Contemporary Notation Project: Michael Baldwin

It gives me great pleasure to welcome Michael Baldwin as the Rambler’s first ever guest poster. Michael is an American artist currently living in Huddersfield, who works around the medium of sound, specifically in contemporary concert-hall music performance contexts. In his words, he is ‘primarily invested in examining the margins of musical performance practice through foregrounding non-sonic aspects of performance, with an emphasis on physical mannerisms/movement and conditions of body-instrument transaction.’ I’m always interested in margins, as well as matters of musical performance and transmedial coding of information, so I was very happy when Michael offered to write a post for the Contemporary Notation Project explaining his use of video as a notational practice.

If you are a composer with an interesting or unusual notational practice, and you would like to contribute a short post on your work, please get in touch.

As a contribution to this series I offer a recent trio of mine, this is not natural,for double bass, piano and horn. In line with my interest in ‘physical mannerisms/movements and conditions of body-instrument transaction’, a live performance of this is not natural lays bare a rate-of-movement relationship between musicians’ bodies and their musical instruments.

this is not natural – performers: Corey Klein [Horn]; Pieter Lenaerts [double bass]; Tomoko Honda [piano]

The observer of this is not natural is presented with the original raw material of the piece in the first 15 seconds – material that for the remainder of the piece is subjected to temporal, technological and compositional applications of transformation. From these first 15 seconds, the parameter of performance I am most interested in is movement – in particular, musical-instrument influenced physical movement.[1] This parameter, its transformation and, in turn, the remainder of the piece, brings me to the heart of my contribution here.

this is not natural works with video-graphic notation where the production process is important and sequential.

Production process:

  • Initial collaboration with musicians
    • Determination of what physical and sonic elements are deployable at different rates of movement
  • Original 15-second choreography taught to trio
  • A variant version of original choreography taught to trio and video-recorded
    • Only two differences between original choreography and variant version:
      • Performers instructed to direct their line of vision away from each other towards a personal laptop screen
      • Performers physically provoked by a sonic stimulus resulting in disengagement of line-of-vision focus and an attendant facial expression resembling shock
  • Variant version video-recorded from different perspectives and edited to show most important angle for a performer at a given time.
  • Three videos made, with one for each performer
  • Each edited video-recording treated as an object subject to technological alteration through time-stretching
    • Videos stretched from 15 seconds to 9 minutes resulting in dramatically slower rates of physical movement[2]

Variant version of original choreography

Individual video-score (piano)

Here are the scores for horn and double bass. Blue shading in the horn part is indicative of action taking place in or around the mouth.

In performance, the musicians enact the original 15 seconds of raw material from memory and subsequently turn their gaze towards their laptop screen where they continue by performing from their video-score for the remainder of the piece. What the observer is presented with then is in many ways an ambiguous repetition. The repetition is ambiguous in that it at times appears to be a direct repetition of the source material, and at other times either seems to be, or is, a clear departure from the first 15 seconds of material. My own experience of the piece, on a structural level, is one of constantly flickering back and forth in my mind between two modalities of performance-observation (looking and listening) relative to the original presentation of performance and the transformed version of performance, scanning for similarities and differences as they fit within the expectations setup by the initial 15-second framing of material.

Video-scores here are a mixture of descriptive and prescriptive notation that temporally (without recourse to presentation of past or future actions) delineate how a performer moves through space. Performers are confronted with slow-motion video of themselves, which they are instructed to mirror as accurately as possible, effectively embodying technologically distorted versions of themselves.[3] Importantly, this embodiment is only possible through a constant mediation between the performers’ kinesthetic knowledge of how these slow-motion movements feel in real-time (or learned-time). Performers are not simply miming their temporally stretched selves located in the video-scores. Instead, they are always reading – always in dialogue with how they know to move, how they are being shown to move, and how they remember moving.[4]

In my estimation, the presentation of the video-score (and the attendant presence of laptops to display the scores) draws considerable attention in the performers’ minds to body-instrument movement, and attention from the audience towards how musicians move and how they are directed to move – in this case through what can, at times, seem an eerie (or at least distance-inducing) technological means. By shifting the focus towards the arenas of musical movement and human-score interfaces, a resultant affect of ‘making the familiar strange’ (a well-trod artistic device) is manifest. This affect has marked repercussions on not only the atmosphere of the concert-hall, but also casts performative shadows on the pieces before and after.[5] As I perceive it, the piece invites the observer to reassess both retroactively and prospectively the conditions of performance. In other words, the piece and its affect(s) palpably extend well beyond the frame of the piece and begin to seep into an audience’s perception of the surrounding performance context.

this is not natural marks my first exploration into using video-scores as a notational medium, and will likely be a mode of performance-information dissemination in future pieces. Other pieces of mine have used alternative scores/notations such as audio-scores, picture-scores and mimetic/human-scores. For readers interested in these pieces, more information can be found throughout my website.


[1] Bodily movements informed by transactions and mediations between musicians and their instrument(s) of performance.

[2] One will notice that the degree of temporal stretch is not constant throughout. There are portions that have been warped faster or slower (with the end coming to a complete stand-still). These alterations of temporal stretching are a result of both practical (physically possible) and aesthetic/compositional considerations.

[3] On this point I suggest watching both Renée Lear’s Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion) and, with a less transhumanist tone, Bill Viola’s Quintet of the Astonished.

[4] Although the notation is focused primarily on movement, it is worth noting there are parameters of movement that are not fully accounted for in the video-scores presented here, the most significant of which is amount of force to be applied across the space of movement. In this regard, my video-scores are an incomplete medium towards instructing performance, cannot be engaged on its own (without, I’d argue, faulty extrapolation), and is dependent on the embodied kinesthetic knowledge described above.

[5] Here I am thinking of Michael Chekhov’s notions of atmospheres. Chekhov describes groups of people and the places people occupy (spaces) as having objective atmospheres and that no two distinct atmospheres can co-exist long before one either takes over as dominant or the disparate atmospheres synthesize into one. I would identify three basic elements within a concert-hall setting: the hall itself, the audience (with their cultural and experiential background), and the event/performance staged. What I’d like to propose here is that the atmosphere exuded by this is not natural has the effect of silencing the audience’s and concert-hall’s emanating atmospheric energies, drawing an observer further into the piece’s inner logic and bringing under careful consideration both the spectacle of the event and the sonic byproducts of said spectacle. See Michael Chekhov, To the Actor (Routledge, 2002): 47-62.


Contemporary Notation Project: Richard Glover

Logical Harmonies

These are the first three systems of Logical Harmonies (1) (2011) by Richard Glover. From the preface to the score:

“Letters represent major triads, which may be played in any inversion. RH is top line, LH is bottom line.
Aim to keep chords within a two octave range centred around middle C, although don’t let your hands cross.
Choose inversions close to each other.
Maintain a comfortable, steady pulse (no slower than 30 chords per minute) throughout the entire piece, including system changes.
Moderate dynamic, sensitive (and wholly consistent) pedalling.”

The first things that strike you – and I think are the fundamentals of the piece – are the systematic process (two series of chords that slip out of phase with one another, one step per system); the pseudo-tonal basis in triadic harmonies (using letter names, no less!) and a cycle of fifths; and the neutral, grid-like layout.

But at the heart of this piece I believe is a tension between an almost banal idea (and notation) and a surprising wealth of allusion and historical context.

The piece’s conception – systematically devised chords arranged ostensibly in regular rhythms – resembles Tom Johnson’s Chord Catalogue. However, the respective mechanisms of the two pieces are quite different, giving rise to considerable differences in voice-leading, texture, form … And those too shape the rhythmic impression of the piece, through unpredictable suspensions, repetitions and so on. In both pieces this is all possibly accidental, but emerges as definitive, an interesting by-product of our inevitably historicised listening.

(Performance by Sebastian Berweck.)

The use of a standard font (Helvetica, I think), without even the introduction of special characters for flat signs, gives the score a utilitarian, didactic feel whose roots lie in Cardew’s Schooltime Special, or some of the text pieces of the English 70s (I’m thinking of Bryars and others here). There’s a humility to it, I feel.

Michael Pisaro, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, has spoken of the function of the grid in experimental music (eg. Cage, Feldman, Ablinger and Pisaro himself). Of early Feldman he writes:

“The visceral impact of a good performance of these pieces (by, for example, John Tilbury) is related to the directness of the score: one can in a very direct way play the surface features of pulse and density, without the unnecessary mediation of the staff and time signature.”

The overall effect of Glover’s piece, however, belies the rigid austerity of its score. Instead of gridded formality, Logical Harmonies sounds an amorphous, pantonal slither, always threatening familiarity, but never quite delivering it. There’s that tension between an almost pedagogical notation and a depth of allusion and expression.

“The covered market of Les Halles, by universal consent, constitutes the most irreproachable construction of the past dozen years … It manifests one of those logical harmonies which satisfy the mind by the obviousness of its signification.” Victor Fournel, Paris nouveau et Paris futur, p.213, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.194.

As it happens, Philip Thomas will be performing Logical Harmonies (1) at St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, this Thursday. Concert starts at 7.30pm, and also features works by Christopher Fox, Marc Sabat, eldritch Priest, Martin Arnold, Linda C. Smith and Bryn Harrison. A portrait disc of Glover’s music, featuring Logical Harmonies, is due to be released on another timbre in summer. Glover has spoken a little about his music, and this piece in particular, in two posts on Lauren Redhead’s blog: 1, 2.

Find previous entries in this series under the Contemporary Notation Project tag, or via the Secret Music page.

Contemporary Notation Project: Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks (born 1989) is a student at Harvard University, where he is studying with Chaya Czernowin. Obviously it is far too early to make any judgement about the direction in which his work is heading, but those scores available on his (also graphically striking) website suggest at least a partial interest in the intersections of notation, action and sound as related dimensions of a single aesthetic idea. Which does make for some lovely looking scores.

Poliks suggested that I feature his JUST SHUFFLING (2011) for alto flute and cello, but I could have chosen several others. I recommend having a browse through some of the others.

As well as the Soundcloud file above, there is also a video of JUST SHUFFLING; in both cases the music is performed by Laura Cocks, alto flute, and Eric Tinkerhess, cello. The full score, and others, is available on Poliks’ website.

Contemporary Notation Project: Drew Baker

The extract above (click to enlarge) is from Stress Position (2008) for amplified piano, by Drew Baker. This piece has had some press recently, thanks to its performance by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet in May. Here’s a short interview with Baker about it on the Quartet’s website; and here’s a thoughtful review by Will Robin.

As Baker notes in that interview, the work is politically-inspired, and uses the piano as “the perfect instrument through which to examine the topic of torture” (a stress or submission position being a well-known interrogation tool). That’s communicated through the notation itself. The music is highly repetitive, being based on two simultaneous, continuous demisemiquaver pulse tones at opposite extremes of the piano (the high B flat and low B natural at the top and bottom of the chords above). Over the course of the work, other pitches between are gradually filled in; the example above comes a couple of pages before the end, at maximum vertical density. The piece’s harmonic and rhythmic single-mindedness recalls the minimalism of Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music. And yet the fact that every one of those pulses is precisely written out rather than more loosely suggested, drags the piece into a whole new sphere. The demands and expectations of the performer are just different in tone, even if practically they might be much the same.

Strumming Music is a very different, much more ingratiating piece. There are certainly elements of discipline in its performance, and it is a superhuman feat to pull off; but the spiritual dimension of its sounds points towards the durational disciplines of training and meditation, rather than torture and punishment. Internally directed and positive in intent, rather than the outward and evil forces dramatised in Stress Position.

I can’t help thinking, too, that the choice of a computer set score adds to that sense. Certainly this is the kind of piece that benefits a hundred times over from the convenience of digital cut-and-paste, but I don’t get the sense that digital has been chosen only as the more convenient option: the impersonality and the machine-like input/response narrative behind the work’s inspiration are also effectively conveyed.

Here’s a performance by Jonathan Katz:

Baker is clearly a composer who thinks carefully about notation. The bonus image below comes from his Whisper Wall (2005), a hand-drawn score, very different in appearance, for 12 musicians. (Update: listen here on Soundcloud.) The merits of computer-set scores vs handwritten ones have recently been debated by Rob Deemer at NewMusicBox, and it’s interesting in this light that Baker responded to my call for new scores a while ago with an example of each. Horses for courses.

Previous posts in this series may be found here:

Watch and listen to Charlie Sdraulig’s hush

If you were intrigued by the extract from Charlie Sdraulig’s hush that I posted last month, then hopefully you’ll love this video of Martino Panizza and Alice Purton giving its first performance at the RCM playing it at City University after the premiere:

There’s also a recording on Soundcloud, although given the ephemeral nature of the work I would recommend watching as well as listening if you can.

Contemporary Notation Project: Chris Opperman

Going by what I’ve been sent so far, I imagine most of the scores that I’ll be posting in the CNP are going to be pretty idiosyncratic in one way or another. (Seriously – stick around.) Chris Opperman writes from a more conventional place, at least notationally speaking.

But we like to be reasonably non-partisan here, so Chris’s submission is very welcome. Besides, it would be strange to ignore the role of high quality DTP publishing and the continuing role of more or less standard notational practices in contemporary music making. Kagemusha is a tone poem based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 film, and has recently received its world premiere from the Berklee College of Music Symphonic Winds, conducted by Dominick Ferrara. Its extended triadic harmony, groove-based rhythms and stratified orchestration sit in that zone between Stravinsky and rocky postminimalism characteristic of a lot of today’s music.

Opperman also composes in a sweet minimalist vein, as reflected in his Klavierstücke: