Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Notation Question, again: that obscure aura of notational complexity

The comments to my small notation question -- about use of C and slashed-C time signatures instead of pure-numerical signatures, here -- were very helpful. From now on, I will try to restrict myself to numerical signatures, unless I wish to explicitly invoke an archaic style from some tradition, for example band music (where cut-time, for example, can be an efficient tempo and stylistic indicator) or early music. Scott Spiegelberg made a suggestion about applying tempus and prolation indications to new music; in his Music Primer, Lou Harrison makes the same suggestion, recommending Morley's Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music as an introduction to rhythmic modes and noting that early Rock and Roll favored tempus inperfectum, prolation perfect (that is to say, 6/8 time). I'm fond of this compositional idea, but I think that, when all is said and done, especially given the ample musicological experience with ambiguous modal notation, it'll be both more efficient and less ambiguous to notate such relationships with numerical notation.

A tangential rhythmic notation question, and one on which I have not been able to get a handle is that of the prevailing counting unit. There was a tendency in the twentieth century to use smaller units (eighths or sixteenths, for example, instead of halves or quarters) and I honestly suspect that this is more for a certain visual appeal -- that obscure aura of notational complexity -- than for facilitating real musical performances. To be fair, I don't have concrete evidence that the smaller units are more or less difficult to read or lead to more or less accurate readings, but I'd just about bet that this is another case of image trumping substance.


the improvising guitarist said...

There was a tendency in the twentieth century to use smaller units… and I honestly suspect that this is more for a certain visual appeal… than for facilitating real musical performances.

In some cases smaller units can express additive rhythms with greater ease. I suppose that is, broadly defined, for visual appeal, but it’s also to facilitate performance. My 2¢.

S, tig

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Related to tig's comment, but more broadly, smaller units allow beaming for connections of rhythmic units, making sight reading of the rhythms easier and composer's intentions of groupings more clear.

Daniel Wolf said...

Scott, tig :

I was thinking here of scores in which the basic pulse is an eighth or sixteenth or even smaller. In such settings,I find that distinguishing 16ths from 32nds and 32nds from 64ths can really add to the mental processing, even when the basic pulse is very slow (there are some scores with tempi in the neighborhood of 32nd=40!).

With a basic pulse of a quarter, at reasonable tempi, the internal requiring rapid reading subdivisions will fall under a beam anyways.

I agree with Scott that beaming can be very useful in grouping -- I even experimented, in some scores, with beaming or flagging back- and forwards in place of slurs -- but, again, this will happen with subdivisions of a quarter as well.

Perhaps a useful standard for additive rhythms is to have each metric foot beamed together, so long as each foot falls within a reasonable spectrum of tempi.

TimR-J said...

I've wondered the same thing from time to time. It's not actually a practice I have too much of a problem with (I never have to play those scores, just look at them in musicological admiration...!). The best answer I've come up with to the question is that - as your post and our comments here demonstrate - on looking at a score we do sense a difference between a prestissimo crotchet and an andante demisemiquaver, and it follows that if that difference exists, it has some musical character that can be exploited compositionally.

There may also be something in the way that the bar was reimagined in the 20thC: whereas earlier, the lower middleground of the music - ie, phrases - stretched over several bars, as the grammar of metre and tonality that underpinned this fell away, the bar itself tended to become the phrase-length unit. And, thus, note values shortened so that more information could be squeezed into a relatively smaller space. (This is a speculation that I've just come up with - I don't know how well it holds up to examination.)

docker said...

One of my own maxims for music notation is "If you want two things to sound the same, notate them the same way."

By corollary, if you want things to sound differently, use different notation. (This is mostly on a small level, a measure or two at most.)

If you want to confuse your performers and waste time, notate things you intend to sound the same in different ways. I've seen this a lot.

As for choosing a meter, maybe on a formal level changing from a half-note meter to a sixteenth meter for entire sections of a piece will have a psychological effect on the players. But if the perceived tempo of the music (i.e. based only on hearing, not seeing, the beat) is similar in the two sections, I wonder if much good would come of it.

As an experiment, suppose you took the same music, notated twice (one in halves the other in 1/16s with a 4-fold tempo difference) recorded each version and played these for trained musicians without telling them which is which. Would they (we) be able to identify the notational style better than someone who is just guessing? I doubt it.

Finally - notation tends to grow more complex over time even when composers aren't trying to manipulate the system in crazy creative ways. It's a truism that the simplest notation is probably best. But what is the simplest notation? That which the players can comprehend in the least amount of time.

There's that time thing again. So pick the notation that the performers will comprehend most quickly. Which one is that? You should ask the players themselves, not us Internet geeks.

No wait. Don't ask them anything. Most players will not have a clue about these things if you talk about it as an abstract concept. Notate the music both ways (small examples are fine) and show it to them. Watch to see which version makes them curl their nose in confusion.

(I once made a pdf of 4 versions of a cross-hand celesta part by John Adams that I couldn't convince him to simplify. I sent it to every keyboard player I knew - most of whom John knew also - and asked them to vote. The players agreed with me and I won the argument.)