A Notational Puzzle

A Notational Puzzle

In 1976, Salvatore Sciarrino wrote an extraordinary 15-minute piece for solo violin: the 6 Capricci. Each section inscribes a delicate yet fleetingly violent motion, and its premiere presented a new voice in the landscape of contemporary music.

Sciarrino tackles string harmonics like they are going out of style. Each movement is an etude, an exploration, of various fiendishly difficult artificial and real harmonic techniques.

While I love this piece for its quiet bravura and powerful, concise musicality, I find its notation a sometimes-exasperating exercise in code breaking.

The first few figures are clear enough:

Without any explanation from the composer, we can deduce that these are written natural harmonics, not sounding harmonics, to be played on alternating strings. In other words, touching the string lightly as indicated should produce the following:

The real puzzle begins just afterwards when he presents a stratospherically high, glissando-ing passage that diminuendos as it ascends:

The first four pitches are the open strings of the violin, G, D, A, E, two octaves higher–no problem, they’re all fourth-partial harmonics. But now we’re talking about sounding pitches or written pitches? What about the next four pitches, E#, A#, D#, G#? These ain’t your mama’s harmonics anymore.

Did Sciarrino switch notation systems on us midstream? He probably wants this passage as sounding rather than written, but it is up to us to deduce this and it up to the player to figure out how to produce it.

For some of us, this can be as fun as a Sunday Times crossword but I wonder if there is perhaps a more efficient, “universal” agreement on the clearest way of notating harmonics.

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7 thoughts on “A Notational Puzzle

  1. EvanJohnson

    It goes without saying that nobody’s yet come up with a universally accepted system for notating string harmonics, but I think you’re thinking too hard here. My understanding is that the hollow-diamond noteheads mean nothing more nor less than “harmonic finger pressure,” notwithstanding the fact (which is, in a sense, fundamental to the concept of the piece) that most of the pitches given are not resonant natural harmonics.

    That doesn’t mean they don’t produce sound; what it does mean is that they contribute vitally to a sonic and physical approach to the instrument whereby the boundaries between instability and stability are simultaneously highlighted and blurred.

  2. Colin Holter

    I was just going to suggest writing the fingered note, harmonic note (diamond notehead), and sounding pitch (small notehead). . . if you want the notation to be as clear as possible. I like Evan’s point about the Sciarrino, though.

  3. davidcoll

    I agree w/Evan that the idea rests with ‘where the fingers go’, so-to-speak. Once the material is digested, Sciarrino’s notation reveals the connection between the notation and the desired sound- this should always be the goal. In this case the desired sound comes from a ‘physical approach’, as Evan points out. When one looks at the entire score this becomes ever more clear: there is always a physical engagement, while the amount of material varies greatly. This creates a very rich situation where perfection is less important than the overall projection of the material, and the notation demonstrates clearly the relations.

    As for Yotam’s comment about ‘switching notations midstream’, it’s my opinion that this is often necessary in order to develop the same material in different directions. We can represent material in different systems, and each system inherently presents certain ways to vary the material- however the material is NOT the notation- it is represented by the notation.

    So if one changes the notation from one way to another we can explore the material in ways that prioritize different aspects: rhythm, pitch- these are easy for ‘traditional notation’- but what if we want to explore material in different domains? Timbre, for example- this demands a method of representation, and there are ways to do this depending on the material. Rhythm, if not bound by an underlying pulse, can be better represented with non-barred notation. We can then develop the material in different ways w/each notational approach within the same piece.

    The interplay between different notation can also result in different levels of clarity- this should be explored sometimes, depending on what our idea of ‘material’ is.

  4. DJA

    I’m in favor of notating natural harmonics and artificial harmonics exactly the same way: normal notehead for the open string (n.h.) or fingered pitch (a.h.), with a diamond notehead above for the node, sounding pitch in parentheses. My impression is that most players find the “diamond only” notation for natural harmonics, where the string has to be reverse-enginereed (and is often ambiguous) intensely frustrating.

    Whereas if a violinist sees a D above middle C notehead with a G diamond noteahead above it, my experience is that they are likely to play it as a natural harmonic on the D string, not as an artificial harmonic the G string. [Although if you’re worried, it’s easy to remove all ambiguity with a “(n.h.)” or “(a.h.)” indication.]

    The main exception would be the first node (i.e., touch-octave) natural harmonic, which sounds as written. That is the only situation where I use the circle above the note.

  5. MirandaCuckson

    Having performed this piece a number of times, I’d say first of all that Evan is definitely right about Sciarrino’s use of harmonics to indicate simply “harmonic finger pressure”. The whispery high-pitched effect that this creates is a salient characteristic of Sciarrino’s string writing.
    However, I want to add that in playing these caprices, I believe that the actual natural harmonics should be played as the pitches that they are- I aim to play those real harmonics so that their pitches pop out and ring within the texture (just as the solid pitches Sciarrino wrote – the B-flats are the first instance – also pop out of the texture). I think Sciarrino was probably using the real harmonics in this way consciously, but of course his notation is ambiguous on the page. I haven’t yet looked to see if he explains this in any writings of his.
    Anyway, I really think the pure pitched sound of real harmonics, combined with the harmonic finger pressure effect, gives the piece a remarkable sparkling, magical quality.

  6. greyfeeld

    while we’re on the subject
    Steve: Is there any listing anywhere (maybe someone else knows this) where one can see a list of the possible –and more important — easiest to most difficult — listing of harmonics on the viola and the ‘cello? Old tomes like Forsyth go on about “just lower it by a fifth” which sounds pretty unreliable to me. thanks, Robert Bonotto


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