music notation (& realization) as a form of transduction

This project was done as a part of a group project for a NYU Graduate College of Arts and Sciences Music Department seminar called ‘Sound Technologies and State Power’ in Spring 2019. The project involved designing a sound exhibit related to class themes/readings; each participant chose a topic under the decided theme of ‘transduction’ and designed their own smaller portion of the exhibit.

From our rationale:
In a more quotidian setting, transducers are essential to creative endeavors— sound studios, music composition and various print & notation systems— that utilize the power of transduction to convert, transmit and store sonic happenings for future recall or dissemination. Though seemingly apolitical, these locations are deeply implicated in the cultural, political and social existence of communities and groups.

Transduction’ schema as related to music notation:
Sound (implied) → TRANSDUCTION (notation) → Sound (realized)

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Music notation exists as a form of transduction that involves an ‘implied’ sound. In composition or music copying, the music, or sound itself exists as an implied or imagined object that is then filtered through the event of music notation, a transducer that allows these sounds to then be transformed into a ‘realized’ sound by either live performers, non-live performers, or playback systems in notation software programs.

When discussing music notation, it is important to make clear the harmful or negative impact that can arise from suggesting that music is a ‘universal language.’ Dr. Mina Yang writes that “Western music’s ‘universal’ qualities have been invoked in the past to avow the superiority of European culture.” Western notation is only one language through which music can be understood, and is the system of colonizing powers that was passed or enforced on by missionaries, traders and political figures (both internal and external). When other, non-western musics are reconstructed or restated in western notation, it is almost always an act of erasure or misrepresentation of the original culture’s musical practices in some way. Some examples of this can be seen with Makam music (a system used in Arabic, Persian and Turkish music) which includes a unique and complex set of rules, as well as pitches and tunings that do not exist in Western music; and African music which contains rhythms and feels that simply cannot be realized by western notation. Flipped around, certain non-Western institutions have adopted western notation as a preemptive defense against cultural displacement of their own traditions--Yang writes ‘The reorganization of traditional institutions entrailed the nearly total displacement of indigenous cultural practices in favor of the scientific and rationalized principles of the West.” Politically, the representation of these musics by an external notation system filters it through an external voice that does not belong to the original speakers, or ‘owners’ of the sounds.

There are also other failures of music notation as a transducer--the act of writing music down in any system is mistakenly seen as ‘stable,’ though many elements leave room for error. Even when music is ‘authentically’ represented, there still exists the problem of performance practices and interpretation. In nearly every case, music notation exists as only a guide for performers--though some notational systems are stricter or looser than others. Traditional Chinese Gongche notation, Medieval chant represented by neumes, and jazz fake books are all types of musical notation systems that exist as skeleton guides for performers who are trained in specific performance practices to follow & realize. More recently, Graphic notation involves composers both giving up control and the dismantling of a ‘standardized’ system of notes and rhythms that offers different freedoms to performers, who are then tasked with improvising and creating the musical language from which to work with on their own.

While notation is seemingly able to exist as a stable and longstanding artifact through which musics can be transmitted both horizontally (among people of the same time) and vertically (or intergenerationally), Emma Patterson claims that “oral transmission was a sophisticated method used before as well as amidst music notation and it continues to be inextricably incorporated in music, language, tradition and culture.” Cultures that rely on oral traditions are often wrongfully stereotyped as ‘primitive,’ and oral practices are commonly referred to as existing before the ‘development of notation,’ but these practices are predicated on the coalescence of “transmission, synthesis, and culture,” always actively coexisting with written notation. Oral transmission is an act of memory and reconstruction, through which all music relies on for both performance practices, social sharing (like learning a song off Youtube, a CD or the radio) and in preservation work done by both scholars/historians and artists (like Jeremy Dutcher, who’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa features indigenous ancestral languages transcribed from wax cylinders).

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Below are texts accompanying items I would display (either aurally, visually or both) in the room of the exhibit should it come to fruition.

Gongche + Neume notations
Gongche is a traditional Chinese music notation that uses Chinese characters invented in the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries). It does not show durational values, but is coupled with separate markings written alongside the note characters to show relative lengths.

Neume notation is a basic system of Western notation prior to present-day staff notation. The symbols indicate the general shape but not exact durational values or rhythms. This notation was commonly used for chant, though for a long time this music survived on oral tradition and a specific performance practice. Similarly, Gongche notation was used for traditional Chinese music but leaves room for improvisation and relies on oral transmission in realization.

Gongche notation (three panels showing traditional Chinese characters vertically on a musical score.)

Gongche notation (three panels showing traditional Chinese characters vertically on a musical score.)

Neume notation (sheet music showing a small scene on the left. there are two people standing on either side of a tree. to the right there is neumatic notation and stylized text.)

Neume notation (sheet music showing a small scene on the left. there are two people standing on either side of a tree. to the right there is neumatic notation and stylized text.)


Wadada Leo Smith + Cornelius Cardew Graphic Scores
Graphic notation is music that is represented by non-standard systems of notation that use primarily visual representation that performers are to interpret and respond to. The desire can stem from a need to write something that cannot be communicated in any standard notation system, to achieve an undetermined/chance-based quality of sounds, and/or to give control to the performers, who are then free of the constraints and limitations of written standard notation systems.

Treatise (1963-67) is a graphic score piece by English composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). It is over 190 pages long and features only lines and abstract shapes without any form of written instructions for performers to follow.

Wadada Leo Smith (b.1941) is a composer-performer and visual artist. Ankhrasmation is a collection of graphic scores accompanied by some written directions to follow.The word Ankhrasmation comes from the words ‘ankh’ (Egyption cross), ‘ras’ (Ethiopian head/leader) & ‘mas’ (mother). He uses this specific language that makes the performance experience a collective/social experience founded upon decoding his compositional aesthetic.

a page of Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (a graphic score showing lines, shapes and dots.)

a page of Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (a graphic score showing lines, shapes and dots.)

a score from Wadada Leo Smith’s ‘Ankhrasmation’ (a graphic score. from left to write there are 4 different boxes. each box has different colors and symbols inside of it. there is a swirl running through the first three boxes and along the top in some more lines and shapes.)

a score from Wadada Leo Smith’s ‘Ankhrasmation’ (a graphic score. from left to write there are 4 different boxes. each box has different colors and symbols inside of it. there is a swirl running through the first three boxes and along the top in some more lines and shapes.)



‘Inventing’ African Rhythm
Kofi Agawu points out that “in most African languages, there is no word for rhythm, which in itself should disconcert those for whom ‘African music’ and ‘African rhythm’ have always seemed synonymous.” People so often associate this music with rhythm, the kinesthetic and the physical, and having far more social impetus than the music of the West. There is also a perception of these practices as more ‘primitive’ in comparison to the ‘advanced development’ of written standardized notation, because they rely primarily on oral transmission. Rhythm theorists describe African music as having multiple elements that separate it from that which can be represented by Western notation--unique cross-rhythms, spaces between pulses, the knitting together of the beat, and so on.

African rhythms represented by Western music notation

African rhythms represented by Western music notation



Jeremy Dutcher
Jeremy Dutcher is a classically trained indigenous composer-performer, musicologist & activist from Canada. His Juno-award winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa features a contemporary representation of traditional indigenous music. It features Dutcher singing in his ancestral language and realized transcriptions of wax cylinder recordings holding Wolastoqiyik people singing traditional songs. From the recordings, he pulls the voice of a First Nations man Jim Pauli who is featured on the song ‘Eqpahak,’ who says ‘When you bring the songs back, you’re going to bring the people back, you’re going to bring everything back.’ His album is a compelling example of how transcription/notation is intertwined with vertical oral transmission in reconstruction and remembering of both language and musical traditions.

‘ His Master’s Voice’ by Francis Barraud (1898) / (a painting of a white dog looking into a grammophone)

His Master’s Voice’ by Francis Barraud (1898) / (a painting of a white dog looking into a grammophone)

Album art for Jeremy Dutcher’s ‘Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa’ (2018) / (a photo of jeremy dutcher sitting in a chair with arm rests looking into a grammophone. the grammophone is sitting on a small table. there is a stool behind it, and in the background there is a mural of first nations people near a lake.)

Album art for Jeremy Dutcher’s ‘Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa’ (2018) / (a photo of jeremy dutcher sitting in a chair with arm rests looking into a grammophone. the grammophone is sitting on a small table. there is a stool behind it, and in the background there is a mural of first nations people near a lake.)


Sources Used:

Patterson, Emma E. “Oral Transmission: A Marriage of Music, Language, Tradition, and Culture,” Musical Offerings: Vol.6: No.1, Article 2 (2015): 35-45.

Scherzinger, Martin. “Notes on a Postcolonial Musicology: Kofi Agawu and the Critique of Cultural Difference [Agawu, Kofi. 2003. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York and London and London: Routledge, 304pp].”

Yang, Mina. “East Meets West in the Concert Hall: Asians and Classical Music in the Century of Imperialism, Post-Colonialism, and Multiculturalism,” Asian Music: Vol.38: No.1 (2007): 1-30.