Keeping things open — about open scores, graphic scores, game pieces, text scores and scores that include improvisation

Written by Teemu Mastovaara. 7.11.2019

On 8th October, Korvat Auki Ensemble, our composer-performer ensemble for improvisation and experimental compositions, held a concert in Vapaan taiteen tila focusing on open scores, game pieces, text scores and scores with improvisatory parts. We performed four pieces. One of them was Lauri Supponen’s Lukusalimusiikkia, a clear example of an open score: a piece which is not instrument specific, and instead the composer has specified the range of instruments. It is up to the ensemble to distribute the parts to certain players (definition from Howard Jones). The other three were my piece Preparing the best meal ever, a text score which instructs the players to collectively make an improvisation based on a recipe, Janne Kivistö’s Pesäpallo, a piece reminiscent of John Zorn’s Cobra (ca. 1984) but with a Finnish twist, and one more piece from Kivistö, Fuugan taito, which combines traditional notation followed by improvisation, and some theatrical aspects.

For me the most interesting part of being a musician and a composer in the concert was that it gave the chance to express so many sides of oneself musically, and to step outside one’s comfort zone. Especially Kivistö’s Fuugan taito, playing on “myötähäpeä”, shared sense of shame, felt quite unique in the context of serious contemporary music. During the following few paragraphs I will talk about some of to me the most interesting open scores, graphic scores, game pieces, text scores and scores that include improvisation, and in addition about composers who write pieces lacking definite dictation, and comment and talk a bit about my music in relation to these pieces.

Performance of Fuugan taito. (text continued below)

Earle Brown is one of the first pioneers of open form (see e.g. Clemens Gresser, “Earle Brown’s ‘Creative Ambiguity’ and Ideas of Co-creatorship in Selected Works”, Contemporary Music Review, 26/3 (2007), pp. 377–94.). The piece December 1952 is perhaps the most famous of his graphic scores. Graphic scores are scores which include no traditional notes (or are not centred around their common meanings), but instead graphical symbols. December 1952 works similarly: the score consists of different lines varying in direction, width and length, and this information is to be interpreted by the performer. Should long lines mean long notes and wide lines louder sounds? From where should I start playing the score? Players may interpret the score freely, but what differentiates the score, and any graphic scores, from pure improvisation, is that the player has something in visual form to focus on while performing the piece.

Another fantastic example of graphic scores is Mark Applebaum’s The Metaphysics of Notation, a loooong roll of paper (video versions also available) filled with graphical signs varying from numbers and letters to various concrete shapes (pieces of a puzzle, shields, flowers etc.). Being an extremely ambitious piece, it does give the player a lot of possibilities, and challenges to improvise and think outside one’s comfort zone. When the player is bombarded with a non-stop array of a myriad of graphical signs, one must think quickly and let their subconscious do the work. On the other hand, one could also choose just a part of the score and focus their improvisation on this part. In any case, the score contains almost infinite amount of material for the most imaginative interpretations.

Graphic scores may sometimes also go towards the direction of game pieces: pieces which are performed according to certain game-like rules, and the events following one another are not predetermined. The aforementioned John Zorn’s Cobra is an un-published piece which is a classic example of a game piece. The conductor shows the players different cards which guide the group improvisation. There are also rules which give the players the opportunity to discard these rules. All in all, a very complex and often a time chaotic piece with funny moments, as if one would be playing a game.

Performance of Pesäpallo (text continued below)

My take on graphic score game pieces (even if the events are quasi-predetermined) is I WANNA PLAY A BOARD GAME (2016). The piece is based on a board game map I drew and is meant to be performed by 3–6 bowed string instruments. It’s a piece which each player plays in their minds while performing, so in a way cheating is very easy (but not so fun). Ideally the players haven’t memorized the score, so they need to figure out in real-time the correct route to victory. The tension from not knowing how far exactly your opponents are makes the piece interesting, and the “I won!” at the end releases the tension in a fun way.

Teemu Mastovaara: I WANNA PLAY A BOARD GAME (2016)

Even if the composer writes traditional notes, the execution of rhythms can be left free. Jukka Tiensuu’s Rubato (1977) is a study in heterophony (music where a single melody line is simultaneously varied in other voices), where all players (any instruments) play the same melody, but they may, within certain rules, vary the rhythm quite freely. As such, it is a clear example of an open score. The piece from Lauri Supponen we played on 8th October, Lukusalimusiikkia, follows a similar approach, but has two melody-lines instead of one. The rhythm is somewhat slow, so the sounding result is more an everchanging harmonic texture than two melodies being varied by the players. Leif Segerstam in many of his symphonies writes also traditional notes but leaves the exact timing up to players or the leaders of sections. Segerstam’s scores are not open scores, because they do have a predetermined instrumentation. I do have to say that the sounding result of Tiensuu, Supponen and Segerstam’s pieces is very different from one another, but the approach does share a lot of similarities in how they handle rhythm. What I think is the strong point of the type of notation described in this paragraph, is that it gives the players better control of phrases when one is not restricted by a rigid tempo. A certain naturality is easier to achieve from the perspective of the player, while still having some melodic or harmonic material to lean on. The sounding result is a sort of fun out-of-phase fuzzy picture, or a colourful out-of-focus photograph.

Considering text scores (scores with only text), I think worth mentioning is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den Sieben Tagen (1968), a series of many text scores. Having performed Richtige Dauern, I think one of the most memorable moments of the performance was that the piece continued after we finished playing by the ventilation system that we all started listening to. The last score of Aus den Sieben Tagen, Goldstaub, instructs the performer to live completely alone for four days, basically without eating, without sleep, without outside noises and without movement. After the retreat the performer is instructed to play single sounds without putting any thought on it. A piece I’ve yet to see performed or performed myself, but as a rite something that I want to experience once in my life because of its extreme nature.

Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit (1964) is a collection of “event scores” (text scores which give instructions to different actions or events) ranging from pieces that tell you to leave a finished art work to be stepped on or to talk to a person until you think they are covered in imaginary snowflakes. Many of the pieces don’t as such describe musical activities but give everyday tasks musical forms. The surrealism of the scores is what I think makes them memorable, and makes you question e.g. the value of art and the power of one’s imagination.

My take on text scores, Preparing the best meal ever (2018/2019), the piece we played with Korvat Auki Ensemble, is a collaborative composition based on a text score I wrote, but the actual instructions are to be taken from a recipe of a healthy, ecological and tasty meal. The result ideally is a piece which is a combination of Foley sounds played on instruments and an abstract description of the inner worlds of the cooks preparing the meal. It may take a more unmusical, literal form, or have the recipe just inspire the musical improvisation. The reason I wrote the piece was to study how little and how undirect dictation the composer may give to still make an understandable score.

Performance of Preparing the Best Meal Ever (text continued below)

In a similar direction, but in a very different way, many years before I was born, is also a score I’m currently playing from Iancu Dumitrescu. The piece, Medium II (1971), is written as such in a traditional way, but doesn’t often give very clear explanations to how certain symbols or musical directions should be interpreted. Sometimes conflicting musical directions are given: in one place one should play both ben sonoro and mormorando. There are also three directions written in the score: senza arco, pizzicato and con dito, which all could mean the same thing. According to the composer, his goal often is to provoke the primitivity out of the performer by having a degree of difficulty in the contacts with musicians (Dumitrescu interviewed in Perfect Sound Forever, http://furious.com/perfect/iancu.html). The unclearness certainly provokes primitivity in my reactions and expression while playing his music, and makes it also fascinating for the listener listening to Dumitrescu’s music because they cannot expect what’s coming up next. I think the strength in Dumitrescu’s music lies in that he is self-conscious of its certain form of impossibility, he plays on this element, and this leads to very personal, deep, expression.

While there are many composers, scores and approaches left out of this blog post (everything pre-1900s for example), I hope this post has raised interest towards scores outside the domain of traditional notation. In my work as a composer I feel open forms on one hand give more room for thought and philosophy, and on the other hand responsibility to the player, which optimally gives the player more freedom and perhaps a possibility for more personal expression. As a performer I very much enjoy playing music with open form because I’m not tied to a rigid structure, but still have a structure to rely on when feeling not so focused. And, I think it’s so wonderfully exciting to get to know a person’s way of thinking when playing music from other people and explore the limits of your personality and musicianship outside traditional scores.

Teemu Mastovaara

The writer is a cellist and composer.

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Writings in our blog about and around new music. Read also the other latest writings:

Korvat auki -podcast: Episode 1. Finn, Olli, Rolf & Þorkell. 15.10.2019

Finn Shields: “Writing for a Brass Quintet Was a Difficult and Rewarding Challenge, and Made Me Completely Rethink These Instruments I Thought I Was so Familiar With” 13.10.2019

Þorkell Nordal: “Harp, Brass and Surround Music” 9.10.2019