See Hear!

Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

All my life I have had a love-hate relationship with music notation. Of all the art forms (from sculpture to literature to dance), music is the only one that sates the ears rather than the eyes. (Would that there were highly developed art forms that deeply provoked the intellect via smell, taste, or touch?)

Ironically, though music is a medium for the ears rather than the eyes, the analysis of music is still mostly eye-driven since we are such a visually-oriented species. It’s bizarre that one of the most effective ways to stay focused on a piece of music is to follow the score, that is to use your eyes to guide your ears. And almost every construct for learning and debating musical ideas, from a conductor’s downbeat at an orchestral concert to the nodding of one’s head to show appreciation for an Indian music performance to this essay you are looking at on your computer screen right now engages the eye instead of the ear.

Yet somehow, because people are so visually-oriented, using the eyes can frequently distract the ears. Paying too much attention to following a score or a conductor’s baton can easily divert attention from actually listening. For this reason, despite being so proud of my own calligraphic abilities in making scores, I actually gave up notating music for a couple of years to try to better listen to what I was doing. At the time, a friend jokingly suggested I march outside Lincoln Center with a picket sign saying, “Divorce Sight from Sound Now!”

Of course, there’s no way to artificially seal ourselves off hermetically from visual stimuli and doing so, while an interesting exercise for a time, is ultimately futile. Therefore, the goal becomes how to use the eyes to better serve the ears to better appreciate and understand music.

For decades, George Crumb has been creating what are arguably the most visually-identifiable scores of any living American composer. Yet, in my conversation with him a couple of weeks ago he was quick to say that the only reason he creates such visually unique scores is to better convey the sound of his music to performers.

Over the past decade, the most significant advance for music notation has been the proliferation of computer notation software, which allows composers to print out clean, easily-readable, virtually-offset-quality scores and parts and also to hear and share a halfway decent audio simulacrum of their work. Steven Powell, author of the recently published Music Engraving Today, offers us a guided tour of computer notation software. And, as a special bonus to the HyperHistory this month, we offer our readers a virtual tour (on video) of the warehouse of Subito Music. Inc., which will print on demand the music of any composer who hires their services.

So, has also this technology ultimately led to the eye better serving the ear? Computer music notation has made music much easier to disseminate, but has the necessary standardizations involved in such an enterprise hindered more adventurous approaches to music notation which ultimately inhibits sonic possibilities? Mary Ellen Childs, Gloria Coates, Jerome Kitzke, Robert Morris, Joseph Pehrson, and Water Thompson speak out on whether notation software is better or worse at representing their music. And AMC President John Kennedy would like to know what musical scores mean to you as composers, performers, and listeners.

In our “News&Views” columns this month, Greg Sandow enters the boxing ring with posters to our Forum and takes a second look at his takes on digital file sharing and the legacy of Schoenberg, while Dean Suzuki probes the fascinating world of musical instrument builders whose creations stimulate the eye and the ear. Of course, visual elements are much more central to popular music than they are to concert music even if most of this music is not notationally conceived. And while this lack of “notational pedigree” is largely the root of the high-low divide, popular music now has “cultural capital” according to Bernard Gendron, author of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde, which is featured in this month’s InPrint. For this month’s SoundTracks, you don’t need to follow the score to discover new American music on 30 new recordings.

But your eyes will inevitably guide your ears to hear new live music featured in our Hear&Now concert listings, which now features maps to help you track down the music more easily. Needless to say our News items, which are updated almost daily, also use the eyes to better inform the ears.

So, where does all this leave us? While music is primarily an art form for the eyes, it is ultimately counterproductive to limit any sensory intake that can better help you to understand it. Although it is important remember that the eyes can only go so far. It was instructive to discover that despite George Crumb’s thorough engagement with scores on the written page, he feels his music comes across best when performers memorize it, which ultimately makes his scores invisible!

Nowadays I use computer notation software all the time but that hasn’t stopped me from reveling in improvisation as well. And, for the record, despite the frequent temptations, I never did carry that picket sign.