Feb 11

Complexity and failure

“How joyous the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives.” – Donald Barthelme ‘Nothing: A Preliminary Account’

The physical manifestation of the fear of failure is surely an element in the performative practice of complex music. Concentration on many levels of notation flying by at breakneck speed almost guarantees a slipup here and there. Is learning and performing a complex score really then a Sisyphean task? I would like to argue that complex scores require a redefinition of, or at least a reconsideration of the idea of failure in performance. A certain kind of failure is a necessary and aesthetically important part of all performance. The details of just how we fail and why are worth examining.

Firstly I would propose that the moral character of the performer is engaged by complex scores. Acknowledging the inevitability of failure does not absolve the performer from the responsibility to realize the score as faithfully as possible, using all the tools at his disposal. Likewise, if the composer intended for his work to be realized graphically or approached from a quasi-improvised angle, one would hope he would be clever enough to use notation which suggests as much, rather than the extremely detailed instructions we find in many complex scores.

The information density of complex scores represents in some ways not an evolution and continuation of notational practice, but a break which implies important performative consequences. The performer is transformed from an imperfect conduit for the composer’s ideal vision, into an integral and indispensible contributor to the work.

I recently read an article in Perspectives of New Music entitled “Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the ‘New Complexity,’” written by Stuart Paul Duncan. My writing here is in many ways a response to that article. It got me thinking about what the article refers to as the “High-Modernist” model of musical performance, and the break from that tradition that many complex scores represent. Some people take the progressive-historicist view that music notation, beginning at first as mere mnemonics, moving to a two line, four line, five line staff, specifying instrumentation, dynamics etc., moves along a straight line towards its goal, which is the ultimate specification of all parametric information. Certainly scores have become more and more prescriptive as time has gone on, but, as Duncan argues, not always for the same reasons. The “High-Modernist” model of notation and performance might be defined as a direct and absolutely prescriptive communication from the composer to the performer. The score is the work in an ideal form, towards which each performer strives; what is desired above all is accuracy and fidelity. With the increasing density of information communicated by complex scores, it’s easy to see how this kind of accuracy becomes more and more difficult, or even beyond the capacity of the performer, if not the instrument itself.

What to make then, of this extreme density of information? After all, if the composer is after such a complicated web of musical ideas, he could just as easily program it into a computer, rather than spend the time communicating it to us fallible human performers. Paradoxically, the completely prescriptive nature of complex scores involves the performers in a deeper way than a more traditional “High-Modernist” score might. In addition to the hours and hours of engagement with the score required by complexities of notation, rhythm, pitch, or other parametric information, which deepen the performer’s relationship to the work, the conflict between the various physical performative demands requires that the performer function as a kind of filter. If something really is “impossible” as written, whether because of context, or simply the performer’s human limitations, in some cases the performer simply must make a choice of what to do, and what not to do. Conflicting and competing physiological demands in the score can also create unstable and unpredictable sounds. Is this a kind of fakery that proves the illegitimacy of complex notation? I think not. Any human performance contains some artifact of that performer’s humanity; complex music highlights these artifacts, and elevates them, elevating thereby the performance to stand with the score as more of an equal. The late great Milton Babbitt wrote that his scores are indeed intended to be precisely realized and perceived by some ideal performer and ideal listener. In terms of information density, his scores are simpler than say, Ferneyhough’s, but certainly not simple. Does this mean that any imperfect performance (read: at a high enough resolution, absolutely every performance) of his music is a failure? Anyone who has had the joy to hear great interpreters perform his music knows that it most certainly is not. Surely, something about the involvement of actual human performers is necessary for the success of the musical enterprise, despite the fact that an objectively perfect performance which reflects in every way the notation is, depending on your view, either exceedingly rare, or totally impossible. A fascination with this failure and its subtleties is at the core of what we find appealing in any musical performance; the notational practice of complex scores only brings our attention to that failure’s inevitability.

I’ll leave the last word here to Cage: “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third.”

Jan 11


In drafting my last post on tuplets, which was mainly focused on ways to approach and decipher rhythmic difficulties, I got to thinking about the issue of notation in general. What are the purposes of notation? They are as manifold as the intentions of the composer, I suppose, but it might be interesting to start a discussion on what notation is and can be, especially in new music.

Why notate a certain passage a certain way? Some composers represent the sounds to be made or gestures to be enacted with mathematical precision; others might choose a graphical representation of the same event. Even if these two imaginary composers were presenting precisely the same musical event with the same intended result, the difference in notation will engage the performer differently, and result in a different performance, whether sonically, physically, or both. The form of the notation, not only its content, has a significant effect on the perception and performance of the music.

While it’s perhaps more easily seen in our imagined contrast between Mr. Nested Tuplets and Mr. Space=Time, it’s worth reflecting backward into the history of notation to see this as a more universally applicable idea. Anyone who performs Renaissance choral music from modern editions has to learn to ignore the implications of the modern addition of the barline when performing.  Similarly, performing Gregorian chant from neumatic notation and a 4-line staff is a completely different experience than reading modern notation of the same works.

Engagement with notation itself can be part of a method of constructing a work. Feldman’s manuscript scores which lack vertical synchronization, with differing time signatures occupying the same space on the page, are a lovely example.

What are your favorite examples of conscious and effective, creative, purposeful, obtuse, or ridiculous uses of notation? I’ve always loved Cage’s “Number Pieces” for the stark clarity of the single column of often single notes, and the way that the page reflects the same austerity as the music. Xenakis’s scores, (e.g. Pour Maurice) through their visual architectural rigor, manage to project a visceral humanity, thanks partially to an encounter with the impossible, the effect of which I’ll be addressing in an upcoming post on complex scores.