Formative Thoughts on Notation

A few years ago, as a sophmore at Wesleyan, I was introduced to the compositional system behind Anthony Braxton's work.  Lacking the foresight to look into the composer's extremely extensive writings on the topic, I instead blithely opted to simply dive fourth into the prospect of having to interpret his notations in performance.  Often --or at least during certain rehearsals-- this meant sight-reading.  Coming from a background in Jazz piano, I was already familiar with a form of music notation that is somewhat decoupled from the classical convention, however this asset provided me with little preparation for the kinds of wildly unexpected instructions I would receive from Braxton, both in written and verbal form, generally involving geometric principles and esoteric diagrams.  While there is most certainly a conceptual continuity through Braxton's work, the cross section of his cannon I was exposed to comprised of several large-scale notational systems which run the gamut from traditional notes-on-staves to drawings of schoolbuses.  The crisis of how to realize a drawing of a schoolbus into music, paired with the somewhat managerial problems that come with having more than four pianists in an ensemble with access to only one piano, led me to eschew the piano entirely for no-input mixing very early on.  This decision only exacerbated the issue of staying true to the composition.  While improvisation certainly plays a factor in Braxtion's musics, it was hard for me as a young composer to reduce his meticulously catalogued, gorgeously rendered graphical scores to the status of Rorschach ink blots.  Reconciling these crises was a task often determined by context; while eventually I gained a gradual understanding of how to play chords and harmony lines with mixer feedback, I also learned what Braxton believed a drawing of a schoolbus should sound like.  For my experience with Braxton, it became necessary to develop a personal relationship with the composer and his musics to adequately realize the ideas behind the notations.  Only later did I attempt to parse his Tri-Axiom, a massive corpus pertaining as much to political theory as to poetics.  Even now, I still feel somewhat perplexed when I try to interpret one of his scores.  I'm starting to think that's part of his point in making them.

Not long after my introduction to Braxton's systems, I became acquainted with the scores of John Cage and David Tudor.  I believe I realized (for class with Ron Kuivila) both Cage's "Cartridge Music" and Tudors "Rainforest." For both of these pieces, however, it was impossible to develop a relationship with the composers, as both had passed away too soon.  At first, the idea of performing a piece in this post-war (shall we say, "American Experimental?") idiom really bothered me.  I felt trapped by Cage's apparent insistence on perfectly divining a chance-derived score, and subsequently perfectly complying with it in performance.  With regards to the Tudor composition as well, I felt a sickening lack of ownership that really challenged me.  It was one thing, it seemed, to realize something with the composer right there, and quite another thing to be limited to second-hand information and some meta-score materials.  (Of course, to call this information second-hand is somewhat misleading, as Ron spent much of his time preserving the legacy both Tudor and Cage left behind, both in concept and in artifact.)  My interest in notation as a scholarly problem springs from some of the language Ron sets up in his writings about Tudor (Kuivila, Ron.  "Open Sources".  Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1. (1 January 2004), pp. 17-23.) and an interview he gave regarding notation in media arts (http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0002/msg00126.html).

As a computer musician, I often find myself in a position where I am unable to separate the notation of a composition from its realization.  That blurriness was something I always found comforting about Musique Concrete; the "sound object" can be treated more like sculpture than theatre.  This perspective seems innocuous until the ramifications are considered: as a composer, do I produce streams of binary information?  What is the specific artifact that I am responsible for, mp3's?  Source code?  What happens when the software and hardware systems I use to produce these compositions fall prey to the ubiquitous and inevitable processes of decay and obsolescence?

[In the case of so-called aleatoric musics this problem becomes even more complex.  Cage  had a notorious distain for recordings of his work.  His idea was that, even in the case of his electronic pieces, the frame that recording imposed would overpower the synchronicity of events in a chance composition.  Xenakis, however, comments on the effect of his aleatoric processes (again, so-called) in a much more neutral way in his "Formalized Music."  It almost seems to amuse him that people read lyricism into chaotic information.  Perhaps their discrepancy in position comes from the role mechanical reproduction has along the notation-realization axis for either composer.  If a tape-head is interpreting a magnetic score, as perhaps a practitioner of Musique Concrete would believe, then that performance is very weakly related to chance, indeed.]

This crisis came at a time when I had become very interested in dropped udp packets over wifi as a compositional medium.  I realized, after several attempts at hand-coding error correction, that the lost information was far more rich than the compositions I was trying to write.  At that point, I decided to stop fighting against the medium and produce a few works based on dropped packets.  Additionally, my interest forked into the realm of meta-composition.  The following generalization results:

Play silences of various durations.  When you have made a sound, you have made a mistake.  Make mistakes.

I proceeded to realize this in terms that seemed as far removed from udp packets as I could get-- which resulted in "Solo for Amplified Window," a brief, focused exploration into the problems of realization and notation in performance, expressed through the rich acoustic properties of a simple physical system: a large glass window fit with piezo discs and festooned with loose guitar strings.  The instrument for which this piece was composed derives its complexity from the mere act of amplification; it does not rely on elaborate signal processing or sensor interfacing.  The performer is to realize a graphical score which has been algorithmically generated anew prior to each performance.   The notation prescribes the motion of a large stone ball along the surface of the glass.  The instrument has been designed to accentuate the event of a mistake-- during which the ball knocks against the frame of the window-- while the algorithm which generates the score is an attempt to serialize the possibility of failure.

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