Tools for Organic Compos(t)ing

“Musical notation is one of the most amazing picture-language inventions of the human animal. It didn’t come into being of a moment but is the result of centuries of experimentation. It has never been quite satisfactory for the composer’s purposes and therefore the experiment continues. Why is this process frowned upon today? Must we alone ignore the future?”
- Ross Lee Finney, 1968

The ecology of music, like that of the earth, is always changing and adapting. This ecology includes how the musical imagination is transcribed on paper, how music comes to be performed and on what kinds of instruments, and how people listen to music. And of course there is much more to this ecology. But like any animal focused on its own survival, a composer may sometimes forget how interconnected this ecology is, and how one’s actions – at even a basic level such as notation – affect the whole.

When computer notation and MIDI playback became available, I found it very helpful in my own work. I was always envious when I entered a painter’s or a sculptor’s studio, and you could see a work taking shape before your eyes, each step in the process having a tactile result that one could assess before moving forward. Computer playback seemed to be a step towards that kind of creative process, to me more helpful than the inner ear working with pencil on paper.

Yet I wonder if my generation’s increasing conversion to computerized notation, and our love of things which “simplify” a task, hasn’t taken a toll on the breadth of our musical possibility. It wasn’t so long ago, in the 1950s and 1960s, when many composers disdained the conventional notation which software now strives to perfect. Like Morton Feldman, they thought of standard notation as “devices belonging to the Stone Age.”

One of the most remarkable artifacts of that era and 20th-century music is John Cage’s 1968 score anthology Notations. It includes score pages from over 269 composers, from Ashley to Wuorinen, with a dizzying stylistic diversity from Jolivet to Fluxus and everything in between. Looking through this volume recently, I’m not sure if I see computerized notation programs as progress for our art. Notations shows music springing outside of the box. It makes us aware that agreed-upon notions of notation are cultural habits to facilitate communication, but that if we forget that, we allow such habits to impose limits on our imagination of what music can be.

As someone who performs and presents a lot of new music, I see a lot of new scores. And I must say, I donĂ•t see today the kind of diversity of imagination that exists on the pages of Notations. I am afraid that many people of the computer generation write music that is in part defined by their tools and their mastery (or not) of their technologies – fulfilling a warning of the philosopher William Irwin Thompson’s 1973 Passages About Earth, that if we are not alert, our technology can surround our imagination.

Also, the young musicians I conduct today are perhaps more talented at a younger age, and they know the standard orchestral repertoire frighteningly well – too well. Yet upon exposure to Brant, Brown, Cage, Cardew, or music whose performance practice and notation breaks the mold, the same tutorials take place as when the works were new. It is as if an entire swath of recent music history is known only to those dedicated to it.

I believe that much of our musical evolution in the 21st century will be about recovering, incorporating, and understanding the explosion of musical imagination in the 20th century. Much of that music is still very much new music. In the future, the potential of 20th-century music, so thwarted by misunderstanding and the legacies of history, will be realized as composers of the future draw upon that very deep well with new technologies and new notations – with new relevance for new times and places.

In the early 21st century, ecological cultural movements are spreading roots. As it is with the environment and our future, so it is with music. Permaculture. Preserve original and unadulterated seeds in our food supply and plant world. Make communities filled with biodiversity. Grow organic. Use sustainable and imaginative technologies. Go where computers can’t go. It’s all part of the ecology, and it’s still about survival.

“Notation is a primitive guide to music. The unimaginative are slaves to it, others see behind it.”
- Norman Dello Joio