Notes on Notes

A few weeks ago, Alexandra Gardner was generous enough to share some of her notes and sketches on these pages, and although I’m reacting in glacial time, as it were, I wanted to write a few words about a topic of great interest to me, and one that I thank Alex for documenting so beautifully: how composers scribe their ideas on physical media.

I’ve just flown in to New York to hang out at City Opera during their New York premiere production of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, after a week of prior travels on the West Coast that got the better of my blogging juices (thus last week’s hiatus). On the long flight back East, I realized that I was in a good position to document one of my preferred note-taking mediums:

barf bag

Yes, that’s a good old airline barf bag, which I’ve never employed for its intended purpose, yet is one of the few blank writing surfaces that is easily accessed from a cramped economy seat. Although I do have a designated notebook for composing (or often notebooks dedicated to entire projects), I’ve realized that I’m the kind of person who is always jotting down notes on the backs of envelopes, botched print proofs, and even airline sick-sacks. Frank Oteri has previously written about remembering things better when one doesn’t write them down, but then a lot of my notes aren’t really fully formed memes but rather an extension of my mental workspace—extra RAM, if you will. You’ll also notice that there are very few bits of legitimate music notation and also very few words. For me anyway, the process of note-taking or sketching is largely graphical.

One of the best early tips on composing I received was to make a map or crude visual graph of the composition, which could employ axes such as “time” and “volume” or could even take the form of more abstract working-out of central musical motifs. In the beginning I followed the “road map” paradigm very literally, and it did help me gain some assuredness; the exercise also got me thinking about the total shape of a piece rather than merely attempting to elaborate and develop some truncated bit of music I had coughed up. Like most beginning composers, I would frequently come up with “beginnings” to pieces and then choke; this was a way past that, a way to play with larger shapes. But over time I’ve grown dissatisfied with pursuing this approach to such a literal end, as now that I’ve acquired a little competence as a composer I don’t always need the mental safety net of a completely worked-out plan prior to embarking. I like to make some plans, but creating a paint-by-numbers book for myself can preclude the kind of creativity that finds expression in the minute, second-to-second choices that can give life to a really convincing musical moment.

So my sketches as of late are more studies in some particular *aspect* of the piece at hand, and something that I like to feel free to jettison should I pivot off on another course. The above sketch is something of an attempt to sketch out the “grammar” of a new piece, an attempt to define what’s common and uncommon in that piece’s world, to varying degrees. It’s not particularly legible to anyone besides myself, and obviously not intended for posterity.

In a sense my graphical notes are a kind of shorthand, coding for musical ideas that could be expressed in language but would then become much too cumbersome or inaccurate. In my compositions that have employed graphic notation, the graphic elements are likewise a kind of shorthand, always an attempt to express an idea more clearly or succinctly than traditional notation or words would allow. Below are two passages from one such piece, a work commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (who gave a hair-raising performance of it this past weekend at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge):

score for Kronos Quartet

score for Kronos Quartet

In the above examples, the mixture of traditional and graphic notation helps to convey which elements are controlled and which are left up the performer’s improvisational urge. It’s also a way of defining sounds in a particular way—specifically, the way that’s important to *me* in the piece, and one which is relatively free of unwanted information or needless specificity.

Maybe the reason that graphic sketching is so important to my work process is that it’s a way for the piece’s notational elements to reveal themselves at an early stage; if I’m planning a piece where pitch is constantly sliding, say, and exact pitch is unimportant to me, that might be a compelling argument for throwing out the traditional five-line staff entirely. Had I started sketching that piece on music paper, who knows whether I might have unwittingly settled for music that fit more easily and naturally into those silly five lines.

In an age in which music notation programs are well-nigh unavoidable, I also get a perverse delight out of inputting music that is completely unintelligible to MIDI playback!

4 thoughts on “Notes on Notes

  1. mclaren

    Absolutely wonderful
    Fascinating to see all the different ways contemporary composers visualize their music. I wish a lot more composers would share their scores online.

    Reply

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