Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation

Funded by the AHRC through its Research Award programme (October 2008 – September 2010)

(AHRC, 2008-10), James Saunders and John Lely

Alternative forms of musical notation have been in use for many years, whether they involve new symbols, graphics, text, or other more experimental approaches. This project focuses on one such approach: text scores, otherwise referred to as prose or verbal scores. These scores use words to notate a composition in place of conventional music symbols or other graphics (although there are hybrid examples). They were fundamental to the development of the experimental tradition from the 1950s, yet receive relatively little coverage in comparison to the more visually interesting graphic scores, of which there have been many studies. Most compositions which employ this medium do so because it is the only way to convey the musical ideas: other notation methods do not have, paradoxically, either the precision or flexibility to cope with some of their requirements. Although the majority of these scores originated in the 1950-70s, there are many more recent examples, and the medium is still vibrant.

“Through examining the work of these composers and artists, the aim of the project is to establish a set of principles that are common to their serial work.”

When confronting this work for the first time there are two essential interrelated questions which immediately suggest themselves: why do composers adopt this approach to notation, and what should we do with it as performers? With the recent resurgence in interest in experimental music, it is of vital importance therefore that new practitioners, whether they are composers or performers, develop an understanding of the compositional strategies and performance practice associated with this work in order to create new compositions and establish a clear context for the presentation of existing ones. This is particularly true of the analysis of work originating in the 1950-60s as many of the figures associated with this work are growing older and much of the necessary information may soon be lost.

A cursory examination of a range of scores immediately demonstrates the wide variety of approaches composers have taken: Christian Wolff’s algorithmic procedures in some of his Prose Collection; Michael Pisaro’s precise description of sounds and actions in his Harmony Series; Gavin Bryars’ wry suggestion of situations in his Experimental Music Catalogue pieces; attitudes to dissemination and memory in Yoko Ono’s word spreading pieces and James Tenney’s postcard compositions; Alvin Lucier’s specification of technical setups and process in pieces such as I am sitting in a room; Jennifer Walshe’s recipe pieces; the Scratch Music compositions developed my members of the Scratch Orchestra; action scores by Takehisa Kosugi, and event scores by fellow Fluxus composers; and much of Cage’s work, including the indeterminate Song Books and Electronic Music for Piano. Whilst even this brief list suggests the diversity of approaches, there is sufficient integrity defined by the medium to allow a study of exemplars in order to classify and derive principles for the composition of text scores.  This diversity also presents a problem when realising these scores, as there is no consistent performance practice associated with this work. Whilst some scores may be superficially similar, such as the event scores of George Brecht and recent work by Manfred Werder, realising them in performance is subject to radically different and often undocumented conventions. Without this knowledge the finer points of interpreting scores will be lost, replaced by often inappropriate responses to the texts (as is regularly the case). Only by developing an understanding of the range of practices associated with a particular composer’s work, or that of a scene or compositional strategy, can an informed and representative performance be presented.

The project therefore seeks to classify and analyse strategies used by composers to create text scores, and present appropriate performance practices for their realisation. The project will contribute to developing a clearer understanding of these areas, aiding future creative practice and providing a source for new exponents and audiences to begin their engagement with the work. As such, it will be relevant to: composers and performers of experimental music; musicologists with an interest in performance practice, notation and the composers involved in the study; students taking modules in composition and musicology where experimental music is a focus (a number of institutions now run such units in the UK alone); audiences seeking to learn more about the genre following practical engagement with the music; community musicians, for whom text notation pieces are a readily usable tool in working with untrained musicians; academics and general readers with an interest in related fields, such as Fluxus or experimental theatre.

The main project outcome, Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, was published in 2012.

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