There’s No Sound In My Head from lateral on Vimeo.

There are many approaches to graphic scores – from those are require the construction of a consistent personal vocabulary like Treatise, to those that have such detailed instructions it is akin to an alternate form of traditional notation, to those that are pictures that are to be reacted to and of course the continuum of combinations and grey areas between these general approaches. This graphic score, The Metaphysics of Notation by Mark Applebaum is enough in the later category so that it was setup as an installation at the Cantor Arts Center Museum on the Stanford University campus (where Applebaum is a professor) and yet it is a detailed construction with repeated and referenced elements that a built up vocabulary would certainly serve well. It was not merely an installation in the art gallery it was presented as a score and it received weekly performances for nearly a year.   
A new DVD on Innova, The Metaphysics of Notation, consists of a 45 minute performance assembled from these performances, and also includes the documentary There’s No Sound in My Head about the piece.  This documentary is also on Vimeo and I’ve embedded it above. This documentary is highly worth watching even if this specific score and it’s realizations don’t particularly appeal. It touches on a lot of the issues that come up time and time again with graphic scores: are they art or music, indeterminacy of performance, comparisons with traditional notation and so on. These issues come up again and again but rarely does one see much in the culture about them, so even if the treatment is only so in depth, it’s interesting to see these questions raised and some answers given from a variety of different people (who present multiple sides of these issues).

The Metaphysics of Notation (excerpt)


Composer and sound-sculpture inventor (not to mention Stanford prof) Mark Applebaum refuses to be fenced in. This time his visually-obsessive music has emigrated from the concert hall to the museum gallery. Mark Applebaum’s cryptic, painfully fastidious, wildly elaborate, and unreasonably behemoth pictographic score, The Metaphysics of Notation, consists of 70 linear feet of highly detailed, hand-drawn glyphs, two hanging mobiles of score fragments, and absolutely no written or verbal instructions. – from the Innova DVD page

I have to admit that I’ve not been super aware of Applebaum’s music. He sort of seems to be in that post-Minimalist, Kyle Gann-ish territory with a generous helping of Trimpin (see his quite interesting looking sound sculptures) and jazz influences. I’m sure that does him a disservice but it’s immaterial when considering a graphic score that has no instruction. One thing that is important to keep in mind with graphic scores of this type is that one can apply a set of meta-rules on the top of the score and still be completely true to the score.  Considering Treatise again when you examine the score in it’s entirety it becomes clear that you have to create your own vocabulary to the symbols. As the symbols repeat throughout the score and are constantly modified, interpenetrated by other symbols and the like it also becomes clear that the score demands consistency and rigor to do justice. This can be down with overriding concerns in place – for instance a very minimalist and quiet approach can be made. Likewise a dramatic and noisy approach could be applied. What matters is that regardless of the concerns of the performers is that their interpretation remains rigorous.

The performers of the piece have ranged from improvisors such as Vic Rawlings, Liz Albee and Gino Robair, to new-complexity composer Brian Ferneyhough, to experimental music percussion ensemble Sō Percussion and many many more. The wide range of these performers demonstrate how you can apply your specific approach to an open score like this. Of course without being able to hear complete performances (and being able to completely examine the score) it is pretty hard to judge individual performances but the overarching point remains. For a fairly extreme example of this consider this performance by the Blum Blum Shub Poetry Coincidence. Cardew often stated that performers of Treatise were co-composers with him and it is this bringing of one’s own approach to the piece – while respecting the score by applying rigor to one’s approach – that is how one becomes part of the piece; a co-composer of your realization of the score. The above documentary ends with the following acknowledgement, that acknowledges not only the various performers of the piece but also this concept:

And above all [thanks] to the intrepid and imaginative performers of The Metaphysics of Notation (who understand that the composer asks for fidelity, not accuracy)