Graphic Notation – Stepping Into a Visual World

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Every musician has undoubtedly seen graphic notation written by John Cage, Morton Feldman and other masterminds of this link between music and visual arts. What is behind these mysterious scores that start with symbols on a staff and end up looking like abstract designs? Danielle Palardy Roger and Joane Hétu, co-directors at SuperMusique, have helped us discover this mystery through workshops and concerts presented for more than 20 years. “From its inception, SuperMusique was mostly made of self-taught professionals from the theatre, visual arts, and street music industries,” said Roger. “Graphic notation brought all of us around the music table.” Over the years, SuperMusique has specialized in improvised music and sound exploration, gaining greater expertise in contemporary music circles.

Graphic Notation, a Scavenger Hunt

Through searching for an interaction between sound, space, and drawing styles, graphic notation borders music and visual arts. Additionally, this notation hints at a musical statement that may change from one performer to the other, for the performer becomes the work’s co-creator. Because this writing might take many varied forms, graphic notation compensates for the limitations of traditional scores. The pioneers of this notation were noise-music experimental composers such as Luigi Russolo; composers of aleatoric music such as John Cage and Morton Feldman; and improvisers such as Earle Brown, Anestis Logothetis and Pauline Oliveros. As the 20th century progressed, the graphic notation model spread through experimental jazz and conceptual rock while continuing to address the creative idea that traditional notation could not faithfully reproduce.

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Graphic notation often comes with written instructions to demystify symbols, forms and colours and create a framework that performers can use to express their creativity. “Having the instrumentalist take part in new music compositions is crucial and ever more present,” Roger says. “Graduating students feel the need to express themselves as new instrumentalists.” Productions SuperMusique programmed a concert around the theme of graphic notation at Le Gesù last November. Two compositions by Émilie Girard-Charest and Marielle Groven were performed. This notation was at the heart of works written by composer Symon Henry. So far, the world of graphic notation has had a certain fondness since the 21st century began. “Graphic notation is like a scavenger hunt, for a wealth of treasures can be unearthed,” said Roger, adding that “each composer has their own language and aesthetic from one piece to another. The instrumentalist must master the composer’s language from the start, even though the musician specializing in graphic notation already knows which kind of sound material the composer will gravitate toward.”

Danielle Palardy Roger, co-director of Productions SuperMusique

Danielle Palardy Roger, co-director of Productions SuperMusique

Empowering Future Musicians

At the request of several students, SuperMusique has increased initiatives to make the use of graphic notation scores – a useful tool for a composer’s or performer’s career – more accessible for nearly ten years. SuperMusique is satisfying an increasing need for creators who seek to broaden their musical language out of curiosity or genuine interest by facilitating workshops at Le Gesù, the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur and Sala Rossa, and organizing internships and mentoring activities at the Université de Montréal in partnership with the Cercle des étudiants compositeurs (CéCO). “Of the students who took part in our internships, many of them are now part of SuperMusique,” Roger says.

Receptiveness from traditional institutions, however, remains limited. Students often seek training outside conservatories and universities through workshops and especially instrumental practice, both individually and collectively. “Each instrumentalist spends hours and full days exploring their own language, whether it’s technical or timbral virtuosity,” Roger says. “This is how listening skills and individual language are broadened. This is the root of everything.”

By parting ways with traditional patterns, composers and instrumentalists in this world of graphic notation and improvised music discover a cohabitation space where a creative artistry is shared among various participants. Composers trust performers; performers are free to express their personality and creativity.

Graphic notation scores are not the only means of encouraging creative artistry. Acting styles, such as the most familiar form of sound-painting, created by conductors to compose music in real time, are another example of said artistry. Invented and theorized by Walter Thompson, sound-painting boasts more than a thousand movements for conductors who communicate with the orchestra to create a true sound painting. At SuperMusique, the established acting styles that have expanded through inventions are made of traditionally accepted sound-painting movements and inventions by Jean Derome, Diane Labrosse, Joane Hétu and Roger, to name but a few. This language is booming, so much so that a more detailed article on this topic could be written.

Productions Supermusique’s concert Canot-Camping Expédition #9 by composer and conductor Jean Derome won the 2019 Opus Prize – best concert of the year, actual and electroacoustic music.

By being involved in the education of future musicians and composers, highlighting a century of research and inventions in the graphic notation and sound experiment fields, and committing to organize concerts and accept commissioned works, Productions SuperMusique has spotted a unique niche that meets a genuine need among music lovers across Quebec. This niche will undoubtedly grow as the years go by. What a great way to awaken everyone’s curiosity! 

Translation by Dwain Richardson

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Benjamin Goron est écrivain, musicologue et critique musical. Titulaire d’un baccalauréat en littérature et d’une maîtrise en musicologie de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, il a collaboré à plusieurs périodiques et radios en tant que chercheur et critique musical (L’Éducation musicale, Camuz, Radio Ville-Marie, SortiesJazzNights, L'Opéra). Depuis août 2018, il est rédacteur adjoint de La Scena Musicale. Pianiste et trompettiste de formation, il allie musique et littérature dans une double mission de créateur et de passeur de mémoire.

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