Oberlin Blogs

Graphically Notated Scores and You

March 8, 2009

Will Mason ’10

If someone handed you a score that looked like this, would you know what to do? :

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There were, of course, pages of specific instructions and a symbol key, but that doesn't change the fact that for my friend's recital I was required to look at a photo of a rabbit man in a suit running away from artillery fire and translate it into a part for drum set/percussion. The composer is Alex Cohen, a jazz guitarist and longtime partner-in-crime with my more nihilistic free-improv and noise endeavors. (If you have a minute, listen to the song "I Drink Your Milkshake" on my myspace to hear a great solo by Alex, with accompaniment by another fantastic jazz guitar improviser, Alex Kerr.) His junior recital was Thursday night and featured a wide variety of pieces, from a through-composed piece by a student composer, to completely improvised duets, to jazz combo work. But the piece excerpted above, entitled "The Buffoon," was written for large ensemble: three drum sets; two upright basses; guitar; alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone; piano; and two trombones. Far from a conventional instrumentation, and, in case the part about "three drum sets" didn't give it away, the ensemble at times managed to produce quite a cacophony.

Recitals (which all conservatory students are required to put on in their junior and senior year) are always my favorite performances to see within the jazz program because it's one of the few times that musicians get to exert complete control over a performance: we pick our backing band, and we pick all the music. In the jazz department, our professors may offer suggestions for repertoire to select from but it's never mandated. Consequently, recitals offer us a chance to put forth music that we're proud of and that represents our interests, but which might not have worked in our coached small ensembles.

To say that a graphically-notated noise/improv suite written for a unique instrumentation probably wouldn't work in a coached ensemble is to indulge in considerable understatement. But spending time on experimental music like this is important, and far from easy. The worst thing a musician can do is look at a non-traditional score and see it as an excuse to do whatever they please. To digress briefly, my feeling (reinforced by my past life as a classical pianist) is that classically-trained performers spend so much time in a strict musical environment--learning explicitly-notated pieces from the Common Practice Period in a manner that encourages duplication over improvisation and places heavy restrictions on creative liberties--that when they find themselves in a performance context that lacks those sorts of boundaries they don't know what to do with themselves. Free improvisation requires incredible flexibility, as well as an ear towards advanced but abstract musical characteristics like blend, tone quality, and thematic arc, all of which are admittedly present in CPP music but in a far different manner.

My point is to suggest that all musicians, regardless of their professional goals, should perform free improvisation and experimentally-notated music from time to time, both to strengthen themselves as complete musicians and to further develop their ear. Oberlin is very welcoming of experimental music, both in terms of faculty support (save maybe for the Historical Performance program, though--sorry, John) and in terms of the student body's willingness to attend performances of experimental music.

Cohen's piece was in three movements; the first (from which the page above is excerpted) combined moments of highly abrasive ensemble playing with guitar drones, and Naked City-esque genre switches. ("After the drone with the drums, I want you to play some bad smooth music. You know, like that crap they play in supermarkets. I want that.") I modified my drum set a bit, using two 22" china cymbals for hi hats and pulling out my double bass pedal, a relic from my days as a wanna-be Metal drummer. (These days are not yet gone, and I can wax poetic for hours about my belief that Metal musicians make some of the most rhythmically rich music available today.) One of the other drummers incorporated a power drill and a 2x4 into the piece. Fun was had by all.

One of the things that made the piece so cool is that the third and final movement was actually quite pretty, and somewhat strictly notated. It featured layered ostinatos among the different instrument groups, all of which unfolded slowly, like something one of the Greenwich Village minimalist composers of the '60s and '70s would have produced, only ours rocked harder. After such a violent first movement it was a beautiful, demented way to end the piece, which all told was an adventurous but rewarding undertaking. As of now I'm playing in three more recitals this semester; one will be very straight-ahead jazz standards, one will feature mostly original compositions in odd, shifting meters, and one will be a piano trio in which just about anything is possible. The only thing these recitals have in common is that I will be the lowest common musical denominator in all of them, but I savor the variety and am appreciative of the opportunity to learn and grow in the context of these exciting performances.

Responses to this Entry

Eh, if Historical Performance got the respect it deserved, what would I have to bitch about?

Also, that score made me do a spit take. Awesome.

Posted by: john on March 9, 2009 6:24 AM

It probably helps to remember that in the real world there are exponentially more people who like listening to Vivaldi or Monteverdi than there are people who like listening to free jazz. Not to mention the considerable amount of creative improvisation that does take place in early music.

I didn't see Peter Brotzmann playing selections from Thomas Jefferson's personal library during the inauguration, for example...

Posted by: Will on March 9, 2009 12:29 PM

yes, you are right, all musicians should improvise.

but part of learning to play strictly notated pieces is figuring out what you can do within the context. if you play a brahms piece like a robot, exactly as notated, you will sound like a robot. (which might be cool, if you also dress up like a robot.) and tradition & performance practice aren't a straight-jacket (this is where i drop the "you can't break the rules until you know them" bomb), they allow you to make nuanced decisions about a piece that has already been interpreted 134,012 times.

regardless, yes we should have a required improv class for all performance majors to graduate from the conservatory. good for their ears and good for their brains. who should teach it?

Posted by: Lillie on March 10, 2009 1:05 PM


And I've always contested the idea that you "can't break the rules until you know them." I think what people who say this really mean is that you can't parody the rules until you know them, since that's what most avant-garde composers/performers do--they do the direct opposite of conventional musical practice, knowing full well that their learned audience will be in on it. Indeed, calling something avant-garde inherently implies that it is rooted in a certain tradition even as it breaks new ground. Much of my favorite music is this way--conscious of tradition but willfully manipulative of it.

But anyone can break a rule.

Posted by: Will on March 10, 2009 3:18 PM

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