The limits of communication in any particular situation define the possible topographies of a musical event. In order to sound a sonic image (whether predetermined or articulated in progress) a sonic community organizes its activities around the musical information that’s cuing which sounds happen when. It’s this communication of information that animates the circulatory and nervous systems of a music. What can be circulated, and therefore sounded, is constrained within the horizons of human capacity. These horizons curve along the thresholds of memory, attention, interpretive capability, reflexes, ingenuity, habit, adaptability, intuition, technical facility and the generalizing and classification systems (whether personal or collective) that synthesize masses of musical information into manageable bunches.
Notation — the visual mapping of sonic patterns (especially as developed in Europe since that region’s Middle Ages) — hosts an extraordinary prosthetic extension of memory that accomplishes a remarkably far reaching messaging system. Its impact on musicking, on conceptualizations of music and on musical imagination is notably formidable.
Long before synthesizers and digital quantization, notation codified abstractions of actual sound to a visual, legible and transportable system. The now familiar, descriptive variables applied in musical notation include graphic representations of differences in pitch frequency (metaphorically depicted as “high” and “low” — in place of, say, faster/slower, thinner/thicker or smaller/larger), along with the sequential passage of sonic events plotted horizontally from left to right (as European languages are also written). This mapping of “time” is further simplified into proportional, sequential bits. ”Time” is segmented into progressive steps out of which are derived measures, meters and note values such as half-note, quarter-note, and so forth. Notation, however, offers more than just a tooI. The nature of its specifications articulates an editorially selective point of view regarding both sound and music.
The French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, in a paper entitled Drawing and Cognition: Drawing Things Together, considered the impact of perspective drawing and mapmaking in some ways at could be compared with notation’s relationship with music. The development of a homogeneous Ianguage based in longitude, latitude and geometry, permitted the spatial relationships among components of an area of land (or, say, a building) to be fixed in a notated form that could travel and make that depicted location persuasively visible (or in the case of building, even replicable) to people in places far away. Not only that, fictitious imaginings, whether hybrid fantasy or the design of a hypothetical machine, could be accessibly presented through these same media tools as “real.”
Latour notes that:
Papers and signs are incredibly weak and fragile. This is why explaining anything with them seemed ludicrous at first. La Perouse’s map is not the Pacific anymore than Watt’s drawings and patents are engines, or the bankers’ exchange rates are the economies, or the theorems of topology are “the real world”. This is precisely the paradox. By working on papers alone, on fragile inscriptions which are immensely less than the things from which they are extracted, it is still possible to dominate all things and all people. What is insignificant for all other cultures becomes the most significant, the only significant aspect of reality. The weakest, by manipulating inscriptions of all sorts obsessively and exclusively, become the strongest.
Latour also· points out that:
Inscriptions are made flat. There is nothing you can dominate as easily as a ‘flat surface of a few square meters; there is nothing hidden or convoluted, no shadows, no “double entendre”. In politics as in science, when someone is said to “master” a question or to “dominate” a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory); and you will find it.
Just a few square meters of musical notation can enable a monological composer to design the construction of, for example, a four hour long sonic event that involves the coordination of over a hundred people — and to designate all of this in extremely fine detail. The labyrinthine, even perplexing, passing by of actual sounds and patterns become shadow frozen, somewhat like Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographic motion studies. Patterns can be arrested, investigated, reexamined and refined still further. Notation in this way poses a sonic parallel with the drafter’s camera obscura.
However, unlike the receptive depiction of physical objects and their relations in space relative to an observer, notation assertively reverses the exchange. The abject weakness of an abandoned, unread sheet of score paper exposes a vital necessity that notation position itself as an irresistible and overwhelming social magnet in order to wax viable at all. With the consensual amiability of sympathetic magic, notation introduces into the social relations of music a binding written contract that opportunes to dictate what is and isn’t “music” in terms of its own peculiar limits and possibilities.
As tails wag dogs, musical notation shapes an entire sonic community around its requirements (and without an accommodating social network, notation can’t hold sway). Participants must “feed the medium” through acquiring a fluency in its codes; and an entire educational culture (a sort of Bureau of Weights and Measures) has to develop to safeguard consistent and accurate correspondences between written description and sonic execution. With all the commitment required to make notation practicable, it’s not so surprising that, in some circles, notated music comes to represent the very definition of “music” — period — with notation posing as border guard between composer and performer in a monological division of labor.
The tactical advantages of socially supported notation are nevertheless pretty hard to dismiss. Its immense storage capacity can compensate for human cognitive limits in some remarkable ways. The perspective stillness of paper can imaginarily “stop time.” A composer can step aside from the pressures of sonic immediacy and inhabit instead a niche a lot closer to that of a studio artist or a novelist than to an active performer. The reflective calm and isolation of paper (or electronic studio) composing favors an uninterrupted focal concentration that can be refreshed by walking away without worries that the preserved sonic patterns might dissolve, disappear or be forgotten (direct, live composing, in contrast, enjoys little to none of this luxury). The archeological endurance of notation is even capable of withstanding the absence of a composer due to death. As long as the cultural practices of decoding persist, a notated sonic pattern can be resuscitated over and over, regardless.
Many of the unique inventions developed by European composers over centuries that have importantly contributed to the world’s musical inheritance may not have developed at all without the complicity of notation. Early European notation may have first memorized, preserved and conveyed the already existing, unadorned, monophonic, text related, melodic shapes of Gregorian chant; but it’s hard to conceive how the Late Medieval Flemish composers or the Ars Nova could have constructed their complex polyphonies without detailed architectural sketches and renderings (and it may not be so coincidental that these intensely architectonic constructions were themselves designed for sounding within the cathedral acmes of that era’s architecture.). Counterpoint, fugue, diatonic tonality, and Schoenburg’s pantonality are all complex generative techniques whose development required detailed trial and error comparison on par with that of a mathematician or physicist. As Latour might argue, careful comparison of documentation is key to weeding out inconsistencies in the construction of a system.
Within an interactive structure that channels most musical information by way of the page, not only does the eye vie for predominance over the ear, but, where paper comes to do most compositional “thinking,” performers actually don’t have to. It may seem paradoxical, but diminishing a performer’s compositional responsibility allows more elaborate and dense musical information to be projected into a sonic image. This is precisely because musicians, thanks to notation, don’t need to totally comprehend compositional messages in order for them to sound. Transhuman scale can be broached in music by redistributing individual creativity out of performance. Grandeur levies just a few costs.
Notation, in return, has to calibrate itself to the cognitive limits of an average interpreter. Specifications have to be trimmed to what can be relatively quickly assimilated by musicians who are already busily absorbed with their instruments and ensemble coordination. The more eccentric and complicated written directives, the more time and attention has to be dedicated to processing that information at the expense of these other concerns.
Notation connects most seamlessly when its language cleaves to the average, conventional and habitual. What can be easily graphed, and easily averaged, best adapts to being notated. Following the example of European practice, it seems as if pitch has shown itself to be the most adaptable sonic parameter for notation. It might even be asked how much of Europe’s long time emphasis on melodic and harmonic development has been symbiotic with its system of notation.
Other sonic components – timbre – complex, compelling but indescribable sonorities and textures – rhythm — tend to have to creep in through the kitchen door — usually with the help of a composer who’s willing to slip that door open while doing the uncharted heavy lifting and translation (Varese, Ellington or Xenakis, for example). Conventional notation of rhythm – in contrast with its actual complexity — is schematically crude at best. And once again, it could be asked if the relatively primitive cultivation of rhythm in traditional Euroclassical practice has been in part due to how difficult the essentials of rhythm — beyond the baseline of durations — are to notate.
It’s worth considering how the default biases of notation might precondition what’s sonically cultivated. Being able to graph the relative durations of sounds introduces a fantastic investigative tool; but superimposing the stopwatch click track of technical time across music also opens a share of questions.
A graphic narrative illustrates “time” traveling in a straight line from beginning (represented as “left”) to end (right). Time “really” does that? Really? The image portrays an undoubtedly useful tactical metaphor; but is it at all what either listeners or musicians actually experience as “time” – or rhythm — in (or out of) a musical context?
What about the commonplace presupposition in some musical circles that a beat (or pulse) is the inert — or “dumb” — stuff that measures out the “real stuff” of “music” that’s doing the actual “speaking” — such as pitch, melody and harmony. It’s true that rhythm portrayed as repetitive quantity can make for some pretty uninteresting viewing on a score; but the complicated vectors deployed by a Nuyorican mambo vamp, for example, are anything but simplistic, mechanical repetitions. The multidirectional relationships among voices continually shift and redefine themselves in a way that never really settles or becomes “the same.” And this is no accident at all because it’s a deliberate accomplishment of design.
There’s yet to be a rhythm theory formulated and articulated with the thoroughness and conciseness that’s already been dedicated to diatonic harmony. Theoretical rhythmic knowledge circulates in the face to face, person to person, experience based vernacular and is continually being rediscovered and worked out by each individual practitioner over and over; and it’s thriving pretty well outside the corral of notation. The examples of both Indian and Pan-African practice suggest that more rhythmic information can be efficiently encoded and transmitted via “nonsense” syllable complexes than can be easily encapsulated through visual representations. This can also be noted, for example, in how swinging so effectively eludes notated description.
The constraints on what can be intelligibly and smoothly grasped within any system of notation inevitably favor presets that encourage sonic presuppositions that, by default, eliminate, if not disadvantage, all of the sounds not represented within the system.
For example, the lattice of equidistant, tempered chromatic intervals, superimposed over the entire spectrum glissando of pitch, leaves out all the other pitches. Sounds too idiosyncratic, or too complex, to fit into conventional notation’s apportioned slots may become habitually referred to as “noise.” A descriptive tool such as notation can hardly avoid drawing insider-outsider oppositions that don’t actually apply to the sound palette of the real world.
The immense conveniences of notation have to be accepted with at least some degree of salt. In relation to the genuinely laborious and complicated social cooperations that construct musical sound, notation often contributes a helpful short cut. Short cuts rarely tend to come cost free. The totally literate composer Charles Mingus preferred instead to convey the details of his sonic constructs by ear whenever possible because the entire process of assimilation, so amply informed by unnotatable details, differs so much from sight reading and yields a distinctively different musical motion, attitude and sound. Thelonious Monk would often only show a musician the sheet music for a composition after a musician had worked most of it out without the paper.
Music (and musical ideas) is expensive. It demands a lot of time and attention of its participants. Notation slam-bam cuts to “the point” and emphasizes the literal sound and result — which does minimize a lot of time consuming digestion and comprehension (and many, many times, composers are more than happy to have the option). It becomes possible to organize fly-by-night sonic realizations almost right on the spot (if the site readers are competent). Beyond that, recordings and electronic sound generation can exponentially trump what notation’s ability with an amplified capacity to bypass the slow human challenges of information transfer in music. Well, sometimes there just isn’t time to take the time. Really.