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17 January 2013

Insight: Drawing music

Cat Hope Image: Cat Hope  

Composer and sound artist Cat Hope writes about the process of slowly finding her own, unique way of creating scores for performances of her music. Hope is curating an exhibition of graphic scores, Drawn from Sound, in Perth in March 2013 - more information and call for works (deadline 30 January).

More articles by the AMC's represented artists in the 'Insight' series.

I didn't study composition at University. I was a pretty good flute player with a penchant for the contemporary - once I'd done 20th-century music history as part of my studies, I was hooked. I did composition electives with Roger Smalley, which I enjoyed, but didn't understand. The more time I would labour over a composition assignment, the lower my mark; a rush job the night before often got a much higher result. This confused me at the time - now it makes perfect sense to me. I did better trusting my intuition, my first ideas. And so it has been ever since. But 'ever since' wasn't until some twenty years later, after a more gentle entry into music creation through songwriting. This was followed by improvisation through noise music, which led to music for other media, some text scores and, finally in 2008, I notated my first completed score.

My love for electronic music and music scores led to a desire to create a score for laptop musicians, who seemed to hanker for notated works and the opportunity for musical suggestions or directions in their performances. This was something I shared - the life of an improviser can be a lonely and internal one, always looking for the new idea, the new inspiration, to come when the instrument is in your hands on stage. I had done a long, solo improvisation tour in Europe and was feeling burnt out of these kind of spontaneous ideas. I, too, wanted some directions.

<em>Kingdom Come</em> - extract from score
A score extract from Cat Hope's Kingdom Come
(see also: score video on Youtube).

I was also attracted to the idea that laptop musicians did not always read music, and to the idea of making a score that music-readers and non-readers could play together. And so I bravely began my first graphic score, using shapes and lines on the word-processing program Word. I carefully plotted out time across the image of the score, and turned the joined-up A4 landscape pages into a movie, where the readers would play whatever was on the left-hand edge of the screen. The work was called Kingdom Come (2008), and was premiered by two of my students at a staff concert after a couple of brave workshops and some small revisions.

This plan worked for a while, as I made two other scores, In the Cut (2009 - see a pdf sample of the score) for my newly formed ensemble Decibel, and Wolf at Harp (2010), commissioned by MONA FOMA for drum kit quartet. I made these scores using Word to create line and shape-based graphic images, and pasting together pages in Photoshop to make a large, long score that was read left to right.

This was a very labour-intensive process - I was really forcing Word to do things it wasn't designed to do - but I had the ideas and I wanted them to come out, and this was a program I knew how to use. I would sketch out ideas on paper first, but these always looked too - sketchy. The drum quartet piece worked very well using shapes and textures I could manipulate in basic ways: circles and rectangles seemed to make sense to drummers from all genres. For In the Cut, I used colour to denote the different parts (see a pdf sample), a technique that worked well when the instruments intersected with each other on the pitch/time line - these scores had no 'parts'.

But during one workshop of In The Cut, where we were fumbling with long scores and stop watches, a discussion with my long-time collaborator and Decibel member Lindsay Vickery resulted in the creation of a MaxMSP patch that would put the score in motion, with a 'playhead' about a third of the way in from the left, so the performer could see what was coming in relation to what had been. It also meant we could change the speed of the image, according to my design and rehearsal requirements, and, eventually, jump to rehearsal spots and restart from the beginning. I could also get rid of the time grids, and the players could be synchronised together without the need for stopwatches or movie files.

Not long after I realised this way of writing music was going to work for me and the music I wanted to make. I had found a way to notate music that could express my ideas. Traditional notation had never been able to do that for me, that was the struggle. And the reason for that has taken me a while to work out. I would never write the songs I had written (some four albums of songs) down. I would formulate quite tonal and sometimes complex harmonies and rhythmic relationships, but it was intuitive, by ear, and it worked. Why would I want to write it down if it worked fine that way?

I began to notate music when I wanted other people to play it. And the music I had in mind didn't have harmony or rhythm as priorities. In fact, I was quite ambivalent about pitch, instead I was interested in aleatoric relationships, and proportions. In other words, I didn't want to have to choose every pitch, but I was interested in where the pitches might go. I was interested in texture and density, dynamics and intensities. I was also interested in noise, drone and glissandi, musical ideas that I knew had never been served well by traditional music notation. These elements were present in my songwriting, but not the focus of it.

Graphic notation was enabling me to focus on these elements, and disregard rhythms, pulse or beats, laboured chordal constructions or precise harmonic considerations. Or rather, it let me leave them to chance. I wanted the option for the pitch to be between the tempered scale, or wander in and out of it. However the choices turned out, I was happy - it just made the piece more interesting to me. Lines seemed to describe drones and glissandi better than dots. The instruments in these works would have parts that had a relationship to the other performers; once they had chosen their starting point, that relationship would remain constant. They had music tools and qualities such as carefully considered durations, dynamics and textures, even melodic lines. They had harmony, too - shaped by but not chosen by me. Despite this freedom, however, I continue to be surprised at how tonal these pieces - where performers choose which pitch to start with - end up being.

I finally taught myself how to use the design program Illustrator, after another composer told me that he used it to do the 'interesting' parts of his scores. Of course this was very liberating and enabled freer and faster construction of lines, shapes, colours and drawings. Layering meant that I could create parts, if needed.

My graphic scores all start with a concept - sonic, political, or inspired by other artworks or stories. My first score created in Illustrator was Kuklinski's Dream (2010 - pdf score sample), a commission for the Melbourne-based ensemble Golden Fur. Like Kingdom Come, this had a part for a computer musician in it, where they would sample and effect the ensemble in the shapes indicated. It used three different pitched, bowed carving knives, so graphic notation served my purpose well again.

This time I didn't create the whole score from scratch, I took a part of Kuklinski's signature (Kuklinski was a notorious US mafia hitman) and manipulated it for the score. Luckily, I got a great reaction to this piece, which was very affirming and encouraged me to keep going with this approach. I took drawings from other sources soon after; outlines of photographs for Theremin parts in Empire (2010), and bush ranger Harry Power's mapped journeys as a starting point for The Possible Stories of Harry Power (2010 - pdf score sample), where a computer listening to the instruments rewrites the parts for them.

As you can see from these dates, I was suddenly prolific. This was because I had finally found a way to try these 'concepts' I had for musical works. Having my own ensemble Decibel gave me a low-risk forum to try things out as well.

Chunk - extract from score
A score extract from Chunk (see
also: score video on Youtube).

Then I wrote a graphic score for a computer to play itself. The opportunity to write for a pianist and a Disklavier led me to venture into the world of the instrument I never wanted to write for, the piano. The piano seemed to epitomise the problems of traditional music priorities and notation for me - buttons to play tempered scales with. But when I pitted the pianist against the Disklavier, it was an opportunity to see who could come out on top in terms of challenging this 'harmonic button' idea. I created a graphic score with parts for pianist and Disklavier, in a work called Chunk (2011 - pdf score sample). This score was different from any to date, it run up and down, rather than left to right, and the parts were separated. The idea that the Disklavier could play all the notes on the piano AT ONCE was very appealing to a noise musician like me. Again, MaxMSP made it possible, and the premiere, performed by the incredibly virtuosic pianist Mark Gasser, was a success.

Despite calling Chunk my 'anti-piano piece', it has given me the courage to try and investigate my electronic, drone and glissando interests on the piano, in an upcoming commission for Zubin Kanga. The graphic score was allowing me to indicate the role of electronics in my work clearly in a way understood by the performers without extensive legends. In Cruel and Usual (2012 - pdf score sample), numbers and graphics are used together for more specific instructions.

Cruel and Usual (score extract)
Cat Hope: Cruel and Usual - score extract.
See also: score on Youtube (no audio).

The Max score player continued to develop, and soon we networked multiple computers in Decibel performances, so I no longer needed to project the score for performers to watch collectively. This had been presenting problems for me, such as performers having their backs to the audience, or, as one audience member quipped, 'giving the game away' in pieces like In The Cut, which rely on an overarching concept that is visible in the score as well as audible in its performance. People often discussed the scores more than the music made.

We live in a very visual-dominated world, and as soon as you have large moving pictures in a dark room, people are entranced by them, and often like to figure them out. I just wanted them to listen. I realised the scores were creating a distraction to what they were made for - creating music to listen to. I realised that I had enjoyed the privacy of traditional notation, behind the stand. So, networking computers enabled that privacy, and, eventually, Decibel developed a score player for these works on ipads, which has added features such as part generation, random movements (not always forwards), and non-linear scores for works like The Talking Board (2011), by Lindsay Vickery and myself.

This program, the DecibelScorePlayer, will be in the app store, so when people want to perform my pieces, they don't need Max and the player, image file, etc., but can just download the app and network a couple of ipads. Soon, anyone will be able to put their own scores in the DecibelScorePlayer, too - or try reading existing graphic scores in it.

My compositions are somewhat tied to this computer application, which scares me sometimes. I have got into some big debates about my scores, if they are even music scores at all. But if they allow me to create music I and other performers are interested to explore, surely they qualify. I am surprised that despite being around some 60 odd years, and given the changes in musical materials and foci, graphic scores are still seen to be 'experimental', and having less 'rigour' than traditionally notated scores. The aleatoric or improvisational elements they facilitate would seem to be the key to that issue, despite the use of these things in music since forever. Not all of us like to be in control of everything all the time.

Since that first score in 2008, I have written over eighteen works this way, from small ensembles to orchestra, and have more planned. They are read by improvisers and traditionally trained musicians alike. I think I will keep going with this graphic score thing for a little while yet.

AMC resources

Cat Hope - AMC profile (biography, work list, articles, score samples, events)

Further links

Cat Hope - homepage (cathope.com)
Cat Hope: Juanita Nielsen for two violas, two cellos, piano and electric guitar - video of a live performance by Decibel at PICA, September 2012 (Youtube)

Cat Hope is a composer, sound artist, performer, songwriter and noise artist. She is a classically trained flautist, self-taught vocalist and experimental bassist who plays as a soloist and as part of other groups, such as the multi-bass Abe Sada. She is the director of Decibel new music ensemble. In 2011 she won the Inaugural Award for Excellence in Experimental Music at the APRA AMC Art Music Awards and was a finalist in the WA Citizen of the Year Awards. Her work tends to explore low frequency sound, drone, noise, glissandi, electronics and graphic scores.


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Scores? I think not...

To label the visual artefacts such as those proferred here as "graphic scores" is an exercise in oxymoronics. A score is a representation of music, envisaged in detail by the score-maker, deploying a symbology that is well-known - translatable into sound by a broad community of performers not necessarily known to each other - or is instead meticulously explained within the score itself. Hope's 'scores' fail on all counts: in her case, the burden of musical creativity is abrogated by her and falls squarely on the shoulders of her 'interpreters' (more accurately: comprovisers), in which case it is unethical and intellectually dishonest to arrogate to oneself, as the originator of these mysterious doodles, the title 'composer', and to claim pecuniary benefits for their sonic realization (royalties - which rightly should go entirely to the performers, who are the true composers); her symbology is unique to her (perhaps including her Decibel cohorts as well, but who else?) and apparently lacks detailed explanation appended to the graphics. Hope's "graphic scores" are merely ambiguous visual stimulants for improvisers - and nothing else. In any case, graphic scores are passé, a failed experiment from the 1950s and '60s, that betray a lack of compositional technique - as is confirmed by that former high-priest of graphism, Cornelius Cardew, in his article Wiggly Lines and Wobbly Music (Studio International, November 1976, pp.249-255; reprinred in ed. Gregory Battcock, Breaking the Sound Barrier, E. P. Dutton, NY, 1981, pp.235-253):

"Composers who adopt such approximate graphic indications of what their music is to sound like have lapsed ideologically into the fallacy that music can consist solely of a series of doodles, textures, ... Never mind how artfully arranged, this amounts to adopting the attitude that your score can be used by anyone, to express any ideas, in any context. These rough-and-ready graphic composers abandon all musical discipline, and if they are to cover their nakedness at all, it is only by applying a certain amount of graphic discipline to their scores, which then become 'aesthetic objects in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are used for making music', that is, they become fully fledged musical graphics. Such activity is a safe refuge for the musically incompetent, ... [such graphics are] a far cry from the type of graphic music established by Earle Brown in his December 1952." [ed. Battcock, p.241]