Graphic notation, the story goes, is meant to be liberating. But for whom?
Not all graphic notation is actually open. Some of it, like the pieces written for David Tudor by Cage and others, were not open at all. Tudor used a ruler to take very precise measurements and worked out a performance score from the score that he received. These scores were graphic, but also very highly specified. When discussing notation in 1976, David Berhman wrote, ‘Learning a new piece can be like learning a new game or a new grammar, and first rehearsals are often taken up by discussions about the rules – about “how” to play rather than “how well” (which must be put off until later).’ (p 74). Indeed, this mining for exactness and rules meant that players needed specificity to approach a new piece. In the same book, but in a different article about the performer’s perspective, Leonard Stein wrote, ‘Little wonder, then, that when first faced with a new score of great apparent ambiguity the performer’s reactions to the music may be seriously inhibited, and he may be discouraged from playing it at all.’ (p 41)
In the era of serialism, every aspect of the piece (from notes, to dynamics, to timbres to articulations) would be carefully mapped out according to rules. Although he’s framed in opposition to this movement, Cage did also often map everything out, but used ‘chance operations’ to do so. That is, he cast the I-Ching, which is all a roundabout way of saying he used different algorithms to write very precisely closed music.
When everything is specified, the performer is at risk of falling into very rote renditions of things. He or she may play very mechanically, as if they are on a grid, or just repeating practices they learned in school, trying to get everything right. Musicality is at risk from hyper-specification. Therefore, according to Berhman, when Morton Feldman’s Projection scores have little high boxes in them, specifying a range of possible pitches, but not precise notes, this is meant to nudge the performer into greater engagement with the piece and the genre. ‘As a part of his interpretation, the player must ask himself what sort of pitches are appropriate – in effect, what sort of music he is playing.’ (p 79) The performer is liberated from their rote practice and forced to engage. But this liberation is not the performer’s liberation – it is the composers. The composer, broken free from the shackles of European Art Music and Serialism can use any method they want to get something very exact from a performer. Cage draws squiggles and Tudor takes very fine measurements of them. Performers: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Meanwhile, European Art Music was also weighing down in people in Europe. But obviously, the political valences of this were completely different. Cage, tired of Americans being compared negatively to dead white European males joked that the US needed ‘music with less sauerkraut in it’. (Problematic!!) But Europeans who wanted more freedom had much less to prove. Nobody thought British people were somehow culturally incapable of writing large scale symphonic works worth listening to. They had Elgar! Which is not to say they didn’t also long for freedom, but they did so with much less nationalism.
American experimentalist composers had a project of proving their worth as composers. They rejected the strict, imported methods that came form Europe, but reacting to that by relinquishing control would be risky. Firstly, there is the danger of association with Jazz. White supremacy may have pushed some white composers away from engaging any of the openness suggested by jazz practice. Improvisation would be a step too far. And, indeed, composers trying to prove their worth as masters of their art may assume that retaining control would make a stronger case for their own work.
Those not embarking on nationalist projects, who have much less to prove, did turn out to be more open. Cornelius Cardew played in the AMM, a small group that improvised, influenced by jazz, but tryied to play outside of jazz’s generic boundaries. Cagean composers shunned improv, but Cardew embraced it and developed his own squiggly notation. Unlike Feldman, he did not seek exactness or a greater freedom to realise the composer’s vision more precisely. Cardew wrote, ‘A square musician (like myself) might use Treatise as a path to the ocean of spontaneity.’ (1971 p i) What Cardew gives, Feldman takes away. (Of course, when generalising about entire cultures, exceptions abound. Earle Brown argued for performer freedom.)
There is a tendency in musical writing, especially in the popular press, to see graphic notations as a high point of music’s historic embrace of left-wing libertarianism. While certainly Cage did come to embrace anarchism (and his writings on that deserve a fresh look), it would be an error to see most American notational experimentation of the period up to the 70’s as embracing any kind of class-conscious liberation. Sure it was liberationist for composers, but performers had to look abroad if they wanted freedom for themselves.
Behrman, David. ‘What Indertiminate Notation Determines’ (1976) Perspectives on Notation and Performance ed Benjamin Bortez and Edward T Cone. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. [ book]
Cardew, Cornelius. “Treatise Handbook” (1971) London: Edition Peters. [Book]
Stein, Leonard. ‘The Performer’s Point of View’ (1976) Perspectives on Notation and Performance ed Benjamin Bortez and Edward T Cone. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. [ book]