Transcription: the temptation of fidelity

Spotlights 28.11.2022

A melody, a harmony or a rhythm (or all three together) can touch us to the point of being tempted in return to touch the music itself: by playing it on an instrument or by singing it. But how to touch the music, which is by definition impalpable? Transcription has given itself this mission: to fix it in order to share it better. From the oral to the written word and vice-versa, transcribing is to give life back.

"At the end of our first meeting, I had learned that there would be no score. [...] My job would be to write down all the instrumental parts for the small ensemble of French musicians, who would wait for the scores. My first contacts with Indian classical music were recent and not very encouraging. I had listened to a live recording of Ravi [Shankar] and didn't understand it. Instead of panicking, I asked him - "begged" would be a better word - to start the composition work in advance. [...] I didn't realize at the time the impact this learning would have on my music. At that moment, in that recording studio on the Champs-Élysées, I finally had the conceptual tools necessary to accomplish my work.

In 1966, Ravi Shankar played the title role in Conrad Rooks' film Chappaqua . The music of Ornette Coleman having been refused by the director, the latter asks Shankar to take his place by getting the help of a student of Nadia Boulanger: Philip Glass. The task was more than complex for the young composer who was in the capital for his studies. He was not used to Indian music, where improvisation, although extremely structured, was de rigueur. Willy-nilly, he manages to get by - not without anguish - and his musical language will remain marked all his life. He would meet up with Shankar again years later (in 1990) to record one of his greatest albums, Passages, where the crossroads between written and unwritten music produces marvels of musical intelligence. 

Why transcribe

Listening to this album classified - for lack of a better word - as "world music", one might wonder where the improvisation begins and the precise notation ends. The work was premiered for the first time in France in 2019, at the Philharmonie de Paris, by musicians who had not participated in the recording. In order to do so, it was necessary to create a score for them, and therefore to make a transcription. In Western classical music (and therefore in contemporary music), notation has always had a certain form of "superiority" over improvisation. To open the doors of the great concert halls, to obtain honorary prizes of all kinds as well as the recognition of one's peers requires to put one's music on paper so that it can be read, played, judged and heard. To allow a musician the freedom to improvise without having spent hours bent over a score does not give the image of a serious musical vision.

As a proof, the contempt long displayed by some contemporary composers towards jazz, improvised music by essence. The paradox is that jazz is certainly the most transcribed improvised music nowadays... because this music has become institutionalized and is now taught in the major schools. Transcribing and playing a solo by John Coltrane(Giant Steps of course!), Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson is part of the learning process. It has become a challenge on Youtube, for some music geeks , to note down these improvised solos to the nearest note, as shown in this splendid improvisation by Jacob Collier, precisely transcribed - even down to the fumbling of the left hand... 

The gap between the written and the unwritten has continued to widen as notation has become more and more precise and detailed. In the history of music, the composer was very often the own interpreter of his music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninov), but these two professions have tended, more and more, to distinguish themselves. Liszt improvised a lot when he played his works (and those of others). Today, to improvise in Liszt, Chopin or even Boulez would be unthinkable - even sacrilegious. The performer must adhere to absolute fidelity - brandished as a virtue. In the Baroque era, a figured bass and a melody could be enough to make a work, and composers trusted their interpreters. The closer we get to our time, the more detailed the scores become, leaving less and less freedom to the musicians. Sometimes these scores are so saturated with indications that only a computer can meet this demand for accuracy. 

The pleasure of playing

Musicians coming from jazz, electroacoustic, alternative and experimental music have been able to keep a certain freedom: no notation or very little, just a canvas or a grid. But the counterpart is expensive: without notation, it is impossible for others to reproduce their works. However, transcribing an improvised piece of music so that another musician can appropriate it is a past practice and is increasingly used thanks to composition software.
The typical example is Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert. According to the pianist, "improvisation is the only way to be present and true to oneself. So this improvised concert, which has become a cult favorite, was quickly transcribed to satisfy the musical fans who wanted to put their fingers on this legendary music that was born spontaneously in Germany in 1975. The reading of the score (validated by Jarrett himself) shows us how limited the notation is for such music. All the musical vocabulary is insufficient to express the "timeless" side of this music. Also, listening continuously to this concert (advised by the musician himself) seems indispensable in order to better approach it. Editing an improvisation is not trivial for a musician. It is to freeze what, at the beginning, should not be frozen, and at the same time to breathe into his " work" (that is to say in this case: to his record) a second life thanks to a new interpretation. 

Those who have heard him confirm it: the improvisations of the French composer Déodat de Séverac, a convinced regionalist with a deep interest in the French folklore of the Southwest, far surpassed any of his written works. The spontaneity, freedom and energy of the moment that improvisation offers certainly allowed him to blossom and to distance himself from the rigidity of writing. Thus his most beautiful works remained unwritten.
The Hungarian Béla Bartok, the Armenian Komitas or the Australian Percy Grainger did the same by drawing their inspiration from the popular music of oral transmission. These artists have done a valuable job of collecting and transcribing folk tunes - often despised by academia - by recording them as sound archives and integrating them into their original compositions and
. A whole part of the musical art that was destined to be transmitted only orally thus becomes accessible to all those who read music. The unwritten fixed becomes popularized more quickly and reaches a form of legitimacy, an institutional recognition. It also allows, in the case of Komitas, to make the voice of the poorest, the oppressed and the forgotten heard, as in this popular song of 1905 relating the Armenian massacres collected and sublimated by the composer.

From sound to writing

Music bookshops are closing one after the other. But what exactly is the cause of the almost total disappearance of music stores in France? If buying a novel from your local bookstore rather than from Amazon is a smart and eco-responsible gesture, downloading for free from IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project - online library of more than 432,763 royalty-free scores) or ordering a score on the Internet has become an unfortunate reflex, but all too common among music lovers (as well as among professionals).
Here is a beginning of explanation to the rarefaction of music bookshops. But it is not the only one. The notation of music has clearly decreased since the second half of the XXth century with the appearance of recording. One can be a famous musician, a famous pop-music band without ever having held a pencil pointed on a staff (or used a computer). It is moreover the possibility of preserving a musical performance without writing it down that has allowed the extreme popularization of music, which has become a more than profitable economic sector.

The ability to record has totally reshuffled the cards in the world of musicians. It is now possible to play and propagate one's music without knowing how to read a treble clef, simply by playing and recording it. The complexities of reading a G clef have been overcome and the amateur with itchy fingers can finally share his music.
The music of Harold Budd, Brian Eno or William Basinski (to mention only the three popes of ambient music) exist through recording and are popularized as such.
However, in recent years, we can notice an upsurge of concerts where these purely phonographic works, which have never been edited, are played on stage. Thus Eno 's Music for Airports was transcribed by Didier Aschour for his ensemble Dédalus; Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, by the same composer, was performed at the Ars Musica festival, in Brussels, on November 19, 2022, by the ensemble Sturm und Klang ; The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski will be performed at the Lieu Unique on November 25, 2022 in a live version with orchestra.
The paradox of this unnotated music which by its success becomes (notated) music highlights that: 1/ live music is not dead as sometimes claimed (even if the recent pandemic has not helped to counter this opinion); 2/ transcribing an unwritten musical work remains the best way to make it alive.


Possible mission

As long as there is composed music, there will be musicians to play it.
No matter how it is composed, we will have to find a way to learn it. For the moment, solfeggio notation remains the simplest and most universal way (and complicated at the same time). Alternatives exist: on YouTube there are countless piano, violin and other tutorials that visually explain - inspired by the video game Dance Dance Revolution (Japanese cult video game of dancing with the feet) - how to place one's fingers at the right moments on the instrument; except that this method evacuates everything that makes music interesting (nuances, articulations, phrasing, etc.) and is only interested in the technical and athletic aspect of a performance.
Oral transmission by imitation is also a widely used solution, but it excludes the solitary pleasure of learning and prevents de facto the approach of works of great polyphonic complexity.
The solution therefore remains transcription. The most rigorous fidelity being the great challenge of this practice. 

Here are some examples of particular transcriptions.
Giacinto Scelsi did not write his music. He improvised at the piano and a transcriber (the most famous was Vieri Tosatti) rewrote it all on a score. Then he would isolate himself and, following exchanges with Scelsi on questions of nuances, orchestrations, etc., would note down the music precisely: he " composed Scelsi" . Without this transcriber, who would play Scelsi?
Georges Gurdjieff and his friend, the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann, in Paris, collaborated to compose pieces of astonishing beauty in a completely original way: Gurdjieff, by the fireside, whistled, sang, whispered melodies captured during his youthful travels in the Orient and Asia for Hartmann to note down on the piano. The result was a collection of more than 160 pieces of imagined or real folklore.
The Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow wanted to do without the technical limitations of performers and long before the invention of computers, he began to compose directly for mechanical roller piano (the only instruments capable of playing so many notes with diabolical rhythmic precision). Thus his way of transcribing music was not through music theory, but simply by piercing these famous rolls by hand. Thomas Adès went the other way around, transcribing for two pianos some of his famous Études transcendentes.

Scores by Gurdjieff - Nancarrow - Lauten

Elodie Lauten, a French composer trained with Monte Young, a friend of Terry Riley, and unjustly neglected in France, was a virtuoso pianist whose piano works were often improvised by herself. Kyle Gann, a living memory of minimalist music from the 1970s to today, spent a lot of time transcribing some of her searing opuses(Cat Counterpoint, Adamantine Sonata, Sonate Ordinaire, Sonate Modale, Variations on the Orange Cycle) in order to understand her way of composing.
He explains: "Although she composed many ensemble works in conventional notation, improvisation was a comfortable way for her to compose and she considered a piece finished after she played it - notation was not necessary. Her pieces evolved as she played them, gaining and losing sections. Like La Monte Young, who was briefly her mentor, she conceives of melodic and harmonic relationships that have a recognizable identity but can be improvised in extensible patterns. These are very important and beautiful works, and I hope it will be possible to secure a permanent place for them in the historical repertoire."(2)
After spending hours putting La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano on paper and unveiling Dennis Johnson's masterpiece November (1959) to the world, Kyle Gann continues his incredibly faithful enterprise of transcription, so that today's performers can in turn make these unscripted works, these ineffable spontaneous compositions, their own. 

François Mardirossian

(1) Philip Glass, Words Without Music, Philharmonie De Paris, 2017.
(2) Kyle Gann, Elodie Lauten as Postminimalist Improviser - Delivered to the Minimalism Conference in Helsinki, September 2015 -


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