the anxiety of the staff

I have to admit, I am currently in a (hopefully) temporary stage where I am rather scared of notation. Of course, the blank page can be the most horrific image to any artist, writer, or maker, but for me, a blank page is preferable to seeing those five, straight, bold lines squished together moving from one side of their boundary to another filling me with the deepest dread, to the extent that it has, for the past 6 months, crippled any thought process I might have – that is, until the last week or so.

The anxiety of the staff is a rather ridiculous idea for me. How can someone who, for the bulk of their education and experience making music, utilise the western staff suddenly perceive it as if it were some foreign object, some kind of other, even though previously it was studied, understood, and perfectly comprehensible.

I believe this is a thing of training, and the anxieties that develop through the conditioning of the various models of composer. In the highly complex musical culture we find ourselves in, and perhaps indebted to a philosophy of pushing limits, we have come to a place where people operate at the margins – no longer is ‘less, more’ – more is more, and less is less – the extremity of practice, and the world in which one situates themselves can have a large affect on the perception of the ontology of the staff.

Within settings of compositional pedagogy, white space, and whole notes are seen as lazy, lacklustre, creatively devoid, and in some situations, are insulting to players of a particular pedigree. The more hyper-detailed one’s score, and the more demanding it is on players, the more work you must have done, the deeper level of thought that must be there, which in turn promotes the idea of a sophisticated and well learned practitioner aware of the trends at the height of modernist practice, or what we might call a ‘serious’ composer. – this is not necessarily a criticism of either a simple or complex practice, it is, naturally, just a set of easy conclusions that are made based on visual factors of the score, that ultimately are judged before any sonorous quality is experienced.

As a pluralist interested in these sonic extremes from the simple to the highly complex I have experienced both situations. I have been judged for utilising only whole notes in a score, to be then told it was an extremely beautiful piece once it was heard. I have also had experiences where the initial perception of a rather complex looking score was one of full engagement, and enthusiasm, and upon its experience was told it was ‘kind of very strange’ – both were educational settings – and this is just on the surface level of the score.

Once one goes to deeper considerations of the staff, the anxieties that arise are mostly ones that are ingrained within settings of compositional pedagogue. To be a ‘serious’ composer, is the equivalent of having elocution lessons, and making sure you pronounce your Q’s, T’s, and P’s, only this time articulation is with dots, beams, stems, and lines of varying meanings. The vocabulary available to a composer from the Post-WWII period until the present is continually getting richer and simultaneously more complicated – Do composers have more to say? Is it an attempt to say something differently? Or do the limitation of the score require continuous reconfiguration for the musical language people are attempting to achieve? Either way, the further into the present-history of music we go, the more level of detail is required to at least be understood – for some composers, employing the entire battery of articulations and extended techniques is natural – but for others it might just be a specific element that is required – but ultimately both have to know the accepted norms of practice. The micro-details of the staff go deeper and deeper as the years go on, and regardless of whether you are a tonal, atonal, or non-idiomatic composer, it is an expectation and duty to understand them all.

The micro-details of a score can often be a barrier or hindrance to the creative process – all composers would like a machine that transformed what was going on in their brain onto a staff, without the laborious and tedious process of scoring. These micro-details, however, are considered a necessary component in the conveying of ideas – therefore they have to be perfect, and to some extent, these are the only elements of music that can be presented as perfect – yet due to the very nature of a score, the actual realised sound is never perfect, and that in itself is rich and interesting terrain – although perhaps not to be occupied in this small entry. Ultimately, we as practitioners, can sometimes spend so long with how something looks, that we forget its purpose – to convey information of a sonic nature – and if we interrogate this idea – do we really need the western staff to be able to do this?

The western staff is just one of many sophisticated approaches to conveying information of a musical nature. The basic version of what we have now, unsurprisingly, developed at a time when the utility of literacy was one of power and economy – culture had started to move away from oral practice, and ‘folk’ started to have less facility and agency within the operations of the every day world – literary culture was taking over, and orality went into decline. Just like the relationship between words on a page, and the sound and meaning those words might have when spoken aloud, the staff itself is not music; it is not sonorous, nor is it affective. The staff is an artefact and fragment of something much larger and involved. Yet due to its cultural reverence and placement, and the fetishisation of urtext, the western art score holds a hegemony over the actual music making and experiencing processes – we as practitioners have given an excessive amount of agency and power to an inanimate source.

Naturally, I am also aware of two ironies here: 1) I am using a text editor to create a blog that sits inanimately somewhere on a cloud, and 2) In writing about the staff, I give it a certain place holder, or reverence that does very little to shake the shackles of anxiety it holds over practice.

That being said, I personally came to the staff very late. I studied piano from the age of 7, and the score was always in front of me, but my stubborn little self never got around to being even slightly proficient in being able to read a score until 17 (when my teacher at GCSE told me that I should not do A-level music unless I was seriously going to learn how to read it!). For 10 years of my life I learned music solely by ear – it was a novelty to my piano teachers, as they regarded me in a way that was both encouraging of learning by ear, but slight dismay that I was never getting to grips with the staff, and they would play the works I wanted to learn, and I would learn from their playing. I was also creating music in this time too, and found many different approaches to communicating ideas (for myself to play). I then went to university to study music, and for 98% of that time, I was then engaged with the staff.

I am hugely aware of the fact that the language of western art music is enshrouded in that of the score, a language that is elitist, exclusionary, and simply not available to many.

Arriving at Wesleyan, however, I started to engage with many other approaches to communicating musical information, from cipher scores, to graphic scores, and text scores, to improvisation. A significant amount of time was spent avoiding western staff notation. Through time spent away from western staff notation, and time spent with other communicational methods of composition I enriched my possibilities of music making. I spent a lot of my time engaging with works of an extended duration, and found that there were more ideal approaches to realising and creating a work of a long duration, than focusing on the micro-details of each second that I might have done in the western score. I submitted my thesis in May, and it was not until August where I started to write notes again – but in a very free manner, for the collaboration between Anya Shatilova, a domra player and ethnomusicologist at Wesleyan, and myself.

In the past 6 months, I have not engaged with the staff very much. Each time I have considered writing something with the staff, I have rejected the idea, and created something with electronics, or a text score instead. The anxiety keeps rising, and I feel this is mostly due to the fact that with very few players and opportunities around and available (because of the elephant in the room that is a global pandemic), the need and urge to write music in this way is not all that overwhelming. That being said, I feel that if I leave it too long, I’ll want to avoid it completely! But, despite the many issues with it, I enjoy the score, I like the fact I am familiar with it, and I like that it can be a detailed source of information on the microlevel – it is one of many tools I have available, and one I feel is necessary to keep in practice. Therefore, I have started, as a way to oil the hinges, to write miniatures for toy piano, an instrument with large limitations in sound (the timbre changes little in its span), harmonic quality (I find anything more than a few simultaneous notes sounds dreadful), and range (2 octaves). By working within such strict limitations, the anxiety of staff notation starts to slowly dissipate – when you only have so much at your disposal, you avoid the worries that might plague you if you might otherwise be writing for orchestra.

The toy piano miniatures are called ‘Seven Gates or Choices for the Lost Leaves of Time’, and they will slowly be presented to the world in time to come. Watch this space! Also look out for another blog on my thoughts on miniatures. After this I plan on writing some miniatures for domra, some solo songs, and then some motets, whilst continuing to create more extended works with electronics & field recordings.

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