giving better instructions

April 21, 2016 - workbook

I’ve just been reading Jack Sheen’s interview with Jenny Walshe for ddmmyy and, amongst the many essential observations, I was struck by Jenny’s thoughts on text scores. Near the beginning of the interview she says

I do think that a great deal of text scores don’t take advantage of the fact that they’re made out of text. You know, there are a lot of really subtle things that you can do with textual instruction that I think composers don’t take advantage of enough. If you read a great deal of contemporary text scores, they still read like they were written in the 1960s. There’s very little syntactical or vocabulary change since then.

I think there are obvious examples of this where the writing style (and music) is indebted to Fluxus or Wolff of course, but this is often for good reason. Providing instructions in a clear way is important. Helping those realising the scores to understand what to do is a primary purpose but as Jenny notes there’s more than one way to do that. And of course clarity is not always essential, particularly where ambiguity is integral to the working of the piece.

I’ve been mulling this over for the past couple of days as it resonated quite strongly with me. I’ve been concerned that when writing scores I’m as clear as I can be about what I want, but then generally end up explaining what to do to performers because they don’t understand (actually, that’s pretty much my work/family life in summary too). So clearly that’s not working very well. For instance, earlier in the year when I was working on the drafts of they are always different, they are always the same, I wanted the players to all stand in a line facing the same direction. So if you’re given that instruction what do you do? I meant this, but of course it might also result in this. Giving instructions is not easy, and inherently ambiguous as our perspectives are different.

So at the moment, I’m looking back at some of my recent more wordy instruction pieces and thinking about other ways to explain what to do. To begin with I’m rewriting them in a more informal way, essentially imitating how I might explain the piece to performers when working with them in a rehearsal. So as well as the key information, I’m including observations from previous performances and generally talking round what to do with a bit more context. Of course this is edging towards just being a verbal explanation, and I might start going straight to recording spoken scores soon to see how that goes. I’m starting with positions in the sequence correctly recalled as it needs to be clearer – it always needs me to explain what you really need to do. I like the way this might begin to notate some of the performance practice and that scores might evolve to reflect new things I learn about the pieces after each performance.

I know that’s not really what Jenny was getting at, and that the nuance of text and different types of writing styles and contexts can be used to frame work, but I am now questioning how I explain things. I think it’s also about finding a more personal voice in scores, one that still manages to communicate the information but does so in a way that’s consonant with the manner of the composer.

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