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.