Beyond writing

Spotlights 30.11.2022

After the trauma of the Second World War, Western music began to reinvent itself by questioning the rules inherited from the past. In this context, the question of writing is a central issue. Some developments were in the direction of absolute control by the composer, and of an ever-increasing codification (whether of the score, of instrumental playing, or even of the microstructure of sounds). Others, on the contrary, are open to the freedom of the performers, more or less pronounced, by different means. The confrontation of scholarly music with new technologies, jazz, pop music and world music will not cease to revive this question until our days.

"From writing, everything flows" is the first sentence I wrote in 2012 to introduce the three volumes I was going to devote to the learned music of the 20th century(Musiques savantes,Le mot et le reste, 2012, 2015, 2017). Indeed, writing has been the formidable springboard that has allowed, from the ninth century onwards, to infuse music with an attitude of exploration: unlike oral tradition, which preserves what must be preserved through centuries of repetition, writing fixes immediately, albeit imperfectly, and the page can be turned. Moreover, writing goes beyond this primary mission of fixing the memory to become a powerful tool of creation. There are of course learned musical cultures of orality, for example in North and South India, in Iran, in Tajikistan, in Afghanistan or in the Arabo-Andalusian traditions. They are radically different from Western art music in their construction and diffusion. The writing allows for the development of refined polyphony, imitations between voices, recalls, mirrors, reversals, palindromes, complex structures, the use of mathematics, gematria (a form of religious numerology), symbolisms, figuralisms, the rich development of themes, the complexity of the orchestration and arrangements, etc. It is an infinite territory of exploration, which is shown by experiments that are constantly renewed, right up to the present day. To quote some of them: spectral music which, from the 1970s onwards, applies the acoustic models of sounds analyzed by spectrogram, then by computer, to scores, in order to achieve, for example, instrumental sound synthesis (Gérard Grisey) or to ensure blended passages between clear and noisy sound masses, which replace the consonance-dissonance respiration(Kaija Saariaho) ; the hyper-complexification and virtuosity of the game (Brian Ferneyhough); the codification of an unheard-of sound palette, true "instrumental concrete music"(Helmut Lachenmann); the application of the model of fractal mathematics to musical structuring(Alberto Posadas, Enno Poppe...), etc.

Registration is a game changer

The evolution of the uses of recording, which appeared at the end of the 19th century, is strictly identical to that which we mentioned in connection with writing. Its first mission was to fix the memory, and in particular that of the music: the interpretation, the concert, the piece. A few decades later, we begin to create with this new tool, which was not invented for this purpose. This happens before the release of a record, at the level of the aesthetics of the sound recording and the work of post-production, which make it possible to hear unheard sounds, to bring out details impossible to reproduce in concert, as well as in rock, jazz and classical music, but also in the framework of field recording. And then the recording allows the creation of new music based on the techniques of mixing, editing and variations. This revolution marks the most obvious and most radical questioning of the score in the field of learned music.

In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer, who invented musique concrète in the studios of the French Radio Broadcasting Company, claimed to work on "concrete" sound from one end to the other of the conception of his music: production of sound, captation (recording), treatment, editing, mixing, composition (only at the end of the chain does a part of abstraction appear). This approach is opposed to the abstraction of writing, which starts from the imagination of a composer, goes through the writing and produces sound only at the end of the process, when the score is given to a performer to play. In the sixties, Pierre Schaeffer wrote a solfeggio of the sound object(Traité des objets musicaux, 1966).

Recording allows for the progressive elaboration of a gigantic global sound library that puts all music on the same level (one gesture allows one to listen to an infinite number of different musics, out of context) and encourages an unprecedented mixing of cultures. Beatriz Ferreyra offers a poignant demonstration of what recording brings us with Echos, composed in 1978 from the fixed voice of her niece, Mercedes Cornu, who died in a motorcycle accident. She had come four years earlier to visit the Argentinean composer, who had been living in France since the early sixties. Her wish was to become a singer, and Ferreyra had recorded four traditional songs. As a tribute, her composition draws from this corpus without ever playing complete melodies, only snippets, bits of chopped up phrases, sometimes cut off in full swing, or sublimated in resonance effects. It is a reflection on memory, remembrance, the trace, a perfect illustration of the stakes of the recording. At the end of the piece, a single whole sentence emerges, followed by a laugh: a last memory. This very elaborate construction is based solely on sound, on listening, on the manipulation of the tapes, which replace the score.
One can appreciate the shock of this radical questioning of the gestures of composition by Pierre Schaeffer when one knows that Karlheinz Stockhausen, after an essay he had done in 1952 in Schaeffer's studios (theÉtude concrète known as "aux mille collants"), had described this work of concrete music as "miserable bricolages" .

John Cage, the random and the happening

A leading figure, the American John Cage shook up the world of music by sharing his original vision of the use of chance and randomness in his works. He began his experiments in the 1930s (Imaginary Lanscape n° 11939), but it is especially his travels in Europe in the 1950s, notably to Darmstadt, that contribute to the diffusion of his thought, as well as the musical happenings that he organizes in the United States. This desire for non-control is at the foundation of his work, where chance and indeterminacy can take place in the compositional principle (use of writing techniques based on the Yi-King, Chinese divinatory art, or any other process of random choice of musical values: dice game, etc.); in the interpretation (works based on the Yi-King); in the compositional process (works based on the Yi-King); in the compositional process (works based on the Yi-King); and in the performance (works based on the Yi-King).); in the interpretation (aleatoric works led by the choices of the musicians, graphic scores with free interpretation, various games, simultaneous superimpositions of different music, etc.) or finally in the interaction with the public (birth of the musical happening with Untitled Event in 1952, followed by numerous other performances, such as 4'33'' the same year, Theater Piece in 1960 or 4'33'' n° 2 - 0'00'' in 1962). For John Cage, chance allows the performer - and even the audience - to regain their freedom and place in the face of the dictatorship of the composer. Any process of musical interpretation is already subject to chance (the atmosphere of the room, external noises, the play of the performers...). Cage says that he is only accentuating the phenomenon.

4'33 (1952) does have a score, written in three movements, which consist of a carefully timed " Tacet " ("Be silent"). Cage invites listeners to listen to their environment, and to question what music can be. "Everything is music" according to him, and the listener is invited to become aware of this with this work. Cage creates situations where music can arise and be heard

Literature also takes the paths of chance, notably with the cut-up technique initiated by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. Umberto Eco theorizes this tendency with the essay published in 1962, The Open Work: "The open work becomes an epistemological metaphor. [The author offers the performer a work to be completed. One abandons then the idea of the artist-creator omnipotent demiurge, only master of the sense of his work in front of a humanity in waiting of which he makes himself the savior, romantic vision if it is. As a consequence of numerous artistic changes since the beginning of the 20th century, the performer as well as the listener are invited to participate in the work. One affirms then that the meaning of a work is never given nor definitively stopped: it evolves constantly, it is constructed in real time.

Cage's posterity

Few composers could remain indifferent to Cage's proposals. Around him, many adopted graphic scores, which left a considerable amount of creation to the performer: Earle Brown, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman. One speaks of the "New York School" (which blends with dance and the plastic arts). Cage 's influence can be felt even in certain works by Pierre Boulez, who was nonetheless attached to absolute control through writing(Pli selon pli, 1957-1962, Domaines, 1968), which leave a limited amount of free decision to the performers. Many composers continued along the path of graphic scores, happening and performances in the sixties, this decade that dared everything: first of all Fluxus, a movement whose adventure lasted about twenty years, initiated in 1960 by George Maciunas with, among others, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young, Joseph Beuys, Charlotte Moorman, Robert Filliou, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Henry Flynt and the painter Ben (Ben Vautier). To give an idea of the freedom that reigns there, for the performers as well as for the public, here are some examples of La Monte Young's Compositions, happenings/performances given in Yoko Ono's loft in 1960:

" Composition No. 1 for piano - for David Tudor: Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water to the stage, so that the piano can eat and drink. The performer has the choice of feeding the piano himself or letting it feed itself. In the first case, the performance is finished once the piano has been fed. In the second case, it is finished after the piano has fed itself or refused to do so. "
" Composition 1960 #5: Release a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) into the concert hall. When the composition is complete, be sure to let the butterfly fly outside. The composition can be of any length, but if there is unlimited time, the doors and windows can be opened before the butterfly is released and the composition can be considered complete when the butterfly flies out."
" 1960 Composition #10 - for Bob Morris: Draw a straight line and follow it."

Graphic scores have been adopted by many artists, such as George Crumb, Mauricio Kagel, Krzysztof Penderecki, André Boucourechliev, Luciano Berio, Dieter Schnebel, Sylvano Bussotti, Costin Miereanu or Cornelius Cardew. According to the works, the possibilities granted to the interpreters are more or less great. They can be based on choices to be made during the reading, either voluntary or random (for example, playing where the gaze falls on the score, with the indications of speed, nuance and timbre read at the end of the last sequence performed, in the Klavierstück XI by Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1956), or on improvised passages with more or less precise instructions.

It is Karlheinz Stockhausen, under the influence of free jazz, who will probably go the furthest in the writing of freedom with Aus den sieben Tagen ( "Of the seven days", May 1968, it is not invented), whose musical instructions are based on a few sentences only. This meditative work inaugurates what he calls "intuitive music". He invites the participants to fast and meditate alone before playing these fifteen pieces. One of them, Unbegrenzt ("Unlimited"), states, "Play a sound with the certainty that you have all the time and space you need." Another, Es ("It"), suggests, "Think nothing. Wait until it is completely silent inside you. When you reach that point, start playing. As soon as you start thinking again, stop. Try to get back to the state of not thinking and then continue playing."

Musicians who pass on their knowledge

In the first recording of Aus den sieben Tagen, we find among others the clarinettist Michel Portal, also a jazz and free jazz musician. It is important to note these profiles of curious musicians, open to different proposals and themselves passers-by, musicians of the written as well as of the oral, of the theater, of the happening, of the performance. This is also the case of the double bass player Joëlle Léandre, who opened up to improvisation in the 1970s while continuing to play numerous written pieces, and who composes herself, notably graphic scores. One can also evoke the New Yorker John Zorn and the rules of composition/improvisation that he sets up in the 1980s, based on cards, or cards, with more or less precise indications, often poetic, consensus between the score and the improvised play. These profiles are becoming more and more frequent today, like French musicians like Élise Dabrowski or Claudine Simon, or composers/instrumentalists like Benjamin de la Fuente and Samuel Sighicelli. All four have been trained in classical score reading as well as in improvisation.

Open work and musical theater

"In short, the author offers to the interpreter a work to complete. He does not know in which precise way it will be realized, but he knows that it will remain his work; at the end of the interpretative dialogue, a form organized by another will be concretized, but a form of which he remains the author. His role consists in proposing possibilities that are already rational, oriented and endowed with certain organic requirements that determine their development. So says Umberto Eco in The Open Work, already mentioned. Friend of the extraordinary singer Cathy Berberian, he shares with her his interest forcomic strips. Stripsody, which she composed and performed in 1966, is based on a graphic score drawn by Roberto Zamarin, representing small narrative sequences in the form of comic strips (the name combines Strip and Rapsody). The work also calls for musical theater, giving the singer a role as a key actress.

Musical theater, also initiated in the 1950s, had its heyday in the following decade with, among others, John Cage(Variations II, 1961), György Ligeti (Adventures, 1963, New Adventures1965), Mauricio Kagel (Match, 1964, Acustica1970) and Luciano Berio (Laborintus II1965), who in some of their works invite the interpreter to be an actor, according to indications appearing on the score. The adventure continues in the 1970s, for example with the foundation in Paris in 1972 of the Compagnie de théâtre musical des Ulis, with the composer Michel Puig and the actors Michaël Lonsdale, Catherine Dasté and Edith Scob, and up to the present day, notably with Georges Aperghis and Vinko Globokar, and closer to us still with Olga Neuwirth and Samuel Sighicelli. Musical theater does not necessarily leave the world of the score and can, on the contrary, make it even denser.

Learned music of oral transmission

Some composers base their entire practice, their works and eventually their performances on an entirely oral transmission. This is the case of the American composer, singer, director, screenwriter, actress, dancer and choreographer Meredith Monk, with her troupe. Her work is based on regular rehearsals and the knowledge of the members among themselves. It was only later, in the 2000s, when other artists wanted to take over her performances, that Monk realized how much was left unsaid and set about identifying the elements of her work and writing some of them down.

This is not the case forÉliane Radigue who, since the beginning of the 2000s, has been approached by numerous musicians to whom she gives oral instructions and with whom she works at length until she obtains the sound quality she wants. Her music of the infinitesimal, profoundly demanding, is absolutely not notated, but transmitted to selected performers.

Computer-aided composition (CAD)

Computer-assisted composition (CAD), whose use became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks in particular toIrcam, does not generally eliminate the score, quite the contrary: it adds to it a whole set of controls, treatments and triggers additional to the simple emission of notes and sounds, making it much more complex (effects, sound transformations, spatialization, sound triggers...).

Real time has allowed the appearance of "virtual scores": the computer is capable of triggering a certain number of processes in response to the playing of a score by a performer. The principle is that the computer locates where the musician is at and reacts, sometimes also according to the way he or she plays. Here again, we are faced with a kind of "super score", however virtual it may seem. Such a virtual score is at work in NoaNoa by Kaija Saariaho (1992), where the computer responds to the playing of a flautist, who can also, more simply, depending on the equipment available, trigger the reactions with the help of pedals.

Nevertheless, today there are controllers and interfaces that allow all sorts of access to the computer through gestures, which can in some cases make the score disappear, and encourage improvisational attitudes and the relationship to the body. This is the case of the Karlax, for example.

When electroacoustic composers work with the computer directly on the audio, the graphic representation of the sound becomes almost a score on the screen. This generally annoys the pioneers of tape recorders, who argue that this takes away the attention from listening and somehow returns to a music of the abstract, determined by the screen reading, which can completely mislead the real sound result. Beatriz Ferreyra encourages her students to close their eyes to work better: quite a symbol!

The pitfalls of freedom

Beyond electroacoustic musics, several composers very involved in these different ways, improvisation, musical theater, aleatoric... sometimes evoke disappointments in front of the utopias of departure. Luciano Berio wrote fourteen Sequenze from 1958 to 2002, each one for a solo instrument, pushed to the end of its virtuosity and making reference to its history and its repertoires. The first ones call for musical theater. Berio, who had met John Cage and Earle Brown, introduced a degree of indeterminacy into the rhythms, pitches and registers of the first eight works (he did not use clefs on the written lines, and the staves were sometimes limited to three lines), but he abandoned this approach at the turn of the 1980s because of the excessive liberties taken by certain performers, who, according to Berio, did not follow the score scrupulously enough in their performance of the works. He even rewrote some of the old Sequenze

Samuel Sighicelli, who was very much influenced by improvisation in his training and his early works, shared with us his doubts and his reversals. His group Caravaggio, with Bruno Chevillon, Éric Échampard and Benjamin de la Fuente, began in 2000 with a great improvisation and then, from album to album, opted for the composition of pieces. In an interview recently published in the book Music in direct contacthe explained to me: " In the scores that open up to improvisation, you also have to be careful about the degree of freedom: not everyone can improvise. The freedom given to a passage, which one would imagine to be liberating for a performer, can on the contrary prove to be blocking, destabilizing and ultimately not serving the piece. It can also reveal to the interpreter his or her possible frustration and generate an incongruous departure from the framework. Improvisation is in no way a freedom from a rule or a gratuitous gesture: it is a practice, an understanding, a long-term work, like interpretation. 

Guillaume Kosmicki

Photo Des mondes construits Metz © Loïc Guénin