Graphic Notation

treatise by cornelius cardew

Graphic notation is the representation of music through the use of visual symbols outside the realm of traditional music notation. Graphic notation evolved in the 1950s, and it is often used in combination with traditional music notation. Composers often rely on graphic notation in experimental music, where standard musical notation can be ineffective. A common aspect of graphic notation is the use of symbols to convey information to the performer about the way the piece is to be performed. These symbols first began to appear in the works of avant-garde composers such as Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Krzysztof Penderecki, as well as the works of experimental composers such as John Cage and Earle Brown during the 1950s and 60s. In the late 1970s, the Brazilian composer Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta started producing graphic notation in four dimensions, inside virtual reality.

After working as Stockhausen’s assistant, Cornelius Cardew began work on a massive graphic score, which he titled ‘Treatise.’ The piece consists of 193 pages of highly abstract scores. The score itself is almost its own separate work of art. In 2008, Theresa Sauer edited a compendium featuring graphic scores by composers from over fifty countries, demonstrating how widespread the practice has become. Notable graphic scores(in which the music is represented using symbols and illustrations) include: Hans-Christoph Steiner’s score for ‘Solitude,’ created using the Pure Data programming language. Altered Notation can be seen in George Crumb’s work, where he uses traditional notation but presents the music on the page in a graphic or nontraditional manner such as spirals or circles.

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