Design and music intersect in many ways; fashion, album art, set and instrument design. Graphic notation is one side that is relatively unknown outside the sometimes rarefied world of orchestral and experimental music.
Composers have always grappled with ways to express themselves and in the twentieth-century, a number of them began using this radical graphical approach to writing scores. It was a two-fingered salute to the prevailing musical establishment.
Graphic notation functions the same way as traditional musical notation, but instead, uses abstract symbols, images and text to convey meaning to the performers. A few of these composers incorporate traditional notation and then bend it in unique ways.
The visual comparison between traditional and modern graphic notation can be striking. Traditional notation is linear and rigid. Modern graphic notation is open, can offer flexibility, and allow the performer to interpret the composer’s ideas.
It all started around 840 C.E. when a former monk named Aurelian of Réôme created one of the first examples of Western musical notation. This was a basic attempt to create a treatise on music theory called Musica discipline.
By the Baroque era in Europe, composers wanted to set down their work with greater consistency and leave less interpretation open to performers. Now musical language was becoming codified. Yet various composers like Beethoven, then Gustav Mahler in the late nineteenth-century, strained to break free of the traditional boundaries. Their orchestral scores are full of scribbles, footnotes and marks as if sticking to the rules was too much for them.
This is Beethoven’s score from 1844. Even in its constraints, you can see him breaking free.
In the early twentieth-century, composers such as Henry Cowell began experimenting with notation and his New Musical Resources (1930) was a radical attempt to change musical notation. Increasingly throughout the twentieth-century and following the horrors of the Second World War, there was a growing feeling among composers that traditional Western notation was inadequate to express their musical ideas.
The earliest example of a full-blown graphic score is Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 (1950) for solo cello. It features an entirely original notation, which looks more like a circuit diagram. It sounds and looks ahead of its time. Listen to it here.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, Graphic notation started to be taken seriously by the new generation of heavyweight post-war composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati.
Arguably the greatest musical score ever designed, a pinnacle of graphic notation is by Cornelius Cardew, entitled Treatise (1963-1967). The piece consists of 193 pages of highly abstract scores. This is the Sistine Chapel of notation. His training as a graphic designer is obvious. He even used principles of cognitive psychology, which is central to design.
The score was created to inspire creativity and interpretation of the performer. No other instructions were given, not even what instruments to use. It’s a dense piece. Definitely not a soundtrack to a romantic evening in while entertaining your partner – unless your partner is a food blender. It’s a rewarding experience if you follow along with the score. Listen and watch the score unfold.
As the complexity and abstraction of music increased, so too did the scores. Many of the pieces that these scores are referencing are obtuse to the point of incomprehensibility, but there remains real beauty in them.
There are many contemporary musicians using graphic notation such as Brian Eno and Johny Greenwood, yet I’m not so sure this will make it any less esoteric or more widely used even with the rise of some great music notation software.
Here are a few great examples from the last sixty years.