Tag Archives: Notation

Gestalt Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The division of labor between composer and performer, while central to Western art music, is foreign to much of the world. This does not owe to a lack of performers. Every human society, ancient and modern, has its musicians. What tends to be absent is the separate role of creator. Not only is it common for music to arise from an anonymous or semi-anonymous folk process, but musicians are also given to improvisation. Melodic lines and tonal archetypes (modes) are treated as canvases for spontaneously conjured embellishments and departures—or what pianist David Dolan calls “walking freely on firm ground.” It is only with the proliferation of notation that the composer and performer become truly distinct entities. The composer sets ideas on paper, and the performer meticulously renders those ideas into sound. The goal of “correct” performance replaces real-time interpretation.

Part of what differentiates improvisational and semi-improvisational folk music from Western art music is its gestalt approach, wherein a musical motive is conceived as a whole, rather than as a sum of individual notes. Thinking nothing of notes, the musician permits different tones and tone sequences to replace each other, so long as the motive retains its basic character. It is similar to an artist setting pieces of glass or stone within a framework, and is sometimes called the “mosaic technique.” This contrasts with Western notated music, which, by its very nature, is built from individual notes that are unalterably fixed on staff paper.

This distinction is best illustrated by example. Musicologist Michal Smoira-Cohn recalls when a Bedouin musician visited a class at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The musician played a “marvelously concentrated and highly inspired piece” on a one-stringed bowed instrument. When he finished, the professor explained some details of the performance and asked the musician to play the same piece again. Bewildered, the Bedouin proceeded to play a new improvisation, which resembled the first but was not identical. Smoira-Cohn relates: “The experience illuminated for me the true significance of the art of performance. I realized that the supposedly primitive Bedouin knew better than all of us the real value of music.”

This “real value” is part and parcel of oral societies, where improvisation is a fixture of story, dance, song, and instrument playing. Each performance is a re-creation involving identifiable elements that are manipulated, arranged, and supplemented in new and unreplicable ways. Compare this with the non-spontaneity expected of classical musicians, who work tirelessly to actualize a composer’s vision. Their performance may add a subtle interpretation, but the fear of wrong notes results in general sterility, and solidifies the separation of composer and performer.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Improvisation and Origination

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music begins as improvisation. Guided by an internalized assortment of musical conventions, proclivities, and preferences, and propelled by a need for self-expression, the musician offers up an unfolding sequence of tones. Sonic strokes are applied to a canvas of silence and time, coalescing into a piece of music. What happens after the initial act will determine what type of improvisation it is: creation for the moment, or creation for repetition.

In musical styles that value extemporization, such as jazz and ragas, certain sounds are not meant to extend past the performance. They are embraced as spontaneous creations in and for that moment. Beauty arises, mistakes are made, ideas are asserted, and ingenuity is flashed—all without concern for documentation. The experience begins and ends in real time. In contrast, music created for repetition is expected to persist beyond the improvisatory genesis. Tones emerge from the imagination, but are thereafter revised, re-shaped, and retained for future performances. This process occurs in both oral and scribal cultures, where music is reiterated through person-to-person transmission, notation, audio recording, and often a combination of these. The impulsive journey of formation becomes a roadmap for reproduction.

There are cases where creation for the moment and creation for repetition intrude upon one another. These “violations” take the form of transcriptions of improvisatory solos, recordings of jam sessions, embellishments in classical compositions, and the like. Purists shun such rule breaking: improvisers guard the ephemeral nature of their craft; classical musicians shield the notes on the page.

Frank Zappa was a vocal critic from the improvisatory camp. In a 1984 MTV interview, he blasted fellow guitarists for playing carbon copies of their recorded solos on stage. Zappa was asked, “Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?” Rather than self-labeling one way or the other, he gave an assessment of the state of guitar playing, lamenting the scarcity of intuition and risk taking. His response deserves quoting in full:

“Well, I’m specialized. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night, and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination, and when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation. I don’t like any of the guitar solos that have ever been released on a record, and I think that the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live, not freezing it and saving it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.”

It should be mentioned that Zappa was no enemy of notation. He meticulously scored his songs for all instruments, including percussion, and was notoriously perfectionistic regarding the conversion of his writing into sound. But he also knew when to depart from predetermined ideas and respond to the moment. What he despised was the breakdown of distinctions between the fixed and the improvised. Implied in his comments is recognition that music can only be improvised once. After that, it takes one of two paths: evaporation or concretization. For Zappa, fleeting sounds should be kept fleeting, while stipulated sounds should remain stipulated. Even so, Zappa himself sometimes wandered into the awkward space where impromptu playing becomes frozen for consumption. A series of guitar-solo albums and a book of solos-in-transcription are testaments to that uncomfortable truth.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Perils of Transcription

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1963 the Society for Ethnomusicology sponsored an experiment testing the reliability of transporting musical sounds onto the written page. Four prominent scholars, Willard Rhodes, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Robert Garfias, and George List, were asked to notate a recording of a Hukwe Bushman song performed with a musical bow. Given the difficulty of translating an African oral tradition into European notation, the results were predictably varied. For instance, the musical bow produces two simultaneous pitches: a fundamental and an overtone. Kolinski and Rhodes accounted for both pitches, while List and Garfias just transcribed the overtone. List included two forms of the vocal line, one attentive to the voice itself and the other correlating the vocal melody with that of the musical bow.

In the decades since the experiment, ethnomusicology has shifted focus away from transcriptions. While musicological analysis is still valued, comparative studies—which emphasize notes on the page—have been pushed aside in favor of inclusive, in-depth studies of music and culture. The transition owed partly to problems inherent to musical transcription. In addition to the inadequacy of applying Western tools to non-Western music, the act of writing often clashes with the essence of the song being notated. Oral transmission, an active process that values spontaneity, is confined to a written document, a fixed object that is set in ink. This is particularly problematic in a culture such as ours, which views published sheet music as “correct” and “definitive.” The printed page is habitually mistaken for the music itself.

This is not just an inter-cultural issue. Much of the music in our own society is created and transmitted independent of notation. Some of our most celebrated songwriters cannot read music, and it is a jazz imperative to journey away from the score. During the recent plagiarism case involving the hit song “Blurred Lines,” producer-songwriter Pharrell Williams was exposed as a non-music reader, despite his claims to the contrary. This is not to suggest that music readers have special advantages over non-readers. Anyone who makes this claim should note that Irving Berlin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles are among the illiterati. What it does reveal is the clumsiness of committing experientially constructed songs to writing.

This is apparent when reviewing song transcriptions in fake books and similar anthologies. Very rarely does a song appear with identical notation in two or more books. The transcribers, usually working from audio recordings, do their best to capture the durations, phrasing, vocal inflections, and other peculiarities. However, in the process, they adjust syncopations, imprecisions, and rough executions to fit the song within rigid bar lines. Thus, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is printed without the (unintended?) meter switches, and pop ballads appear without hard-to-render melismas. Because there are many ways of handling such peculiarities, the finished products tend to be diverse—a phenomenon comparable to the Bushman experiment.

Still, musical transcription does play important roles. There are cases in which transcriptions of folk songs, imperfect though they may be, are all that remains of a music-culture. Abraham Idelsohn’s monumental Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies (1914-32) is a prime example, both for its imperfections and for its preservation of melodies from extinct communities. More generally, sheet music aids musicians other than the original performers in playing the songs. It is, then, appropriate to treat transcriptions as useful approximations, just not as authoritative monuments.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Short Life of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is concentrated in the present tense. Its lifespan is the length of its performance. It emerges out of nowhere and disappears into nothingness. It manifests and expires in the same instant. Its two ingredients—sound and silence—evaporate into the hazy ether and the fuzzy recesses of the mind. It leaves no physical traces behind. To the extent that the music existed at all, it occupied the invisible spaces of time and consciousness. It was more energy than mass—more essence than substance.

The preceding eulogy applies to all music. Nothing of the thing lives beyond the act of its creation. Even when meticulously composed and faithfully played, note for note, it is not the same music that was heard before. Its relationship with prior performances is that of a facsimile or reenactment, not a resurrection. Similarly, audio recordings, while capturing data in a replayable format, should not be confused with permanence. What is heard is an impression of performance—however exacting—but not the performance itself. Like light reaching us from a long-extinct star, what enters our ears has already passed away.

The same can be said for musical notation. Though the printed page has material form, the paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre made this point in his book, L’Imaginaire (1940). According to Sartre, true existence cannot be claimed for any musical work. Music is not located in the silent symbolism of bar lines, notes, key signatures, dynamics or articulations. Nor is it found in any one performance, since all renditions are fundamentally new and ephemeral creations. In contrast to something empirically real—defined by Sartre as existing in the past, future and present—music disappears as soon as it is heard. Whatever lingering impact it may have in terms of thoughts, images, feelings or earworms, occurs solely in the mind.

This is not always seen as a positive attribute. Indeed, on some level, the desire to record music—both on paper and in audio files—reflects discomfort with the art form’s evanescence. As a rule, human beings are averse to impermanence and all the insecurity, unease and futility it implies. But the reality is that nothing lasts forever. From the moment a thing comes into being, it is in a state of decay. So we invent afterlife scenarios and gods that live forever. We think of truth and wisdom as eternal forces. We publish ideas, film events, build monuments, and make musical time capsules (notation and recordings). We fabricate fixity for fleeting forms.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.