NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 44

Design Today

Indeterminate Sounds; Indefinite Images

Pouya Ahmadi

Musical notation is visual representation of instructions — heard or imagined sound meant to be performed — and is generally captured through the use of written, printed, or drawn symbols. The primary elements of sound are pitch, or the location of musical sound on the scale (interval), duration, timbre, and volume. In practice however, no notation can handle all of these elements with precision. Most notation deals with a selection of them with different degrees of refinement. Some only capture a single pattern, like rhythm; others tackle several simultaneous patterns. There are various types and methods of notation across different cultures and throughout history, yet so little is known about ancient musical notation. Even in the same time period, different cultures and different styles of music use different musical notation methods. Since its birth in medieval Europe, the modern Western notation has continued to develop to this day. In the beginning of the 20th century, a group of composers began to question the conventions around musical notation. The result of such efforts led to the introduction of graphic notation in the 1950s. 

Graphic notation is perhaps one of the most interesting intersections of design and music. Similar to traditional music notation, graphic notation uses symbols to represent sound, however, these symbols do not use the traditional score symbols. In the early twentieth-century, a few composers including Henry Cowell began experimenting with notation. Cowell’s New Musical Resources (1930) was one of such radical attempts to change musical notation tradition. In the 1950s, following the Second World War, many modern composers sought to come up with an alternative modes of musical notation that best expressed their musical concepts and started working against the traditional western notation. Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 (1950) for solo cello is one of the earliest fully fleshed-out original graphic score that did entirely away from traditional notation. Throughout the following decade, other composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage expanded on this new method of representing music. 
John Cage, the American composer and music theorist, was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music. In the late 1930s, Cage attended a lecture by Nancy Wilson Ross on Dada and Zen and later in the 1940s, Daisetz Suzuki’s classes in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism at Columbia University. Both encounters, as Cage mentioned in Silence (1961), were influential moments in his life and career: “… in the anechoic chamber at Harvard University heard that silence was not the absence of sound but was the unintended operation of my nervous system and the circulation of my blood. It was this experience and the white paintings of Rauschenberg that led me to compose 4:33 (1952)… My work became an exploration of non intention. To carry it out faithfully I have developed a complicated composing means using I Ching chance operations, making my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices.” Cage’s notation for Fontana Mix (1958) and Variations series (1958–67) featured transparent pages which (when overlapped) created map-like visuals of his musical piece. The essence, volume, and duration of the piece were determined by the intersections of the visual elements including the free-form and grid-like lines, dots and rules.
Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score Treatise (1963–1967), which he wrote in response to John Cage’s 4:33, is one of the most unique and radical examples of this genre that incorporates 193 pages of entirely abstract scores. His masterpiece was meant to encourage the performers’ interpretation without giving them any further instructions as to what instruments should be used etc. Cardew was considerably influenced by John Cage and David Tudor after attending a series of their performances in Cologne in 1958. He then went on to abandon post-Schönbergian serial composition and later developed the indeterminate and experimental scores. The Great Learning is another work by Cardew which spans over seven parts or paragraphs. He created this piece based on Confucius by Ezra Pound. The Great Learning led to the formation of his experimental musical ensemble Scratch Orchestra. In the meantime, he attended graphic design course which led him to work as a graphic designer at Aldus Books in London. Cardew’s graphic design background is evident in his use of elemental shapes, compositions, and use of principles of cognitive psychology in Treatise. 
The initial hype around graphic scores declined in the 1970s, however, there are still musicians (such as Aphex Twin and John Zorn) that are further-exploring those areas by using graphic notation in their work. Brian Eno and David Byrne amongst other contemporary composers produced pieces that investigate the intersection of tactile and audiovisual perception of music. Eno’s latest piece Reflection (2018) is an infinite piece of experimental ambient music that according to the artist is his most sophisticated piece: “My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time — ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.” Although the recordings (vinyl and CD versions) of the piece are limited to thirty minutes due to their technological limitations, its app version provides the audience with a truly endless musical experience that can be manipulated by them as well. In this experiment, Eno expands on Cage’s concept of indeterminacy by creating a generative system that infinitely produces sounds, while, as an interactive piece, can be shaped by the viewer simultaneously. 
Carsten Nicolai, Ryoji Ikeda, Golan Levin, and Zach Lieberman amongst other visual artists have explored visual and interactive dimensions of sound. Footfalls (2006) by Golan Levin and Zach Lieberman, for instance, is an interactive audiovisual installation piece in which the stomping feet of the visitors create a cascading entourage of bouncing circles. Through the process of capturing the stomping noise and translating them into exact sequence of visual elements, the algorithm generates the objects which then interact with the silhouette of the viewer. Ryoji Ikeda’s Test Pattern is another generative piece that translates any given data, including text, sounds, images and videos, into barcode-like binary patterns which is projected back into the space interacting with the participants in his installation. Carsten Nicolai’s Sekundenschlaf (microsleep), reminiscent of Cage’s 4:33, is a sculptural visualization of acoustic sound waves produced based of the spoken word “Sekundenschlaf” which explores the material qualities of sound and its relation to space. While these recent explorations go beyond simple graphic notation, they nonetheless play with sounds and visual perception much like the earlier experiments done by Cage and Cardew. They tap into the world of possibilities that lie in between images and sounds.

Notations, John Cage, 1969, Something Else Press
Notations 21, 2009, Theresa Sauer, Mark Batty Publisher
Sound, code, image, John L. Walters, Cornelius Cardew, Tom Phillips, Eye Magazine, Autumn 1997
Treatise, Cornelius Cardew, 1967, The Gallery Upstairs Press

Pouya Ahmadi

is a Chicago-based typographer and art director. He is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago—School of Design—and an editorial board member ​of Neshan magazine focusing on contemporary graphic design and the visual arts. Pouya's work has been showcased by It'sNiceThat, AIGA Eye on Design, People of Print, Grafik, Etapes,​ ​Type Directors Club, Print Magazine, and many others. Pouya holds a MA/MAS degree in Visual Communication from the Basel School of Design in Switzerland and an MFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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