Creating a Contemporary Performance Notation for Sound Objects

How to count when nobody’s counting

The Problem

When it comes to performing a piece of classical music, a performer needs few things provided by a notation: A meter, a tempo, and note values. With training, the musician will instinctively know how fast a tempo should beat, which beats constitute the pulse of the meter, and the relation of the note durations therein.

This is fine and good when the music has an intrinsic beat, a rhythm, but what is the composer to do when notating music outside of a metric domain? What is the meter of a babbling brook? What is the meter of the squeal of a car’s tire? More sounds than not in our everyday experience do not have an intrinsic pulse, and because the tools we have in our arsenal facilitate music with an intrinsic pulse, we are left without the ability to successfully communicate the meanings behind the vast majority of all sounds one will experience in one’s lifetime.

The Need

The history of experimental music notation is ripe and vast. The 20th century began with a rejection of tonality via Schoenberg and his twelve-tone row at Viennese school. With the advent of recording we saw electroacoustic music proliferation, crossing the Atlantic from France by way of Pierre Henry and Pierre Schauffer. Notations associated with such performances were usually dictated by time markings and declarative, semantic instructions, “Do this at at this time, then this, and all will be well.”

In the 50s, coordinating with Fluxus we saw the renaissance of experimental notations, questioning the vary idea of what constitutes “music” in a post-war, post-nuclear, post-modern era. Is a sound music? Are two sounds music? What if those sounds come from hitting two tubes such that the column of air within is positioned in such a way that two successive strikes creates a Perfect Authentic Cadence?

These ideas are still being debated to this day, yet traditional notation has persisted in that all music notated and played today use the techniques and offerings of the notations developed during the Renaissance. Instead of inventing a new notation, which did not stick given past attempts, we need a way to leverage the constraints of classical notation in granting us access to the notation of all sound events, both inside and outside the metric domain.

The Offering

To understand the solution we will need to understand a couple fundamental durational properties of classical notation.

Mensural

Mensurality is a property of classical notation that means that the note’s duration is determined by its specific shape in relation to the meter and tempo. For instance:

Each segment would be played in the exact same time because the meter and tempo dictate that four quarter notes per measure are to be played at 60 quarter notes per minute.

The length of the page or measure has no bearing on the duration value of the note.

Good engravers strive for proportionality, but this is to aid in readability and is by no means a strict rule governing the notation. The mensural quality of the note ensures that no matter which printed medium the notes appear on, the composition’s intent will be preserved.

Mensural notation is old, dating back to the 1200s. Historically “mensural notation” usually refers to the types of notes seen below with the triangular noteheads used specifically for polyphonic choral arrangements. For our purposes the usage of the term “mensural” will refer to the properties of the notes described above.

Tuplets

Tuplets are note groupings that take place in the time-span of other note groupings. Traditionally these groupings are in reference to the nearest binary division, as musical notation follows a binary convention — 1 whole note = 2 half notes = 4 quarter notes = 8 eighth notes.

Tuplets are typically used to give music in a certain meter a “feel” of time shifting, pulsating and transitioning between meters… When you hear the term “swing” this would be notated classically using the closest tuplet appropriate.

Nested tuplets

The idea behind a tuplet is simple but incredibly powerful. It represents one time inside of another time. This property alone has made it a popular tool amongst contemporary New Complexity composers, who often represent metric impulses inside dense nested spaces, a sort of composite micro-meter which are, at times, nearly impossible to perform even for musicians specializing in contemporary performance.

Simply google Brian Ferneyhough, click images, and feel the performer’s pain.

Manipulating the constraints

Because in mensural notation the width of the measure does not influence the duration, by imbuing it with a fixed, static, duration — say, 1 second— we can leverage the time dilation properties of tuplets and effectively squeeze and release the space within that fixed space while simultaneously adjusting the tempo of each measure, capturing the event both mensurally and proportionally.

For example…

Each red number at the beginning of the measure shows how many beats per measure influence the dilation of the measure-space with respect to its binary division. To find the appropriate tempo adjustment one simply need divide the tuplet numerator by the closest binary denominator, multiplied by 60. For instance, 75 = 5/4 * 60.


This allows us to theoretically capture any sound event, in any meter, and notate it classically such that any musician capable of reading sheet music can perform the sound event given proper orchestration.

Additionally, because each measure is fixed at 1", the one mississippi we learned in grade school, this form of classical notation could be performed by anyone who can feel how long a second is, without having to read the explicit duration value of the note and tempo.

Below is an example of using the notation to capture the clicks emitted by three fruits bats in song.

The framework’s characteristics are such that:
1. Each measure represents 1 second and has a total notespace of 1/4-note = 60.
2. No single note value is smaller than a 1/64-note.
3. Tempo is always in reference to 1/4-note and will not exceed 1/4-note = 120.
4. Voices are polytempic, ametric, and soluphonic — existing simultaneously without consideration of each other.
5. Note values are mensural and proportional.

In Performance — Mizo No Oto

I composed a series of sound haiku — 5", 7", 5" — utilizing the notation for one or two performers.

All pages are interactively turned by a performer on stage either using a mouse or finger (if using a tablet) by dragging from the top left of each page towards the other side of the booklet.

Haiku content is subtle and varied, focusing primarily on areas of communal gathering (noodle preparation in the kitchen) and routine action (purchasing food items from a vending machine).


I hope that one day we can collect, notate, and share sounds from all sources with one another.

Thanks for reading,

Joey

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