Make each face a living note

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In the Western classical tradition the performers are most likely to read something onstage, which is true even in the case of famous examples in the history of experimental music. Pianist David Tudor, talking about performing John Cage’s 4’33” which has no notated sounds and requires the performer(s) to sit in silence onstage, states:

“I was looking at the first movement and I was turning pages because I was reading the score in time.” (Dickinson (ed.), 2006/2014, p. 86)

This statement shows that even a piece with no notes to play can still have something for the performer to read. When watching performances of experimental music I want to know what is written on the pages in front of the players, especially in the case of graphic scores such as Treatise by Cornelius Cardew (1967) and Kandinsky Studies by Deborah Pritchard (2016) where the visual content of the score is as compelling as its sounding result.

However in performances of such pieces the visually interesting score is hidden from the view of the audience. The visual aspect of the score is only communicated via sound, so that the graphic score may as well be written in traditional musical notation or completely ignored. Composer and writer G Douglas Barrett suggests that Manfred Werder’s piece 2010 specifically alludes to this “hiddenness of the score in performance, its physical absence from the view of the audience” whilst describing scores themselves as laying “along the edges of the musical frame” (2016, p. 57). Scores and notation are neither the music itself, nor are they completely outside the music. They remain unseen by the listener during performance and translated by the performer via sound. As a practitioner interested in the theatrical and visual aspects of musical performance, I want this act of reading to be demonstrated to the audience directly. I want to explore the relationship between composer-performer, notation and audience by making the act of score-reading part of the theatre of musical performance itself.

In Make each face a living note a large white bouncy castle is presented as though it is a musical score that is to be read and performed live in a participatory outdoor performance by an assembled group of brass players. The people bouncing on the bouncy castle, who could be considered the ‘audience’, are read as musical notation, and a 5-line musical stave is held in front of them using thick coloured rope. Passers-by are invited to become a unique part of an ever-changing musical score by bouncing on the castle as the musicians interpret their heads as musical notes in realtime. The event begins with a soloist, and gradually the other musicians join until the piece finishes with a full ensemble playing together, whilst two performers holding the 5-line stave move it up and down to suggest that the players should alter their register. By presenting the audience as the notation to be read by the players in real time the piece challenges the traditions of what a musical and choreographic performance can be.

In video and audio documentation of the piece the people on the bouncy castle can be seen and heard reacting to the instrumentalists by bouncing higher to encourage the playing of higher pitches or seat-dropping to elicit sudden low notes. I noticed that I did this myself when I joined in on the castle, participating as an audience member. During the performance the people on the bouncy castle have the opportunity to develop a personal connection with the players in front of them, which is in contrast to interactive sound installations which provide a situation akin to a large musical instrument that can be played by an audience in their own time. Although such interactive sound installations offer a highly satisfying musical experience, there is no connection to a live human musician, and it is this connection that marks out musical performance as distinct from sound installation in terms of the type of interactivity available.

A score for the piece was made retroactively and is presented in the style of a children’s colouring sheet with empty speech bubbles that leave room for different groups of musicians to significantly reinterpret the performance. Only the framework of bouncers being read as notation is maintained, with suggestions as to how the piece can be staged given in the bottom right-hand corner based upon the outcomes of the first performance. In this way the colouring sheet serves as an outline for a situation in which musical sounds may occur, but does not prescribe any precise musical activity such as melody, harmony or rhythm beyond a very brief example.

It was first performed on June 16th 2018 in Birmingham (UK) as part of Birmingham International Dance Festival. The ten performers, all trombone players, were: Toby Carr, Victoria Clinton, Zac Fellows, Richard Foote, Iain Jackson, Ashley Nayler, Oli Parker, Tom Pilsbury, Rob Roberts, and James Wilson. It was produced by Mira Moschallski Norman.

16 June 2018, Birmingham International Dance Festival

Score (click image for pdf download)colouring