Notations – seeing sound

Is it possible for music and sound to be a visual art as well as a hearing one? This is a question that I have been mulling over for some time and one that lies at the heart of the work I am doing at the moment. I am interested in a synthesis of sound, landscape and music notation and whether drawing sound could be a way of creating an aural landscape where sound is visualised and landscape is heard. I am exploring this by looking at various forms of notation.

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Notation is a recognised system of symbols (essentially marks on paper) that visually represent a music or sound idea. Standard notations are well-known, clearly defined structures that are able to communicate sound information in a functional and precise manner. I consider the characteristics of three notations that are able to articulate sound: text, Western musical notation and graphic scores.

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Text and words are the visual form of speech. Indeed, as you are reading this you are probably also hearing my words in your head. The traditional Western musical notation of a score is read by a musician who has the skill to interpret and hear a composer’s thoughts.

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Both these types of notation can be understood aurally when the written language has been learnt. Furthermore a musician can also realise music notation by playing them on a musical instrument as the notational elements of a musical score are there to fulfil a purpose which is to ‘sound out’ a composers’ ideas. A musical score is normally thought of as silent and would generally be deemed redundant if it weren’t to be played by musicians, however, we don’t question the functionality of a script if we don’t read it out aloud.  Thus, we are able to learn the symbols of script or score, understand their meanings and consequently ‘hear’ those meanings in our heads – our eyes are able to see the sounds inferred.

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However, both these notations create boundaries and an artist can only take their ideas as far as the conventional limits of the system will allow. Formal notations can constrain an artist who wants to be able to communicate a suggestive or poetic sound idea that falls outside of the standard structure of known marks.

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From the 1950s composers such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Earle Brown moved away from the restrictions of conventional musical notation to find new solutions. The reasons for this were various: to create a greater artistic freedom with a new range of sounds and sound relationships, to enable creative improvisation and interpretive freedom in performance. Graphic scores were the medium through which composers were able to articulate their ground breaking new ideas.

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Graphic scores are a way of communicating musical or sound ideas through drawing. Although some composers only used drawing alongside modifications of conventional musical notation others invented a completely different approach.  Experimental marks and pictures represented sounds and became the alternative means of expressing creativity and the boundaries between notation as music and notation as art became blurred. The marks made on a graphic score are not the learnt mark of a standard script or musical score, they are imagined marks that come from the creator’s mind – there are no set rules for creation or interpretation attached to them. The creator will have had an idea but the final interpretation is only constrained by the reader’s imagination.

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I believe that a graphic score is able to blur the boundaries between cognition and performance or put another way, notation as art and notation as music. By using abstract drawn, painted or constructed marks that are not a traditional recognised sound notation the work becomes a hybrid, a mixture of sound notation and visual and tactile marks that leave enormous scope for the imaginative interpretation of the reader. Art exists to enhance human understanding and the method of inferring aural, visual and even tactile experience through the medium of a graphic score gives the creator the freedom to express more than standardised notations are able to offer.

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I want to draw attention to the way in which we experience our surroundings using the visual, aural and tactile senses. In these photographs I am creating visual and tactile marks that represent sound but leave us with the paradox of a silent score – a score that is not meant to be performed but one that is to be looked at, touched and consequently heard.

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3 thoughts on “Notations – seeing sound

  1. Reesa

    Hi Debbie. I am a musician (music teacher) and textile artist. I often have asked myself the same question. I love your pieces. I also appreciate your commentary. Some people think of the notation as being the music, however as you explained it is truly just a way for the composer of the music to communicate their musical ideas to the performers. Using the western musical symbols within a piece of visual art do little to express anything musical.

    Reply

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