The Graphic Score as Instrument
March 31, 2012
— education, electronic music, graphic scores, installation art, literacy, music education, software, sound, sound art, steven speciale, teaching, thermin, three modes of listening
Because music is ephemeral, invisible, and abstract, it is peculiarly difficult to talk or write about it. These complexities are never more apparent than when trying to compose. Devising a way to efficiently and explicitly communicate sonic intention to another person borders on being a black art! In my music appreciation classes, we examined how scores convey the invisible abstractions of music. We also examined the limitations of traditional notation and studied other composer’s graphic solutions for unique compositional problems.
We spent a week doing some “Deep Listening” exercises as crafted by Pauline Oliveros, reading Michel Chion’s essay on the nature of sound, and examining the notion of soundscape as defined by R. Murray Schafer.
To synthesize these concepts, I had the students make graphic scores of one of their “Deep Listening” experiences. Creating these scores was an opportunity for them to consider compositional issues. They asked themselves questions like “What sounds are demanding my attention and what sounds are in the background?” “How do I notate the Doppler effect of a city bus driving by?” “What sounds are analogs to the musical notion of key?”
As we proceed, the kids blog about their experiences and expressive processes. The projects in this post’s embedded videos represent an important leap: the move from perception to intention. I asked them to score a piece for pencil theremin and electronics where the graphic score is also the instrument.
A small circuit board with a battery and speaker is attached to a regular wooden pencil. Copper tape is attached to one end of the pencil and wrapped around the pencil where it is grasped. More tape connects the tope end of the board to the top of the pencil. A metal pushpin is stuck through the tape and into the pencil lead itself. Therefore, when one draws with the pencil and touches the graphite on the paper, the circuit is completed and a sound is emitted from the speaker. The greater the distance between the contact points, the lower the pitch!
Using the Pure Data patch host provided by the folks at RJDJ, a reactive sound app company, the students composed reactive recorder/distorters to augment the variety of sounds as well as the reality of the live performance.
In spite of the limitations imposed by the pencil Theremin’s limited sonic palette, some students devised interesting modes of interaction with their scores and apps.
One of the interesting challenges this project presented was the video creation. The composers could choose whether they would play their own piece or be one of two cameramen filming the performance. If they played, the nature of the movie was left in someone else’s hands, and vice versa. They had to abandon complete control of their piece one way or another.