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. For anyone who has studied music, or even just glanced at a musical score, a graphic score offers a very different world indeed. I want to look at the joy and challenge of the graphic score.

very colourful book cover with abstract shapes and colours all over it. The text on the front reads NOTATIONS 21

Composers have often searched for ways in which to challenge themselves, or avoid following the traditional steps. In many ways graphic scores have enabled so many creatives, for whom a score in itself was alienating or just too restrictive. Instead of following traditional notation, with notes on staves, we see abstract shapes, colours, lines, even words. In a sense we see a picture of how the composer is hearing the music. Or anticipates hearing the music. What’s interesting from a purely visual point of view is how closely these scores are related to contemporary art.

My first discovery of graphic scores

I’ve previously written about my discovery of graphic scores, in my Podcast last year. I was travelling home from the West End of London, about 14 years old, and sitting across from a man on the District Line train to Wimbledon. In those days the London Tube had seats that meant that you sat almost knee to knee with a stranger, directly across from one another, and in a typically British manner you would learn the skill of staring into an imaginary distance whenever seated in this way, or like me, simply bury your head in a book. On this occasion however it was unavoidable. The man in front of me had an enormous black folder open on his lap, with colourful papers on display, and he was deeply engrossed in this extraordinary, well, what was it exactly? An artist portfolio?

He noticed my curiosity and we began to chat. It turned out that he was a conductor and lived on the same street as my family. We ended up chatting all the way back to my house and I learnt that these wholly alien notes were in fact a musical manuscript by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. A man who would come to play a direct influence on my life later on. And, even without hearing a note, I was fascinated.

A circle of colourful graphics, with the text Cosmic Pulses in orange text handwritten, and lines lines traversing the circles like a spiders web

The scores for piano music I was studying at school suddenly became extremely dull and grey, too rigid and strict. I was equally interested in the visual arts as I was music so here was a new way for me to think about composing music and encouraging others to play. It was free, it was open, it was flexible and most importantly it offered a huge responsibility to the performer to interpret the composer’s ideas in performance.

A book cover, completely white, blank, with black text that says Notations John Cage

John Cage ‘Notations’

Despite its rather innocuous cover John Cage’s Notations (1969) was an extremely important publication, comprised of graphic scores and texts by 269 composers. In collaboration with Alison Knowles they captured the spirit of these unconventional times presenting scores from Henry Cowell, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown amongst others in a desirable and immeasurably collectable and influential volume. It even featured the manuscript for The Beatles song The Word from their Rubber Soul (1965) album, as a nod towards to music outside of the classical world.

Projection 1 (1950

One of the most beautiful and earliest examples of a graphic score can be experienced in Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 (1950) for solo cello. The score is entirely original, where time is represented by space. It’s a consistently quiet piece and when listening to it you’ll need to breathe quietly to let it reveal itself. Feldman was interested in freeing sounds, not performers, but needed to begin somewhere.

Black and white image of squares with P2 and A written in many of them. It's neat like a circuit diagram

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 utilising 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. A quick look at some of them here is proof of the variety of approaches.

Stripsody for solo voice (1966)

Cathy Berberian (1925-1983) was an American mezzo-soprano and composer based in Italy, who worked closely with many contemporary avant-garde music composers, including Luciano Berio,John Cage, Henri Pousseur, and Igor Stravinsky. In 1966 she composed her first musical work, Stripsody for solo voice, exploring the onomatopoeic sounds of comic strips illustrated by Roberto Zamarin, which are used to convey a succession of engaging vignettes. It’s worth watching her perform this live too.

Black and white abstract image with shapes and lines, and words that say "its a bird and it's superman"

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (1963-1967)

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was an English experimental music composer, and founder (with Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons) of the Scratch Orchestra, an experimental performing ensemble. Treatise is an extraordinarily detailed and dense work. You are instructed that Treatise is “for any number of musicians with any instruments, [and] may be performed in whole or in part.” The score actually gives no clear directions on how to perform the work, nor what instrument to use. It’s well worth a deep dive on Google to listen and watch the different interpretations of this incredible work.

Black and white image, with a Musical score at the bottom, completely empty. Only a large black circle and another one beside cut in half future

Oblique Strategies (Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) (1975)

Oblique Strategies is a remarkably simple idea, far removed from elaborate graphics, that in actuality features only words. It’s a set of cards that musician Brian Eno and his painter friend Peter Schmidt devised, that feature 100 cards in a box. Each of these features a phrase to inspire when you are creatively blocked. Such phrases as ‘Not building a wall, but making a brick,’ ‘Always first steps’ and the almost legendary ‘honour thy error as a hidden intention.’ Now isn’t that the perfect get out excuse for a bum note in a performance? Countless musicians have used these over the years, including Talking Heads, David Bowie, Devo and Coldplay. There’s even an online version of the set.

A black box of playing cards on a table. There's a pile of cards beside the box and three on display with white background and texts that suggest 'be dirty - give way to your worse impulse' and listen to the quiet voice

To Be Continued (2016)

Christian Marclay (b.1955) is a visual artist and composer, whose work explores the connections between sound, noise, photography, video, and film. His body of work is quite phenomenal and I’ve been fortunate to witness many of his live performances and installations over the years, and my book shelves heave under the weight of his catalogues. This work in particular is a graphic score of 48 pages made up of extracts from comics. Marclay also created Graffiti composition (1996) where he glued pages of blank musical staves to the city walls, without any indication. “Passers-by started to write music there,” he said.

Notations 21 (2009)

Back in 2009, Notations 21, joined my personal library of books. Edited by American musicologist Theresa Sauer, she attempted 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.

Colourful music score with lines and abstract shapes. All hand drawn, full of energy!

It could be argued that ironically that 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.

This is only a modest entry into the world of the graphic score. It’s literally skimming the surface. There is so much more to discover out there. Such scores and ideas can offer a provocative reflection upon more traditional routes to music. Let them long continue to reveal untrodden sonic worlds for us all.