Writing Graphic Scores

My eyes don’t function normally even with thick glasses, which was a problem when I encountered staff notation upon starting my musical training in school. The staff lines would move; shifting up, down, or rolling like waves. The only way I could make it stop was by having the notation less than a foot in front of me, the closer the better. The constantly shifting staff lines made it impossible for me to sight-read or even follow a score in class, so I memorized all my music for school. But that still made playing difficult if complex changes were made to the music in class. It was not until high school, that the band teacher discovered my lack of reading skills, which he solved by kicking me out of class and making me promise to never return.

Thus it is not surprising that even in school I had started to gravitate towards improvisation, as it provided me the ability to play with ease while feeling free of my perceived impediment. It took me many years to gain the courage to make music my professional career. Yet, even with that step, the inability to easily read music was an enormous burden that continued to grow larger. When I did turn professional very few people realized that I was primarily an improviser, and frankly I was ashamed to tell them.

As part of my professional music career, I had been studying the history of notation around the world and found that staff notation was not the only method of notating music. In my need for writing down musical ideas I started to use a combination of tablature and graphic notation. I adapted or invented forms of tablature for the many non-western instruments I was using, and to these I later added forms of cypher notation in either roman numerals or Asian script. I often felt that the notation was not complete, as it just indicated what notes to play and when to play them, yet did not provide any information of what the music should be like, so I started to add graphic symbols I adapted from Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist music. These symbols slowly expanded to more complex images, both realistic and abstract. Unfortunately, at that time I did not yet realize how functional this system was, as I was still surrounded by the world of staff notation, and for more than a decade I destroyed all my notes and scores.

That changed in 1992 after I spent a good portion of a day with John Cage in his loft. His acceptance of my musical journey and expressions liberated me. That day he became my musical father. He passed two days later. Cage gave me the courage and insight to be me, to play and write what I wanted with no apologies. I stopped destroying my scores and started to show them to others. And thus began this part of my musical journey. I have learned over the years since, that not everyone knows how to approach these scores, so I started to provide notes, and now after a couple of decades I realize that is time to add yet another level of explanation.

I tend to write my scores for the people that “get them” upon encountering them. I write for the people that hear, feel, experience the music from the scores. Some of my scores “are the music, rather than a score to play the music,” as the visual elements in the scores stimulate a memory or a deep inexplicable feeling for many people that approach them. Most of these scores allow for all the senses to be engaged, and even our extended senses.

Most of my musical training has been in Asian traditional music. Further to that I realized that I was a Taoist since the age of fifteen, not one that prays in temples, but one that moves within the paradoxes of life. As such Taoism and Zen are second nature to me. My scores are riddled with both philosophies and for some this may make them incomprehensible, which is as it should be.

I have encountered opposition to – or dismissal of – my scores from musicians who are trained in, and rely primarily on, staff notation. In my extensive studies of the music of the world, I have found that western art music is but a small sliver of the mosaic of musical expression in our world. From my perspective Western art music’s importance was inflated as a tool of 19th C. western imperialism to non-western cultures, which were regarded as “other”. Outside of the narrow perspective of western art music there are a number of musical cultures where music is recorded, performed, perceived, valued, and functions in many different ways from the western perspective, sometimes radically. All are equally valid musical expressions. Although my music still retains the biases of my upbringing it is also informed by those musical cultures from around the world I have studied and have been exposed to.

My scores often challenge the composer – performer – audience hierarchy, and sometimes decontextualize or recontextualize the concepts of score and performance. My position as a “composer,” if it exists at all, ends at the moment I release the score onto paper, as does any relationship I have with the performer or audience. I am not interested in musical tools such as motifs that function as cultural codes designed to elicit a response from a listener. The experience of the performer and audience is their own; I have no control over their experience, nor wish to have. Frankly, it is none of my business.

That said my scores and notes are very specific in their wording and design. There is nothing flippant or clever in them. I craft each element to express something meaningful in me, and it sometimes takes a year or more to fully realize a score. I have been a poet since I was young and I use words as I do images, so it is often very difficult to find the path to express the specific perception and experience of the world I am sharing. These scores simply document my experience of the world. They certainly can be used as windows of opportunity for someone else to approach how I perceive the world, or at least for them to experience something else of themselves.

I am often quite fascinated at how people approach and express their experience of my scores, whether in performance, conversation, or through correspondence. Sometimes they even seem to get close to how I experience the score. Sometimes that amuses me. Sometimes I feel not so alone.

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