More Than Words?

I spent much of last year working on a piece for large chamber ensemble that I’d been mentally preparing to write for years. Although it didn’t take quite the shape I’d assumed it would—I hope it’s taken a better one!—it’s a relief to have the bulk of the work behind me. Now I’m turning my attention to some other projects that have languished for almost as long.

Sometime during the long hours I spent working on my most recent piece, it occurred to me that if I were to keep the score to myself and provide the performers with detailed verbal instructions about what to play, I could probably get almost the very same result as the conventionally notated score might produce: In other words, the most meaningful dimensions of the piece aren’t contingent on notated musical particulars in the score that come from me. On the one hand, this means that composing this piece was a very unmusical activity, by conventional standards, because everything of importance in it could be verbalized. On the other, it suggests the tantalizing possibility that the piece—and other pieces to come—could exist apart from traditional Western notation.

To that end, I’m now working on a piece that has a wholly verbal score. I want to test the hypothesis that the things I want to do with music—the achievement not just of specific sounds but of specific experiential and affective contours—can be done in a more efficient and equitable way without so many dots and lines. They’re an efficient system for communicating with musicians, but if what I have to communicate can be conveyed in words, I’m happy to try bypassing them.

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