inceptio: Reinventing the musical score
My old mentor, jazz saxophonist and modern music composer Theo Loevendie, once said to me something that I carry with me every time I’m working on a musical score: Compose creatively, notate conservatively. “You should be crazy, creative, free, unconventional with the music. You should be conservative, conventional, boring with the score.”
The musical score codifies a series of sounds, their pitch, their intensity, their duration. It serves as the point of communication between the composer and the performer who interprets it. If the message isn’t clear, transparent, then it needs to be decoded, which often leads to misinterpretation. But what happens when the creative intention behind a piece is so radically different that a traditional music score not only doesn’t communicate the intended message, but obfuscates it? I mean, how would you notate the sound of passing cars in a highway in a post-industrial town using traditional music notation?
This question has been approached by many composers since the beginning of the 20th century in a variety of ways. John Cage, Pauline Oliveiros, Anthony Braxton, and Helmut Lachenmann are among the composers to expand the idea of what music notation is.
So, now I’ve run into this problem myself. I’m writing music that isn’t conceived or executed in a traditional music way, so traditional music syntax seems to be an inadequate way of representing it.
For example, how do you represent the following sequence of sounds in a musical score?
Those thirty seconds of music come from my piece inceptio for harp and electronics, and the harpist in the video is experimental music specialist Ben Melsky from Ensemble Dal Niente, for whom I wrote the piece.
In inceptio I wanted to approach the harp as an object, a massive collection of really tense strings (don’t get confused by the beautiful appearance of the instrument, the harp is a beast of unexplored sound potential.) In a way, I wanted to write a choreography for harp, a sequence of actions that explore the harp at its most brutal and fragile. But how to notate them?
I had explored alternate approaches to the score previously, but with different intentions and different desired outcomes. In Alias und…. counteressence, a piece for saxophone and electronics, the score becomes a sort of chain of events that the performer has to intuitively navigate. There are no rhythms, only proportions, which the performer has to intuitively calculate during the performance.
This approach to the musical score was an expansion on a Gagaku-inspired piece called Horizon Plus for Japanese Sho and Electronics. In Gagaku music the score doesn’t indicate duration, although for the most part performance tradition informs the performers approach to rhythm. As you can see in the score of Horizon Plus this same approach is asked for from the performer. Lastly, in Geografías a chamber music piece, yet another open score allows players to intuitively approach the material, in this case with the added component of interacting with the other players in the ensemble and with narrated text.
But the idea behind inceptio was so radically different. All of the examples above approached the score in an open way regarding durations but the language is essentially “musical.” The sequences of pitches created melodic outlines which the performer needed to intuitively shape. Inceptio on the other hand needed to organize completely non standard actions such as scratches, super ball rubs, brutal hits.
So, in the end the score for inceptio is more like a hybrid between choreographic instructions and a musical symbology. Instead of notating the desired sounds, the score indicates the desired action/gesture. It keeps the traditional representation of time: Systems go from left to right to show the order and duration of events, but it does so in an open way, in which the performer intuitively interprets notations. It also keeps the traditional “dynamics”: fortisimo, pianisimo, etc. to indicate how intense or soft the action producing the sound should be. Occasionally there are “traditionally” notated pitches, but they function more as locations on the instrument on which actions/gestures (such as dragging a super ball, or scratching with a plectrum or fingers) occur rather than defined symbols with defined musical outcomes.
And although the score may look intimidating to most harpists at first it actually ends up being quite intuitive, as if taking out some of the musical nomenclature makes the instructions more transparent, more fundamental.
Ben reflects on the piece:
"First and foremost the harp is a physical instrument; it requires a great deal of hand-foot-eye coordination to play. As such, any effort on the part of the composer to make his or her score more physically intuitive is greatly appreciated. When I look at a traditional score, the desired sounds and rhythms must be translated into a series of physical movements, which in the learning process, become ingrained in muscle memory.
In inceptio, the notation is such that the score maps onto the harp itself. With the exception of the bass clef where notes are specifically delineated, the "superball" or "nail" lines' curvatures correspond to actions up or down the harp's vertical, not horizontal axis. To notate these actions more traditionally, on a specific note within the bass clef would create an unnecessary extra hurdle and possibly conflate pitch space with the harp's vertical axis. Eliminating this layer of processing allows for greater expediency in interpretation and execution."
Listen to the piece here: