Eye Music

agnus dei by george crumb

Eye music (often referred to in English by its exact German translation ‘Augenmusik’) describes graphical features of scores that when performed are unnoticeable by the listener. A clear definition of eye music is elusive, for the border between eye music, word painting, and representations of melody and form depends on the relationships of composer, performer, and listener. Word painting (also known as tone painting or text painting) is writing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song (r.g. ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death).

To a person well-versed in the style of Baroque music, word painting is, as intended, noticed. But someone unused to Baroque musical style may not appreciate that musical effect – to them they are merely notes and lyrics. In this case, word painting is no longer the issue. For them, the ‘leaps’ of written notes are unhearable, but are visible only to the composer or performer: a definition of eye music.

The difficulty in definition is also apparent with border-line cryptographic contrapuntal works such as puzzle canons, which appear in the score entirely as a bare line of notes with clefs, rests, time signatures, or key signatures as clues to reveal multiple lines of music in canon. (Closer to true cryptographic works would be those with ‘soggetto cavato,’ where letters are embedded in the work using their solfege names.) As an example, a puzzle canon might be notated as one line of music with two key signatures and clefs, where the worked-out result will be a two-voice canon with one voice the retrograde (reverse) of the other. In itself the score with the clues alone is not eye music. But represent the same work ‘graphically spelled out,’ however, say with a drawing of the clued score facing a mirror, and the score/drawing becomes eye music.

The type of puzzle canon is also a factor. A four-voiced circular canon, when notated as a puzzle canon, may remain an un-worked-out single line of notes, and be inadmissible as eye music. When that single line of notes is inscribed in a graphical shape it becomes eye music, even if the contrapuntal puzzle remains unsolved. An even finer use of graphical conceit is when the canon does not have any musical way to end, and are in a sense ‘infinite’—classically referred to as ‘canon perpetuus,’ more commonly as ‘circular canons,’ and even more commonly as ’rounds.’ When an infinite (circular) canon is inscribed in a circle, and the circle itself is a clue that means ‘play me as a round,’ a different type of eye music entails.

Another class of eye music is when the score is purposely made difficult for the performer. For example, in Benedetto Marcello’s cantata ‘Stravaganze d’amore,’ the continuo part is written entirely in enharmonic chords, that is, ‘puns’ of chord indications spelled with no regard to the key of the rest of the ensemble, but (in equal temperament) indistinguishable audibly from those spelled in the appropriate way. Here, the perverse spelling (whether humorous or annoying to the trained continuo player) is not unusual graphically, but represents a score writing unmotivated except as an inside joke between composer and performer, and is unhearable by the listener.

The ‘Gulliver Suite’ by Telemann shows a combination of three eye music features. The score is made difficult ‘unnecessarily,’ is eye-catching for its graphics, and has a clever external reference, all unnoticeable to the listener. Two examples of eye music from the early Renaissance are from Baude Cordier. Cordier’s chanson about love ‘Belle, bonne, sage’ is in a heart shape, with red notes (coloration) indicating rhythmic alterations. Eye-music-within-eye music is in the small group of notes hanging like a locket in the upper left, also all in red and in the shape of a heart. Another work of Cordier, this time inscribed in circles, ‘Tout par compas suy composés’ (‘With a compass was I composed’), goes out of its way to identify itself as eye music.

Josquin des Prez used black note notation eye music in his well-known ‘Nymphes des bois,’ a lament over the death of the composer Ockeghem, as well as another lament, this time for the composer Obrecht, ‘Absolve, quaesumus, Domine.’ Words of death and lament are associated with black notes, a mannerism made even simpler to achieve in light of the contemporaneous simplification to white note notation. This feature of eye music would extend through the Humanist period.

Another instance of eye music in the Renaissance is apparently unique—the representation of a triangle for a canonic piece, which appears in juxtaposition with an anonymous canon written in a circle—in Dosso Dossi’s ‘Allegory of Music.’ It is possible that the two types of representation—the circle and the inherent symbolism of the tenets of Christianity (the holy trinity) in the triangle—are both suggestive of a sense of the infinite. The work represented in the triangle, is part of a ‘rough’ version of a puzzle canon in Josquin’s ‘Agnus Dei II’ from his ‘Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales’ canonic mass.

With the significant shift of style of composers of the Humanist movement—the rediscovery and translation of Greek texts in the mid-16th century—eye music flourished. The change in musical practice, particularly with the madrigalists and their focus on text declamation, at a word-by-word basis, was fertile ground for eye music. Words that suggest ‘blackness,’ such as ‘death’ or ‘night,’ receive ‘black’ notes (e.g. quarter notes, eighth notes; ‘white words’ such as ‘light’ or ‘pale’ receive ‘white’ notes (e.g. whole notes, half notes). With the Italian madrigalists from the 1580s until the early 17th century (whose style was almost literally imported to England), eye music reached its apogee until its transformation in the 20th century. Luca Marenzio is considered the composer most fond of eye music. For example, in the madrigal ‘Senza il mia sole’ from his ‘Madrigali a quattro, cinque e sei voci’ (1588), black notes are used for ‘chiuser le luci’ (‘close their eyes’).

Reaction by theorists of the time was mixed. A leading musical humanist, Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo), was opposed to it but Zarlino approved. In the 20th century, Alfred Einstein, a groundbreaking scholar of the Humanist madrigal, wrote that eye music is ‘the most extreme and (for our aestethic convictions) most horrible testimony of naturalism, of imitazione, in the madrigal.’

In Telemann’s ‘Gulliver Suite’ for two violins the note values in the chaconne are ‘Lilliputian,’ and, in the gigue, are ‘Brobdingnagian’ ones. Because the Lilliputian movement is marked with the equally bizarre time signature of 3/32, and the Brobdingnagian one in 24/1 (which is doubly humorous because gigues are generally light and brisk), the time signatures reduce to 3/4 and 9/8, perfectly normal ones for each movement, as are the tempos associated with them and the type of dance of each.

Post-tonal music has seen an expansion of eye music in line with its expansion and experimentalism of musical techniques. The last examples using a rigorous scoring system rooted in standard practice are the finely turned circles and spirals (as well as a peace symbol and a crucifix) in the works of George Crumb.

The beauties of many examples of graphic notation are not, in fact, a feature of eye music. As novel and attractive as the graphics may be in these scores, they function entirely as performance indications or true records of compositional method. Also often seen are graphical or conceptual art works that that use the symbols of music notation but are not performing scores at all, such as Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 ‘In futurum (Zeitmaß-zeitlos).’

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