The Art of noise

A new book shows how avant-garde composers use graphics and colour to record their music. David Crowley tunes in

One of the more unexpected publishing sensations of 2008 was Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, a thrilling history of classical music in the 20th century. Of course, the book presented its writer, a New York Times critic, with a challenge: how can the dissonance, abstraction and downright impenetrability of music by composers like Arnold Schoenberg or Karlheinz Stockhausen be conveyed in words? Too much reliance on metaphor and their music comes to seem like little more than mere illus­tration of ideas or images.

Ross’s undoubted brilliance as a writer notwithstanding, he and his publishers came up with a practical solution to this problem. They commis­sioned a satisfyingly functional web­site where readers can listen to audio clips and watch video of the music being performed as they read (see Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet – a 32-minute piece in which the German pioneer of electronic music requires that the musicians play in four separate helicopters whilst commun-icating via cctv – is illus­trated in its reverberating madness in a short
film clip.

What is perhaps a little surprising is that The Rest is Noise makes relatively little of the scores produced by avant-garde composers (it contains the conventional photographic gallery of bespectacled, pale intellectuals). Stockhausen is a case in point. He developed unconventional techniques for scoring his music: Refrain, a 1959 composition for piano and percussion, is written as two semicircles with the refrain of the title printed onto a trans­parent plastic strip which can be rotated at will. Composition, in such works, is no longer just the business of the ‘composer’. In the early 1970s Stockhausen turned publisher too, setting up his own imprint. His scores were liberated from the monochrome world of inky staffs and typographic notation. In the original score for the Helicopter String Quartet, for instance, each instrument is written in a different colour. The four string lines jump from one staff to the other, perhaps suggesting birds in flight.

Stockhausen’s graphic output features in Notations 21, Theresa Sauer’s new book which gathers together dozens of experimental scores by composers working since the 1950s. It explores the different and often baffling faces of what is some­times called ‘graphic notation’, the use of unconventional symbols – some­times from unlikely sources – to guide the performers. Many of the resulting scores look like abstract paintings, circuit diagrams or exercises in experi­mental typography. This, of course, makes perfect sense: classical music and the visual arts have been close partners for much of the century. Famously, Wassily Kandinsky tried to capture the emotional power of music in his paintings, whilst many of John Cage’s compositions – like his celebrated 4’33” in which performers and audience sit in silence tuning into the ambient sounds of the space – are pioneering works of conceptual art.
Notations 21 was directly inspired by Cage, perhaps the most influential avant-garde composer of the last century. In 1968, he wrote to dozens
of avant-garde composers as well as his Fluxus artist friends asking them to provide a composition and a comment on their views of what notation is and, importantly, what it is not. Sauer’s book revives the same method: scores are reproduced with short texts which sometimes explain the intention of the composer.

Cage’s shadow falls over Notations 21 in other ways too. Many of the compositions share the American composer’s interest in Indian philo­sophy and Zen Buddhism. Famously he used numerical systems in the Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes) as instruments to shape his compositions. Similar chance systems shape the provocation in Sauer’s book. Gaël Navard’s Hexagonie is a game in which musicians move their pieces on a board marked with musical symbols to create a constantly changing score (see hexagon, previous spread).

Some of the material in Notations 21 hovers on the edge of legibility. Works by Will Redman, a former punk drummer, are immediately recognisable as musical scores but, organised vertically and horizontally, they look as if they obey an entirely new set of laws. The staves stretch and break free of the gravity of pitch and notes gather in crowded clusters like the visual buzz of a migraine. Lacking vertical bar lines or a time signature, the score offers little guidance about rhythm or meter. Redman’s aim is not to present the musician with a head­ache, but to encourage improvisation. His pieces come with the injunction ‘For interpretation, however radical, by any performer(s) in any place, at any time, in any part, for any duration’.

Other composers eschew conven­tional notation altogether. Pavilion Score by Steve Roden, a painter and sound artist, features in the book. Commissioned to produce a perform­ance in Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Mora’s Serpentine Gallery 2005 Summer Pavilion (with Cecil Balmond), Roden adopted – on paper – the structure’s gently curving grid into a coloured framework (shown, far left). Correspond­ing to the colours on a child’s glockenspiel, the architectural drawing could be ‘played’ by Roden or any of his untrained musicians.

Colour has long been a preoccu­pation of classical composers. One hundred years ago, Russian composer Alexander Scriabin attempted to produce ‘light-music art’. His Prometheus featured a light score above the instrumental score. It was played on an instrument called the Chromola which generated colours on a huge box suspended above the orchestra. To maximize the effect in the auditorium, Scriabin demanded that the audience at the New York premiere in 1915 dress entirely in white. Underlying such experiments was Scriabin’s own synaesthesia, the capacity to feel combinations of sensations which are normally experienced separately.

Halim El-Dabh, one of the most prominent figures in Notations 21, contributes a recent piece entitled Canine Wisdom which takes the form of clusters of hand-drawn and variously-scaled coloured circles (shown, top right). Each colour represents the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, whilst the diameters of the circles suggest rhythms and duration. This system is derived from early Egyptian musical notation (which, bizarrely, this Egyptian composer first encountered in an page ripped from American Vogue abandoned on the New York Metro in 1952). By sounding colour, El-Dabh’s vibrant score aims to produce not only synaesthetic effects in the minds of the performers but in the audience too. When the piece was performed in 2007, after getting both the audience and the sextet playing the piece to breathe in tempo, the images were projected for all to see. El-Dabh described the effect as “a slowly blossoming cloud in which colour and sound merged as one”.
El-Dabh, by his own account, appears to be a synaesthete for whom colours and images trigger intense auditory sensations. For those of us not neurologically wired in this way, many of the graphic scores in Notations 21 perhaps hint as this rich sensory world of sounds and images.

David Crowley is deputy head of Design History at the Royal College of Art. Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer is published by Mark Batty Publisher; £38. More details at

More from CR

Steve McQueen at the Venice Biennale

Steve McQueen represents Great Britain at the 2009 Venice Biennale with a new film, Giardini. You can see a few excerpts from the work here, in an interview on the British Council site, or click through for some stills, which look rather beautiful in their own right…

Txt Island

This charming stop motion animation is by director Chris Gavin. Using only a retro signage board and a set of plastic letters, Gavin has conjured up an epic jungle adventure…

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency