Working the Visual Angle

Nora’s recent post about different forms of notation reminded me of my own paper and notebook obsession, and about how amazing it is to see the handwritten manuscript and/or notes of different composers and other artists as well. Many of us will spend hours in museum exhibits and pouring through books that include excerpts from scores in progress or an artist’s personal notebooks. Memorable ones for me have been exhibits of John Cage and James Joyce, and a beautiful book about Brian Eno (which sadly I no longer have) filled with handwritten notes and lists. I nearly fainted when Bunita Marcus pulled out her early edition score of Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, scattered with red penned notes and markings by the composer! It’s a bit like being a fly on the wall for some little part of another person’s creative process—notes of any sort provide a glimpse into another personality.

In addition to things musical, I hugely enjoy photography, and gravitate strongly towards camera geekery (as much as possible on a limited budget!). Although taking pictures of all sorts of things is wonderful, music-related photos are especially fun—for instance, snapping photos before a performance clears my head nicely, so I have learned to always pack my trusty Nikon D50. There is also a post-martini ritual that involves scattering assorted notes and pages from the compositional working process and capturing a bit of that:

Pages and notes from Now or Never
A few notes and sketches from Now or Never for flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass and piano. View on Flickr.

That is from the most recent project—kinda messy! Those computer-printed pages are what Digital Performer spits out from a random improvisation session. Crazy! But I like to print out the recorded improvisations and listen back, marking passages that might be worked into the piece.

This is a slightly more formal arrangement from a couple of years ago:

Pages and notes from The Way of Ideas
Notes and sketches from The Way of Ideas for flute, clarinet, violin and cello. View on Flickr.

And we mustn’t forget the electronic music!

Pages and notes from Now or Never
A ProTools session showing the electronic part of electric blue pantsuit for amplified violin and computer sound. View on Flickr.

Capturing photographic images of a working process helps to remind me how different pieces progressed and how the ideas rolled along—those little sketches and lists were crucial in the moment (because if it doesn’t get written down, it will be gone) and a simple image can bring it all back. During production time I keep the bits of paper and notes to myself, but once the work is done, it’s kind of neat to document the tiny sparks that brought the music to life.

I know there are more composer/musician photography enthusiasts out there (ahem!), so come on over, or post a link in the comment section so we can all have a peek!

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4 thoughts on “Working the Visual Angle

  1. jhelliott

    music/photo et al
    I too am a photography enthusiast, and also an avid painter. As a kid I was torn between music and visual art, and as an adult, once school was finished, after a few art colony residencies, I picked up painting/drawing again. I find the visual art complements my composing beautifully. The only problem for me is that once I get started on a painting, I become obsessed and put aside all other things until it is done. This can create problems when a deadline looms for a new piece. In my ideal world I would be able to devote equal time to both. I think of music visually, from the way the score looks to the shape and arc, the motion of a phrase.

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  2. mclaren

    You should sell it as an art print. You’ve got a real eye for photography. Ever thought about creating a YouTube photomontage to accompany one of your pieces of music?

    Some of us don’t have as much luck with computer notation programs. Broken tuplets, for example, still remain off limits in both Sibelius and Finale. Then there’s the issue of simultaneous controlled tempo changes, where the music goes from one metronome marking to another smoothly, but in different tempo streams at the same time. (For example, going from mm=40 to mm=200 in one melody while another melody goes from mm=210 to mm=70.) This is trivially easy to do with a computer but our notation programs still can’t handle it.

    And then there’s the issue of morphing timbres. Some extension to current notation programs, possibly involving gradually changing notehead shapes or note color, might work…but once again, completely off limits for today’s computer notation programs.

    It’s remarkably easy to create rhythms that prove completely unnotatable. For instance, using the “ticks” in a typical computer sequencer, just enter notes that all use prime numbers of ticks — typically a quarter note is 480 ticks and an eighth note is 240 ticks, so if you step-time enter something like 503 ticks and 229 ticks (both primes), you get peculiar syncopated rhythms that can’t be notated in any obvious way.

    Exactly how contemporary music deals with this notation problem isn’t clear. It’s becoming a real issue as more and more composers start bursting the boundaries of conventional common practice notation.

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  3. Alexandra Gardner

    Thank you mclaren! A YouTube montage is a good idea!

    Nothing would thrill me more than to not have to create timbral modulation markings/drawings from scratch – I certainly wouldn’t fuss so much at the price of software upgrades! Often I just write them out in text. That said, having recently upgraded my Finale software (after waiting far too long), I was pleasantly surprised that some functions which used to drive me BATS had been vastly improved.

    Let’s hope for even more improvements, esp. within the realm of rhythmic notation! There are folks who still notate by hand (and have lots of performances), or who have developed a hybrid computer/handwritten scenario.

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  4. jhelliott

    finale et. al.
    As much as I depend on Finale these days to prepare my scores, I still wish I were back in the old rapidograph and vellum days. Then, no notational concept was impossible, and scores revealed more than just notes and rhythms, but gave one a sense of the composer’s personality. I worked as Ralph Shapey’s copyist (he was also my teacher), and his crabbed scratchy manuscript reflected his ornery intensity. I always felt a little sense of betrayal as I copied the scores into a more readable form. But I don’t miss the feeling of spilling a cup of late-night coffee on a nearly-complete page of orchestral score…

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