Inside Notations 21


Weighing in at 300+ heavily inked pages, Notations 21 carries both the intellectual heft of an academic text book and the intrigue of a good coffee table read. Structured in such a way that you can almost open it at random and sink into something fascinating, we took a peek between the pages with the book’s editor Theresa Sauer to find out how it stacked against Cage’s iconic Notations and what new worlds graphic notation has opened up for composers, performers, and listeners.

Special thanks to Sauer and Mark Batty Publisher for their assistance in assembling the short film that accompanies this interview.

Molly Sheridan: Notations 21 is, of course, an extension of what John Cage did with Notations in 1969. How do the two collections compare?

Theresa Sauer: I felt that there are so many composer/artists who have been influenced by his ideas that I wanted to title my book Notations 21 to honor John Cage.

The two collections include some iconic composers such as John Cage, Yuji Takahashi, Cathy Berberian, Earle Brown, James Tenney, Joan La Barbara, Pauline Oliveros, and Leon Schidlowsky. Notations 21 has some fascinating original essays included that set it apart. I’m also proud to say that it includes Halim El-Dabh, whose submission for the original Notations missed the deadline by just a hair.

Of course, the Notations 21 collection includes works from the emerging artists since those times. It also casts a wider net around the world, including works by composers from over 40 countries. I’d like to think that John Cage would have wanted to have a more international focus, but with the Internet making the world a more connected place, it was much easier for me to investigate composers from around the globe. However, like Cage, I found that I received submissions in an almost random pattern, and never knew who would contact me next! I still continually receive submissions of composers’ works, and they are now part of the ongoing Notations 21 Project; I hope to make another anthology in the future, because these works continue to intrigue and impress me in extraordinary ways.

There was very little use of “chance operations” in the development of this book. A high criterion for inclusion in this volume was necessary. I have a great respect for the work of Alison Knowles and her original design layout for Notations. I had wonderful assistance from Michael Perry and the people at Mark Batty Publisher for the design of Notations 21. But everything was planned and not left to chance.

I wanted to include biographies and descriptions of the works when composers wanted to include them because I am dedicated to creating a forum for these composers and their music. The Notations 21 Project is becoming a true network, and the composers connect with one another and with me, to collaborate. I am planning performances, concerts, exhibits, and lectures for the future.

MS: What is the place and role of this type of scoring in the larger musical world? What does it uniquely offer?

TS: The role of graphic notation in the world today is to broaden communication between composer, performer, and listener. When Western notation was first developed, the composer was concerned about creating a symbol to represent a sound. Composers still have that viewpoint but now have seen many more possibilities. They have ideas about collaboration, intuition, imagination, improvisation, time, and space, stretching the limits of what we can communicate in symbols.

There are composers who use extended notational language in the Notations 21 collection, including Keren Rosenbaum, Kyong Mee Choi, Brice Pauset, Jef Chippewa, and Takayuki Rai, whose new forms actually assist the performer to more specifically perform the music as it was conceived by the composer, in order to accommodate new musical concepts.

But there are composers who have developed new languages that evolve into events, such as the work of Stuart Saunders Smith. Stuart says, “All Western music notation is a symbol-system of graphic notation which musicians interpret. Furthermore, it is a pre-scriptive notation rather than a post-scriptive notation. I am keenly aware that when I am writing music, I am making a code which shapes the mind of the interpreter. I constantly ask, ‘How will my notational strategy be taken in?’ The score indicates not just what to play, but how to play. Embedded in the design of the symbols are implicit meanings that literally shape the consciousness of the performers.”

At the other end of the spectrum there are examples in the book where the visual art invites complete improvisation. For example, Voya Toncitch’s Indian Elegy and Will Redman’s Book pieces (one of which graces the cover of Notations 21) do this very thing. Will Redman’s directives for his work are simply, “For interpretation, however radical, by any performer(s) in any place, at any time, for any duration.”

The creative genius of the Notations 21 artists and their new musical innovations are creating a new vibrant world that will be moving toward them in the future. Their work is so provocative on so many levels that it draws great interest from those willing to see and hear.

MS: The presentation of these 290 scores by 165 composers is, of course, a principally visual experience. So is it art or is it music?

TS: The scores are music because they were created for performance. However, I would say that many of these scores rival the best in contemporary visual arts. Many of these composers have backgrounds in visual art in addition to their musicality, such as Douglas C. Wadle, Tony Martin, Jennifer Walshe, Steve Roden, and John Kannenberg, and the visual aesthetic is extremely important to these composers for the most part. Notations 21 score samples are a collection of what might be called a “fusion” of music and visual art.

Yes, these scores can be evaluated on a purely visual or musical basis, which makes these scores even more interesting. But I would encourage anyone who does have a volume of the book to seek out the composer’s music. The joy of hearing these new scores while putting this book together was an incredible experience for me.

MS: How did what was going on in the visual art world influence this type of scoring, both back in the 1960s and now in 2009?

TS: Western notated music is highly deterministic, leaving very little to interpretation for the performer. The composer used notation to guide every detail of the performance leaving very little to chance. The rise of the Fluxus movement explored indeterminacy in art and music and was a very exciting time in history. It included such historical stars as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, La Monte Young, Dick Higgins, and others.

Political and social issues, the idea of freedom and breaking rules, collaboration and community, choices and creating new boundaries…. these were the issues to be dealt with in the 1960’s.

In 2009, many of the composers included in Notations 21 are dealing with new and very powerful political and social issues, ideas of freedom and our environment on a larger and more global scale. These new and old issues are represented in Notations 21 side-by-side. The book explores how John Cage guided his students in the ’60s and how composers are now are addressing issues through the power of musical creativity and art. It has always been music and art throughout history that has made such an impact during times of social change.

You will see that these new, daring musical manifestations are also ideas and philosophies put to paper that should be heard and understood and brought into mainstream consciousness. It is the future of music and art together.

MS: Is there a “type” of composer who scores in this way? Does it delineate a kind of genre all its own?

TS: There is absolutely no “type” of composer who scores in a nontraditional way—there are so many different reasons why someone might not choose to use traditional Western notation. Composers are coming from many cultures around the world and communicating in many languages. That is effecting the development of new notation. New technology and the inclusion of electronic material and new instruments demand new notational languages. When you incorporate influences such as folk music, jazz, rock, spiritual music, sounds from the environment from all world sources, there needs to be a more open mind when it comes to notation. To think that Western notation is going to fit the needs of musicians of all cultures when we are now a global culture is not reality. Notations 21 gives just a hint at what that new reality is and where all music will eventually move. It has to if we are to communicate creatively on a global scale.