Following music with the score takes on a new dimension in the fantastical works of today’s cutting-edge composers. Tim Rutherford-Johnson explores new software and online services that decode them as you go along
One of the only things better than listening to a great piece of music is to do so with the score in hand. Being able to see how the composer has created that effect or developed that idea, or to see for yourself all the tiny details of orchestration or counterpoint that have gone into the work – that is a very profound pleasure.
For someone like me, who listens predominately to new music, it has until recently been quite a rare pleasure as well. A lot of the music I listen to at home, by composers born since the Second World War, is not yet published. And even if it is, it is not easily available without paying full whack for a complete set of performing parts.
In the last couple of years that has changed quite dramatically, however. Not because more young composers are getting published; or because more contemporary works are being produced as affordable study scores. (Neither of these things is happening.) Instead, the new music community has started to take matters into its own hands by making these materials available online. Some publishers – such as Peters Edition and Universal – have started to make contemporary scores available for view online (here’s the full score for Georg Friedrich Haas’s Blumenstück at Universal Edition, for example). But the real difference has come from outside the orbit of traditional publishing.
One of the most exciting developments has been the arrival of ‘score following’ new music channels on YouTube. Like the name suggests, these are made up of videos of new music recordings, synched up with the pages in the score. It’s a simple idea, but an extremely powerful one.
You can find examples of these all over YouTube now, but two of the most substantial and long-lasting channels are published under the names Score Follower and incipitsify. Both recently joined forces under the direction of Dan Tramte, a Harvard-based composer and teaching fellow, and are making moves to professionalize and expand their activities beyond an online niche. They already make use of a small team (including legal representation!), and just last month they completed a fundraising drive to commission and record a new piece of music, to be performed by the internationally renowned Ensemble Dal Niente.
A feature of many contemporary scores is their visual look. As composers have explored further and further the musical possibilities that lie beyond the conventional 12 chromatic notes, metrical rhythms, standard playing techniques and so on, so their means of notation have had to adapt to keep up. One of the enjoyable aspects of Score Follower and incipitsify is seeing how composers have developed their notational systems to adapt to these new demands. And many of the scores on these videos are also prefaced by several pages of explanatory notes. Often the scores look as fantastical as they sound, borrowing ideas from architectural blueprints, circuit diagrams, sci-fi technology and cartoons as much as the traditional five-line staff.
Tramte acknowledges that visual appearance is a factor in the success of some scores on YouTube, both in drawing people in and in fostering debate in the comments section. ‘For a few years (before certain publishers started cracking down), one could find almost every single chamber piece by Brian Ferneyhough in a recording+score format on YouTube,’ he tells me. ‘There is something about his scores that seems to fit within YouTube culture, and my theory is that a lot of it has to do with the way the scores look. To many musicians – especially the ones who don’t know Ferneyhough’s music – they’re shocking, radical, visually impressive, inspiring, and also anger-inducing. His works are ripe for a lively YouTube comment section, and for better or worse, the comment section is a forum for polemical engagement that is completely open to the public.’
All the scores Tramte uploads are carefully selected, not only for their visual appearance, but also for the quality of the work that they represent. Everything is then cleared with the composer and performers before work begins on creating the score video – which can take two hours or more, from extracting each page of the score into individual pdfs to uploading a perfectly synched-up video. Pieces by many of the most interesting young composers, from Clara Ianotta to Marcos Balter to Mauricio Pauly are represented, and anyone wishing to learn more about the present state of contemporary music could do much worse than spend a few hours in the company of these channels.
Here are a couple of string-based examples to help you get started. First up, and on the more extreme end of the scale, is a string quartet, Decke, by the American composer Timothy McCormack. Written in a hybrid notation this sometimes uses a five-line staff to indicate pitches, and elsewhere a form of tabluature that doesn’t indicate pitch but instead describes the relative positions of fingers and bow upon the strings. Furthermore, the whole thing is written in what is known as ‘time-space’ notation, so durations are suggested by the length of beams (as though scrolling slowly from left to right) and far apart or close together notes are, rather than by types of beam/notehead.
Something more accessible perhaps is Incandesence for solo cello by the London-based Richard Melkonian. Based on a passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Incandesence relies for a lot of its effect on slow transitions in bow position, but in most other respects is conventionally notated. Watching the score unfold while listening, however, provides an opportunity to tune into those subtle changes in tone as they play out through the piece.