Design and music intersect in many areas; fashion, art, filmmaking and set design, yet one relatively obscure but staggeringly creative area is in the design of graphic notation used by composers. Graphic notation is one side that is relatively unknown outside the sometimes rarefied world of orchestral and experimental music.
Composers have always grappled with ways to express themselves, and in the twentieth-century, several began using this radical graphical approach to writing scores. It was a two-fingered salute to the prevailing musical establishment.
Graphic notation functions the same way as traditional musical notation, but uses abstract symbols, images and text to convey meaning to the performers. A few of these composers incorporate traditional notation and then bend it in unique ways.
The visual comparison between traditional and modern graphic notation can be striking. Traditional notation is linear and rigid. Modern graphic notation is open, can offer flexibility, and allow the performer to interpret the composer’s ideas.
It all started around 840 C.E. when a former monk named Aurelian of Réôme created one of the first examples of Western musical notation. This was a basic attempt to create a treatise on music theory called Musica discipline.
By the Baroque era in Europe, composers wanted to set down their work with greater consistency and leave less interpretation open to performers. Now musical language was becoming codified. Yet various composers like Beethoven, then Gustav Mahler in the late nineteenth-century, strained to break free of the traditional boundaries. Their orchestral scores are full of scribbles, footnotes and marks, as if sticking to the rules was too much for them.
We can feel Beethoven trying to break free from the constraints of conventional notation in his score from his Piano Sonata below.
In the early twentieth-century, composers such as Henry Cowell began experimenting with notation and his New Musical Resources (1930) was a radical attempt to change musical notation. Increasingly throughout the twentieth-century and following the horrors of the Second World War, there was a growing feeling among composers that traditional Western notation was inadequate to express their musical ideas.
The earliest example of full-blown graphic notation within a score is Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 (1950) for solo cello. It features an entirely original notation, which looks more like a circuit diagram. It sounds and looks ahead of its time. Listen to it here.
Cardew’s Treatise: the greatest musical score ever designed
Throughout the 50s and 60s, a new generation of heavyweight post-war composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati started using graphic notation as a serious and necessary alternative to tradition forms of notation.
Arguably the greatest musical score ever designed, a pinnacle of graphic notation is by Cornelius Cardew, entitled Treatise (1963-1967). The piece comprises 193 pages of highly abstract scores. This is the Sistine Chapel of notation. His training as a graphic designer is obvious. He even used principles of cognitive psychology, which is central to design.
Cardew’s motivation was to inspire creativity and interpretation of the performer. The score gave no specific instructions on how to play the piece, not even what instruments to use. It’s a dense piece, allowing multiple explorations and interpretations. Following along with the score is a rewarding experience. Listen and watch the score unfold.
As the complexity and abstraction of music increased, so too did the scores. Many of the pieces that these scores are referencing are obtuse to the point of incomprehensibility, but there remains genuine beauty in them.
Brian Eno is one of the more well-known contemporary musicians using graphic notation. Eno is very open about not having a formal musical education and thus being unable to notate in an orthodox way. He has used graphic scores out of necessity and has made it a normal part of his process.
He told an interviewer that ‘quite a lot of what I do has to do with sound texture, and you can’t notate that anyway… That’s because musical notation arose when sound textures were limited.’ Eno gave the musicians on the recording of Music for Airports a lot of latitude in interpreting the score with instructions such as ‘play the note C every 21 seconds’. I can see the score on the back of my faded copy of Music for Airports.
To end this whirlwind tour, I present a few of my favourite examples from the last sixty years.
- Gallica, digital library of the National Library of France
- Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer
- Cardew’s Treatise: the greatest musical score ever designed
- Morton Feldman by Paul Griffiths
- Brian Eno, Interview Magazine