Hammer, pedestal, face, and hand (part 1)

There is a problem with music. Let's jump in here to discover the full scope of a musical note and the role of notation in defining the concept of music. As the mark [notare: (Latin) to mark] can signify a sounding tone, we attempt a proof of the inextricability of it from the musical idea. By examining the underlying architecture of the look of the music and determining its relevant semantic content, we can understand our relationship with musical texts in a way that refocuses on the “invisible” elements of notation as they become destabilized in the sounding sound.  This discussion is constrained to “standard notation” and those elaborate musical texts that still interact with this convention, not to include those notations that follow other purely abstracted graphic positions or other visual music, if it may be called this. In fact, the impetus for this discussion can be traced to comments found in Sylvia and Stuart Smith’s article, “Visual Music,” a disconcertingly simplified view of ‘traditional’ notation and prime example of a general desensitization to the musical score:

That traditional notation (like the phonetic alphabet) is a system of standard replaceable parts of ideas prevents us from seeing it as a drawing. It does not have inherent visual ambiguities and so is not subject to the multiple and highly individual reinterpretations that a drawing always has. There are, of course, various interpretations and inflections possible in performance, but they are not part of the look of the notational system.[1]

I intend to show below that the elements of standard notation are hardly replaceable in essence and are far more complex than they may seem to the authors of the above statement. Further, musical notation as the visual language of music actually has a profound influence on music ‘itself’ and that it is only within the paradigm and under the silent authority of the score that the Smiths’ are able to make these claims and feel able to supplement the score with other a ‘drawing.’ Inspiration for this study has also been sparked by the recent flourishing in the animation genre of kinetic typography to explore how such ubiquitous symbols effect an artistic gestalt, and by the work of Johanna Drucker, poet and scholar, in her many and varied attempts to understand and advocate for the “visible word.” She writes in the first lines of her article, “Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation”:

Readings of narrative texts rarely include attention to the graphic devices that structure presentation in print or electronic formats. These devices are rendered largely invisible by habits of reading. But, I would suggest, these graphic elements do more than structure the conditions in which narration is produced. By their hierarchy, arrangement, organization, and other features they contribute to the production of the narrative in substantive ways.[2]

I'm interested in exploring similar sentiments regarding notated music and how typography can design our experience of music in performance and analysis.

I point to what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari refer to as the paradigm of “faciality” to describe the world in which we live with music; it evinces itself in our proclivity to perform culturally transact through, and interface with, screens.[3] Unfortunately, I cannot make a larger survey of their work and its application to this discussion save a few brief but hopefully relevant comments. Their system of signification and subjectification occupies two sides of a single oppositional relationship conceived as a white wall/black hole on which we perceive the implied depth of a mark on a two dimensional surface. The Face is a screen on which we project and subjectively create depth. The implications for music are many, but most importantly that these lines on a flat plane have real function. By engaging with representation, artifacts, and surfaces, we imagine the lines themselves doing things. So overwhelmingly and fundamentally is this engagement cultivated that it is no longer necessary to ‘click’ with a computer mouse anymore, yet we have moved into the use of handheld touch technology so fast that we retain the convention of describing the action performed by a touch of the finger as a ‘click’ and even associating the effect of the touch to the sound of a ‘click.’

What do we do with typography now? We touch it. We press imaginary buttons and type with our fingers on a screen. Touchable typography reveals itself as a functional image of language, but the ramifications for musical typography are uncertain. The image of the written language has literally infinite depth as it becomes hyperlinked, but music by form of discourse and complexity of representation has yet to achieve this reach. The potential is there if we would stop merely looking at the score as an artifact (artifice) and start to use notation in new and interactive ways that, instead of hiding the score from public view, present it in its significance to structuring an artistic gestalt. There must be, in effect, an architectural rendering through notation in the sense that it stands for something (beyond pure convention) and in the way projects, onto a two-dimensional screen, larger experiences of space and time. With an ever-greater equalization of artists through access to technology, it is up to us to enrich new platforms, understand how to translate from one field of discourse to another, and in the case of music, utilize value that these technologies (the virtual structure of the score and the virtual landscape) have in creating musical meaning that operates alongside but not under the authority of sounding musical semantics.

Here it is necessary to deconstruct not to introduce, as a deconstructionist might, anything in our prose that might intentionally disable our efforts at maintaining a focused dialogue, but as a way to supplement the ‘invisible’ elements of a musical power structure that clearly subordinates them under the perceived authority of sounding music. In short, we argue here that what has been the case in musical discourse has also been for the spoken vs. written rhetoric which Jacques Derrida and others sought to overthrow and that, as the sounding sound of music has maintained an authority by convention yet remains discursively ineffable, we talk about music (presumably, that is what were are doing) through artifice of the written document. The score stands as the physical document and, through performance, becomes interpreted always once removed in a chain of différance, or constant deferral of meaning. The score remains the field of discourse (or the field of battle) for Western Classical music in the conservatory and beyond. Fundamentally, an approach to the score that begins, not by looking past the glyphs on the page, but with the intent to understand them practically is the only way to discover the importance of these ‘drawings’ to the structure of music itself, to the very concept of music.


[1] Sylvia and Stuart Smith, “Visual Music,” Perspectives of New Music 20, no. 1/2 (Autumn1981 – Summer 1982): 81. While I understand the Smiths’ basic goal, I don’t believe they express any sensitivity to the visual elements of music that actually condition its performance.

[2] Johanna Drucker, “Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation,” Narrative 16, no. 2 (May 2008): 121. [My emphasis].

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Year Zero: Faciality,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 167-191.