Thursday 8 September 2011

Notation Notation Notation

One of the areas that I often struggle with when writing music is exactly how to write it out. You can be quite clear as to what you want, but still be uncertain as to how best to notate it. Western notation evolved to cope with music written according to the accepted rules of melody and harmony. If you want to veer away from these or stretch things somewhat, then you have to push the notation. There are conventions for some of these, for example if you want to write quarter tones. But if you use too much extra notation you run the danger of having to prefix the piece with a long essay explaining what the signs mean. And if it is an ensemble piece, then you also risk having to prefix each rehearsal with a long discussion as to how to approach the extra notation. This has happened to me a few times and has left me with a desire to keep things simple and straightforward where possible. Also, getting too exotic with notation or too complex might mean that a piece which shouldn't need a conductor will need one, so that there is a single person controlling the complex web of events.

Even when there isn’t anything particularly exotic in your piece, you can find that the way it is notated has a big effect. For instance, if you write using a variety of chromatic harmonies or modes, then it won’t always be obvious whether the notes are sharps or flats and you can end up with a flurry of accidentals which renders and essentially straightforward line as something complex. Poulenc does quite a lot of this in his choral writing, using enharmonic changes so that quite straightforward chords are notated in exotic ways.  Of course there are correct ways of writing things out, but if this involves, say, extensive use of G double flat, it might make more sense to the performer if you use F natural rather than the harmonically correct G double flat.

There is a similar inflexibility in rhythmical notations. Or rather, to get some effects you have to use such complex notation that there is very little possibility of getting the music played accurately. Hence the recourse, to either computers or to using freedom and uncertainty. I must confess that writing most of my music on computer, I sometimes get seduced into rhythmical constructs which are extremely tricky to bring off. Part of the reason why this arises is that we have little concept of stretching rhythm, or at least no satisfactory notation for it.

One piece I am working on at the moment has a triplet crotchet figure over a semiquaver figure. At one point I wanted to speed up the semi-quaver figure whilst keeping the crotchet triplet the same. My first attempt kept the semiquavers, but speeded up the basic tempo and then re-notated the triplet crotchet figure using dotted quavers. I sounded perfect, but looking at the vocal and instrumental lines I realised that there was little chance of it ever being performed with accuracy, the notation was just too fiddly. So I accepted the inevitable and chose a simpler solution which, whilst not perfect, has a far better chance of being performed without stressing the performers out.

For much of his later life Percy Grainger experimented with a series of machines which would enable him to have complete control of pitch, rhythm and duration. In fact his experiments were overtaken by the use of computers to do this. I remain wedded to the notion of using human performers and so must try and find solutions within the notations which are in common use.

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