How does using music notation software affect your music? Walter Thompson



Walter Thompson
Photo by Nancy S. Donskoj

I am a composer who works with an improvisation/composition system I’ve created called Sound Painting. I was recently asked to compose a Sound Painting for publication. In the process of preparing this piece, I came across some interesting problems using music notation software.

The Sound Painting composing/conducting system is for musicians, dancers, actors, poets, and visual artists working in the medium of structured improvisation. This ever-evolving system comprises more than 700 gestures signed by the composer/conductor to indicate the type of improvisation desired of the performers. Direction and structure of the composition are gained through the parameters of each set of signed gestures. Simply put, Sound Painting is related to sampling, as in DJ sampling, only using live performers.

The syntax of Sound Painting is broken down in four parts: Who, What, How, and When. The “Who” gestures are Function signals. They indicate which specific performers are being signed. For example, “Whole Group” means the entire ensemble, or individual performers, such as Dancers 1 and 2 or Actor 5 and Woodwind 1, may be signed. The “What” gestures, “Pointillism,” “Point-to-Point With Alliteration,” and “Minimalism in F Major With a 5 Feel,” to name a few, are Sculpting signals indicating the type of improvisation to be performed. The “How” gestures indicate dynamics, duration, and intent and are called faders, such as “Volume Fader” and “Duration Fader.” The “When” gestures, or Go signals, tell the performer(s) when and in what manner to enter the composition. For instance, “Play” means to come in immediately, hard edged; “Enter Slowly” means to wait approximately 5 seconds before entering; and “Develop Organically” means to listen or watch and then enter relating to the direction(s) of the other performer(s).

Composing a Sound Painting for publication poses an obvious problem—namely, how do you take a composing/conducting system that is propelled by live performance and set it down on paper?

I use Finale for most of my composing. I’ve been using Finale for more than 6 years and have found it to be more than adequate for notating traditionally, but somewhat difficult for notating certain complex rhythmic structures such as polyrhythms across bar lines.

In my experience, Finale has been both exceptional and frustrating in the creation of a notation system for Sound Painting. I began by creating a timeline in place of the traditional staff. Easy enough to do. I used the single-line percussion staff, with each staff representing approximately 30 seconds. Using “Shape Designer,” I created opaque rectangle boxes, placing them on the timeline. Each rectangle box contains most of the information the conductor will use in signing the ensemble.



I placed some of the “How” gestures on the timeline such as VF for “Volume Fader” (dynamics). I also used letters for the Function signals contained in the rectangle boxes, for example, WG for “Whole Group.” For the Sculpting signals, I used “Shape Designer” to compose drawings that visually relate to each gesture—a long line for “Long Tone,” multiple dots and short lines for “Pointillism,” 3 arched lines for “Scanning.”



As Bones from Star Trek might say if he were in my place, “Jim, I’m an artist not a software designer.” My biggest challenge in notating the Sound Painting system was in using the “Shape Designer” tool. When I adjusted one Sculpting signal shape in a particular box, all of the repetitions of that shape in the other boxes would also change. The same thing happened when I adjusted one of the dotted lines: all of the other dotted lines changed to match. There is likely a solution to this problem, but I could not readily find it So, I called Finale‘s Customer Support line. Unfortunately, I ended up waiting on hold for a long time and I had to give up. I did not have a chance to pose the question to any of the Finale message boards, as I needed to complete the project in a limited amount of time.


My solution: I created a separate dotted line each time I needed to use one, which then allowed individual adjustment. Although tedious and very time consuming, I used this tactic to solve the similar problems encountered with “Shape Designer.” I was thus able to work around most of the problems and felt very pleased with the final results.