Experimental music notation resources

THX just posted this on their Twitter. https://twitter.com/THX/status/1000077588415447040


Dieter Schnebel: amn (excerpt, from booklet to Atelier Schola Cantorum 1)


Laurie Anderson: All the Things I Lost in the Flood



Massimiliano Viel - TAZ


This album of graphic score actualisations may be of interest.

Interpretations of Trichromatic Moiré by Thomas Martin Nutt. Featuring Tetuzi Akiyama, Harriet Butler, Sarah Hennies, Ryu Hankil, Ko Ishikawa, David Lacey, Sally Ann McIntyre, Will Montgomery, Joseph Clayton Mills, Shirley Pegna, Rie Nakajima & Marie Roux, Samuel Rodgers, Lo Wie, and Keiko Yamamoto.


Do you read that left-to-righ or up-down?

definitely a question for @andrew, but I read it vertically

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both, in a way ~~~~~


“Analog sound generators, based on magnetic tape and optical components controlled via graphic score composed with digital interface.” - Currently at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven:


That is awesome. Clicking through and watching the vimeo example is well worth it.

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Found this fascinating channel on are.na filled with dance notation :dancer:



There is a common misconception – almost omnipresent in the domain of contemporary academic music - that there is a complete and reciprocal match between a written score and its sounding equivalent. This goes to show how far today’s culture is alienated from the living phenomenon of music and its practice!

What you discover, when you actually make music, is that you can find everything in
the score except the music itself. Mahler, of course, had already said this.

The ubiquitously accepted idea is that the score – with its one-to-one correspondence to the music - is the only thing that authentically reflects the complexity of a work: the more complex a score is visually, the more complex is the music. This may be true sometimes, but the opposite is often the case: The dull simplicity on the page of certain musical marvels – Beethoven quartets and symphonies, amongst others – demonstrates that you cannot tell from just the
appearance of the score, without going through the text musically, whether this is a work of genius or an exercise in classical style, as in hundreds of composers of the period.

This elision between the elaborated character of music and its graphic expression comes from the exclusively European assumption that the music IS the score.

In reality, you realise that, outside the confines of European music, there are musics
that are highly complex but which it is impossible to write down in notation. Whether we are speaking of cultures that are familiar with notation or not, we discover that the great majority of the world’s musics - of the musics in the world – are not written down, and lack therefore a graphic counterpart, this parallel structure that we now realise – what a dreadful admission – is all too often not indispensable.

So the fact of not being written down does not somehow make these musics less complex, neither does it make them in some way ‘not compositions’.

Whether we are dealing with traditional folk musics or with classical musics, the fact of not being written down deprives them of no element of virtuosity whatsoever. The opposite in fact.

Listen, for example, to a very famous classical work from the Japanese classical music for shakuhachi, a real reference point, ‘Coshi’, which has never been written
down. It’s the direct expression of the Zen spirit. You will find hundreds of different interpretations of it, always recognisable within the multiplicity of its avatars, as many and as diverse as those of a Beethoven sonata.

What, then, is a composition, and what is its relation to notation? What makes a musical composition a work and distinguishes it from an improvisation?

It’s clearly the fact that a composition – a work – finds, in each iteration or performance, a sound configuration that makes it recognisable, even if there are always variable factors to varying degrees. These variable factors include transitory phenomena of which timbre is an example.

Of course there is also the ‘open work’, a music that is written down but which allows many different constructions and pathways. Although correctly written, the open work tends – and even aims to – not be recognisable as identical at each hearing. Nevertheless this is not improvisation, but the choice of one pathway out of several, or many, or an infinite number of pathways that the composer has considered immediately possible and legitimate for the interpreter - who does not, incidentally, thereby become co-author of the work.

Another category of open works are the experimental and conceptual ‘graphic scores’, where real drawings are translated into sound, following principles that are more or less clear and stable, and in which the horizontal dimension is generally associated with sonorous time, and the vertical dimension with pitch. As for how the other parameters are to be read, that can be harder to explain.

Why and how far should the music resulting from these graphic scores bear the signature of the graphic artist as composer is a moot point.

From my own point of view, I think that music today has a real need for an intrinsic freedom and creativity to be assumed by the interpreter: joy, pleasure, playfulness - feelings so lacking in the combinatory music that was the mainstream of Western music in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond - a restrictive
and artificial reality, partly caused by the excessive and ineffectual over-precision of a multitude of details in the graphic expression of this music.

I have literally seen, and this is not so rare, established composers, who, when they
heard their music played by an orchestra, found themselves completely disorientated and reduced to silence. It was clear that, once having completed the score, the sound of the music no longer interested them. The music was in fact over for them at the moment when they wrote the last sign, when in truth the real adventure had not even begun.

And there are others just as inane who engage in sterile and endless discussions with conductors or with musicians on details that are absolutely insignificant, without understanding the real catastrophe of their music - which has nothing to do with obsessively amended details. You start to feel that these hollow and dogmatic attitudes are just no longer acceptable, either for musicians, or for listeners. What to understand, then, and how to orientate oneself in this mass of contradictory if not irreconcilable facts? The examples that I’ve just given are not there to be polemical, but to show the complexity of the reality which the composer must confront to be able to make a really new music.

What is the boundary of the work and what are the boundaries of interpretation? – this is a complex question that does not suggest a single complete answer.

My starting point, then, is that it is difficult to recognise the production of music, and
I include the classical European tradition here, as uniquely constituted by assemblages of abstract symbols. Far from it! Certainly there is very precise and formalised quantification available for certain variables, such as pitch and duration.
On the one hand these are the only variables that are quantifiable in practice; and on the other, they are those chosen for top position in the hierarchy of variables in Western and Cartesian culture. But notice, already, that the notation of durations is based on proportions and fractions, referring to the relations between durations,
and not to a definite quantity. We have to wait for the techniques of recording on tape to find musical durations expressed in terms of minutes and seconds. For the other variables, everything is vague.

In fact, timbres, attacks and volumes are denoted by signs that are way beyond
vague - signs that either refer to the name of an instrument, or attempt some metaphorical indication. No precision here, in fact everything seems to draw on a tradition that is direct and oral.

In all written music there are some parameters that are more precise and others that are more free. The score – any score – is in a state of compromise, either in one direction or the other, between an image symbolising the music it denotes,
and a set of indications that allow the interpreter to play it.

This makes it harder to establish a predictive correspondence between what is written and the sounding result. We are torn between an image of the sound, as a predictive or approximate graphic figure, and notated instructions for actualising it. New music, which uses ways of playing not yet standardised, and labels (hilariously enough) partial sounds and other techniques as ‘extended’, lacks even a semblance of agreement on notation. And this applies even for techniques that, given their precision and widespread use, we could expect composers to have agreed on by now.

So I return to this point: when it comes to a music in which all the parameters of sound are both unified into a whole, and also in permanent motion, a music that is in principle transformational, how can one be satisfied with the quantified notation of discrete pitches and durations?

It is impossible, moreover, to represent the evolution in time of all the parameters of sound in a precise and quantifiable way. Even if this were theoretically imaginable, it would be impossible in practice: it would exceed the cognitive capacities of any interpreter, given the quantity of instructions and details required to produce a single second of music.

So we still have basic questions for which we need answers. What is composition, and what kind of future is there for this art that still lacks a technique of notation?

For a work to be accepted as such, as a composition and as a work, some of it at least, I repeat, needs to be recognisable as the same each time it is played. For in every phenomenon occurring in time there is an element of stability and an element of transitoriness.

In Western classical music there was always an attempt to minimise the percentage of the transitory, which was both difficult to write down in practice, and easy to marginalise conceptually. So the first things eliminated were phenomena that are transitory by definition - multiphonics, beating sounds, harmonics, microintervals, broken sounds – called ‘suono roto’ in Italian, and related phenomena for the woodwinds. But also the equivalent sounds in the strings, obtained by use of techniques that I like to call ‘diagonal’. These sounds were systematically rejected by classical music because they were transitory phenomena, never repeatable in
an absolutely identical way.

Furthermore, because European classical culture did not focus on exploitation of the timbral parameter, these phenomena were perceived not only as unusable within the dominant musical language, but also as awkward and undesirable.

So today, as far as I am concerned, we need to reinvent the whole graphic/notational dimension: this is necessary and a priority. It follows from the fact that the music that I make bases itself primarily on these unstable transitory phenomena, that what I am looking for is precisely, on the one hand, to have this music repeatable identically enough to be recognised as such, and on the other hand, to use notation to build a form starting from these transitory phenomena and expressing them graphically in a way that an interpreter can understand.

I try to assume completely the quality of transitoriness, and to fix the imponderable phenomena such as the harmonics and multiphonics that I use systematically in a coherent musical universe: my universe.

So what happens in my music as regards musical construction? How do I build? I do it by distancing myself from the kind of musical thinking that is combinatory and structuralist, and going towards a transformational kind of thinking. If actual spectral material cannot be tamed by structuralist methods, it can certainly be used in a transformational musical discourse, because it refers to realities that are themselves transformational.
Moreover, in the real world, we inhabit a purely transformational reality in which paradigms change continuously, so how can we stay stuck in a spiritual reality valid for the seventeenth century? So, of course I try, by all the means offered by writing - including by various graphic approaches (which are a ‘poetic’ approximation, if you like, to the sounds I am asking from the interpreter) – to render coherent and repeatable as far as possible, a sound phenomenon that I have previously imagined.

At this point I draw briefly on my personal experience as a composer and writer of

Usually, the ‘letter’ of the score represents for me above all the purely material side of the problem to be resolved. My scores demand an enormous contribution on the part of the interpreter. What kind of contribution? An enormous control over the sound; an absolutely precise gradation, but, all the same, dynamic, alive and psychologically controllable; rigour and spontaneity; changes of colour; changes in the process by which the sound is produced. All this, precisely notated, would solicit the musician to the maximum. Does in fact solicit her. But what is really demanded is clear vision and self-control; openness, control at every moment; total loss of control at certain moments.

It is more than difficult, if not impossible, to obtain all this at the same time. The ideal interpreter would have to be at least a genius, if not superhuman. You cannot get this through precisely notated details, but, paradoxically, it becomes VERY possible by appealing to the intuition of the musician and, using models of how
things should sound, in combination with an adequate method, getting them into the state of mind to do what is required. This is the main reason why this position that I represent in music, and also in notation, is seen as a radical innovation.

The notation which I have managed to use, and which I have adapted step by step, and which I am still adapting, constantly in continuous practice, and which manages to be perceived each time as ‘new’ (and this is with musicians very different with regard to musical culture, experience, etc.) - this notation has demonstrated its value if I may say so. It works, I realise, every time. In other words, the musician fairly quickly gets a grip on what is being asked for and manages to integrate themselves into the universe of the piece.

For what I ask for from them, in fact, refers as much to exactitude and precision as to truth. Exactitude and truth are two complementary things that only together can clarify and integrate the work. Thus even completely illiterate artists (from the classical point of view, obviously) unused to reading music, succeed in reading, understanding and actualising the music contained in these scores. This is not because the parts are vague, for they are in fact sufficiently precise for most of the imagined details (which are, as I have said, very numerous) to be inscribed in them, but because, as a performing musician, I have imagined, and developed over years and with long experience, the most functional way to express myself in a written score.

Each music that I realise therefore finds its own graphic expression, using several ways of conceiving a score, and various degrees of graphic elaboration, combined with different degrees and ways of graphically defining the sound detail. In general, my effort is concentrated on reducing everything towards a coherence, to generalise the graphic vocabulary in line with the new musical syntax that I am proposing. Certain scores destined for orchestras, for example, contain the maximum quantity of detail possible to follow. The music that results should contain the actualisation of all the indications specified in the score. This is the ideal, but it is what I reach
for when I write for large ensembles or orchestras, when musicians are trained uniquely in nominalist music (where there is no transcendent sound reality). But I also write scores of an other kind, which I would call ‘quick’ scores, that are more like schemas for the structure and evolution of the material in play. This material is known beforehand by the players. For these scores to work, it is necessary for their interpreters to be already trained in the details of this music, its style, the playing techniques they need to use, the rhythmic patterns, and the developmental
principles. All of this must have been previously worked on by the group. Otherwise, this kind of notation does not work. It has the advantage that, with artists who already know the details, a score comes together faster and more efficiently. But this is nothing to do with improvisation. You realise, each time such a score is played, and even with different artists, that the results converge to a sometimes astonishing degree – which is nothing like what happens with improvisation.

Such writing allows us to acquire a sense of freshness, of spontaneity, and of an apparent freedom that may make it seem like an improvisation, even if this is just an appearance. For it to be actual improvisation, the musicians would have to interact without even a schematic and minimal score,sound proposals - even if, here too, there is a demand for a style, that is, certain things are not allowed, there are rules for generating material, etc.

The difference in attitude is radical.

In my music I try to assume completely the transitory quality of the spectral phenomena that I use, in a systematic way, and in a coherent musical universe. This is the essence of the difference, I think, between my kind of spectralism and the old kind. There are two possible choices: the use of a model that reproduces the spectral structure of a sound ( as found in certain spectralist schools), and the use of spectral sounds themselves – partials, harmonics, multiphonics, beating sounds, distortions, recognising that they are transitory phenomena, and finding in the transformational principle the way to develop them into a musical form. This choice represents at the same time an aesthetic, philosophical, and finally moral attitude, which works its way also into the graphic expression of the score. The result is a music which, already now and for the future, has been identified as hyper-spectral, which draws therefore the necessary conclusions from the initiatives of the spectralist schools of the 1980s: a music that assumes, on both micro and macro levels, the infinite complexity of the world of sound.

Ana-Maria Avram
Excerpt from the forword text to the book dedicated to the scores of Iancu Dumitrescu and herself - “The Mwtamorphosis of the Musical Score”, with 25 integral scores by each composer to be released soon by Edition Modern


Iancu Dumitrescu, Medium Princeps from 1971


reading this article https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/science/crumple-paper-math.html it seems that any crumpled paper is just a variation on some ancient musical score.

another from Varese, Poeme Electronique


This looks really inspiring. I am new to these ideas of graphic composition, how does one typically use this! I looks neat even from a mixing/sound design perspective

@ Mireille_Jacob very interesting excerpt from Ana-Maria Avram. Did you found it somewhere online?

This fancy read/write e-ink tablet called reMarkable has come to my attention. The marketing makes it look like the best thing ever. Read PDFs, write notes and annotations on them. Draw with a 4 axis pen, export to PDF…

I was thinking about this for musical notation. Is it worth $600?

I used Sony ereader for a while. Mostly for reading notes when speaking during class. My experience is that these devices do promise more than they deliver. Now I’m using a combination of two moleskines and a tablet.