- Visible Music (The Score as a Sore to Be Rubbed)
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The question was "what to do about form?" In the early 1970s many composers—myself included—were experimenting with graphic notation, improvisation, electronics, etc. Still, the new techniques were often reiterating old forms. In 1974, I began a series of pieces I came to call Visible Music.
All the scores in this series are based on using representational visual structures as the bases for abstract musical compositions. Unlike a lot of graphic music—including my own—employing circles, triangles, and all manner of symbols typically deployed on freeform wavy lines, these pieces are all meticulously written using musical notation that is conventional in every respect, except for the deployment of the musical staves themselves. These staves are drawn in various geometric arrangements in which the shapes of everyday objects (keyholes, doorways, flyswatters, etc.) and/or activities (pouring water, brushing on paint) were used as the framework for a piece of music. The compositions work, I hope, in some inspired way to follow the dictates of the form of the visual image being depicted as the basis for the musical form. In the case of To Brush Up On, the score depicts a brush laying down a band of paint on which the notes appear and go through a process roughly analogous to what happens to paint as it is brushed on and begins to dry; that is, the music after a while becomes turbulent, and then in a very logical and almost mathematical way levels out or converges on one note. The work can be performed with any instrument (all of the same family), and the progress through the notes can be realized in different ways chosen by the musicians.
Though these scores derived from images, they weren't intended to be performed as pieces expressing someone's subjective impression of that which was represented. (It isn't necessary, perhaps it's even preferable, that the audience doesn't know they are listening to paint drying, for example.) The function of the shape of the object in the performance score is intended to fill a role similar to that filled by, say, sonata or rondo forms. However, the object involved can inform the performance in some literal way. For example, Philip Corner in a piano realization of the score At Sea chose to stop and write down on a piece of paper what he had just performed at the end of each line (wave) as if he were a navigator aboard a ship. This was not announced to the audience and resulted in a performance that in its emphasis on [End Page 86] the everyday passage of time was wonderfully consistent with the implications of the score without having any obvious connection with the sea. (The notes weren't played in a rippling wave-like manner.) Although it must be said that Corner was working out the implied verbal pun of being "lost at sea."
After a while much of my work in this area came to be sculptural, which is to say, musical scores written on objects. I reversed the conventional process of drawing, which works to capture three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, and began drawing two-dimensional images (music notation) on three-dimensional surfaces. As Morton Feldman put it, "For you, everything is music paper."
In the case of many of these pieces, the score suggests a number of things that can be performed. The notes are literal, but can be sequenced and/or transposed to combine in many ways. For example the piece (…) In Effect involving three plastic hammers, implies using instruments that involve striking the notes (such as marimba, vibraphone, bells, etc.), as well as having some aspect of transparency. Also, the fact that there are three objects with similar notes on each suggests using some kind of canonic or fugal imitation in the realization.
One by-product of this way of working came to be the exhilarating experience of walking around seeing the world...