Over the summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about notation. (Preparing parts for a full orchestra according to MOLA standards will do that to a person.). The process of slogging through an excruciating amount of notational detail brought into focus the idea that, beyond notions of “over-notation,” “under-notation,” or what is or is not called for in different styles of notated music, it seems to me that in many cases music notation serves as a measure of the level of familiarity shared between composers and performers.
Music notation is a language—it is intended to communicate information to musicians, who will then translate that information to the listener. It’s a great big old-school game of telephone. In speaking or in writing any language, there is a tendency to speak differently to friends and family than to a stranger or a professional colleague. With friends one might use more slang or more colloquial phrase structures than the more formal language we kick into gear with say, a potential boss or someone we have just met at a dinner party. The same applies to music. If a composer is writing a piece for his or her own ensemble, or for musicians with whom s/he is friends, the notation could be minimal, or graphic, or even ridiculously over-the-top complicated (or maybe there wouldn’t be any notation at all), because everyone knows one another, and presumably there is at least some time to work out the details of the music, ask questions, experiment, and so forth. An ensemble that is larger and has less firmly established relationships between composer and performers has different notational needs in order for the music to be communicated effectively. With an orchestra there are a multitude of issues at play, but add to those the fact that the composer may be a stranger to the orchestra—and a stranger bearing strange music at that—and that there is usually frighteningly little rehearsal time to prepare that strange music. If the notation isn’t crystal clear and presented for those musicians in a way that they can translate effectively within the scope of the available rehearsals, chances are the music will not come out according to the composer’s wishes.
For example, I don’t know the third horn player who will be playing my orchestra piece personally. Chances are I will not meet the third horn player. If s/he has a question during a 30-minute rehearsal that stops things for even ten seconds on the clock, that is rehearsal time lost. It won’t carry on ten seconds longer than scheduled. It’s just…poof. So am I going to notate very clearly the dynamic and the type of attack and the specific mute needed for the third horn player’s first note? Yeah, you bet I am, and everything about every other instrument at every necessary point in time. Because if I don’t, someone may ask about it. And unfortunately, that exchange, as much as it will be helpful and establish at least some tiny bit of personal connection between myself and that musician, doesn’t fit into the timetable of an orchestra rehearsal.
On the other hand, this same orchestra piece has a significant part for drum set, and I happen to know my drummer quite well. Because this drummer does not read music (it’s complicated), we have spent time together working out his part. We have also met one another’s families, drunk beer together, shared car rides—the line has crossed into friendship. His part (as it is) for the same piece conveys a totally different kind of information. It includes some extra data, like clock times so he can follow along with a mockup recording of the piece. In some spots there is much less detail than one might expect, such as a predetermined “skeleton” beat structure upon which he can expound as he sees fit, or one short passage with a basic rhythmic structure over which I have noted, “As far as I’m concerned you can go completely nuts here!” We have established a musical connection, we trust one another, and we have already dealt with questions and explorations, so that by the time we get to rehearsal, all there is to do is play the thing.
Whatever type of notation we use—minimal, maximal, standard practice, or completely made up from scratch—it is not only a road map to bring sounds to life, but it also often tells a parallel story of the lives communicating those sounds.