Dan Schnee, who maintains a terrific blog, is a saxophonist and drummer, a visual artist, a superb scholar of several aspects of Asian culture, to mention merely a few of the arrows in his bountiful quiver. He has a strong interest & practice in free improvisation. I knew none of that except for that very last when he approached me some years ago during his Ph. D. studies at York University with a few of the drawings he makes as graphic scores for free improvisation and asked me if I could comment on it “as a semiotician”.
— –I confess his request then made me quiver, just a touch, especially the “as a semiotician” part. It was probably during one of my vacations from being a semiotician. At that moment, I had no context regarding his interests, and I didn’t say much.
What follows is the better response (I hope) that I have felt for years I owed to Dan’s question. A recent personal communication from him, surprising me with the info that even before our encounter he had read and been influenced by my writing makes me feel I owe this response to Dan, himself, as well as to his question.
I append above, without his permission (but will hastily remove if he wishes) a .pdf of PHASE, a graphic he made that he and other improvisers use as a “score” – those quotes are not to disapprove, just to highlight a discussion to follow, but first two personal qualifications.
– 1. I do not have a practice of musical improvisation beyond dabbling or “in the shower” (Metaphor. My piano never takes showers).
- My own stance in semiotics is far from consensual. I hold that the crux of semiotics lies in the comparison of media (e.g., sculpture, math, music, language), a very abstract pursuit, and not in interpreting individual pictures or pieces or events–individual signs. Nevertheless, the comparative view does enable us to ask What kind of interpretive process does a given genre of expression evoke? Certainly, the conjunction of standard musical notation with graphic scores is grist for the mills of comparison.
To take this home, AS a semiotician, I make no interpretation of Dan’s graphics, but given an interpretation or two to start with, I might try for a semiotic perspective on them. So where can I get an interpretation?
—–Easy! AS a musician(!) even a usually non-improvising musician, I can start trying to interpret, and my inner semiotician can watch.
—–First thing I notice is hesitation, How to read the graphic? I think an experienced free improv player might not hesitate, yet, would, nevertheless, be dealing with the same choices. Just instantaneously. The graphic is highly patterned. The repetitions of elements and features and the apportioning of space establish parallelisms—rows and columns. That’s not standard in graphic images and suggests string forming media such as speech (sentences, paragraphs), math (vertically aligned equations) and poetry (verses & stanzas). I might read across and down or down and across or not or somewhat. I might instead pass all that over and simply respond to the character of the graphic as a whole.
The first thing that this hesitant semiotician has noticed, then, is that we might separate (analytically if not in musical practice) a reading strategy and an interpretive strategy. The decisions how-to-read—(the mode of reading might fluctuate)—are logically prior to any interpretation of the graphic as music. Or, if you prefer to use the term “interpretation” for both stages, you could say the decision how to interpret the graphic as a score is logically prior to any decision how to interpret the graphic as music. The way I invoked the alternatives of a holistic response or a string structure response might suggest logical versus impulsive reading, a head vs. heart opposition, but we can find both organs in play, whatever the route. BTW, I put in “logically” because it might seem instantaneous.
—–Suppose the reading is oriented by the array of nine Gestalts that you can readily see, in rows and columns with their multitudinous relations of contrast and variation. At some point, the improviser must still respond holistically, impulsively to something. Maybe we will so respond to each (or some) of those nine shapes. Or maybe a still finer analytic will be summoned up and a holistic response will arise as a sonic interpretation of individual thin and thick lines, dots or circles, angles and intersections. [That is one thing I did AS a musician, fantasizing my improv.] My personal conviction, no surprise to anyone familiar with my writings, is that attention to these elementary visual qualities involve us in impulses of muscular activation, often subliminal, and that the dynamic time shapes of muscle contractions are readily transferred to musical performance.
But instead of responding to parts one at a time, imagine a reading that is, from the start, holistic. It responds to the page as a whole. An example is provided in Dan’s approving description of a colleagues interpretation which seemed to assume a comic pose from the outset. Being too uptight, I don’t think a comic interpretation occurred to me, but it is easy to see why it might to someone else. The simple figures, like stick figures, capture a kind of comic book or caricature style if you are open to seeing them that way. AS semiotician, I wonder immediately to what extent a comic reading is determined by cultural conventions and to what extent it is determined by ‘universal’ (i.e. biological proclivities). One might learn something about that if one could find people who had never seen the graphic styles of Euro-American culture and who could furnish responses to Dan’s graphic.
—–Is “Phase” music? This question readily reduces to questions about how you individually choose to use words—“score”, “music”—that different folks use different ways. Although people do refer to “sheet music” in speaking of conventional musical scores, I think we could argue that “sheet music” is an informal extension of the core meaning of “music” and that speaking more precisely, the “sheet music” determines music, maybe not that it is music. In that perspective, it makes sense to say that any graphic object that determines music is a score. No score I know of determines music 100%–even a score read by a computer and realized synthetically will make somewhat different sounds in different acoustic environments. The clearest difference between Dan’s type of score and Bach’s type of score would seem to me to be that the Bach’s has extensive rules for reading set out in advance. (Again, obviously not 100%–all those problems of intentions regarding ornament, tempo, occasional bow slurs. e.g., Do the latter show dominant patterns or exceptions?)
— –This issue has been studied with excruciating finesse in analytical philosophy, as in (just for two examples) Languages of Art (1968, 1976) by Nelson Goodman or Note and Tone (1986) by Kari Kurkela, which proposes to prove that Goodman’s method doesn’t work. Goodman’s method is to argue that we can discern a key difference according to whether the score permits us to recognize the performance. He does not say so, but the questions in play turn out to be standing in for a very basic philosophical problem: What is a concept? Closer to home, we might suggest, roughly following Goodman, that conventional musical scores are notational scores and graphic scores are indexical or non-notational scores, indicating rather than notating. Not the same difference.
—–BUT lest the reader, if there is a reader, be new to the territory. I don’t want to give the impression that graphic scores are exclusive to improv or that they are necessarily unregulated. There are billions of counterexamples. My composition, Changes (1972?) for solo violin ends with a passage where note durations are indicated by spatial distance on paper. I did that, not to give the player freedom, but to capture the visual rhythm of chairs ascending and descending on a Ferris wheel. It worked. I think I remember working out the proportions with a compass and straight edge to get them right.
Dan’s purpose is not to control the player. He offers a stimulus for disruption, for hearing and thinking “outside the cheeseburger” as he says in this TEDx, where he discusses another graphic, “Chollobhat.”