Graphic scores: lively alternative
ways of writing down music
By Laura Battle

©Cilla McQueen

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


usic 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.

on a global scale?’ and that was the inspiration for the book.Then. ‘What has been going on since [Notations]. “I thought to myself. then we wrote out a multicoloured lyric sheet. Even The Beatles make an appearance. Since Notations.” Paul McCartney later said of “The Word” (a track from 1965’s Rubber Soul album). sparse. In 2009. and the scores themselves have become ever more creative.” ©Tom Phillips Tom Phillips’ score ‘Ornamentik’ Notations 21 is full of colour and contrast. as now. the first time we’d ever done that. almost Kandinsky-esque – are a world away from the dense. Then there’s Jennifer Walshe’s “This is why people OD on pills / .” Sauer says. Works by established names such as Elliott Carter sit alongside lively contributions from a new generation of artists such as Steve Reich. Cilla McQueen’s scores “Picnic” and “Score for Moths” – delicate. Terry Riley and Cornelius Cardew. luminous spectrogram that forms part of Stephen Beck’s “Radhe” music. artists as diverse as Royal Academician Tom Phillips and DJ Aphex Twin have experimented with notation. titled Notations 21. “We smoked a bit of pot. notes for which are republished in Cage’s book. as well as a forthcoming concert tour titled Graphic Scores that will travel the UK next month. alas in sober monochrome. it reads like a Who’s Who of the music world. which has itself inspired exhibitions and an ongoing research programme. American musicologist Theresa Sauer published her own collection of experimental scores. “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.

Performers must research the colour and shape patterns of 15 different panels. is an example of Smith’s own notative language. rejects the term “graphic score” when applied to his work. so for an audience who are highly visually literate – as 21st-century audiences are – they are not going to be alienated in the slightest. a radio and a deck of cards. Wadada Leo Smith. for instance. they come from many different backgrounds.” The Graphic Scores tour will unite a number of artists and musicians. 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.And jump from the Golden Gate Bridge”.” she says. or scores.05 DUCK WHISTLE GRADUALLY INTO WATER”.” Sauer says. Having grown up in a musical household (his stepfather was friends with BB King). by departing from an agreed language.” says MacGregor. “Some are mathematicians. “They can exchange the parts [panels] with each other.” . and is directed with small notation sketches and handwritten notes: “3.” Smith says. with pianist Joanna MacGregor at its heart. “You may not recognise the Cage piece but you’d follow it without any trouble.” Some scores are far more complex and involved. they can do anything they feel inspired to do with the score in order to get a performance out of it that’s unique.0825 TUNE RADIO TO 88”. but at the same time spontaneous. “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. As well as more recent works by the likes of Walshe. a short movement written on conventional staves set in a cruciform pattern. “Luminous Axis”. “Some people might feel that graphic scores are in some way vague or abstract but I don’t find them vague at all. almost mystical. Another work to feature is Cage’s “Water Music”. there will be a performance of George Crumb’s piano piece “Crucifixus”. and three minutes later “6. a score designed to be printed on a Tshirt that begins with the directions: “Learn to skateboard. In fact. however primitively. “And the shape of the Crumb piece reflects what the music is about. Isn’t there a danger that experimental scores. Smith began performing and writing music at the age of 12 or 13. and each performance will be accompanied by a projection of the score. some are architects. which will be performed as part of the tour. you’d follow it far more easily than you can follow a Beethoven symphony. to prepare thoroughly for a performance that is meditative. a composer and jazz trumpeter who developed a notation system of his own called Ankhrasmation in the late 1960s. which involves a piano as well as whistles.” “Many [of these artists] don’t even like to be described as composers.

” It follows that moving images could offer a more truthful and piquant expression of creative ideas than words or notation. about how music notation is never going to be entirely. new semiotics and new ways of communicating. “one that transcends languages. derived from a single. whose “interdisciplinary connection is science and sound” and who uses weather data as her inspiration. Where pie charts or Venn diagrams once would suffice. and explains the role it has always had in creative literature. obsolete? No. cultures. they’re always looking for ways to express a musical notation. the composer.ft. are trying to do. comfortable with In The Age of the Image. then came the novel. You may share using our article tools. http://www. scientifically expressive of what you. borders”.This final point is a pertinent one. First came the and redistribute by email or post to the web.html#ixzz2gaGNpcoP . puzzling image that he could not get out of his mind: a boy in the branches of a tree.” So does Sauer believe conventional notation has run its course? “I think conventional notation will always be there. peering into a girl’s bedroom through a window. infographics of mind-boggling intricacy and beautiful complexity.” she replies. Please don't cut articles from FT. published this year. just as we will always revere a Bach partita. “William Faulkner once wrote that the whole idea for The Sound and the Fury . are demanded now. So. Artists can now create complex image scores using sophisticated software and – perhaps more significantly – audiences are becoming increasingly receptive to pictorial representation. “I had a discussion with Michael Finnissy about this years ago. Stephen Apkon describes the moving image as now being the dominant means of communication. Over the past decade there has been a growing obsession with big data and the visual tools used to present it.. “but I think as new generations come into existence. they will see these advances and make use of them. but it will have a much smaller place in the world. Sauer mentions an artist called Nathalie Miebach. often in animation or Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. sounduk.” The Graphic Scores tour runs October 3-11.. “Having worked with a lot of composers who write things down in a very traditional way.” says MacGregor.