual tools used to present it. Where pie charts or Venn diagrams once would suffice, infographics of mind-boggling intricacy and beautiful complexity, often in animation or 3D, are demanded now. Sauer mentions an artist called Nathalie Miebach, whose “interdisciplinary connection is science and sound” and who uses weather data as her inspiration.

Artists can now create complex image scores using sophisticated software and – perhaps more significantly – audiences are becoming increasingly receptive to pictorial representation.

In The Age of the Image, published this year, Stephen Apkon describes the moving image as now being the dominant means of communication, “one that transcends languages, cultures, borders”, and explains the role it has always had in creative literature. “William Faulkner once wrote that the whole idea for The Sound and the Fury …derived from a single, puzzling image that he could not get out of his mind: a boy in the branches of a tree, peering into a girl’s bedroom through a window. First came the mind-movie, then came the novel.”

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.”

So does Sauer believe conventional notation has run its course? “I think conventional notation will always be there, just as we will always revere a Bach partita,” she replies, “but I think as new generations come into existence, comfortable with technology, new semiotics and new ways of communicating, they will see these advances and make use of them. So, obsolete? No, but it will have a much smaller place in the world.”

The Graphic Scores tour runs October 3-11.

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