Notation, Notation, Notation


I have always loved paper. I’ve been collecting it forever. My favorite staff paper used to come from Librairie de la musique in Paris. They had bins full of paper of every dimension and thickness, with variations on the spacing of staves. It was delicious. I would come back to New York with heavier suitcases packed with these beautiful flat parcels that I would keep safe and pull out on special writing occasions. (Librarie de la musique no longer sells paper, just notebooks with staves that are too big, so don’t start pining. . .)

I take great pleasure in making my scores look just right. I think great notation is a real art, and the combination of function and beauty is like perfect furniture.

My notational obsessions are now living in three worlds:

  • Private Notation
  • Notation for live performance
  • Notation for commercial recording

Private Notation is a diary. It’s a place for ideas and working out music. I use good large paper and pencil, and no one sees it but me.

Notation for Live Performance is the art of perfection. Detail is queen. It’s where I luxuriate in the layout, the font, the conceptual relationships between what the piece is about and how the piece is translated to the performer. This music is meant for performers to spend time with, and it is created with that intention. I use Sibelius.


Notation for Recording is the area that has taken me a while to adjust to, but, with the fast turn around that comes with the territory, the quick and dirty score and parts are not just the only option, but also can be the best option.


When Pro Tools made friends with Sibelius, I leapt for joy. Finally there might be the possibility of beautiful notation with a good sequencer. And indeed, it is kind of pretty. (And yes, Logic has had good looking notation for a while, but it’s not as powerful a tool.) But there are a lot of really tough quirks. Like, for example, measure 1 is called the “song start.” And anytime you open notation, it begins at the “sequence start,” which could be in the negative tens of thousands of bars, depending on where you are in a score and the length of the movie.

But this is not really the biggest hurdle. I’m recording saxophones all afternoon tomorrow. The sax player is enormously talented, and you’ve heard him play all over film and television scores. He brings four saxes, and we make sax quartets happen on the spot. I’m giving him scores to play off of, which he virtuosically sight reads, seamlessly switching between instruments. I give him the courtesy of appropriate transpositions, although he doesn’t need them. What does he really need? He needs a part that accurately describes pitch, tempo changes, durations, and rhythms. Dynamics, articulations, basically anything interpretive, all gets worked out in the session. A quick change, “swing these four bars,” or “let’s dot that rhythm and fall off the last eighth,” all gets orally conveyed, and without penning it into the part, the music is altered for the recording.

Although it takes a lot for me to grin and bear the combination of ugly layout with enharmonic mishaps that are par for the course and all of the other “missing” slurs, articulations, etc., I can’t help but love the seduction of fast music-making. Music can get written, notated (loosely speaking), and recorded very, very quickly. It’s exciting and powerful.

More and more I find that notation reflects the action of creating new music. Beyond the speed of the creative process, notation can successfully function in many different capacities if its intention is clear. Tomorrow, I have a lot of music to record in a short period of time. He’s one of the greatest sax players I’ve ever heard, and he brings with him a musical literacy and backhand that is fierce. By notating less, I leave him more space. The paper is still hot from the printer as I’m backing up the recorded music. It’s a ride.

PS: Buy Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21 if you haven’t already. It’s a nice collection of a wild array of great hand-written notation. It’s reasonably priced and a really beautiful book.

One thought on “Notation, Notation, Notation

  1. Alexandra Gardner

    No fair, Nora! Teasing us with tales of beautiful paper and not including a hunk of manuscript in the samples! I know, private stuff…. but handwritten manuscript is always the most interesting….

    Thank you for your Chatter posts!

    Reply

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