Thursday, September 04, 2008

Musical notation, or, Difficult Listening Hour Part III

Oh, the many things I'm completely stupid in. I have a general knowledge of how standard musical notation works, but then I ran in to various performances of percussion works on YouTube and started wondering how on earth people notated that for replicable performances.

This brought me to percussion notation as well as archaic notations and notations of other cultures, who use various symbols over text to indicate musical intentions.

In looking at various examples of musical notations old and new, I was struck by the connection that can be drawn to poetic form. The limitations of Blogger make excerpts impossible for the most part, but innovations such as William Carlos Williams' stepped line and other poets' "words all over the page" which initially struck me as the result of someone's itchy Tab pinky are a way to indicate to the reader (as performer) of the poem (as score) how the piece should be executed. Musical notation has a variety of ways to control pitch, duration, and tempo. It also has brief written indications (con brio, or sehr schwer) of which Hart Crane's glosses could be seen as analogue. The piece can rely on these more than others. Bach occasionally doesn't even indicate the tempo in some movements. Morton Feldman's monumental pieces even allow the performer to determine the pitches, indicating only that some notes should be held longer. Xenakis has a "spectral" score showing the progression of the piece (watch in full screen to see what's going on).

Of those that relied more heavily, Scriabin began some of his pieces with poetry, giving ominous written instructions as the work progressed ( the darknesss enters, or the sweetness gradually becoming more and more caressing and poisonous...). Erik Satie did this far more lightheartedly, indicating that one piano work be played "like a nightingale with a toothache" or having a story printed above the staves for the performer to read (he expressly forbade the performers to read these aloud to the audience) so that the performer had something else to do in case boredom set in.

One thing I will attempt this semester is to introduce my students to the idea of musical notation in poetry, how it can be adapted and incorporated. Alice Notley gives a good indication of how this can be done in the following excerpt, one of the many striking moments in her wonderful long poem The Descent of Alette, in which she uses the quotation mark in almost the same manner a breath mark is used in vocal scores, changing the rather matter-of-fact words and syntax into something seen in a vision:

“A mother” “& child” “were both on fire, continuously”
“The fire” “was contained in them” “sealed them off
from others” “But you could see the flame” "halo
of short flame all about the” “conjoined bodies, who

sat” “they sat apart” “on a seat for two” “at end of car” “The
ghost” “of the father” “sat in flames” “beside them”
“paler flames” “sat straight ahead” “looking
straight ahead, not” “moving.” “A woman”

“another woman” “in a uniform” “from above the ground”
“entered” “the train” “She was fireproof” “She was gloves & she”
“took” “the baby” “took the baby” “away from the”
“mother” “Extracted” “the burning baby” “from the fire” “they

made together” “But the baby” “still burned”
(“But not yours” “It didn’t happen” “to you”)
“’We don’t know yet” “if it will” “stop burning,’”
“said the uniformed” “woman” “The burning woman” “was crying”

“she made a form” “in her mind” “an imaginary” “form” “to
settle” “in her arms where” “the baby” “had been” “We saw
her fiery arms” “cradle air” “She cradled air” (“They take your
children” “away” “if you’re on fire”)

“In the air that” “she cradled” “it seemed to us there” “floated”
“a flower-like” “a red flower” “its petals” “curling flames”
“She cradled” “seemed to cradle” “the burning flower of” “herself gone”
“her life” (“She saw” “whatever she saw, but what we saw” “was that flower”)


Fjm Bond said...


I'm interested in the use of musical notation (not musical notation per se, but the use of indicators for pitch, rhythm, stops etc.) being incorporated in poetry and I'm looking for texts, articles and examples of incorporation as I'm thinking of writing my MA-Thesis on the subject. Could you perhaps point me in some directions as where to search and look? Are there poets of which it is known that they used it/ or any form of it?

thanks in advance,

Frank Bond

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting comments and perspective. Charles Dickens used to do oral readings of his prose. To prepare for performance he developed a notation system which must, now, surely be available online somewhere. He appeared to scribble over his text so that he knew where to take his voice through those very long sentences of his. it was a personal short hand and did not become a "norm' of a convention yet i had a speech teacher who did similar things as we prepared recitations.