Playing pictures: the wonder of graphic scores

Ligeti's Artikulation

Ligeti's Artikulation

The score for Ornamentik

Tom Phillips's score for Ornamentik

Cornelius Cardew's Treatise score

Cornelius Cardew's Treatise score


This article first appeared in The Guardian's Classical Music section, 07 October 2013

Can a musician play from art? I do not mean a Mona Lisa Minuet or a Hay Wain Sonata, but the current sheaf of scores that Joanna MacGregor is performing with her ensemble. They look at first glance like pictures from an exhibition rather than pieces for a recital. These are the graphic scores which had their heyday in the musically libertarian 1970s.

All notated music is graphic in the sense that there are signs to tell you what to do and when to do it. All music, that is, whose sounds we can reconstruct. Before that stretch tens of thousands of years whose music left no mark apart from the occasional evocative fragment of a bone flute from the Stone Age. Not that unscored music was always simple. You only need to listen today to the concerted and interwoven yelps and trilling of forest pygmies in the Congo, intricate in both time and space, to hear that complexity can be achieved without any score at all.

The notation of European music first took a horizontal line along which to indicate the order of notes, and their comparative lengths and, somewhat more vaguely, their positions high or low. It was the graphic breakthrough of Guido d'Arezzo in the 11th century that added a vertical calibration to show precisely how far up or down (do re mi fashion) the pitches were one from the other. When shown to the pope this new notation elicited a remark along the lines of "Gosh, now even I can get the liturgy right."

This schema with various refinements is what still faces today's musicians on their music stands so that even in large groups they can be all on the same page in their allotted stave note by note. The bars however do not quite make a prison. There is leeway, so that Klemperer's Beethoven differs radically from that of Karajan. Even Stravinsky's Stravinsky changes from recording to recording.

Towards the middle of the 20th century many composers started to make demands for noises, effects, electronic interventions, even random elements that the staves of their manuscript paper could not accommodate. New signs, squiggles, curlicues, clusters, huge loops and striated interruptions were added to or replaced the old certainties. 

Stockhausen's scores retained the standard notation merely as the starting point for his own ideograms, whereas those of Cage were a characteristic combination of drawing and idiosyncratic lettering which, conditioned as they often were by the use of chance, did not at first sight look like musical notation at all.

Scores became more like maps of a sound world, charts for sonic navigation at a time when for a sizeable contingent of composers melody was not mentioned and tune a distinctly taboo word.

Pure graphic notation grew out of this so that the guide for the performer is an autonomous drawing with little or no reference to orthodox notation. Cornelius Cardew's Treatise, for example, is an extended work by a brilliant musician who was also a trained draughtsman. The purity and clarity of its visual vocabulary however already conditions a similar response from the player.

An important factor here is, paradoxically, tradition. Each composer has announced by example or discussion, a sound idiom known by association to interpreters like the pianist David Tudor, who worked with Cage, or John Tilbury who was close to (and who has indeed written a biography of) Cardew. Thus what would seem to be a fanciful improvisation is qualified and conditioned by the known sonic preferences of the composer. Joanna MacGregor in the current series of concerts is a virtuoso who has grown up within this tradition. She knows, as it were, her way about.

My own entry, as an enthusiastic musician with few orthodox technical skills was by this back door. As an artist, privileged to have worked with Feldman, Cardew and Christian Wolff I could, by making graphic scores, indicate the shapes and structures and sounds that were in my head. In this I was much encouraged by collaborations with John Tilbury in the days when under the wonderfully imprecise rubric "General Studies" music could infiltrate the art schools and be generated by them. As well as a day's teaching offered here and there to visiting composers, art schools also had printmaking facilities.

Music and art thereby became close cousins in places as unlikely as Walthamstow and Wolverhampton. It was at Ipswich School of Art, where I found a student ally in the young Brian Eno, that I made my first graphic scores via silkscreen, often with the introduction of colour. Although the graphic score must remain an intriguing byway in music history it helped redefine the possibilities of ordered sound. 


Though in my own sparse musical output I have tended to return to our old friends the stave and the bar I look back with affection to those heady days when all seemed possible in that union of art and sound, and with surprising regularity fine noises were made and heard. Never such dissonance again, people might have thought, but yesterday's seeming anarchy of sound has given birth to some of the richest harmonies of today.