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Electronic Music Notation

Article from Polyphony, September/October 1978

Why? Why is a system of notation for Electronic Music needed? After all, what is the purpose of notation? Notation was devised to provide a means of communication from composer to conductor to player. In Electronic Music, conductors and players are normally eliminated, (except in multi-media and live electronic works.) Electronic Music Notation is therefore superfluous. Excepting, of course, analysis or re-creation of a piece. For the most part, a composer of electronic music commits to tape the sounds in his head. Whereas, in writing for conventional instruments, the composer commits his thoughts to paper. The advantage is that no longer is the composer at the mercy of conductors and performers in interpreting his work. The writer now is the interpreter and performer, only limited to his imagination (and perhaps keyboard ability). However, if a work is for multi-media, to be performed live, or just copyrighted, some form of notation must be devised. An unpublished electronic work is protected against unauthorized use by the "Common Law" of the United States. To secure a statutory copyright protection, a claim must be made to the Copyright Office by filing form "E" and one copy of the work. Recent changes in Copyright laws now allow recordings to be submitted. Previously, scores or notation were required.

Consider, for a moment, the possibilities. Seismograms, charts, graphs, alpha numerical indicia, even a film of the oscilloscope tracings or digital data. Perhaps you might even consider an actual score. Now please understand, I'm not talking about linear music. Music composed mostly of pitches, rhythm and timbre — in other words pop/rock/jazz, etc... I'm talking about what musicologists call 20th century "Art Music." This is music consisting of and built upon logical progressions of sounds. Not necessarily notes. The best way to notate sound is by drawings, diagrams and explanatory text. You see, to be copyrighted a work must convey exactly or approximately most of the actual sounds which constitute the work.

To get an idea of what I'm talking about, try this experiment. Take any purely electronic work. Listen to it a channel at a time. As you listen try, as best you can, to diagram the sounds you hear. Yes, draw. It will take several listenings to catch all of the subtleties, but it is great practice for when you notate your own scores.

Before I go into ways and examples of notating live and tape works, I want to delve into an easier style of Electronic Music notation: Multi-media works. Multi-media is a combination of tape and ____. You fill in the blank. Cello, trumpet, percussion, clarinet, actor, chorus, dancer, film, etc... or any of these in combination. That's multimedia. Now in your score you still want to visualize your sounds, but now the main thrust is to provide cues for your performers. As an example of this I'll use a piece of mine, Intravission-1975 for the trombone and tape. My score consists of trombone, a time line, right and left tape channels. In example 1 the right channel begins with this particular sound of repeated rhythm, then sustains with vibrato. As the sound sustains another rhythm is heard beneath it. This repeats for 20 seconds. At 0 seconds (system 2) a ring modulated chord is struck, and at 1 second the trombone enters. At 12 seconds the left channel sound glides downward, at 15 seconds the right channel repeats seven notes and also glides down. This is followed by a 2 second rest. Example 2 shows a bunch of squiggly lines, (actually, a trombone was previously recorded glissing all over the place and balance modulated). Example 3 shows synchronizing tape to trombone. Tape doesn't start until trombone plays G. The drawings are just representative of the sounds. (In this case electric piano processed with an envelope follower and filters.) Example 4 shows synchronizing trombone to tape, which is followed by just a cue for what is happening tape-wise (assorted balance modulated pops and pings over a static drone).

These examples are just one solution to the problem of providing visual cues to the performer(s), (and to the composition faculty). For more examples of tape and _____, take a look at Electronic Music — A Listener's Guide by Elliott Schwartz. This is a good all around book on Electronic Music. It is by no means a technical book, but it does go into a history of the art, a look at the future and observations by composers. The book has examples of scores by Davidovsky, Schwartz, Subotnick, Burge, Bassett and Hiller, (who is quite detailed as to the tape part which is quite linear anyway).

Notating a strict tape piece is nearly impossible or at best a pain. Since most scores don't lend themselves to a note by note transcription, a more visual route is taken. The solutions to notation are as varied as the composers. An excellent book which shows several scores is The Technique of Electronic Music by Thomas Wells and Eric Vogel. This book is a must for the serious electronic musician with a library — very technical. The book delves into physics, electronics and trigonometry. I have no examples to show of the various methods of notation — due in part to copyright laws, a disservice to the many types of notation, and lack of time and space. However, a few written descriptions may suffice. The most detailed system of notation is by Karlheinz Stockhausen. His score for Kontakte took seven years to prepare. The score consists of a notated score and a realization of the score. The actual score is footnoted and refers to the realization. This then contains patches and information about how the sounds are constructed.

A score by Thomas Wells, 12.27.2, Electronic Music, plots time versus amplitude, with numbers which refer you to patches. In a piece by Bruce Faulconer called Electronic Music: 1973, he plots frequency and amplitude, amplitude being a V.U. meter reading. (Good idea, that one!) On every score page are his patches. Another score by Thomas Wells (Why not, it's his book) is called Systems of Electronic and Instrumental Music. The work is for piano, cello and tam-tam which are modified by a balanced modulator and multi-modal VCF. The score is notated more or less conventionally. Underneath the instrumental parts is a graph showing the various timbre modifiers, (cutoff frequency, amount of modulation, frequency of modulations, etc.).

A method of scoring Electronic Music which I'm starting to use is a graph. As I see it, the most important modules are the VCO's, VCF's and VCA's. These are modulated by a variety of sources. (Keyboards, S/H, sequencer, LFO, etc.). So, if I take a graph of each major module (VCO, VCF, VGA) and use the Y axis for voltage and the X axis for time, and superimpose each of the modulators on the same graph, I come up with example 5. Now the score is going to be gigantic as you can see. You will also have to stack above and/or below the VCF graph, those of the VCA and VCO. Also this is only one patch and one channel. As you add channels and patches of sound, the score becomes more and more bulky and complex. (Albeit a good and accurate realization notation-wise of a work). Now this idea is only one solution. Your solutions are just as valid as mine or Stockhaussen's. Check out other composers' notational systems besides the ones that I've mentioned. Experiment and find out which works for you. Another idea is — instead of plotting a VCA graph, how about plotting VU meter readings as an indication of overall loudness contour. The key is to experiment with your own ideas and those of others in order to come up with a system of notation that is tailored to your style of composition.

This brings us to the last section — notation for live Electronic Music. This, again, is just one solution. The piece is called Prelude and Conclude for two or more synthesizers.

Except for section #2 of the composition, VCF frequency and Q controls, ADSR parameters, and LFO outputs are set per the performer's taste.

VCO #1 is tuned an augmented 5th above VCO #2.
VCO #3 tuned randomly.
Sequencer tuned randomly; recycling; run.

VCO#1 is tuned a perfect 4th above VCO#3.
VCO# 3 is tuned randomly.

Performance notes: The same basic patch is used on both synthesizers. (Ex. 6) Except on synthesizer 2, substitute Hi pass for Low pass VCF. Instead of a Sequencer controlling the VCF use the variable output of the ADSR. Also VCO1 will use a sine wave instead of a sawtooth. (Triangle remains same). Mixer initially for both synthesizers should be all inputs pan right, right channel up full, left channel minimum.

Use pots 1 and 2 only. Volume and activity crescendos for 60 seconds. By activity I mean speed of LFO, sequencer, VCF settings, are to increase in speed and intensity along with an overall volume change over this steady drone. After 60 seconds reduce activity immediately and prepare for the next events.

Event 1:
Use only pot 3. Height of events indicates relative pitch. Tempo is at the discretion of the performer. All attacks are set to minimum. See example 7 for notation guide.

Event 2:
Use pot 2. Synthesizer 1. Remove sequencer control of VCF use ADSR instead — change back after event. Shapes represent settings of ADSR controls. Sine wave lines indicate amount of LFO applied to the VCF. Speed of LFO is up to the performer. The filled in shapes within the envelope indicate the initial filter setting, which like the LFO is adjusted during each separate event. It is advised to apply a bias of about .5v. to the VCF input since at times there are no control voltages controlling the filter. Again, height of shape is to be interpreted as relative pitch. Also, tempo and lengths of events are up to the performer.

Event 3:
Use pot 3, pan fully right. Pot 1 and 2 up also with pan in middle. Left output up full. Event 3 is similar to 1 except for patch and most of the rhythms are static pitch-wise.

After all three events are played return to prelude and wait for other player to return also. The conclude which is played next is the exact opposite of the prelude. Once players are together and begin their static drone, proceed to bring up volume and activity levels to maximum then gradually decrease activity, intensity and volume until you end with the same drone that started the piece. Finis.

One final note: Except for the actual prelude and conclude, all of the three events are to be played in whatever order the players choose and not necessarily should the players play the events that the others are playing, (although that is also one of the possible permutations.)

The hows and whys of the composition is not the subject here. The piece is provided as an example for notating a live electronic work. It also is provided for any group of synthesists looking for material to play. If after reading this and seeing my examples you decide I'm out of my gourd, and that you have a better solution, well great! That proves my point. There is no definitive way of scoring electronic music. There is no way, for that matter, of scoring avant-garde music. And for that matter, no real way for a composer writing a tonal string quartet in sonata allegro form to have it played exactly as he/she envisions it. It's all relative to the amount of control (or lack) that one wishes to convey to conductors and performers. So check out the reference books I have mentioned plus some of the books that Marvin has reviewed in past issues, and work on your own solutions. The possibilities are endless.

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Notes on the Recording of Synergy's "Cords"

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Lab Notes: Seque and Ye Shall Find

Publisher: Polyphony - Polyphony Publishing Company

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Polyphony - Sep/Oct 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Brian Folkes

Previous article in this issue:

> Notes on the Recording of Sy...

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