Music To Be Heard — And Seen

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    A page from John Cage's 'Aria,' from 1960.
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    Slavek Kwi's 'Drawing The Air (Phase 1),' from 2007, composed in Ivy Cottage, Ireland.
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    A page from Martin Sebastian Loyato's 'Celestial Spheres Fantasy For Improvisers,' from 2005, written for 40 musicians.
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    Makoto Nomura's 'Oi Asitawa' from 2000; each player composes phrases and then notates it however s/he chooses.
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    Jon Raskin's 'Gingko (Part 1 of 4)' from 2007. Each musician assigns a sound to each dot on the leaf; the middle is a group improvisation.
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    A page from Steve Roden's 2005 'Pavilion Score,' inspired by the architect's plans for London's Serpentine Gallery.
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    Daniel Schnee's 'Chollobhat' from 2007: merging his work as a musician and as a visual artist.

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Completely by chance, I recently stumbled across an entry on Brain Pickings (slogan: "Curating eclectic interestingness from culture's collective brain") that really piqued my interest. It's a recent book inspired by Notations, John Cage's landmark collection of new music scores from 1969 featuring work by composers as diverse as Milton Babbitt, Pauline Oliveros and Luciano Berio and Cage himself.

Edited by musicologist and composer Theresa Sauer and published two years ago, Notations 21 is a handsome, hefty tome, full of graphically rendered scores that are as much fine art as they are representations of music. This is art that should be seen as much as heard.

While some may argue that notation is just a way of getting across a musical idea — merely a visual means to an audible end — the 165 artists represented in this volume seek to extend our ideas about creativity way past the familiar staves, clefs, dots and sticks. Indeed, many of the composers whose work is featured in Notations 21 have a background in fine arts, such as Steve Roden and Daniel Schnee.

Forty years later, the work of the composers who submitted scores for Notations 21 wield the same power to befuddle, enrage, awe and inspire, just as their musical predecessors did some 40 years ago.

Unlike in the Cage original, Sauer didn't rely on I Ching throws to determine the length of the accompanying text. But in certain other ways, she follows Cage's lead. The composers are presented in simple alphabetical order, which leads to some fascinating and even jarring juxtapositions.


Soprano Measha Brueggergosman & the YouTube Symphony perform Cage.

But what does such music sound like? Here are two examples. In the first, we see soprano Measha Brueggergosman and the 2009 incarnation of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas pair John Cage's own Aria in a simultaneous performance with another of his works, Renga. (What you don't see at all from the video, however, is that at this Carnegie Hall performance, the Aria score was projected above the stage as Brueggergosman sang.)

Meanwhile, Daniel Schnee tells a TEDx audience at Canada's York University about his piece Chollobhat and what he calls his own "cognitive ecology":


Daniel Schnee talking about what he calls "cognitive ecology"—finding the commonalities between visual art and music.

Do these unusually notated scores appeal to you? Does seeing them on the page enhance or detract from your feelings about the music? Tell us in the comments section below.



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