ADVICE TO YOUNG COMPOSERS CONCERNING NOTATION

by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen

1) You have artistic freedom, but don't go too far in realising this in your music. The traditional notation system must always be preserved. Remember, you can always compensate through elaborating on the poetic idea of your work in the program notes.

2) While historical studies are generally considered valuable, this is not quite so with musical notation, because we have already the best possible system. Historical studies would be in the wrong place here, since they suggest an ongoing creative process, ever adapting to changing needs and contexts. True enough, Gregorian chant etc. had other systems, but these notations should be pitied, not studied. The use of other kind of notations in works by composers like Andriessen, Berio, Borup-Joergensen, Brown, Brün, Busotti, Cage, Cardew, Eno, Feldman, Ferrari, Globokar, Gubaidulina, Haubenstock-Ramati, Henze, Huber, Ichiyanagi, Kagel, Lachenmann, Logothetis, Lorentzen, Lutoslawski, Mellnäss, Moran, Oliveros, Penderecki, Schäffer, Schnebel, Stockhausen, Vetter and Wolff as well as by many others less well-known ones could, however, represent an obstacle to keeping yourself on the right track. Should you feel tempted to study them, take instead a less dangerous liberty, although seemingly radical: read about the music philosophy of John Cage. Even though this admittedly lead to very bad revolutionary tendencies in performance practise in earlier times, it can now be taken as a poetic description of the basic artistic freedom of musical sound and does not bear any obligation for performance practise. You could even perform "4:33" by Cage as a joke from time to time, provided you stick to the tradition of fixing the duration and do not take the indeterminacy seriously stated by the composer in the performance instructions. Thus, you could manifest a progressive attitude while still enjoying basic comfort and safety as a composer. Furthermore, it is also quite acceptable and even recommendable in order to demonstrate that you are not narrow-minded to declare your liking for certain forms of jazz and popular music while talking to colleagues and journalists.

3) It has been proven beyond doubt that pitch is the only real important musical parameter. What should instrument making industries do if this were not the case? Also, it has been proven that our cultural identity demands a rational rhythmic system.

4) Although notation should never be radically experimented with, a number of minor additions to the traditional signs should indeed be utilized. Do check textbooks such as those by Cope, Risatti and Stone for ideas. These writers have skilfully managed to isolate an admirable number of details originating in confused and experimental composition and to put them into a much nicer system.


5) Since it is imperative that notation be dealt with systematically rather than historically to avoid creativity going into wrong directions, special care must be taken when studying music history. Even such acknowledged writers like Bosseur, Brindle, Gieseler, Maegaard and Sutherland sadly lack this discipline. Do not even look in the direction of Cope's music history book - even if he later became a heroic fighter for notation standardization, this is a youthful work and sinful indeed. Karkoschka's notation book has the danger of presenting entire examples of works with experimental notation. Grout's and Weid's music history books, on the other hand, solves the problem in an especially elegant manner, mentioning some anarchist music phenomena with experimental notations in the text, but brilliantly avoiding to give the reader a too concrete idea of them by omitting descriptive details and any relevant illustrations. One should enjoy the various composer's portraits around the book instead.

6) Should, occasionally, critical colleagues or others maintain that new signs describing musical sounds and new ways of playing together that generates the music rather than reproducing it be put into work, you can always state that notation is irrelevant for the listener in the last end and thus not worth taking the trouble to work innovatively with. You may also use the argument that since improvisation already exists in jazz, we do not have to re-invent it.

7) In order to successfully make your way into organisations and competitions (and, after all, isn't this what art is all about, especially considering the labor in building up new institutions and collaborating across boundaries), do try to be original, but notate the standard way. Don't be tempted to believe this should be any different in chamber music than in orchestral works. You can always write as many divisions by five and seven as you like. The present time in which we live is not suitable for any changes towards more teamwork and democracy in performance practise, since music should indeed allow for nostalgia and sentimentality. Stay calm - value and enjoy your privileges as a composer.

***

(2000)

 


"Det konserverende konservatorium?" (only in Danish). Article by Maria Frej on the dynamics of composers' conformity at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen.

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