Christopher Fox, HiMF

Christopher Fox on Graphic Scores

For the Hillingdon Music Festival this year, I asked composer and colleague, Christopher Fox, to provide us with a presentation of this especially divergent medium. As he could not be with us over the weekend, he kindly provided the article below: A unique and personal insight into the form as seen and practiced by our esteemed Professor Fox. Thanks!

In 1959, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen organised a series of seminars under the title ‘Musik und Graphik’ and his introductory lecture was published in the Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik in the following year. Stockhausen traces the development of notational practice in European music from the middle ages to the present, illustrating his thoughts on contemporary graphic notations with Bussotti’s Piano Piece for David Tudor (1)(1958), a page from Cage’s Concert for Piano, Cardew’s Klavierstück 1960, two pages from Kagel’s Transcicion II (1958) and a page from his own Zyklus(1959)Stockhausen is typically thorough, assessing the implications of these very different works and the extent to which they have anything in common beyond being innovative. He is particularly interested in the distinction, so new in 1959, between tape music – music which can exist without a score but is in a fixed form (although Stockhausen expresses some concern about the durability of the tape medium itself) – notated music in which the score is a fixed performance text, and ‘graphic’ music in which the notation is, as he saw it, ‘emancipated’ from realisation.

The production of graphic scores flourished for much of the decade after the ‘Musik und Graphik’ seminars. Composers as various as Jani Christou, George Crumb and Gavin Bryars made scores in which staves were contorted, new symbols invented and performers’ imaginative participation invited. In Treatise (1963-7) Cardew created a graphic score of such sustained visual sophistication and coherence that no attempt at sonic realisation is ever likely to capture more than a small part of the pleasure to be derived from a solitary reading. To borrow Stockhausen’s formulation again, in Treatisemusical notation was so thoroughly ‘emancipated’ that it was effectively put beyond realisation. 

Then interest waned and in the 1970s and ‘80s graphic scores were much more likely to be found in museums or decorating music publishers’ offices than on composers’ desks or performers’ music stands. The compositional priorities of composers engaged in minimalism, spectralism, neo-romanticism and complexity – the most vigorous aesthetic tendencies of the period – were incompatible with the ambiguities of the graphic score. The harmonic and rhythmic pattern-making of minimalism, the acoustic phenomena carefully modelled in spectralism, the revisionist musical gestures explored by neo-romantics, the information saturation of complexity, each in their different way depended on the familiar calibrations of conventional notational practice.

As a young composer in the 1970s I was fascinated by the graphic experiments I found in the scores from the 1960s by Bussotti, Cardew, Kagel and Stockhausen, but I also discovered quickly that by the end of the 1970s my continuing enthusiasm for notational invention was undoubtedly quite unusual, even old-fashioned. This sense that the ‘Musik und Graphik’ moment was well and truly past was another reason to adhere to more conventional notations in most of the music I wrote over the next two decades and it was only with the emergence of a new generation of performers in the 1990s that my interest in a more inventive approach to the sign language of the score was revived.

The young musicians of groups like Apartment House in the UK and the Ives Ensemble in the Netherlands with whom I began to work in the 1990s were fascinated rather than disturbed by the earlier innovations of avant-garde and experimental composers; they were also ready and willing to explore new work which built on these innovations. In score such as Everything You Need To Know (2001-2) for the Ives Ensemble, or skin(1998-9) and Chromascope (2005) for Apartment House, there is a mixture of different types of notation, all very evidently created within a notational tradition which goes back to the graphic scores of the 1950s and ‘60s. Generic Composition #5, for example, one of a set of instrumental solo works within the collection of scores which makes up the ensemble installation work, Everything You Need To Know,has its ancestral roots in Cage’s Aria. Like Ariait is a solo work which can be performed individually or can be heard within a larger work, like Ariathe score consists of a series of sloping lines and, as in Aria, the performer has to choose a variety of different types of tone production with which to interpret these lines.

Similarly Chromascopeis a descendant both of Stockhausen’s Plus Minus(1963) and of Cardew’s Solo with Accompaniment (1964), the latter itself a very obvious parody by Cardew of the Stockhausen score, which Cardew had premiered in 1964. I had worked on a realisation of Plus Minus for the Ives Ensemble, first for concert performances in 1999 and then again for a recording in 2002; I had also heard Apartment House give a number of performances of Solo with Accompaniment, and my intention with Chromascope was to create a score which, like the Stockhausen and Cardew works, consists of a series of matrices, each of which defines the behavioural features of a musical moment (see example 4).

The main difference between Chromascopeand its ancestors is the simplicity of the matrix content: my matrices can be decoded in minutes, instead of the hours it takes to decode Cardew or the days needed to convert the Stockhausen into notations from which musicians can actually play. The other significant difference is that Chromascope consistently counterpoints four different matrices, one for each musician, whereas in the Stockhausen each matrix provides the stimulus for all the musicians involved and in the Cardew there is a simple dialectic between the solo (mostly consisting of long notes) and the accompaniment (made up of the matrices). My intention was to shift the focus from the score to the musicians, to enable a creative process which, because it was less burdened with the task of reading, could be much more about playing. The matrices in Chromascope may be relatively simple but they can nevertheless yield complex musical results and, because each musician has their own matrix, it is much easier to hear the particularities of what each of them is doing; in other words, the nature of each musician’s playing and their interpretative response to the score is much more audible than in either Stockhausen or Cardew.

At the same time as I was returning to graphic score production I became aware of an emerging generation of composers with similar interests. Of these perhaps the most notable is Claudia Molitor. She too makes scores which involve many different types of notation, some conventional, others not, but her innovations go further still. Many of her scores involve the paper engineering found in the ‘pop-up’ books produced by children’s book publishers, in particular the use of strips of paper which can be pushed and pulled from side to side so that different notations appear at windows cut into the score. There is an element of playfulness in this which is evident at every level of Molitor’s work, from the rapid switches between different sort of musical material, to the use of sounds which are more usually associated with children’s play, to the exuberance of those passages in her scores where graphic invention takes over from staff notations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the passage in untitled (fizzy paintings make me happy), written for Apartment House in 2007, where a strange alien creature – a note elf? – appears out of the middle of the score, seeding the staves with symbols.