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Topic: An interesting diatribe on notation

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  1. #1

    An interesting diatribe on notation

    When searching for something else this morning, I ran into this page titled "The Case Against Over-notation: A Defense and a Diatribe" by Kyle Gann. I enjoyed reading it, since I've been dealing with notation more than usual recently, as reflected in my thread "With Renewed Respect for Notation Users." I'm sharing it, thinking others here will also find it interesting.

    After pointing out that there has been a modern trend towards scores with scant notation, like in the days of J.S. Bach, Gann says:

    "...And yet, in the award-giving and commission-granting sectors of the music community, heavily nuanced notation is still reflexively equated with professionalism. Composers who sit on panels have admitted to me that, when a score comes through that doesn't contain new dynamic markings in nearly every measure, with interpretive crescendos and decrescendos and slurs and verbal directions, it is automatically tossed into the rejection heap. When one can see at a glance that the composer isn't 'professional,' there is no need to waste further time trying to discern the work's content..."

    Whether I'm motivated by laziness, or rebelliousness, I think the Philip Glass style of restricting notation primarily to just the notes and rhythms is a valid one and which gives the composer "...the opportunity to rely on the performer's instincts..." as Gann puts it. I also think there's plenty evidence that even music which is highly detailed in its score markings is still interpreted in widely different ways, depending on the conductor and the ensemble, and that's only possible because the notations aren't strictly adhered to.

    At the very least, this is interesting food for thought:

    The Case Against Over-Notation

    Randy

  2. #2

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    How much room does the composer want to leave for interpretation? I guess that could become the question.

    I once read that some musicians and conductor's actually prefer sparse instruction, as it allows them the freedom to put their own spin on the work, while many composers prefer that you play it "their way".

    So I suppose that it ultimately depends on which side of that fence you prefer to inhabit, and let the rest of the world go by.
    Cheers,

    Kevin F..

    KM Frye- (SOCAN)
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  3. #3

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    How frustrating to hear something like that quote from a "professional."

    I mentioned in the other thread that I am an unabashed writer-outer of music. But I agree with you completely Randy. There is something to be said for trusting seasoned, professional musicians to interpret notes in an artistic way with a minimum of instruction. For example, I wouldn't presume to know what the best bowings are for a particular passage (unless I want a specific effect) - let the violinist who has been playing all his life decide that.

    Of course, one can write their scores (or not write their scores) with as much or as little detail as they want. But it's the fact that there is a standard, below which anything is considered "unprofessional" which I find utterly ridiculous. There's no place for such pretension in music, in my mind.

    -Michael

  4. #4
    Senior Member rpearl's Avatar
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    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    While I agree that "the more complex the score appears, the better it must be" is a dangerous idea, I can't accept its opposite - just put down the pitches and rhythms and let the pros do their thing. A composer should always welcome the creative input from the performers (well, most of the time), but there are just too many instances where a score has to be meticulously notated with regards to articulations, dynamics, balance, timbre, and tempi. Webern, Crumb, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Britten - all have created scores that would take far too long to realize had they not marked them very,very carefully. This is, of course, a 20th/21st century issue, as there is no longer a style or prevalent performance practice, as existed (more or less) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Notation is a starting point, and if one is confident that the performers understand the style/language being used, then there is no need to mark up the score. I recall a work that I was involved in premiering, where there was a passage marked - morto, senza espressione (dead, no expression): the composer wanted a passage that was still, quiet, with the pitches simply floating with no direction, no change in dynamic. In other words, he had to tell us to TURN OFF our normal musical instincts; I doubt we ever would have come to that interpretive gesture had he not marked the score in that manner (and yes, the passage sounded very cool int he context of the whole, larger work).

    I can say this as a performer - sometimes the composer is right! As a composer, I can also say sometimes the performer is right. If something has to be just so, then you have to mark it that way.

    There are two ways of cooking: follow a strict recipe, or improvise and adjust. To make tomato sauce is simple: onions, tomatoes, herbs, heat and time - add things, adjust things, more of this, less of that. Try that with making a cake. Yet, it's all cooking.

    In the end, it's not about which piece looks the best, it's the one that sounds the best - but hey, that decision is the easy one
    Ron Pearl

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  5. #5

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    Quote Originally Posted by rpearl View Post
    There are two ways of cooking: follow a strict recipe, or improvise and adjust. To make tomato sauce is simple: onions, tomatoes, herbs, heat and time - add things, adjust things, more of this, less of that. Try that with making a cake. Yet, it's all cooking.
    Great analogy! I agree it can vary from composer to composer or piece to piece.

    This topic reminds me of one of the most memorable percussion ensembles I've ever played, and I had to dig up the score just to remind myself of the details. Its intent was to be both musical and pure hysterical entertainment for the audience. But the score (in my mind) was also, itself, sort of an inside-joke. It was entirely hand-written; each of the 4 performers were looking off the full score; the title was where all titles go on scores - in the middle of the first page. I don't mean the title was in the middle of the page, and there was a little music below it, I mean, there were notes (if you want to call them that), then the title, then more notes.

    Note heads were nonexistent, which for percussion isn't all that necessary, I suppose. There was no explicit time signature, but each percussionist had his own number of beats to play at certain times. The rhythms were peculiar, but most of the time it really didn't matter what was written since the composer explicitly told us to ignore it - just follow the performance notes. Speaking of which, this piece had a performance note most percussionists dream about, "cacophony ensues." Ultimately, there were only a couple places where the performers were supposed to intentionally play together.

    Additionally, being a multi-percussion ensemble, you would expect specific instrumentation notes in the score. But really, there was very little mention of it; the idea was just to use whatever instruments were available. In the end, the result was a haphazard mix of noise, laughter (by the performers and audience), yelling, and destruction (I distinctly remember being hit in the head by a wooden dowel). Titled, "We Don't Have Time for This," this will ironically be one of the most memorable pieces of music I will ever perform.

    Not sure if this anecdote provides much to this topic, but I thought it was worth mentioning
    Michael Obermeyer, Jr.
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  6. #6

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    Good! I thought that web page could be of some interest. Really good feedback, Ron, Michael "The GreyPilgrim" and Michael "Sanyarem--I love that recounting of the experimental piece you played in!

    The article's example of Philip Glass as a composer who doesn't notate much more than just the notes probably isn't a really strong example of what the author's point. It looks like Glass is just as minimalist in his notation as he is in his compositions. That's an extreme category of music that not many people are working in.

    There's probably not a direct analogy between music and theatre, but nonetheless I'll say this:

    Play scripts used to be crammed with directions from the playwright. Sets were described in detail, action was described in large chunks of parenthetical text, and directions were spelled out for most of the lines - "suddenly yelling" "after a long pause, with eyes squinted" "with extreme joy" "in utter frustration" and so forth. The use of these kind of instructions from the author slowly developed over time. I'm sure you've all looked at some of Shakespeare's scripts. There is extremely little text besides the dialogue. He never explains how lines are to be said, never describes the set - he just names the location, and indicates when people enter and exit. Sometimes he even missed making note of that and characters will just suddenly appear and disappear.

    Over the centuries, playwrights started asserting more control over their scripts, and so it went well into the 20th Century. The plethora of stage directions that developed made it easier for the reader to enjoy reading scripts since the text was filling in all the details the reader had to imagine.

    But all those directions didn't make it so great for actors, directors and designers. As theatre came to be understood more and more as an interpretive art, theatre companies wanted to create their own unique productions, and audiences expected that. And it's been that way for many decades now. People return over and over to see new productions of the same classic scripts because they want to see that familiar piece made new and fresh again with a unique interpretation. The only time productions are meant to me like previous ones are when Broadway clones and trademarks their musicals and sends out road companies. Those are branded products, and the audience expects to see a show as close as possible to what was done on Broadway. -- Without being snobbish I can only say that this is completely the opposite of what goes on and is expected in serious theatre. The reason all of these Shakespeare companies exist around the country is because they are constantly bringing new insight into the old scripts with productions that have been re-conceptualized from the ground up.

    In response to the development of modern theatre, playwrights began writing less and less stage direction. Nowadays it's basically back to Shakespeare again, with modern scripts describing only what's essential for the creative team to understand. Things are so different now than 100 years ago that it's now considered amateurish if a playwright puts in those parenthetical directions under a character's name before a line, like "hotly turning away"-- And if a company is dealing with an older script that has those kinds of directions in it, companies routinely use black markers to blot out the offending text. Actors don't want to be told by a playwright how to say a line, and they shouldn't be. The audience comes to see the actor re-invent the role.

    --So, maybe my theatre background explains how I've always thought that music should also be interpreted anew, the way plays Must be if productions are to be taken seriously. I've really never understood the attraction of hearing a piece of music we know played exactly the same way again. Why? That relegates musicians to doing a job that--look out---computers could do more consistently. I want orchestras/bands to do something fresh with the material they play - and that would mean not paying a terrible amount of attention on the score's markings. Those could be the starting point, but work it out in rehearsal - do something exciting, and exciting to me=unpredictable, not done before.

    ---One problem with that is that musicians don't rehearse much. The less time they spend rehearsing, supposedly the more professional-as in able to sight read and follow a baton instantly. -- I don't understand why that's such a great thing - Again, a computer could do that. If actors didn't rehearse and just stepped on stage to do great cold readings (the analogy of sight reading)--well, there wouldn't be much actual art on the stage, since play productions are a collaborative art, and the shows are put on by a team of Interpretive artists.

    Just because things are that way in theatre doesn't mean they "should" be in music - I'm just musing, making an interesting comparison, and as I wrote this, I realized that I probably think notation should be much more naked than it is because of my theatre experience- Interesting!

    I basically don't think there's a specific way a piece of music "should" be played any more than a given play "should" be done in a certain way. And, I guess that would mean I like the Philip Glass minimalist notation concept after all! Show the notes and rhythms, some "soft" here some "loud" there - but not too much. Just sketch that in. Let the performance artists take it to the moon for the composer the way actors often do for playwrights.

    Randy

  7. #7
    Senior Member rpearl's Avatar
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    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    I'm not sure the analogy to theater holds. One of the reasons there are/were so many scripts in recent decades that were carefully annotated/explained is that there have many different movements in theater: realism, the absurd, period pieces, and so on. In 1600, there was only one kind of stage theater, and everyone knew what it was, and how to go about making it happen; much the same with music before 1670 or so. Ever wonder why it took so long, historically, for dynamic markings to appear in a piece of music? We know from many accounts that all sorts of gradations of loud and soft were in use before the latter part of the 17th century; so why no markings? The simple answer is that music started to travel, and it did so without the composer. In 1600, the composer was also the performer (or one of), and there to direct things, so to speak. But as music publishing grew, it travelled to places where the composer wasn't; and different regions interpreted notation differently. Example: in France in the late 1600's until well into the 18th century, a string of eighth notes (usually step-wise) would not be played evenly - they were swung; dotted notes, were over-dotted, so a dotted eighth-sixteenth became a doubly dotted eighth-thirty second. But the notation for these two were simply eighths for the first, and a dotted eighth for the second example. For this (and other) reasons, Francois Couperin wrote, " we don't play what we write, and we don't write what we play". So, for music to travel, intelligently, we had to come up with some sort of system to show details.

    This will all vary from genre to genre, and much is dependent on knowing the style; it is for this reason that one cannot learn blues from a book, never having heard it (or any style for that matter).

    More information is never a bad thing; it is more of a case of a composer knowing who he/she is writing for, and how much they feel they are understood by the intended performers. I like clarity, I like details, but would also agree that at some point you have to trust the people who will play the music; if you can't do that, then maybe you have to keep it in the house...

    Sorry for the rant.
    Ron Pearl

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  8. #8

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    Really nice post, Ron - Never be sorry for a rant - When we come alive in a conversation, that's a wonderful thing.

    As I said, I wasn't claiming to make an accurate analogy. I was just making an interesting comparison of the two art forms. And while writing the post, I had the realization that I might like the idea of notation not being so busy with directions because that's what I grew accustomed to in scripts.

    I assure you that if you took a Playwriting class, one of the cardinal rules would be to use as little direction as possible. All those notations that are too specific have long been shunned as being amateurish and a sure way to have a submitted script turned down. Just the opposite of what's expected when submitting a score to a publisher. If you open "Final Draft" to work on a script, as I have, advice in the program confirms that notations should be made only when absolutely necessary for clarity. Musicals are different, but in modern straight plays, as in non-musicals, it's the dialogue that prevails, not the playwright's notion of how it should be said.

    In theatre, it's considered dead if a production is just a repeat of what's been done before. That's another interesting comparison, since in the music world, people usually insist that they hear something done as closely as possible to what they expect. Concerts are criticized along those lines, "OH the Andante was way too fast"--Interesting. There's just less room for interpretive performances in music than in theatre, at least amongst academic circles.

    Reminds me - I saw Bernstein conduct at the Hollywood Bowl once. Many years ago, I can't remember what the piece was, but someone next to me was So outraged at the furious pace - "That's NOT the way this should be!"--well, frankly, I defer to Bernstein being allowed to be an interpretive artist rather than a perfunctory by-the-numbers conductor. I would like to look at the score he ignored for That concert!

    As for scores - Argh - I still don't like to even look at them. But it's fun to look at the simple music for pop songs - just the notes and lots of "FF"--! Nice and clean - Like Philip Glass - Like modern scripts!

    Randy

  9. #9

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    Quote Originally Posted by rbowser- View Post

    Reminds me - I saw Bernstein conduct at the Hollywood Bowl once. Many years ago, I can't remember what the piece was, but someone next to me was So outraged at the furious pace - "That's NOT the way this should be!"--well, frankly, I defer to Bernstein being allowed to be an interpretive artist rather than a perfunctory by-the-numbers conductor. I would like to look at the score he ignored for That concert!


    Randy
    Interesting you should mention that. One of the best examples I can think of where a deviation from the written score results in, for me, a much more musical experience, is Lenny's recording of the Elgar Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony, the same recording that alienated him and that ensemble because of his interpretation. Of particular note is the "Nimrod" variation, which the Maestro stretches to about 7 minutes rather than its usual 3 or 4. I can scarcely think of a more satisfying build and release of musical tension - to me, they are some of the most sublime 7 minutes of music ever recorded. And yet it isn't quite as Elgar intended: most shorter, "correct" interpretations leave me a bit cold, and there is no shortage of outrage over the interpretation.

    As I said before, I don't think there's any room for "right" or "wrong" in music. As a composer, I certainly want what I create to be respected, and I craft my scores to whatever degree of detail necessary to ensure that. But once I put it out into the world, I believe it becomes the collective property of the musical world, and there are surely some out there who know better than I do.

    -Michael

  10. #10

    Re: An interesting diatribe on notation

    Quote Originally Posted by TheGreyPilgrim View Post
    . As a composer, I certainly want what I create to be respected, and I craft my scores to whatever degree of detail necessary to ensure that.
    I think that's the key phrase. If a composer is crafting a piece where anything counterintuitive happens then it's silly to say 'trust the performers' instincts.' On the other hand I do get sick of composers who scatter millions of crescendos and diminuendos all over the score to make sure I do exactly what is blatantly obvious. I'm practising Lutoslawksi's Paganini Variations at the moment, which has the most excrutiatingly cheesy link between phrasing and dynamics - frankly I could probably do something more interesting with it, but the painfully obvious version is spelt out with hairpins markings in every bar.

    More to the point I don't think many composers have ever considered just how 'inaccurate' performance practise is anyway. I remember when I studied music psychology, reading a study into interpretation of dotted rhythms. The author found that professional musicians performed a dotted quaver (8th) followed by a semiquaver (16th) anywhere between a ratio of 1.5:1 and 2.3:1, but never anywhere close to the 3:1 ratio that our theory books would have us believe is correct. This rather surprised the psychologist, who wasn't a musician, but it probably wouldn't surprise anyone here. Historically the dotted notation emerged to describe the practise of playing a long note followed by a shorter one, not necessarily in a prescribed ratio, and with all kinds of nuance. Schubert quite often used it to mean triplets, whilst Handel used it to mean something much crisper. Any musician worth anything plays what seems right to the style.

    The important thing is that I don't think we'd have any problem taking a dictation of music, with this dotted ratio stretched to all kinds of values, and still writing it down as a dotted rhythm - probably without even thinking 'Oh that was a particularly slack interpretation.' And if we can stretch our understanding of rhythmic and pitch notation to this extent, what hope does a composer have of getting us to be precise with aspects of music that don't even have clear realtionships, such as dynamic levels?
    David

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