Does it matter?

“Does it matter if a piece of music is unrecognisable when played on a different occasion?”

This is a question I was asked by Rachel Pugh, who I met at a ‘Blogging for creative freelances’ FEU training session. As usual, when I mentioned graphic scores there were many different reactions from curiosity to complete confusion. Rachel emailed me afterwards and, among the blogging discussions, she asked me this question. I get similar questions a lot, so I’m going to share my response here for anyone else who may be wondering…

Ooh, interesting question! Obviously the performances of a graphic score will be different, but how different depends on how much the composer has determined. So I guess the answer is: it depends on the composer’s intention. If a composer has written a graphic score that they intend to have a certain sound world (e.g. quiet, sparse, short sounds), then all performances of that piece should have those features in common. Unless a listener knew the piece of music, they probably wouldn’t be able to listen to two performances and say that it’s the same piece, but they should at least sound similar even if they have different notes, instrumentation etc. In that case, it would matter if there was a performance of the piece that went against the composer’s intentions (e.g. loud, dense, long sounds) – that either means the performers haven’t read the instructions or the composer hasn’t set out their intentions clearly enough!

However, there are some graphic scores that give the performer so much freedom of choice that no two performances sound the same. For example, Treatise by Cornelius Cardew is an incredibly long graphic score (over 100 pages!) and has absolutely no instructions. So it doesn’t matter if performances of this piece sound completely different because the composer hasn’t given any indication of his intentions for the sound. In fact, part of his intention was probably to see how different performers used and interpreted the score.

I hope that answered your question! Of course, if you asked other musicians you’d probably get a different response…some people think that graphic scores aren’t compositions at all because the composer hasn’t given you a linear piece of music that will sound the same each time. So those people would say that it does matter if the piece is unrecognisable when played on different occasions and would use that as the basis of their argument!

If you think of another question while you’re reading this, send it my way on my Facebook page or using the contact form. I’d love to have a discussion with you all about graphic scores!

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