Publishing Live Notation

My piece Immrama is a live notation piece. A python script generates image files, as the performance is happening, which are put on a web page. Performers connect via any wifi device with a web browser to see the notation. It uses really simple technologies, so nearly any device should work. A Newton won’t (I made enquires) but an old Blackberry will.
Setting it up requires python and a web server and a lot of faff. It could be packaged into a mac app, but I’m working on linux and it seems like more and more people in the arts are turning to windows, as Apple increasingly ignores their former core audience of artists and designers. It runs fine on my laptop, of course, but I don’t want to have to provide that to anybody who wants to do the piece. Nor do I want to force ensembles to have IT people on hand. Fortunately, I think I’ve stumbled on how to package this for the masses.
I’m working right now to get it all running on a Raspberry Pi. This is a tiny, cheap computer. Instead of having a hard drive, it uses SD cards. This means that I can set everything up to run my piece, put it all on an SD card, and then anybody can put that SD card into their Raspberry Pi and the piece will be ready to go! …In principle, at least.
This piece needs wifi, which does not come with the Pi. Pi owners who want wireless networking get their wifi dongles separately. I got mine off a friend who didn’t need it any more. And while setting up the networking bit, I found at least three different sets of instructions depending on what dongle people have. I could try to detect what dongle they have and then auto-install needed software to match, but, yikes, there are many things I would rather do with my life. I think instead, if you order an SD card, by default, it should come with a dongle – the buyer can opt out, but not without understanding they may need to install different libraries and do some reconfiguring.
Or, I dunno, if you want to run the piece and don’t want to buy a dongle, send me yours and I’ll get it working and send it back with an SD card?
My last software job was doing something called being a release engineer – I took people’s stuff that worked on their own machine and packaged it so the rest of the world could use it. I wanted to be a developer, but that was the job I could get. It seems like I’m still release engineering, even as a composer.
Anyway, this is all very techy, but the point here is to prevent end users from having to do all this. When I’m done, I’ll make an image of the card and use that to make new cards, which I can post to people, saving them my woe. Or, even better, some publishing company will send them to people, so I don’t need to do my own order fulfilment, because queuing at the post office, keeping cards and dongles on hand, etc gets very much like running a small business, which is not actually the point.

Tech Notes so far

Later, I’m going to forget how I got this working, so this is what I did:

  1. Get Raspian wheezy, put it on a card.
  2. Boot the Pi off the card
    1. Put the card in the Pi
    2. Plug in the HDMI cable to the monitor and the Pi
    3. Connect the Pi to a powered USB hub
    4. Put the dongle on the powered hub.
    5. Plug in a mouse and keyboard
    6. Connect your Piu to the internet via an ethernet cable
    7. Turn on the HDMI monitor and the hub
    8. Plug in the Pi’s power cable (and send electricity to the Pi). Make sure you do this last.
  3. On the setup screen, set it to boot to the desktop and set the locale. then reboot
  4. Open a terminal and run:

    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install aptitude
    sudo aptitude safe-upgrade
    sudo apt-get autoremove
    sudo apt-get clean
    sudo aptitude install rfkill hostapd hostap-utils iw dnsmasq lighttpd

  5. Using your regular computer (not the Pi), Find the wifi channel with the least traffic and least overlap

    sudo iwlist wlan0 scan | grep Frequency | sort | uniq -c | sort -n

  6. Try to find out what dongle I have
    1. run: iw list
    2. That returns ‘nl80211 not found’
    3. run: lsusb
    4. That says I have a RTL8188CUS 802.11n adaptor
  7. Use this script for a rtl8188CUS dongle
    1. For future, it would be nice to get the location from the system locale
    2. Autoset the SSID to he name of the piece
    3. Autoset a default password
    4. Indeed, remove all interactivity from the script
  8. Reboot

It might not seem like much, but that was all day yesterday. The first step alone took bloody ages.

To Do

  • Install needed fonts, etc.
  • Try to ensure that the internet remains available over ethernet, but if this isn’t possible, You can still chekc out a github repo to a USB stick and move data that way…
  • Find out what wifi dongle would be best for this application – ideally it has a low power draw, decent range, cheap and commonly owned among people with Pis
  • Set it to hijack all web traffic and serve pages but not with apache! Use the highttpd installed earlier

Liberationist Agendas and Notation

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.

Works Cited

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]

A note about notes

Musical notation, as you may have learned in school, is a lot like a mathematical function. That is, one of those math equations that you can graph. For every x, there is exactly one y. Which means that the graph is a line that may meander up or down, but it will never loop back on itself, nor split in two, nor do anything more interesting other than getting more and more to the right as x goes up

Similarly, unless there is a repeat sign, you read notes strictly left to right. There is no symbol for linked 8th notes (aka: quavers) that play in any order aside from left to right.

And, indeed, letters of words plot a similar route. But when drawing musical lines, like the UPIC system, people sometimes want to double back. This impulse is also evident, at least occasionally, in non-musicians.

Wallenda by Penalva at the Irish Museum of Modern Art is a study in naive notation developed by a visual artist. This is an example of a closed and particular form of graphic notation, invented to communicate a monophonic line extracted from the orchestral score of Rite of Spring. Its meaning is specific and fixed.

The artist has divided the movements into sections, each of which has a single page of notation. The third movement is 153 pages. The notation is sometimes mnemonic and sometimes drawn lines. It appears to be read right to left, top to bottom. many of the images resemble piano roll notation as used by some MIDI programs. Some of the lines curve up and down, presumably tracing a melodic line. This has a strong implication of a left to right directionality. However many panels, starting with 69 in the first movement as the first such example, have loops in them.

Loop pages include 69, 94 in the first set. 16, 74, 107, 110, 111, 113 in the second set and 23, 57, 92, 93, 117, 119 in the third.

While I can only speculate as to the meanings of these gestures, some of the very tight loops do seem as if they may be intended to suggest vibrato. Some of the larger loops appear more mysterious, given their violation of the directionality implied.

Page 44 in set 2 does not loop but does have a gesture that is not a function in a mathematical sense. Instead, it goes down and then backwards. It’s meaning is intriguingly mysterious.

I would guess that the reason that people tend to want loops (despite making up a system that does not support them), has a lot to do with gestalt psychology. The relationship between it and musical notation is very beautifully illustrated, in this analysis of Cardew.

Alas, no pictures are allowed in the museum, so this post is without illustrations of Penalva’s score, but I did do some possibly ambiguous notation of my own in myPaint. In what order would you play those notes?