Notations

Notations 21
By Theresa Sauer 
(Mark Batty Publisher)
 2009

Review by Robin Rimbaud

When Henry Miller wrote that ‘whatever there be of progress in life comes not through adaptation but through daring’ he could have been thinking about the often-audacious explorations in composition in the last century.
In the past eighty years or so the performing arts – music, theatre and dance – have undergone a tremendous exploratory shift, with artists increasingly employing indeterminate approaches or improvisation in their work, as well as utilizing software and digital tools that has meant abandoning more traditional methods of scoring sound and movement, and thereby seeking ever more inventive ways in which to document and implement these changes and developments. Forty years ago John Cage and Alison Knowles captured the spirit of these unconventional times in their publication ‘Notations,’(1968) presenting scores from Henry Cowell, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown amongst others in a desirable and immeasurably collectable and influential volume.
Now Notations 21, a coffee table scaled publication, lands with a resounding thud onto bookshelves. Edited by American musicologist Theresa Sauer, she attempts to emulate the spirit of Cage and Knowles in exploring the developments in graphical scoring in the intervening period. Presenting 290 scores by 165 composers, including Steve Reich, Marina Rosenfeld, Stockhausen, Stephen Vitiello, Phill Niblock, Robert Ashley, it’s a visual bacchanal of marginal revelry. At points it nudges against Fluxus influences with Jennifer Walshe’s THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D ON PILLS, where performers must learn to skateboard to participate, via the reductionist circuit diagram abstraction of Michael J. Schumacher’s binary scores, and the Outsider Art of Gary Noland, to present an amusement park of musical possibilities.
It could be argued that ironically the advent of technology has encouraged these often-indulgent experiments, with software notational programmes such as Sibelius able to translate every symbolic gesture on a computer keyboard into a musical note. The time of handwritten scores has gone the way of snail mail for many and it is clear that some composers are actively engaged in developing often profoundly evasive scores that rebel against putting pen on paper, offering up an open place for performers in particular to interpret and engage afresh with a score.
As with any publication on this scale it’s the absentees that intrigue. No Charlemagne Palestine, Meredith Monk, Max Neuhaus, Christina Kubisch, Akio Suzuki, Ferrari, Parmegiani, Schaeffer, Bayle, barely any electro-acoustic or recent digital representation at all, but for the moment one can still enjoy the provocative beauty of this publication and enjoy as a complex space to consider and imagine distinctly untrodden sonic worlds.