Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Behind Bars readthrough: Introduction

Elaine Gould's Behind Bars is a fantastic new reference work on all aspects of music notation. Over the next 6 months, I will be covering a chapter per week, summarizing the content and commenting on various issues that arise in the text. I will welcome thoughts and comments from the community as I progress through the material.

To begin with, the introduction covers three areas: the need for scores and parts prepared with an understanding of basic notational standards, the historical context of this book and a guide for using the book. Her argument for the need for expertise in the principles of music notation is as follows:

Summary: The need for notational standards
If computer software, given a competent user, can produce sharp-looking music, why learn about music notation? The computer can only go so far. It will apply notation principles, but without the knowledge to determine appropriateness to a situation, the result will just as likely hinder the performance as not. "Through a mutual understanding of the rules and conventions of notation, the composer can 'speak' effectively to the performer, who then has the best chance of achieving a faithful interpretation of the composer's intentions"

As an engraver, my goal is to facilitate the communication between composer and performer to the greatest degree possible. My lifeblood consists of these rules and conventions and their proper application. Frequently I find that composers are often extremely good at writing music but don't have a thorough grounding in the layout and disposition of a score and parts. The effect is usually to make performers work too hard to play the music.

Gould notes that in her experience, "professionals are frequently too tolerant of poor presentation." As a performer myself, I know that I almost never have any say in the quality of the part. Indeed, a particularly bad part will be the subject of jokes and bellyaching in the back row, but it will rarely get to the conductor's ears, let alone the composer's. The performer's job is to read whatever chicken scratch or too-small music is put in front of her and play it beautifully. If there are poor page turns, make a copy. If it's too scrunched, squint. When the player is working this hard just to get the music off the page, excellent performance becomes more of a luxury than a given. How much rehearsal time is wasted for someone to ask if a passage should be slurred or tongued like his neighbor? How many questions never get asked and the assumptions and errors made impact the performance negatively? How much new music is never played again because the parts were terrible?

Summary: Historical Context
The next part in the introduction concerns the historical context of this book. Her central point is that established notational conventions provide the most help to the musician because they can be read and understood quickly. In the mid-twentieth century, a wide variety of new notation was created to solve particular compositional challenges. Gould establishes her lineage here: Karkoschka's 1972 Notation in New Music and Stone's 1980 Music Notation in the Twentieth Century. Karkoschka sought to outline the multiplicity of new notational approaches and Stone sought to establish conventions that addressed the needs of contemporary composers. The intent of Behind Bars is to examine the developments of the past thirty years and propose recommendations based on current practice.

I have loved Kurt Stone's book for years. It was a light to me in a world full of arbitrary conventions. Here it was: these are the best ways that we could agree on to notate music. Based on the findings of the 1974 Ghent conference, more than 400 disparate notational methods were evaluated and the clearest chosen. Too often, notation manuals were based on the direct experience of one individual who undertook to poll a handful of colleagues for their input. Ted Ross' 1970 Teach Yourself the Art of Music Engraving and Processing is a wonderful resource for spacing and basic notation, but it's very idiomatic and limited in scope. Gardner Read's seminal Music Notation: a Manual of Modern Practice from 1969 is a monumental effort, but suffers from being from the perspective of a composer and scholar. The ideas put forward are intensely personal and yet presented as being absolute fact. He's done the research, but has come to his own unilateral positions. It also tends to be overwritten and pompous.

One of the reasons that I'm excited about Behind Bars is that it comes from the point of view of a music editor. Her primary goal is to create editions that make money. Assuming that the choice of music is out of her hands, she must produce the finest presentation of that music possible. High-quality engraving says to the purchaser that the utmost care was given to the production of the edition and they will be assured of a smooth and enjoyable performance of the music. To that end, she is concerned with what is best for players and how to make the work as consistent and dependable as possible. Her thirty years of experience in the field and the production of uncounted thousands of diverse scores give her the authority to make solid recommendations. Of course, the viewpoint of one person lends itself to idiosyncratic pronouncements. She acknowledges a wide variety of experts in various fields that have helped her form opinions. The result is a carefully-considered, well-presented reference work that has clear, thoughtful recommendations for an extraordinary range of situations.

Summary: Using Behind Bars
The book has a clear hierarchy of headings with related subjects grouped and cross-referenced. Topics are structured "definition -- design -- placing -- use" and progress from elementary to complex. Technical terms  in other languages are presented if in common use. Items are illustrated with good and bad practices.

"Effective communication results from establishing a convention and adopting a consistent approach." Any new recommendations are simple, clear and based in traditional practice when possible.

I'm looking forward to going through this book with you and exploring the current state of music notation and how it differs from and complements my own current understanding. Adventures in Music Engraving indeed!

1 comment:

Brooks said...

Matthew, awesome post! Keep them coming - it's great to read commentary from someone as interested in this art form as I. Cheers!