Conceptual, Verbal, and Graphic Scores

by danielgoode

Conceptual, Verbal, and Graphic Scores
by Daniel Goode

A verbal score tells you how to make the music in language, rather than in musical notation. There may be some musical symbols in a verbal score, maybe a graphic, but you are being told how to make the music via language, not musical notes in musical staves to be played by specific musical instruments or voices (though the verbal score also can tell you what instruments should be played). The verbal score is the elephant-in-the-room of the Modernist and Experimental music traditions since it wipes clean the premises of musical notation. Moving from idea (expressed in words and maybe diagrams or sketches) to realization, requires imaginative input from the performers on a level quite different from and more inclusive than what performers do with traditional musical notation. The verbal score can be difficult for a trained musician, and a godsend to a talented, but non-musically-literate performer. A verbal score may ask the performers to do anything, including making up their own sounds, or notes according to the instructions given. Call it the Platonic idea of musical composition because the idea precedes the actual notes, that is, the realization in sound.

Nothing more challenges music Conservatory training and tradition than the verbal score: that you can make music without that musical literacy which the Conservatory is in charge of instilling. The tool of the verbal score does an end-run around that pillar of cultural education, musical notation. It is radical, too, because it steals musical technique away from the medieval power-center of the Conservatory. Yoko Ono may have done the earliest ones in the mid-50s. La Monte Young did a series in 1960 (sometimes these are called conceptual scores, or conceptual music. A full account would include the Fluxus artists such as George Brecht, Bob Watts, Dick Higgins, Philip Corner and others who developed Event Scores influenced by John Cage’s teaching).

The verbal score puts an intelligent agent in charge of finding the right performance for the composerÕs idea, but the performer is also the composerÕs partner, on the same level because s/he is in possession of the concept behind the music, expressed succinctly in words. Yet verbal scores can also be challenging because invariably there are questions about exactly what might be meant by the words, or sentences. And the musicians must be willing to give of themselves, to inhabit the ideas, to do, to compose what is needed to make the ideas into music. A spiritual commitment is required, and the building of a performance community, because there is no such thing as simply playing the score.

Maybe just from this short discussion, the reader can sense what a powerful and flexible tool is the verbal score: first, because it addresses performers in their native language, their first language. And second, because it can say things that notes can’t. In thinking about all this, it suddenly occurred to me to ask what if music notation from its beginnings had taken the form of human language, written and spoken, before it took its familiar form of notes and rests? Wouldn’t the verbal score then be at the center of music culture and music teaching instead of at its periphery? Imagine writers and composers together, teaching the use of language to convey sound, idea, emotion, performance. This is a thought experiment we should all consider making.

Conceptual, graphic, and verbal scores challenge the immovable scholasticism of music theory as it has been taught since Medieval times in music theory courses world-wide, the kind of courses which discourage so many brilliant music students from studying music theoretically. Collections which bring this work to the fore start to redress the imbalance.

Note: this has been adapted from the liner notes to “Philip Corner: Extreme Positions” a 2CD set published by New World Records, 2007.