Mafia of Dots and Lines

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in—noteheads and stems, that is. No sooner, it seems, do I proclaim my intent to vacation away from standard staff-and-measure notation than I start a new piece making use of that very notation.

What draws us to the dots and lines, people? They tell performers what notes to play when, a task that would direly encumber a verbal instruction, of course—that’s obvious. They enable us to visualize particular conceptions of time and pitch-space. They situate us in a historical context. But for us, in the moment of composition, they have an extra feature: They let us eff around with notes.

Effing around with notes is what cut short my peregrination to the world of verbal scores. It’s a game, naturally, that years of music theory and composition training will equip you well to play. I won’t speak for all composers ever, but effing around with notes is something that I do for reasons that are only tangentially related to art. Arranging pitches and durations in the most satisfying way is an endlessly gratifying diversion that we can engage in while composing, while negotiating the time for which we’re nominally responsible, but effing around with notes is not a musical activity. It’s a fetish. It’s fantasy baseball. It masquerades as composition. Nevertheless, it seems I don’t have the willpower to divest myself of it just yet.

6 thoughts on “Mafia of Dots and Lines

  1. Jacob

    I hear you loud and clear on this one — it’s certainly not a bad thing to fetishize the often very local arrangement of pitches and/or durations. Hell, sometimes it’s that playful activity alone that gets me through the more laborious and mentally exhausting aspects of composing. The only danger that I’ve found is to mistake the map for the terrain: all notation, no matter what form, is a lie by omission. A quarter note written for a clarinet, and a quarter note written for a thunder-sheet look identical, but the sounding result (and all the sonic and extra-sonic meaning that entails) could not be more different.

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  2. Colin Holter

    Thanks for your comments – all I have to add is that although “writing notes n’ stems” is of course necessary for most composers, entertaining oneself with the disposition of notes and stems is an alluring diversion that too often (speaking for myself) can too easily become totally detached from whatever prompted you to write the piece in the first place.

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  3. jh109

    Yet not every piece descends from some poetic premise. I usually write a piece by writing down notes and rhythms I’m attracted to at the moment, writing more, and then continually writing and editing what I’ve written until a coherent musical narrative appears. While the whole is (or should be) greater than any of its constituent moments, the piece is entirely a function of its notes and rhythms and can’t be spoken of in any other language. Even if I start from a premise, it’s usually a technical operation on pitch or rhythm (canon, fugue, etc.). So what I’m saying is that often — though not always and not for everybody — ‘effing around with notes,’ at the local level and greater, is all that composition is, at least in terms of what can be meaningfully communicated.

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  4. mclaren

    When you work outside the conventional 12 pitches of Western music, writing down standard staff-and-measure notation becomes challenging. Throw out conventional rhythms in favor of, say, tuplets involving the square root of 8 in the time of the cube root of 67, and the notation becomes…let us say…interesting.

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