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Any discussion of notation for electroacoustic and digital media necessarily addresses several related and equally important issues. An understanding of the nature, needs and intentions of visual representation help ensure the effective, appropriate communication and transmission of the notated work or performance practice.

In response to ever-evolving musical, æsthetic and performative interests, a plethora of new and/or experimental approaches to the notation of music or sound have been explored in the past century, resulting in a vast range of styles and types of representation of sound phenomena. In the electroacoustic domain in particular, not only the meaning of the symbols has evolved, the role and function of the notation itself has also greatly diversified. The most effective approaches to notation are those that reflect as efficiently as possible their intentions, whether encountered in a performance, listening or diffusion score, a mixing log or any other score format. With a special interest in the evaluation and problematics of graphic representation for electroacoustic media and works, here we focus on notation specific to the digital domain, to electroacoustic, sonic art and other such practices. The various issues addressed in the course of this exploration may indeed be present in the instrumental domain but they have particular relevance for some aspect of electroacoustic notation.

Visual Representation

To those who are already familiar with a range of music notation practices and are aware that the large majority of the various forms of music notation encountered around the world are varyingly reductive symbol- or graphic-based representations of a musical (or other) work or practice that are transmitted, by and large, visually, the term “visual representation” may seem a little redundant. Aural transmission perhaps largely bypasses the need for visual representation, but for a work or practice to be disseminated more widely, it will need to be written down or otherwise transcribed into what will typically be a visual medium. Even a text description is a form of visual representation: it is meant to be read by someone! This is true as well for concept-based works communicated by means of a score of some sort. The term therefore remains useful, as it makes an important distinction between verbal and visual transmission.

Visual representation comes in a variety of forms, each individual manifestation arising out of a particular convergence of needs and intentions, and meant to serve a specific purpose in the transmission of that which it represents. Although some forms and formats have a certain degree of established protocols or praxis for their use and comprehension, the needs these protocols serve vary greatly. Renewal and evolution of notational practice has been constant over the past century; as the range of work it is meant to serve has evolved, existing forms of notation have been adapted in tandem and new forms invented as needed, with the periodic reevaluation of practice or representation helping the other flourish and grow.

The notable lack of a common vocabulary for the notation of electroacoustic and related practices has certainly afforded a great degree of flexibility in the use of symbols, graphics and other notational tools by electroacoustic composers, and in their subsequent interpretation by performers and analysts. But the absence of a generalized methodology has also resulted in a dearth of protocols for its comprehension. For David Gray, this possibly also “hinders the development of aural imagination within the genre.” However, renewal within the practice could be stimulated with the development in the future of “conceptual frameworks” for “The Visualization and Representation of Electroacoustic Music.” This would be most effective if the frameworks were “sufficiently clear, rigorous and, most importantly, universally agreed upon.”

Yet it would seem that history has already shown us that this theoretical unity is unlikely to happen. As Evelyne Gayou notes: “The standardization of notation can only come with the standardization of instruments; for the moment, however, their multiplication only worsens the problem.” Already in the early twentieth century, the evolution of a new instrumentarium “inevitably led to new sounds and, as a consequence, to the need for new systems of notation representing the new timbres and new techniques of composition and performance.” And this trend is sure to continue. Surveying the arrival of a plethora of new instruments, systems and interfaces over the course of the past hundred years and, in parallel, the expansion and outgrowths of existing notational systems and apparatuses to meet the resulting proliferation of representational demands, we have the impression we have been “Observing in Real Time the Making of a New System of Musical Notation.”

In speaking of “a new instrumentarium” that spawned so many novel sounds, compositional techniques and performance practices, Gayou refers mainly to early electronic instruments. We might, however, consider that the entirety of twentieth century practice has been defined by the evolution of this new instrumentarium, which in fact includes not only electronic, acoustic and hybrid instruments, but also a range of apparatuses and interfaces used to expand the spheres and modes of musical thinking and sonic creation.

The UPIC, for example, arose out of the need to combat the growing inadequacies of Western music theory and notation “in responding to or representing the unprecedented growth of new practices and interests encountered in the new musical works of the late 1960s and early 1970s.” Originally conceived by Iannis Xenakis, since 2001 the system has been remodeled as Iannix and expanded into “an advanced interface devoted to a wider creative field” than just sound-based practices. Julian Scordato describes the “Development of a Three-Dimensional Graphic, Open Source Environment for Music, Sound and Beyond” that provides “an essential notation system suitable for the definition of discrete and continuous values.”

In parallel and symbiotically linked to the evolution of this new instrumentarium and its various associated devices, a massive collective library of notational practice has been cultivated. Comparative analysis can help us negotiate and assess the potentials of individual instances found in this potentially bewildering library. In “What You See Is What You Hear: Using visual communication processes to categorize various manifestations of music notation,” Christian Fischer examines a number of scores via a 3D model that helps visualize and compare the degree of interpretation, improvisation, and musical or actional depiction they display. The typology he proposes is itself an interpretational system — the exact position of a particular work within this framework may not be “universally agreed upon” (Gray). But it can be quite useful as a mediating tool for a discussion around such topics as the interpretational freedom a particular approach to visual representation — or work that uses these representations — affords the musician.

Communication and Transmission

The collective library of notational practice continues to proliferate alongside the growth of new practices and new perspectives on existing practices. Notation is meant to serve as a medium for the communication and transmission of these practices, but it is not just a neutral recipient and carrier of artistic practice: any individual form of “music notation makes sense only if the visual record can be understood by the receiver.” Or, in other words: “Even if we use the term ‘door’ and the receiver of our message understands the meaning of the word ‘door’, the source and the receiver would most likely not have the exact same door in mind” (Fischer). Although creators might notate their works with the utmost diligence with the goal of communicating their intentions as authentically as possible, the documentation they make to transmit them is only one of the many stages of interpretation between their initial artistic inspiration and its comprehension by an audience or individual. This impermanence of meaning is indeed an inherent and desired characteristic in most artistic practices. Each of the stages of interpretation — the conception of a creative act and its communication into a form that can be transmitted to performers who then interpret the resultant work (or score) in order to render it to an individual or group of individuals whose own modes of communication and reception most likely vary wildly — is necessarily an incomplete embodiment of the initial creative impulse. Because each stage of communication and transmission has different needs and goals, any form of notation or documentation that serves them will emphasize certain crucial characteristics at the expense of others that are not entirely indispensable.

This is by no means as dramatic a situation as it might sound, because “while notation is in virtually all its manifestations a compromised and reductive representation of an artistic work or practice, all of its manifestations have the potential to be useful for the representation of some works by some users in some contexts.” The various types of notation encountered “in the service of the graphic representation of complex sound” have done so with varying degrees of success. jef chippewa’s “Typology and Problematics of Fixed Notation for the Representation of Electroacoustic and Digital Media” evaluates the potential and drawbacks of different kinds of visual representation used by electroacoustic composers. The first entry in this series of articles deals with waveform display notation, one of the most ubiquitous forms of notation encountered in digital sound practices. Despite it being beset by a number of problems, notably its incapacity to offer (by itself) frequency representation, understanding the nature of the “inherently restricted amount of information it represents” is the key to being able to judge and maximize its “effectiveness in representing or servicing the diverse musical and sonic circumstances encountered in the wider realm of electroacoustic practice.”

Notational paradigms are, however, not always meant to be universal; they may sometimes be specific to a particular practice or even an individual, creative situation. The unique development, creation and performance context of the Musebot, for example, invokes the need for “communication methods that allow agents to describe their activities selectively to others.” Experiments, creative exploration and performance with this musically creative human-machine interface have informed and impacted its development by Simon Fraser University’s Metalab (Vancouver). Matt Horrigan explains that concessions were necessary in exploiting “standardization and efficiency” on the one hand and “flexibility and capacity for innovation” on the other. In “Doodling in the Posthuman Corpus: Wherefore scoring in the minds of machines?” he notes that although the standardization of this system effectively facilitates communication (an idea that is ideally applicable to any notation system), it also “censors communication for the kind of accidental purpose that still lingers in human activities.”

The use of a digital interface as a score component is an increasingly popular and widespread practice. Adaptive digital notation systems can be data-based entities that are fixed (i.e. in a format that is similar to traditional print scores), self-referential or generative (differing to some degree at each instance according to internal [programming] logic), or they can be dynamic systems responding to and partially or entirely controlled by human-machine interaction. More recently, Seth Shafer notes, “a growing number of composers have incorporated real-time notation in their practice.” Some trends in the realm of animated notation are starting to emerge, and he offers some perspective on “New Behaviours and Strategies for the Performance Practice of Real-Time Notation.” Describing such attributes as notation style, interpretive paradigm and synchronization, he articulates aspects of the continuum between real-time (dynamic) and non-real-time (fixed) notation and finds that “works that use real-time notation also grant a degree of creative licence to the performer directly through improvisation.”

While the needs and uses of notation continue to change, it is as true today as it was in Guido of Arezzo’s time that the effective communication and transmission of an artistic work not only contributes to it receiving a successful and appropriate performance and reception, it is also one of the primary means of ensuring its longevity. “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Reflecting on the past for a notation of the future,” Alyssa Aska and Martin Ritter have pointed out that music notation was originally meant “to assist in the transmission of music, to make possible the performance of music that was unknown or at least unfamiliar to the musician.” Without some form of notation and documentation, many of today’s works employing some form of electronics will have difficulty reaching a wider audience. Not to mention that they could also very well become “lost” in time, once the technologies and equipment necessary to the presentation of the piece are no longer functional, or even available.

Interviews and The Canada Council’s New Funding Model

Every society needs a place where it can dream, a place where artists congregate in a ghetto.
—Rhys Chatham

The details of the stories from the New York contemporary and experimental music scenes in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s are as varied as its protagonists: “This all took place a long time ago and we each saw it from different perspectives.” The holy trinity of “cheap rent, somebody to write about your music to encourage you and… some kind of government support” fomented the scene for an entire generation of young, experimental artists based in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. “Just imagine,” American composer Rhys Chatham reminisces, “you had this huge concentration of composers, musicians, choreographers, visual artists, sculptors, all living in this same neighbourhood — what that does for communication and what that does for ideas, it was really fantastic.” In the first of three interviews by Bob Gluck in this issue, we learn that “Monday Nights at The Kitchen Were Dark. Until…” Chatham, its first music director, founded a series in this infamous Downtown gathering point of composers, artists and performers.

The slightly earlier development of the vibrant Uptown electronic music culture was centred notably around the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC), as over a dozen interviews by Bob Gluck published in eContact! in the last five years have attested… but New York University’s Bleecker Street Studio, led by Morton Subotnick, was another important focal point of activities. In fact, Chatham’s studies with Subotnick and his experiences on the studio’s Buchla 100 were key in his early development as a composer. American composer Brian Fennelly, who also worked in the studio alongside Maryanne Amacher and Charlemagne Palestine in 1968–69, speaks of “A Mess of Equipment and NYU’s Electronic Music Studio.” Some composers spent only a short time in the classic electronic music studios before continuing on with or moving into instrumental composition. But perhaps without exception, their experiences in those studios had a profound influence on their subsequent compositional practices. Indeed, Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre believes that “Acoustic Composers Also Need to Know About Electronic Music,” and studying at CPEMC in 1969 proved to be a revelation for his own compositional work.

The recent overhaul made to the Canada Council for the Arts’ system of arts grant programmes “reflects an important renewal in the thinking behind arts funding.” A key change is that “programmes are no longer oriented around distinct and separate artistic disciplines but rather around activities related to various stages of artistic practice.” jef chippewa has summarized all of the 30 new funding components and we hope that “An Artist’s Reading of the New Funding Model Implemented by the Canada Council for the Arts in 2017” will provide a valuable resource to Canadian artists, arts professionals, groups and organizations as they navigate the important changes in the CCA’s funding structure.

The many different interests, intentions and perspectives on notation collected in this issue offer an excellent indication of the wide range of concerns, needs and uses of notation, and of notational practices in the broader domain of electroacoustic practice. We hope that the discussion has not only helped clarify and solidify various reflections on and around these topics, but that it has also succeeded in opening up some as-yet unexplored notational venues for some readers.

jef chippewa
25 January 2018

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