One of the more interesting volumes in my collection of books by John Cage is Notations, which he completed compiling in 1968 and was published the following year by Something Else Press. True to its title, the book consists of one-page illustrations, each a sample of a manuscript by a different composer. As Cage observed in his Preface statement, the result is a survey of “the many directions in which music notation is now going.” There is no attempt to seek patterns in that diversity of directions: The examples are ordered according to the composer’s surname, and no explanatory information is provided.
Nevertheless, there is text accompanying these illustrations. However, it is the result of another “act of composition,” which may, by all rights, be taken to parallel those acts of composition behind each of the illustrations. Here is how Cage explained the process behind this text in his Preface:
The text for the book is the result of a process employing I-Ching chance operations. These determined how many words regarding his work were to be written by or about which of two hundred and sixty-nine composers. Where these passages (never more than sixty-four words, sometimes only one) have been especially written for this book, they are preceded by a paragraph sign and followed by the author’s name. Other remarks were chosen or written by the editors—John Cage and Alison Knowles. Not only the number of words and the author, but the typography too—letter size, intensity, and typeface—were all determined by chance operations. This process was followed in order to lessen the difference between text and illustrations. The composition of the pages is the work of Alison Knowles.
The result has provided me with many hours of thoroughly absorbing browsing experiences. On the one hand we have traditional score pages, ranging from the disarming simplicity of “Linda Bell,” a song by Gene and Francesca Raskin, to a page from Elliott Carter’s piano concerto, in all of its multi-rhythmic complexity. (We also have Charles Ives represented by a page of blank song paper bearing his signature.) There is a page from Lejaren Hiller’s A Triptych for Hieronymus, in which the notes for keyboard, harp, guitar, and mandolin have been grouped together in such a way to form the initials B, O, S, C, and H. Then we have the more technical diagrams: The score page for Gordon Mumma’s “Mesa” is a circuit diagram, that for Max Mathews’ “Pergolesi Development” is a line-printer page of what (on the basis of the date) is probably Music IV code, and Iannis Xenakis’ “Stochastic Music” is a page from a FORTRAN program.
Most interesting for me, however, are those scores that are based on graphic objects. John Whitney’s “Jurnal [sic] Begun July 1st ’47” appears to be based on three photographs of a total eclipse of the sun. Stanley Brouwn’s “This Way Brouwn” is the sort of minimal map one might provide in giving directions. The ultimate achievement in this form of expression is a page of sketches provided by Cornelius Cardew for his book Treatise, a thick volume consisting entirely of graphic designs and absolutely no indication of how they are to be interpreted. (This category would probably also include the “score” for “The Word” by The Beatles, which is a handwritten version of the lyrics embellished with a variety of doodles.) Finally, there are the contributions that consist only of words which may give instructions (one of Yoko Ono’s 9 Concert Pieces for John Cage) or not (“Vertical Hearing or Hearing in the Present Tense,” by La Monte Young).
It is now well over forty years since this book was published. Can it now be viewed as a time capsule capturing the progress of music notation? Probably not; but, taken as a whole, it does provide a valuable snapshot of a time when there was a prodigious diversity of opinions over the relationship between making music and notating music. In many respects it does for music history, strictly by taking a “museum case” approach to providing examples, what Walter J. Ong did for literary history in his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, which consists entirely of expository text.
We come away from reading Ong with a clear sense that the move from oral literature to printed literature involved a cultural “advance” (scare quotes inserted deliberately) based on the need to prioritize faithful reproduction. What is often overlooked is that, where the bardic tradition is concerned, what may have been irretrievably lost in the capture of the words of works like the Iliad or Beowulf in printed text is any sense of the performance practices through which those epics emerged. We see the same thing in the many efforts to notate dance. Many symbol-based representations can account for how the shape of the body changes over time; but the dance itself has more to do with how energy is distributed as that body moves from one shape to another.
The real lesson behind Notations is that any notation of music, no matter how rigorous it may be in its level of specification, is ultimately an abstraction of some process of making music. Cage clearly had an appreciation for the priority of such processes that goes back at least as far as his early focus on all-percussion compositions. By 1958 he was seeking parallels between performance-as-process and composition-as-process; and three lectures that he gave in Darmstadt in September of that year appear in Silence under the title “Composition as Process.” However, if notation can never be anything more than an abstraction, the music-making composer must still address the question of how much of the process should be abstracted (and, as a result, how much the performer should contribute in turning abstract symbols into concrete performance).
When I was first beginning serious studies of music, I had teachers who would emphasize the importance of being able to look at a score page and hear in your head the music represented by the notation. Notations undermined the significance of that emphasis. It was my first serious step towards recognizing that, in writing about any performance of music, I would have to begin by accounting for that performance on the basis of my own sensory experiences, rather than on any criteria grounded in what happened to be on the score pages.
Many years later theorists such as Thomas Clifton would dignify this strategy by calling is a “phenomenological” approach to listening to music. While I have never shied away from drawing upon concepts from philosophy, psychology, or even physics in accounting for my own listening experiences, I fear that Clifton may have garbled his own message out of an academic need to do justice to predecessors such as Edmund Husserl. These days, thanks to Wikipedia, we can no longer justify our arguments by invoking arcane concepts unfamiliar to those we are trying to convince (what one of my professors liked to call “proof by intimidation”). This leaves those of us who write about the performance of music with the need to bring clarity to our thoughts and then express that clarity in language that eschews blowing any intimidating smoke. It is not an easy job; but it is a mission that many of us have chosen to accept with enthusiasm, rather than resignation!