Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation
Classical music in the 20th century could be said to have been about tearing apart its past. Long before rock started breaking its own rules, composers of orchestral and chamber music were disposing of such conventions as key, assigned tempo, and even the notion of playing parts together and in sequence. Composers such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and Terry Riley gave instrumentalists more and more latitude in interpreting scores, constructing compositions that forced the performer to make considerable decisions before a piece could be played.
The logical limit to such flouting of convention was to dispose of the score altogether. The time-honored code of dots placed on a field of parallel lines was dropped by mid-century composers in favor of illustrations meant to evoke something to the performer (graphic notation) or, at an even more basic level, instructions given in text form. The graphic score retained some level of legitimacy owing to its preservation of mystery: Performers still had to be properly trained on their instruments and have some facility in interpreting orthodox scores before being able to unpack the output of the esteemed composer. But the text score was (and likely often still is) seen in many quarters as a hoax, the work of charlatans.
In Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, British composers James Lely and James Saunders provide a remarkable and practical overview of text-based scores, from the koans of George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and La Monte Young to Cardew’s epic tracts and Tony Conrad’s perplexing riddles. Focusing on specific works by 50 composers, they provide real examples and keen discussions, including their own short essays as well as illuminating texts from the composers themselves. In good Fluxus fashion, the book might have been subtitled “Instructions for Following Instructions.”
Gavin Bryars proves to be a particularly helpful character for the curious, or against the naysayer. His credentials include work with Derek Bailey, Tom Waits, and Robert Wilson, as well as the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a 1970s orchestra of untrained musicians that he co-founded. His 1970 text score Far Away and Dimly Pealing calls for the performer to cause a sound to occur one mile from him or herself but which they can still hear. The use of explosives or of another person to trigger the sound is expressly forbidden. Lely and Saunders attempted this with a bell and a rope on an airport landing strip but were unable to hear the sound from a mile away. A second attempt with a weight released onto a mounted air horn, however, proved audible, if barely. Their success, however, only raises questions about Bryars’s score: Was the first effort a failure, or was their attempt a legitimate realization? The score says that the sound “should be able to be heard by the performer,” but what if a jet passing overhead drowned it out? What if it should have been but in fact wasn’t? And more broadly, is the performer also the audience? Or is there no audience for the performance?
In his insightful contributed essay, “Conceptual, Verbal, and Graphic Scores,” composer Daniel Goode addresses the abstract questions text scores raise, and in the process defines the field in which such scores exist.
The verbal score is the elephant-in-the-room of the Modernist and Experimental music traditions, since it wipes clean the premises of musical notation. Moving from idea (expressed in words and maybe diagrams or sketches) to realization requires imaginative input from the performers on a level quite different from, and more inclusive than, what performers do with traditional musical notation…[I]nvariably there are questions about exactly what might be meant by the words, or sentences. And the musicians must be willing to give of themselves, to inhabit the ideas, to do, to compose what is needed to make the ideas into music. A spiritual commitment is required, and the building of a performance community, because there is no such thing as simply playing the score.
Indeed—nor is there any such notion as “owning the score.” It’s harder to prevent the unlicensed performance of a few sentences written by George Maciunas that might be found on Wikipedia than a Mozart sonata. In that respect, Word Events becomes a collection of possible events. Arranged alphabetically by composer with little by way of through-narrative, the book isn’t a critical history of text-based scores. That storyline is left, maybe fittingly, to the reader’s interpretation.