This paper was presented at the INTIME 2012 Symposium at Coventry University on 19 October 2012.

This paper examines ways in which composers have used scores as instruments, a self-referential approach where instructions or other markings printed on an object prescribe actions which use that object to make sounds. Inscribing objects in this manner allows their sound-making potential to be investigated in a direct way, and without the need for further mediation, opening up the possibility of a precise articulation of texture, resonance and other material properties. In order to do this, I will discuss work by Claudia Molitor, Antoine Beuger, and Jennifer Walshe, as well as examples of two of my recent pieces, presenting strategies which could be used to explore this approach further.

Scores on the whole tend to be physically and/or conceptually separate from instruments. Guidance provided by a score may require translation into action by a performer. For example, with stave notation, a notated pitch with associated rhythmic and expressive information might be translated into a physical action by an instrumentalist that requires them to rationalise these various streams into an integrated result. Similarly, with a verbal score, an instruction might impel a performer to understand a process and then enact it. In both cases, there is a translation that takes place outside of the material of the score. In contrast, other approaches exist where the score is inextricably bound to the instrument, such that it requires a physical connection with it in order to realise the piece. Rather than acting solely as an agent, the score has an additional role as the patient, an object upon which the action is carried out. While this is not necessarily either better or worse than the conventional score/instrument divide, it does present a series of different opportunities which I hope to explore here through presenting five examples of work which uses this approach.

As a preface, I wanted to outline some of the benefits of producing scores which are also instruments, as there are a number of characteristics shared by these examples. The most obvious of these is a direct connection with materials. This might involve a tactile response to notation, interacting with the score materials through touch or through the agency of other objects. For example, markings on the score-instrument might be traced, or the score might be manipulated to produce a secondary object which is then used to make sounds. In both these examples, the physical properties of the material of the score-instrument are investigated. The type of material, its texture, shape, weight, and other characteristics combine to produce a particular result. By inscribing notation directly onto an instrument, it becomes possible to explore its specific characteristics as a unique object, rather than as something generic (although in some cases the sounding result might be described as such). As a result, scores which exist as instruments in this dual way are often produced as multiples, a short run of individual objects for which the local characteristics are an integral part of the work.

A simple example of a score-instrument can be found in a piece by Turf Boon, one of Jennifer Walshe’s Grúpat alter egos. Band of Stone (2007) is a verbal score which explores the physical properties of stones through tracing markings on their surfaces. The score states:

Band of Stone (2007)

Use one stone to gently trace the mineral banding on another. Take your soft time.


Here, each stone has a unique pattern. In realising the piece, these patterns create a series of paths which direct the actions of the performer. Broadly speaking the results of these actions are similar – friction sounds produced by rubbing stones together – but they are constrained and shaped by the limitations of each stone’s markings. Although here the score is two-part, comprising a verbal instruction and a graphic image, the markings describe the precise paths to be followed and are part of the source of the sounds. It would be possible to frame the piece only through the verbal instruction of course, perhaps making reference to tracing a path on the stone without reference to any specific markings, but by tying each realisation to the object, the stone’s markings become notation, and part of the score.

For Claudia Molitor, touch is an important sense to exploit as a compositional resource. She comments

…in composing we employ all three senses in so many interconnected ways. We listen, we look, we imagine sounds, we make visual representations of our sonic imaginations in the form of scores, we use touch to guide the pen when drawing these scores and ask musicians to touch their instruments to elicit sounds … And of course sound is what happens when two objects collide, so you might say that the essence of sound is touch … All this lead me to be interested in finding different approaches to exploring and questioning our understanding of the relationship between listening and touching and seeing. And being a composer the score was the first place I started exploring.[1]

She has since produced a series of tactile scores, each of which require the performer-listener to interact with the materials presented. In Material Manuscript (2011), five similar pages are provided. Molitor describes an example of their use in an installation:

There are no instructions for Material Manuscripts, but they were part of an installation at the Handel House Museum which was called ‘Touch and the barely audible’. I laid the five notationally identical, but physically different scores, out on a table and asked the visitors to explore the scores with their fingers. This project was the beginning of my interest in the sense of touch in relation to sound which now forms a major part of my current research project ‘Touch this Sound’ … Material Manuscript … is a score that becomes progressively less visible, but at the same time more tactile. The first page is written with pen, as you would expect, but by the last page the notation is raised using different white materials. The audience is encouraged to explore these pages through touch, noting the different textures and listening to the sounds the friction between their fingers and the score makes.[2]

As can be seen, each page presents a similar image on a single sheet of torn watercolour paper. The way the image is created differs between each page however, with the five pages transitioning from using only ink towards using only white fabric, thread and beads with no ink. The intervening three pages use different proportions of each material to construct the image.? There are no instructions here though. The score is a constructed object that functions as an instrument. The extent to which the markings on the paper operate as notation is ambiguous, and vary to an extent between the pages. Given that a blindfold has been provided, it is arguable how significant the image is in the ink-only score, accepting of course that with an extremely acute sense of touch it might be possible to differentiate between the inked image and the paper. In contrast, the assemblages created on the other four pages are more readily tactile. The threads draw the fingers along their lengths, whilst the felt pads define small areas to explore. These activities are initially focused on touch, but the sonic becomes increasingly apparent through prolonged interaction.


Claudia Molitor: Material Manuscript (2011)

In both these pieces, the use of friction is the principal means of eliciting sound from the score-instrument. This too was the starting point for my piece with paper (2006-8 / 2009-). In 2006 I began working on a collaboration with artist-book maker John McDowall. John was beginning to produce work with composers, considering the way in which notation might relate to visual arts practice, and particularly to artist books. Our initial meetings involved looking at examples of artist books, and paper samples. The experience of handling so many different types of paper made me curious about their properties and potential for sound production. It became clear that my approach to the project would involve using paper as a sound source, and specifically eliciting sound through touch. Given the idea was to produce an artist book, the pages had to retain their integrity, ruling out anything which destroyed the paper. I began developing a series of actions involving touch, exploring what happens when paper is touched, rubbed, stroked, scratched and struck by various parts of the hands.

At this stage, my intention was to make a series of instructions that could be applied to different types of paper. Through discussion with John, we decided that a single paper type would be more appropriate as this would highlight the difference in the manipulation rather than the paper itself. It felt like a more empirical approach. I made pages which had graphic markings that indicated paths to be traced by a finger, palm, or fist, as well as various types of percussive gestures: flicking, glancing, striking, and lifting.

flick movement
dot within circles
tear strips

James Saunders: with paper (2006/8, 2009- ), selected pages.

Although the final version of the book was never produced, I continued to develop the pages, deciding to remake the score as a printable PDF which could be overlaid onto any type of paper. This also made the score-instruments less precious, such that they could be altered and then disposed of afterwards. As a result, I added two new categories of action: marking and cutting. The marking actions all describe ways of drawing on the surface, whilst the cutting actions describe ways of creating incisions. In these later pages, the potential for score-instruments is explored further. The combination of verbal and graphic notation isolates specific ways of manipulating the material: this is I hope an efficient way of defining the actions, without recourse to superfluous description.


Antoine Beuger: sandmusik (1992)

A wider variety of objects is provided in Antoine Beuger’s sandmusik (1992). Here a series of 18 score pages are used to make sounds. The work comprises ‘a wooden box with very fine sand in it (like one uses for bird cages). It also contains a drinking straw, a tea spoon, a pencil, an eraser, a match and a feather.’ These materials are combined with the score pages to suggest ways of creating sounds. The general instructions for the piece suggest an openness to realisations:

the leaves are

– in any sequence

– in any combination

– individually

– several

– privately

– public

-with or without reinforcement

but always perform very lovingly

The pages are both the score and the instrument, with the notation using a combination of verbal instructions and diagrams. For example, one page has a drawing of the paper folded in half and the instruction ‘fold this sheet as shown above/drip sand (see arrow)/continue until both troughs are filled/flatten again after use’


As with most of the pages in sandmusik, the instructions involve using the paper to make sounds in combination with one or more of the supplied materials. The piece is unusual in that it provides all the required resources necessary to realise the work as part of a set. Some pages require only the sand:


drip small piles onto the points

Other pages require the sand, together with other items:


fill the circle with sand / blow the sand softly down the page


roll up into a tube/fill with sand/hold between thumb and forefinger/

shake (close to the ear)/listen/glue to use again

As with the previous pieces, some pages involve touch, here using sandpaper glued to the score sheets


follow the line (with finger, nail …)


lightly touch

Some of the pages do not use sand at all, but reference it in other ways:


erase the word, write it again

There is clearly a great deal of invention here, with the purpose of exploring ways of making sound using, or in relation to, sand. The score pages are generally used as part of an instrumental arrangement, operating either as agent or patient. There is a fluidity of roles as a result.

Combining a score with objects is also the focus of my recent series object network (2012- ). The piece uses found materials, such as packaging, offcuts of wood, and sheets of metal as surface onto which a network of circles and lines is marked. Each score is unique and made for the performer who will use it. Performers select a group of small objects equivalent to the number of circles, and small enough to fit within them. These are placed on the circles, and then slid one-by-one along the lines to the next circle or intersection between two lines until all the objects are positioned on a different combination of the circles to that at the start. The piece aims to explore the way friction sounds can be elicited from a surface by different types of object. Some of the parameters are defined by the score-instrument: the distance and relationship between circles, and the type of material. Others are determined by the performer: the selection of objects and the manner of their movement. The marking of the score onto the performance surface does affect the sonic result: the initial set of scores use curved lines, whereas earlier experiments used an orthogonal arrangement. The curved lines create more fluid movements, where as the more angular arrangement tended towards a rhythmic realization.


James Saunders: object network (2012- )

This approach to score making has a lot of currently unrealized potential, and requires more consideration. As the examples presented here suggest, I hope, the fusion of score and instrument offers many possibilities with regards to the exploration of the sonic properties of materials and ways to prescribe action.

[1] James Saunders, ‘Interview with Claudia Molitor’, /?page_id=1825 [accessed 18.10.12].

[2] Saunders, J. (2012). ‘Interview with Claudia Molitor’, < /?page_id=1825> [accessed 18.10.12].