Graphic scores: from the symbolic to the indexical

March 2015

"Today it’s almost impossible to think of music as anything other than immediately audiovisual." Robert Barry reads between the lines at a new exhibition about graphic scores

With more than 40 composers’ works represented, plus videos, listening posts and other supplementary materials, Drawing Towards Sound investigates the past, present and future of graphic scores. Mounted at London’s Greenwich University, the exhibition is a rich and polyphonic show, deserving of a leisurely amount of time to take it all in. “I wanted,” curator David Ryan told me, “to get across a sense of density.” In certain scores that density is made particularly manifest. Some of Anton Lukoszevieze’s undated Untitled Photo-Drawings are so dense with lines and markings as to come across like a thicket of barbed wire or the CPU-busting Black Midi scores of teenage YouTube jockeys. Jennifer Walshe’s The Total Mountain (2015) frenetically mixes up operatically sung Twitter posts with YouTube clips and Wikipedia entries, mimicking the disorienting hyperactivity of online experience. Elsewhere technology makes its presence felt in more oblique and indirect ways.

Earle Brown spent much of late 1952 working on the Music For Magnetic Tape Project with John Cage, as well as Bebe and Louis Barron. Days spent cutting tape into little slivers and arranging them according to Cage’s recondite systems of categorisation must have made the process of composition feel increasingly divorced from the crotchets and staves he had learnt playing trumpet in his teens. From the end of that year, the score for December 1952 consists of a series of lines and rectangles arranged at right angles upon a sheet of legal paper. You can imagine that the floor of his apartment must have looked much the same at the end of a day’s splicing with Cage and the Barrons.

Detail of Earle Brown's December 1952. Courtesy The Earle Brown Music Foundation


“Space as an infinite series of directions,” Brown wrote beside it, “the score [being] a picture of this space at one instant.” In the published score, he notes that this comment and the diagram itself “appear on a notebook page dated Oct. & Nov 52”, as if they were simply found there by chance.

Brown’s score “is one of the earliest and most well-known examples of musical graphics”, according to Erhard Karkoschka’s pioneering 1960s study of Notation In New Music. Reading it sometime in the 70s, the book was curator Ryan’s introduction to the world of graphic scores. At the time, he was an art student studying under Max Eastley. For him graphic scores opened a new world of music that has stayed with him ever since. He gives Brown’s score a prominent place in Drawing Towards Sound, directly opposite Toshi Ichiyanagi’s similarly blockish IBM For Merce Cunningham (1960).

In the 19th century, the five lines of the musical stave were an image of freedom, a doorway to limitless possibilities. But in the 20th, increasingly, those horizontal bars were perceived as a prison to be broken free of. For Karkoschka, the turning point comes with the dodecaphonic music of Schoenberg. The assumption of normal tonality from which sharps and flats were an aberration no longer made any sense. The complexity of the score ceased to correlate with the complexity of the actual music.

On 18 March, as part of the exhibition, Ryan (who also works at Anglia Ruskin University) and Ian Mitchell on bass clarinets will perform Intersections, a new work by Michael Parsons composed especially for the show. Its score is a tangle of criss-crossing diagonal lines and written instructions.

Detail from Michael Parsons's Intersections (2015)


As curator of the show, Ryan told me he wanted to emphasise “the grid – and how to escape from it”. It’s not just in Brown and Ichiyinagi’s scores that this tension between freedom and formality is made manifest. Certainly some of the scores here almost resemble traditional notation at first glance – Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke 11 (1956) and Boulez’s Troisième Sonate (1957), for instance. But others appear open to almost any conceivable interpretation – see Cage’s Cartridge Music, gamely taken on by Langham Research Centre in a video next to the rather oblique score. “Anything goes,” as Karkoschka remarks of Brown’s work.

John Cage's Cartridge Music. © Copyright 1960 by Henmar Press. Courtesy Peters Edition Limited, London
Detail from Catherine Kontz’s Cahiers Trouvé (2008)


Boulez compared his sonata to a city that the performer can navigate as they choose – but they can’t alter the geography of the streets themselves. In other works on display, this cartographical metaphor is taken literally – Catherine Kontz’s Cahiers Trouvé (2008) takes the form of a plan of Champs Elysées, Paris, with fragments of score, blocks of colour and ads cut from magazines interspersed among the boulevards. Luigi Nono’s brightly coloured sketch for Prometeo and Lauren Redhead’s (2013) Vertical Futures For A Bandstand In Barrow each go further, scoring the very performance space itself – in the latter case, incorporating drawings, photographs and photocopies of architectural features into the space of the staves.

Another tension explored by the exhibition is that between works which point directly towards (some future) performance, others (like Vicki Bennett’s video Notations) which document a performance that has already happened, and Lukoszevieze’s Untitled Drawings, which seem to impressionistically recall past performances without directing the music to any specific realisation. Finally, Hallveig Agustsdottir’s Sound Drawings (2014/15) are the direct traces of performances in which the process of rubbing and smearing graphite and charcoal are made musical. Here we are not so much drawing towards sound as sounding the very act of drawing.

Anton Lukoszevieze's For BWT (2014)

Hallveig Agustsdottir’s Sound Drawings - An Improvisation With Violin (2014)


Today it’s almost impossible to think of music as anything other than immediately audiovisual. From trippy MP3 player automatic visualisations to YouTube clips and complex waveform editors, the act of making sound and the act of visualising that sound become ever more inseparable. Agustsdottir is one of many artists today seeking more direct – even more rational – means of exploring these relationships (Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda’s Cyclo project, which I caught a few years ago at the ZKM Karlsruhe, springs immediately to mind).

But in making that leap from the symbolic to the indexical, a great deal of the impulse that animated the original graphic scores gets lost – that is, the flexibility, the instability of meaning, the radical restructuring of the whole relationship between composer and performer. A classic work like Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (several pages of which adorn the walls of the Greenwich galleries) is magical precisely because every performance will be different even as it will always be Treatise. While justly celebrating new digital explorations of the limits of scoring, Drawing Towards Sound also reminds us that the “towards” in the title can be just as important as the two words it separates. Aural and visual remain distinct – but anything that pushes musicians to create new forms of music has value.

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