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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Reflecting on the past for a notation of the future

by Alyssa Aska and Martin Ritter

The discussion surrounding the notation of electronic components in music has produced results of varying quality, and there remains a lack of unified scholarship. Much of this is due to the fact that the use of electronics even today represents — from an historical perspective — a new musical performance practice paradigm. A notation system that is both unified and widely accepted has not yet been established, in part because this type of music is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy. We can view our current relationship with electronics notation similar to that of vocal notation during the pre-Guidonian era: there was no established practice, and many varying approaches to the notation and documentation of music were developed in parallel as a result. Early European music notation systems were conceived around the mid-ninth century as a result of monks needing to notate regularly performed Gregorian chants. Symbols called “neumes” were created to aid the monks’ memory during performances. This system was more of a mnemonic device, required for reciting music already committed to memory; it was a tool for the performer rather than the composer. One primary difference between the development of notation prior to Guido and the documentation of electronics remains that in our present era there is a focus on notation as a means of academic documentation, a practice that is increasingly prevalent since the mid-20th century. Thomas Kelly states, in Capturing Music: The story of notation,that “with a single stroke Guido achieved one of the simplest but most radical technological breakthroughs in the history of writing music: he made it possible to sing a song you have never heard before!” (Kelly 2014, 62)

Guido’s system had some drawbacks: the decision to notate pitch, rather than the more continuous parameters such as musical gesture or trajectory, resulted in the emphasis of pitch above all other elements of the music. While the new “scores” enabled a much wider transmission of music, the notation they contained did not represent much more than the two-dimensional, “on/off” elements; transient information such as variations in dynamics or timbre was not reflected in the notation. These transient elements became attributes of the notated pitches. Gradually, scores began to integrate more symbols to represent these attributes, such as crescendo lines for dynamics. In electronic music, with its complex timbres, multi-layered textures and performance practices that may include three-dimensional spatial trajectories, choosing what to notate in a two-dimensional plane — the score — can prove to be even more challenging.

Therefore, we can see many parallels between the issues that were confronted in the medieval period and our struggle to find a unified and appropriate method of notating electronics. A significant portion of contemporary discourse around notation practices encountered in both acoustic and electronic compositions tends to focus primarily, although not exclusively, on the documentation of works for archival, analysis and posterity purposes, rather than on the aspects of the notation that represent the type of musicality required for its performance. Modern notation systems have become incredibly complicated as musical performance techniques become more varied, complex and personalized. For example, in Extended Notation: The depiction of the unconventional, Christian Dimpker describes in great detail specific notation that should, he believes, be adopted for extended instrumental techniques as well as electronic music. Dimpker states in his text: “The methods of notation are supposed to be 1. as exact as possible and 2. as simple as possible. Moreover, they may 3. not be contradictory to traditional notation, but should instead extend and be closely related to it” (Dimpker 2013, 2). While the first two tenets could easily be considered to be universally appropriate principles to follow when notating music, the third is problematic, because it assumes that the development of traditional notation represents a positive progress and that any new development must be an extension of this progress. Especially with the diversity we encounter in electronic music and new instrumental techniques, it would seem more appropriate to consider that “the fact that a historical development must not always be an improvement, and following the rules does not always lead to the goal, exposes a series of different versions” (Lang 1999, 9). 1[1. Original text: Die Tatsache, dass eine historische Entwicklung nicht immer eine Verbesserung sein muss und dass das Befolgen von Regeln nicht immer zum Ziel führt, zeigt eine Reihe von verschiedenen Versionen….]

The preservation of music was a side effect of notation used as a tool for transmission rather than a central concern.

This represents but one example; there are many different approaches, schools, philosophies and practices that have developed in relation to the notation of contemporary art music, however, their potential is perhaps too often coloured and hindered by an excessive degree of academic specialization, complication or simplification, as well as a reliance on progressive historicism as a fundamental concept.

The original purpose of music notation was to assist in the transmission of music, to make possible the performance of music that was unknown or at least unfamiliar to the musician. The preservation of music was a side effect of this development rather than a central concern. This is an important distinction when we consider ways of notating electronic music, or in fact any new developments in contemporary art music notation in general. Therefore we propose two primary components that should be considered essential when creating new notational elements for electronic and electroacoustic music:

Note that new developments in the notation of electronic compositions do not necessarily contradict traditional notation; however, because of the nature of such works and the means required to perform them, their “scores” may make use of notational symbols or other elements that are rarely, if ever, encountered in conventional notation. Therefore, the notation of electronics should be primarily concerned with simplicity, readability and on supporting the compositional concept that it represents. A discussion of some of the challenges of notating electronics follows, and both analytic and compositional considerations will be taken into consideration. Recent examples from electronic and acoustic notation practices will demonstrate clearly that notation cannot by itself represent all elements of such complex pieces. We will also review the potential benefits of incorporating other forms of media, such as video or animation, in the notation process, and the benefits that such technologies can bring to both the compositional process and the analytical process.

Approaches to Notation

In Western art music, sign and sound (notation and performance) are traditionally considered to be poles of a dialectic that can be modified over time but not suspended, because the music is both “text that is fixed by the medium of writing, so that it can be passed on, and sound event, which is momentary and ephemeral” (Borio 2012, 1).

The strength of any good notation system is that it can be used to translate the ephemeral into something concrete, into a structure that a skilled musician can then re-translate into the ephemeral at will. It must be precise enough that the intention of the original musical gesture is preserved, and yet not so complicated that the performer is stifled, unable to add personal touches and interpretation.

Which elements should we choose to document in order to best preserve musical intention while also being considerate of the fact that our choice will impact future compositions for the media? This question is extremely important and should be at the forefront when choosing a notation for new elements, such as extended techniques and electronics. The five-stave Western music notation system we use today, which is an evolution of the Guidonian system, has very directly influenced composers in their choice of which compositional parameters to consider important and the way they think about the structure of music itself.

Guido of Arezzo’s system of notation transformed a process into an object and took one aspect of this process, namely pitch, and defined it as substance. All other aspects of sounds, like duration, dynamics, sound qualities, became attributes attached to this substance. And so, this dualistic model of substance and attributes also reflects the philosophical Western and Greek concepts of this time. (Lang 2016a)

It therefore follows that the notational choices we make have the ability to consciously and unconsciously foreground certain compositional parameters over others. Different types of music may indeed require different types of notation (rather than a unified notation) in order to preserve important compositional intentions. Once again we can see a parallel after Guido’s notational system had been widely adopted, but not in certain parts of Europe:

Guido’s new pitch-specific notation was more or less an instant hit. Starting in his native Italy, and spreading very widely and very fast, the basic idea of aligning the notes on a vertical grid instantly made music readily readable. There were a few holdouts, however, notably in what is now Germany and parts of the East, where the older system of unheightened neumes continued to be used for centuries to write Gregorian chant, even when more modern notations were available and were used for other kinds of music. (Kelly 2014, 67)

Thomas Forrest Kelly postulates that their hesitation in adopting this system was, in part, to ensure they retain “the gestural sense of the music, a series of motions that can rapidly disappear when the music is thought of as a series of specific notes” (Kelly 2014, 67).

This example of a new notation system that was rapidly adopted, with a concurrent countermovement to preserve transient elements, shows that even in Guido’s time the effect of notation on the resulting music was an important consideration.An overview of some of the different approaches that have been taken in the documentation of works composed since the mid-twentieth century that employ some form of electronics will illustrate how these methods affect the music and the conceptualization of the music in the composer and researcher’s minds.

Depicting the Sound Graphically

Generally the focus of many written acoustic scores and most modern notation systems has been the performative reproduction of music — a score is created for a work so that it can be performed not only more than once (capturing the ephemeral), but also in the manner the composer intended it to be performed.

Since the mid-twentieth century, innumerable scores featuring graphic notation have been produced by acoustic and electroacoustic composers alike, but the musical results of these vary widely from performance to performance. Very often, this variance is in fact an integral part of the concept of the composition and its performance — once again, we can observe the importance of the link between notation and compositional intent. Nevertheless, a great number of composers and analysts have produced graphic scores, such as Stockhausen’s Studie II and Ligeti’s Artikulation (Video 1), that are intended to either be followed as one listens to the piece (listening score), or to perform the piece (performance score). Stockhausen depicts frequency information, amplitude information and envelope information in the score for his 1954 work (Dimpker 2013, 221). However, it should be noted that each page shows the frequency content and dynamics for what we could consider to be a singular “voice”; in more recent acousmatic music, we often encounter many such “voices” in a very complex interplay of layering in a single work.

Video 1. Rainer Wehinger’s graphic listening score for György Ligeti’s Artikulation (1958), originally a quadrophonic work. YouTube video “Ligeti — Artikulation” (3:52) posted by “Donald Craig” on 28 May 2007.

There are also a wide range of parameters central to the performance of such works — notably spatialization — that are difficult, if not impossible, to depict on a two-dimensional sheet of paper. Therefore, the use of graphic notation may not be the most effective method if the intent is to perfectly reproduce such works. 2[2. Discussion of interpretation practices for graphic-based notation is beyond the score of this text.] On the other hand, the continued interest in score following and observing a score while listening to music may provide another motivation for such graphic scores. For example, Ligeti’s score was actually created by graphic designer Rainer Wehinger in 1970, 12 years after the composition of the work. This score contains more elaborate and colourful images than Stockhausen’s, but its depiction of the actual musical events is less complete and accurate (Ibid., 215). It omits spatial parameters and is more artistic than actually depictive of the specific sounds that occur — in contrast to Stockhausen’s score, which provides very specific technical details that were used in the realization of the piece.

Graphic depictions of electroacoustic works may therefore have a specific purpose, whether it be to indicate in a general sense what is going on in a tape component, or to help with the reproduction of very general and improvisatory sounds. The generation of post-creation graphic scores is also very likely linked to ongoing interest in the practice of score study and score following — such scores are unlikely to have been originally intended as performance guides. Graphic scores of this nature, however, may prove to be useful for the analysis and appreciation of the works they represent.

Notation That Focuses on Musical Reproduction

As mentioned earlier, a parallel can be made between the development of musical notation during the Medieval Period and that of the development of notation for electronics. When we view the performance practices of music with electronics, we notice similarities to pre-Guidonian music, the learning process of which primarily involved aural transmission of information from someone familiar with the piece (e.g., the choirmaster) to the singers. Therefore, any reproduction of sound was bound to an aural learning procedure. In contemporary practices where composers perform the electronic components of their own mixed (instrument and electronic) works, or perform themselves on their newly developed instruments, we begin to see some parallels in regards to aural transmission in the absence of a score. Especially in the creations of the New Instruments for Musical Expression (NIME) community, there is little in the way of generalized notational systems that have been developed to help guarantee their future use, as performance on a significant proportion of NIMEs is often gestural and undertaken by the composer, who is also likely the creator of the instrument. And just as pre-Guidonian music was learned aurally, much of NIME performance practice is learned visually, by watching performances or by engaging with a device in a tactile manner. This is a clear instance in which the addition of video documentation or demonstrations to any existing notation of such practices can have an enormous impact on the dissemination of the instrument. Rather than relying solely on aural or notational transmission, a visual component showing how to play an instrument that has unknown or unfamiliar mechanisms has obvious advantages.

In instances in which notation for the interface has been developed, it usually is very specific to the given NIME — there is no universal method of notation for NIMEs (a situation that is very different from traditional Western orchestral instruments, all of which are notated in a relatively consistent manner). Consequently, any notation that has been developed for NIMEs has been done so with the intention of musical reproduction. Guido wanted to be able to help singers learn songs quicker and without having heard them before; NIME notation focuses on allowing other musicians to be able to pick up an instrument and learn how to play it, as well as allowing composers to be able to write for it. This would suggest that the purpose of a certain body of notations developed for NIMEs is more focused on supporting musical reproduction than an analytical approach.

Figure 1. Opening of Marko Ciciliani’s Corrosion (2009), for semi-modular analogue synthesizer and laser reflections. [Click image to enlarge]

The documentation of live electronic works that incorporate the use of traditional musical instruments is more complicated. Many authors have explored the issues surrounding the study of electroacoustic music (Battier 2015; Donin 2009; Emmerson 2007; Landy 2007; Brech 1994; Clarke, Dufeu and Manning 2015; etc.), but much of this scholarship currently is focused on fixed-media music. Few scholars to date have dealt with live electronic compositions, which contain a high number of musical parameters that can change as a direct result of user input (performer or audience) and may include live acoustic instruments. Creating a working definition for live or real-time electronic music is exceedingly difficult (Emmerson 2007), since new research into the past and ever-changing technical developments provide for a landscape that continuously reshapes itself.

Additionally, performed works for live electronics tend to be primarily undertaken by the composer of such works, with no real established method of transmitting these works to later performers (once again, we have a demonstration of the composer being the active participant). Notation of the live electronic performance work requires the documentation of several elements:

  1. The actual sound processes that occur as the work is performed;
  2. The performance itself;
  3. The equipment that is used for both the production and performance of the work.

This may seem redundant, but composers of works that include electronics must also be concerned about software and hardware changes over time, as well as the fact that many of the programmes that are used to create the original performance may not be available in the future. The documentation process can be extremely straightforward and still be effective. For example, in Marko Ciciliani’s work Corrosion (2009), the score indicates that “recordings of crowds in baseball stadium” must be played back over the course of several measures (Fig. 1, top staff). The composer most likely has a premade and preferred recording that is used for performances, but with such instructions, even if this original recording was destroyed, somebody other than the composer could reproduce it as it was intended. This instruction is very clearly intended to aid the performance reproduction, either now (if the composer is not able to be present) or in the future (if the recording is inaccessible). As Ciciliani stated:

I’m usually very pragmatic about it and I just notate what I need in order to be able to perform the piece again. Therefore it is not possible to get any idea from the scores, what the pieces actually sound or look like. (Ciciliani 2016)

Figure 2. First system of the score for Hans Tutschku’s Zellen-Linien (2007), for piano and live electronics. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 3. Excerpt from the technical notes for Hans Tutschku’s Zellen-Linien (2007), for piano and live electronics, indicating how to prepare the electronics prior to performing the piece. [Click image to enlarge]

Another example of the use of notation for the purposes of reproduction can be observed in the preface to Hans Tutschku’s score for Zellen-Linien (Fig. 1). The composer has provided a very detailed description of the processes used, the software used, the technical setup and links to download the necessary software (Fig. 2). Tutschku’s technical specifications span eight pages and include images that clearly demonstrate how to use the software and run the electronics throughout the piece. The use of video and supplemental media can be a very useful tool for the sustainability of works utilizing electronics. Zellen-Linien is, at its core, a written-out version of the improvisatory piece Das Bleierne Klavier, which Tutschku used to perform himself for many years (Fig. 4). Compare this to the notated version of Zellen-Linien shown in Figure 4, below. The impetus to fix the piece into a notational form came about after several pianists spoke to the composer, wishing to perform the piece themselves. However, after working with them on the piece for some time — transmitting the piece aurally — Tutschku was quite dissatisfied with “the way they performed the piece, since they couldn’t grasp [his] musical ideas” (Tutschku 2017). Das Bleierne Klavier is therefore a good example of a piece that is too complex and involved in terms of both technical and compositional ideas to be transmitted purely via aural methods.

Figure 4. First page of the performance instruction score for Hans Tutschku’s Das Bleierne Klavier. [Click image to enlarge]

The idea that the score alone should not be the sole point of departure for understanding a piece of music is not new, as Barry Truax has stated:

It has been conventional, largely through work in music theory and musicology, to rely on the score as the musical artifact [sic] which is the visible result of the composing process. In Western music the score represents a structure separated from the sound through which it will be realized. […] The problem is that the score is a description of the surface level of the resultant composition, not a guide to the musical thinking that produced it. (Truax, cited in Emmerson, 160)

In works that make use of electronics, video recordings can not only greatly benefit in the demonstration of performance technique and gesture, they can also illustrate how the sound changes as a result of these gestures. While standard notation can provide a starting point and a means by which musicians can recall during performance, having extra material to assist in learning the techniques and the intent behind the piece can be of great advantage for the performance of the work. The addition of supplementary media such as software, extra instructions, photos and sound materials also should not be ignored as potential parts of the score. These can be greatly helpful, especially when considering that most electronic music not only deals with integral complex elements such as timbre, but also relies heavily on the use of spatial positioning. Space, of course, is three-dimensional and when coupled with sound trajectories in time, the notation and reconstruction of these elements on two-dimensional paper or screens is exceedingly difficult. 3[3. Of course today animated notation and other technologies allow for on-screen representation in 3D, but here we are concerned with the traditional two-dimensional models of notation.]

Electronics — Role in Performance

Another issue in the notation of electroacoustic music is the rapid growth that the digital and hardware industries have undergone in the last 20–30 years. Hardware components (e.g., synthesizers) that were crucial for the performance of pieces in the 1980s and 1990s are very often no longer available and have in some cases been replaced by software. Software components, on the other hand, routinely come and go as companies and their proprietary algorithms are bought and sold, companies shut down, or newer software supersedes and replaces existing programmes. In a very practical sense this means that composers who wish to future-proof their work have to employ strategies that go beyond the use of paper and digital scores, computer code and patches. Notably, sustainability has to be taken into consideration by composers as well as performers for works that include live electronic elements. 4[4. See the articles under the “Archiving and Preservation” section of eContact! 10.x — CAP: Concordia Archival Project (March 2009) for more on this important topic in the electroacoustic milieu (Ed.).]

At the 2016 Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, US composer Roger Reynolds lectured extensively about the pragmatic approach he takes in the realization of the electronic components of his compositions. Many of Reynolds’ electronic works involve a live instrumental part on stage as well as a second performer operating the electronics. For the electronic part, he provides a “technical score” with detailed instructions concerning what the resulting sound should be and how it can be obtained — he does not specify what hardware or software to use. Reynolds considers both the musician and the technician as equal partners and performers on stage, each having their own responsibilities in the realization of his works, as his response to a performer wishing to acquire the Pd patches for the composer’s pieces clearly articulates:

No. These patches are mine. The point is for you to create your own with the instructions provided, to create your own sound within the boundaries I have laid out for you with whatever technical means and knowledge that you have available to you. (Reynolds 2016, paraphrased)

The precise realization of the technologies required to perform Reynolds’ work is then secondary to the underlying compositional intention and ideas, and to the desired sound transformation. It is up to the performers to implement a version that corresponds to his compositional ideas using their own resources and reflecting their own experiences and preferences of performance practice.

This approach necessitates a completely different approach to the notation of the electronics, in part because it treats the electronics realizer as a performer, a musician. In this way, we could view Max and other such software as “instruments” that are performed upon. The electronics performer takes the composer’s instructions and, using contemporary tools, realizes the work. We could view a parallel of this in the reproduction of music originally composed for harpsichord in the 17th and 18th centuries but performed on piano today — at least in terms of the process of adaptation, disregarding the discrepancies in the amount of work and specialization required to adapt one work for another instrument. The historical accuracy of such performances aside, such a parallel may exist in the future, when, for example, the performance of a piece of music originally written for performance with Max uses functionally analogous hardware. Documentation and notation such as that used by Reynolds would have the benefit of better ensuring that works remain sustainable for a long time into the future, but may also lead to inaccuracies. This form of notation requires the composer to precisely encapsulate their intentions in the notation; further materials in the form of video recordings and diagrammes can only help fight the work’s obsolescence. This “instructional” approach to electronics will inevitably lead to variability between performances. This, however, does not need to be seen as a compromise to the work’s integrity. Rather it makes it possible for performers to develop an intimately personal interpretation of the work while still respecting the compositional intent as the driving force of compositional ideal. Clearly in Reynolds’ works, variability is not only intended but in fact required to perform the pieces as envisioned by the composer. His approach remains one clear example in which the primary focus is placed upon reproduction of the work without the performer ever needing to have heard or seen it, or in this case, to even have access to the software created by the composer.

Acoustic Parallels

We will now highlight some notational examples that include acoustic music and discuss how their approach to principles outlined above contain relevant features to the notation of electronic music. To this end, we are primarily considering those elements that are transient, difficult to document with traditional notation and that are potentially performance- and venue-specific. The latter condition pertains especially to digital audio and electroacoustic music, as it must be produced using, for example, loudspeakers that will vary in sound quality and array from venue to venue. Instrumental notation and the practices relating to its use have developed over the course of several centuries. There exists today an established and widely accepted set of protocols that composers can draw on and use to efficiently convey specific musical information about performance techniques and more to performers for their pieces. Performers have an equally long and intimately related history of performance praxis that informs their understanding and interpretation of music notation; it is commonplace that performers decode the music without the input or presence of the composer. Electronic music, however, is a relatively young performance art and is still surprisingly often performed by the composer (either on a controller, at a mixing board or realized on the computer) or at the very least with the composer present during the rehearsals and at the concerts. Because of this, and keeping in mind the two essential tenets for electroacoustic notation proposed at the top of this text, namely its guarantee of future replication and its effect on musical perception, it could be insightful to examine instrumental (acoustic) compositions that have some of the same properties as electronic music.

In their research, Ian Burleigh and Friedemann Sallis have focused extensively on musical works that “escape conventional notation” (Burleigh and Sallis 2008), many of which also make use of electronics. The instrumental score for Luigi Nono’s A Pierre, Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum (1984), for contrabass flute, contrabass clarinet and live electronics, offers very few clues to the resulting sound in the traditional sense. It functions rather as a highly specialized set of instructions for the performers. The consequence of this is a representation that is meaningful to a skilled performer but rather meaningless to an analyst trying to understand and evaluate the resulting piece from a score alone. By transcribing a performance of A Pierre, Sallis and Burleigh have succeeded in creating a neume-like record of what performers have done with the composer’s intentions, rather than those intentions per se. 5[5. For more on this project see Burle [was Burleigh] 2017 and Sallis 2017.]

They have since used ambisonic technology to capture more of the information present in a performance than was possible with the standard stereo recording (Burleigh and Sallis 2008). As ambisonic recording technology captures the sound field at a range of specific locations with a microphone array, one can in theory reconstruct (or decode) the sound field virtually, extracting musical events in time and space. Recently, Friedemann Sallis, Martin Ritter and Jeffrey Boyd (2017) have expanded the original research by Burleigh and Sallis as well as that of Laura Zattra, Burleigh and Sallis (2011) by using higher-order ambisonic encoding (4th order) in combination with computer vision algorithms (Reid 1979; Cox and Hingorani 1996) to track a sound as it moves through space. This is a novel concept, as this system would allow an analyst to detect and follow sounds at the sampling rate and even distinguish between original sound sources and reflections. This can potentially be applied to notating space in a multimedia-enhanced score, in which simulations of the intended spatial trajectories could be shown and subsequently compared to the actual sounding trajectories as visualized by this system.

Notational Methods — Acoustic Music with Electroacoustic Inspiration

The music of Klaus Lang manages to elude conventional analysis, as does much of the late music of Nono, for which the composer also commonly used live electronics. This is mostly due to acoustic phenomena that arise in Lang’s works through the “through the focus on elements such as intonation and positioning of the performers in the performance space.” Martin Iddon states that “For instance, the music of Klaus Lang could be seen to integrate the textures and techniques of musique concrète instrumentale with an approach to duration and stasis more-or-less familiar from experimental musics, especially those which develop drones in a microtonal context” (Iddon 2014, 65). Although the score for Lang’s chamber ensemble work Weisse Farben (2016) appears quite simple, there are many other parameters at work than those we see in the notated score. Many elements that are crucial to the piece are presented as text descriptions in the programme notes, such as spatialization of the performers and intonation, as well as the timing and coordination between players (Fig. 6). The relationship between the sounding result and the score therefore is similar in effect to that of the Nono example, in that the pitch and duration of the notes on the page cannot convey all of the musical information on their own.

Figure 5. Excerpt of the score for Klaus Lang’s Weiße Farben (2016), for ensemble. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 6. Excerpt of the score legend of Klaus Lang’s Weiße Farben (2016), for ensemble, indicating the spatial positioning of the musicians. [Click image to enlarge]

Basically I try to write scores that are able to function with the least amount of symbols, that look as simple as possible. I find it extremely challenging and interesting to work with the simplest resources in order to create the greatest sonic complexity and to give these sounds, through strict formal compositional plans, the greatest possible ability to unfold freely. […] I think I give the sounds in my pieces the space to unfold and am not trying to obsessively fix each detail; my sounds are more like cows in the pasture rather than chickens in cages. (Lang 2016) 6[6. Original text: Grundsätzlich versuche ich Partituren zu schreiben, die mit der geringstmöglichen Anzahl an Zeichen auskommen, also so einfach wie möglich aussehen. Ich finde es sehr herausfordernd und interessant mit den einfachst möglichen Mittel die größtmögliche klangliche Komplexität zu erzeugen und dabei durch die Strenge der Form der Komposition den Klängen die größtmögliche Freiheit zu geben sich zu entfalten. […] Ich denke, ich gebe den Klängen im [sic] meinen Stücken Raum sich zu entfalten und versuche nicht jedes Detail zwanghaft zu fixieren, meine Klänge sind eher wie Kühe auf der Alm als wie Legehennen im Käfig.]

The result is a focus on the sound itself, much like in electroacoustic music, but with the added element of the interaction between performers and instruments. Further examples can be seen in other works by Lang, such as moon in a moonless sky (2007). Here the spatialization of the four percussionists in the corners of the performance venue and the complex timbral shifts created by the beating between repeated notes at extreme registers are the primary musical focus.

Much like the music of Helmut Lachenmann has been compared to electroacoustic music, and was even termed musique concrète instrumentale due to the sonic properties Lachenmann worked with, similar parallels can be observed in the music of Klaus Lang.

Composers who explored and developed new playing techniques on acoustic instruments in the mid-20th century had to develop new notation systems — or adapt existing ones — in parallel to their use in new compositions. Helmut Lachenmann’s work Pression (1969), for one cellist, contains many techniques, gestures and ways of playing the cello that had never been used before, and therefore he could not take advantage of established notational systems. Instead, he had to develop himself a notation that allowed for the transient gestural elements he was using in the piece to be depicted on the score two-dimensionally — he represented the actions the performer would play as notational elements. Tanja Orning described this as prescriptive notation, “which presents actions and gestures as musical material although their primary purpose is not to produce sound” (Orning 2012, 12). She describes further that “the performer is asked to squeeze, press, jerk, slide, hit and stroke various parts of the instrument and the bow. Rather than functioning in a traditional way, the score maps the actions of the performer” (Ibid., 12–13). That such an approach to notation could be successful has been proven through hundreds of performances of Pression over the years. But it must also be noted that Lachenmann has in many cases had personal contact with the musicians and worked closely with them on the realization of the piece. In 2015, Paul Archbold published Lachenmann: Pression, a video document featuring cellist Lucas Fels that included demonstrations of the techniques in the score; this allows future performers access to Lachenmann’s own demonstrations and adds an extra element to the notation.

This type of documentation could be very useful for works that include electronics in the notated score, and especially for those with performative elements such as gesture. The addition of video documentation of the composer (or another performer) demonstrating the techniques needed in the piece could provide a very useful resource to future performers — it would certainly help shorten the time needed to familiarize themselves with the new performance paradigms explored in the piece. As with Lachenmann’s action notation, two-dimensional paper or digital scores can effectively depict three-dimensional gesture. The performer would use these annotations as aids in learning the piece and commit them to memory. During the performance they would function in a manner that is evocative of Guidonian nuematic notational intent — to aid the performer’s memory — rather than as representations of compositional intent or musical content.


Looking back at the challenges faced during the early stages of what we consider traditional music notation can be beneficial to our practices in notating contemporary music containing electronics. Not only because we can observe how these systems were developed, but because we can also learn from the ways in which the limitations of notational tools of the time shaped not only the reproduction of the music itself, as well as the compositional thinking for generations to come.

Early notation resulted in a compromise of musical parameters regardless of how it was notated: pre-Guidonian and neumatic systems preserved gesture, but without the detail of precise pitch. Guido’s system preserves precise pitches (as do subsequent systems that are related to or derived from Guido), but gesture and transient information is lost. In order to avoid this compromise, combined systems of intermedia documentation (notation, text and extra media such as photos and videos) could provide viable options for more precise documentation of electroacoustic music and music using live electronics. These systems also adhere to the two primary concerns stated above, as the extra documentation enhances reproducibility, and they may also allow composers to integrate elements that might not be perceivable in a paper or digital score, potentially expanding the compositional resources. Further, the extra media will prevent the absolute loss of other attributions. In effect, this intermedia notation provides a tool for performers to engage in a more holistic learning process for new works.

The principal contribution of Guido’s notational system was that it made it possible for a performer (i.e. trained musician) to pick up any score and precisely reproduce a composer’s instructions without a priori knowledge of the music. While certain forms of contemporary art music may no longer make use of it in its “original” form, traditional notation is still an important cornerstone of Western music. Guido used the technology available to him (paper and ink) to envision a system that responded to a specific need. Through the affordances of today’s advanced technological systems, different kinds of media can be incorporated in the score to respond to different kinds of needs for a variety of audiences and problem sets. Electroacoustic composers may find some relevant parallels in the notational practices of the Guidonian era that could effectively help them communicate their ideas to present and future performers of their music.


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