link - issue 22: November 2015


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Graphic Music Scores as a Means of Musical Liberation

James Cornish

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the relationship between composer and instrumentalist underwent numerous transformations. With the continued influence of the avant garde, musicians as well as composers sought strategies to destabilize the centuries’ old static formula of omnipotent composer and subservient musician. Composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis began to explore the periphery of the five-lined musical staff.  In pursuit of new, radical strategies of musical engagement, composers began to construct graphic scores to convey themes and ideas. This graphic-based approach allowed musicians to develop esoteric and internalized approaches to navigating musical scores.

This new strategy placed an emphasis upon the process of musical construction versus obedience to traditional music manuscript. Instead of executing a perfectly-intonated and clearly designated pitch, musicians were free to choose from a variety of tonalities at their discretion. In addition, standard notation began to be increasingly ineffective in conveying more abstract and non-traditional aesthetics.  Drone music, made popular by composer LaMonte Young, and the aleatoric music of John Cage, for example, exist largely outside of standard notation orthodoxy.

The contemporary usage of graphic scores is considered a staple of progressive music. It represents a multi-hierarchical approach to music as well as a means of musical empowerment.

One of the more active proponents of graphic scores is West Coast composer and reed player Phillip Greenlief. A longtime champion of musical exploration, he has recently been engaged in his “Map Scores” series, which are music re-workings of actual maps. These are exemplary of the modern graphic score, which have a visual as well as a tonal artistic consequence. The following scores are from Greenlief’s QUARTET, which was composed during his residency at Headlands Center for the Arts in 2013. This work was presented as part of the Best Coast Composers Series at the San Francisco Center for New Music, curated by Lisa Mezzacappa.

The featured artists:

Kyle Bruckman-oboe, English horn
Ellen Burr-flute
Phillip Greenlief-alto saxophone
Cory Wright-clarinet
Claudia LaRocco-voice, poetry

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graphic music score 01

Philip Greenlief, QUARTET (alto part), 2013. Image courtesy the artist.


graphic music score 02

Philip Greenlief, QUARTET (clarinet part), 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

graphic music score 03

Philip Greenlief, QUARTET (oboe part), 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Philip Greenlief, QUARTET (flute part), 2013

Philip Greenlief, QUARTET (flute part), 2013. Image courtesy the artist





This text is by James Cornish in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  




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