View From the West: Where Are the Notes?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

For a very long time now there have been composers who create music directly, bypassing paper, the manuscript, the score. This has always been the case with electronic music, although graphic scores and other visual realizations of electronic works have certainly been made. There are also those who improvise or set up improvisational situations without the need for a score. Of course, there have been other similar instances, where the composer produces a textual score, a set of directions perhaps or even an idea, ranging from the specific to the obtuse and cryptic. While the heyday of graphic notation and textual scores may have been in the 1950s and 60s, such scores continue to be produced and play a significant role in contemporary music. One need only consider John Zorn, whether it is his short, fast-cut Naked City-style pieces that often split the difference between jazz fake sheets and graphic notation or his more elaborate game pieces.

What does it mean, what are the implications when there either is no score or when that score is unorthodox? What does is mean for the education and development of young composers and performers?

Scores without notes have always been problematic on one level or another (not for me, mind you). Performing musicians, on the whole, prefer to work exclusively with conventional notation. At the very least, they want to see remnants or vestiges of traditional notation. In addition to the fear of the unknown, unorthodox, non-traditional scores often require that the performer actively participate in the creative process. Rather than being interpreters or re-creators, improvisatory, graphic and other unusual score formats force performers to become creative collaborators with the composer. The roles have become partially fused, the dividing line between composer and performer blurred, resulting in confusion and too often negative reactions for some performers. Think about it, how often do you attend concerts where graphic notation, sets of directions and other unorthodox scores are employed? And as seldom as that is, readers of this column are much more likely to attend such concerts than the more typical concert-goer.

As an emblem of the importance of the score for so many composers and musicians, even Conlon Nancarrow, almost perversely, felt compelled to make scores of his works, knowing full well that his works were unperformable and that the scores were, in effect, artifacts. Indeed, the music existed not on manuscript paper, but on his hand-punched piano rolls. The realization of the manuscripts was not crucial for the viability of the music, rather Nancarrow felt obliged produce a document for his work whether for analysts or simply for posterity.

It is still possible that some composers who work directly with sound, perhaps most frequently electronically generated or sampled sound, and forego notating their work also may be precluded from obtaining some positions in the academic world. A composer who devotes her/himself to music that need not or cannot be notated may not be given the opportunity to teach in some institutions and, let’s face it, composers most frequently are compelled to take on teaching positions to make ends meet.

Composers who work exclusively with electronic music may find themselves out in the lurch jobwise. They may not deal, at least directly and in an on-going basis with issues such as time-honored methods of orchestration, the conventions of traditional music theory, counterpoint, and the like, and these, of course, are areas, fields, subject matter that composers most frequently teach. While high powered, research universities and those institutions with very large music departments may have the luxury of hiring very narrowly focused specialists, most state universities, small private colleges, conservatories, community colleges and such are forced to hire faculty who can teach a variety of courses. Perhaps there are prejudices in the system, but there can be no doubt that economics militate against the electronic music composer who does not practice in the world of notation and musical fields that are at the core of the college music curriculum. In the academic world where specialists abound, those too narrowly focused may find their little niche too small to be made widely marketable.

I am not saying that all who teach electronic music are so narrowly focused that they are unable to teach anything else, but I know for a fact that some electronic media specialists/composers who are not interested in writing for acoustic instruments find themselves to be less marketable. As a result, some students are deprived of perspectives on music, the nature of musical sound and the creative process that one who works directly and exclusively with sound, without notation as a kind of mediator between the creative act and the resultant music, may offer. And it could very well be that such a perspective would provide much important food for thought for young, developing composers. What a composer loses or gives up when leaving notation and all it entails behind may be more than compensated for when working directly with sound. There can be no doubt that compositional means, i.e. notation, affect and color the creative process. Freed from the constraints of notation, one cannot help but be more directly in touch with sound.

Of course, many, many composers in the world of electronica have no conventional musical and compositional training. This raises the thorny high art versus low art issue/conundrum. As with any kind of music, there is both good and bad, but make no mistake, there is no doubt that the influence of electronica is making its way into the world of so-called serious composition.

Some of these, including DJ Spooky, Scanner and Aphex Twin have crossed over into the classical realm. Aphex Twin collaborated with Philip Glass and the former two participated in one of the Other Minds festivals. Next spring, DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul Miller) will perform in the world première performance of Anthony De Ritis’s Devolution with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. How might we categorize a composer such as Ben Neill who seems to exist simultaneously and comfortably in the worlds of electronica and new music? (Whether it is important or not that Neill be placed in any category at all is another issue, but it is clearly important to some.)

To add to the confusion, one has to take into consideration copyright laws. According to the U.S. copyright office, to obtain copyright protection of a "musical composition" that is not a sound recording, one must submit a score of some sort. However, a musical work that exists only as a sound recording needs no score, rather a copy of the recording is submitted.

This alone raises several issues. One might suggest that some composers create scores only to satisfy copyright laws in order to protect their work. While this might, in fact, be the case in some instances, perhaps with improvised music, the reality is that composers are mostly interested seeing their body of work having a life of its own and entering into the performing repertoire, however remote the possibilities might be. If Nancarrow were only trying to satisfy U.S. copyright laws (I know, he was a Mexican citizen), he could have submitted his early notated working scores that were used to prepare the rolls. He would not have been obliged to prepare the final scores, as he did, which were made after punching the rolls.

Another issue is the matter of works that exist only as sound recordings. Is this some kind of concession for pop musicians who might, at best, be able to only submit some kind of fake sheet? If not, why does the Copyright Office maintain a distinction between "compositions" and "sound recording"? It’s as if copyright requirements seem to be applied unevenly depending on the level of compositional training and the expertise of the applicant, the ability to produce a meaningful score. Yet without the copyright provision for sound recordings, what would creators of electronic music, some forms of improvised music, as well as self-taught musicians do to protect their creations?

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that conventional notational methods, music theory and analytical techniques have outlived their usefulness. However, it is clear that we continue to struggle with the value, place and educational role of unconventional notation and the elimination of notation altogether. And in this era of an ever-widening array of electronic and computer musical media, this is an issue that we cannot afford to ignore. We must continue to grapple with this matter and find ways of integrating it into music curricula. It is clear that composers are moving ahead as they see fit, score or no score, and rest of the musical world should do its level best to move ahead with them.