REVIEW: Visualising Music: The Art of the Graphic Score at the Royal Academy of Arts (EFG LJF 2017)

Performing Raymond MacDonald's graphic score, Manuscript, at the RA
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved. 

Visualising Music: The Art of the Graphic Score
(Royal Academy of Arts. EFG London Jazz Festival. 10 November 2017. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Inspired by the major Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, and his cross-media collaborations with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, an evening exclusively devoted to the graphic score sought to demystify some of its ambiguities in an introductory discussion, and exemplified its potential in the stimulating interpretation of half a dozen scores devised by the eminent performers, Peter Wiegold (keyboards) of Club Inégales, Kim Macari (trumpet), Raymond MacDonald (alto sax), Hyelim Kim (taegum - Korean bamboo flute) and Joel Bell (guitar).

The graphic score is primarily identified with contemporary music, with Cage, Cardew and Earl Brown amongst its early champions and more recently, Christian Marclay's Manga Scrolls (LINK) is a classic embodiment of its catalytic role as the link between a visual stimulus and its instantaneous sonic interpretation.

Wiegold and Kim directed the initial focus to its pre-history. Scores were projected on screens and Wiegold made the connection with improvisation in the seventeenth century when auditioning singers at a Roman chapel were held in 'lower esteem' if they did not deviate from the score! Kim explained aspects of traditional Korean scores with minimal grids and boxes containing notational symbols, a springboard for musicians to treat each note 'as an individual life'. Macari referenced the performances where Johns, Cage and Cunningham were effectively 'one brain - set, sound, choreography', and went on to discuss her own scores specially created for this event.

Wiegold showed Cage's manuscript for 4' 33'', in which ambient sound constitutes the experience. David Tudor's inaugural 1952 performance, incidentally, was in three movements, as in Cage's directions, with the opening and closing of the piano lid signifying the duration of each.

MacDonald introduced the evergreen possibility that 'Pieces can be played in an infinite number of ways.' Wiegold amplified the point, discussing heterophony (several musicians uniquely interpreting the same line) and posed the key question, 'Can we improve on Western notation?', suggesting that this is 'an odd type of graphic notation' amongst many, concluding that 'all graphic scores are ambiguous.' Macari echoed the sentiment saying that the main accompanying instruction is 'Do your best!'

Macari's drawn marks in her score for Feeling Truth are integrated with a time-based graph of the frequency of earthquake occurrences to which musicians responded with lively, sharp bursts of increasing intensity - the principle of 'turning data in to sound'.

Working with artist Jo Ganter, MacDonald's Manuscript score is based on a pattern of coloured bars with textural implications. After the composer counted the musicians in, a subdued brass band sound broke in to spattering, breathy textures, spatial tremors from Bell's guitar and Wiegold's walking bass lines with MacDonald adding a Dolphy-esque tonality.

In Blue, MacDonald explained that the shapes on the page indicated the relationships between the musicians, with blue rectangles for the trio, the small turquoise squares for Kim and the overall grid for Bell to interpret, which effectively gave licence for structured improvisation, perhaps the underlying principle for graphic scores in general.

Structure was also made visible when Wiegold conducted the flow of the ensemble as Kim explored the Korean score with atmospheric invention on the large, horizontally-held bamboo taegum. In a later piece, Kim pushed breath and embouchure to the limit to invest a sparkling, aggressive flavour to her improvisations.

Macari's Default Setting was based on a compelling address to students, This is Water, by David Foster Wallace, the troubled American writer who ultimately took his own life. Macari brought his words to life with spontaneous freshness to which the musicians responded by creating a buoyant, atmospheric envelope of sound.

The closing piece showed Wiegold's score for Remember, Remember, a list of materials including powder, glass and molten lead, the physical qualities of which were the basis for the musicians' resonant interpretation and interactions, underlying the principle that with the challenge of a graphic score the performers are constantly alive to each other as well as to the score in realising its full expressive potential – fittingly achieved with great sensitivity and inspired articulation throughout the evening, the opening night of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

LINK: Peter Wiegold's preview

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