a spectrum of private scores

I’ve started to do something here, and it got a little out of hand. But I’m just going to post it now anyway, in the hopes that it might stir something up, or recognize an existing stir that has been going on under the radar for some time now. Private is one word for the pieces I’m writing about, informal is another. Not requiring instrumental expertise might be an apt phrase. Non-performative is in the spirit of it, but there are contradictions. Imaginary is a term that only applies to some of them. These pieces come in all different shapes, but I found that I care about them all and I wanted to think about them together from a (non-)performative angle. Maybe it’s my own resistance to performance that makes them so appealing to me. Feel free to step in if you feel things could be better explained or, even better, if you can offer more pieces to add to the mix.

Closet Music (Music for imaginary performance) has issued an open call for works, with a submission deadline of July 15th. The Closet Music Book is now available, and I’m going to get myself a copy when I’m next in the UK. The contributors are listed at the link, and several samples from the project are available online. It’s an excellent initiative by Janet Oates. A less formal attempt to collect this sort of work has recently surfaced as Imaginary Sound Works. The submissions tend to be text scores. (“Supplementary images, links and other online materials are accepted, but not encouraged.”)

These are the first of such collections from multiple contributors that I’m aware of, but imaginary scores have quietly been around for a while. Amnon Wolman’s imaginary pieces and Michael Pisaro’s Braids: for (silent) reader are two examples. Peter Ablinger’s Sehen und Hören series is subtitled “Music without Sounds,” and these pieces do not rely on words either. (Doug Barrett has written a really useful article on this work called Window Piece.)

Then there are pieces that are to be realized in sound, but not as a performance, for example Tom Johnson’s Private Pieces: Piano Music for Self-Entertainment. Text scores making use of natural settings or objects have eliminated the most significant barriers to a non-musician’s private performance of the work: notation and instruments. Christian Wolff’s Stones (p. 9 of the Prose Collection) can be performed in almost any configuration. The other pieces in the Prose Collection are generally available to anyone who is interested. Dean Rosenthal’s Stones/Water/Time/Breath is dedicated to Wolff, and is invitingly open in its configuration.

Some pieces involve listening to actual sounds without (intentionally) producing sounds. Should I even give the most prominent example? (4’33”) Max Neuhaus’s LISTEN and Craig Shepard’s sound walks are two other examples. David Dunn’s Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time is quite specific in very surprising ways. Then there are Peter Ablinger’s Listening Piece in 2 Parts, Weiss/Weisslich 8, 25, 25b, 29, and a number of others. Manfred Werder’s 2010(1) may be another example.

Some pieces are presented as actions, but aren’t likely to be carried out casually. Much of the Fluxus work and Stockhausen’s Aus den Sieben Tagen come to mind. But then again, many of the more demanding scenarios have been attempted, including Stockhausen’s instruction in Gold Dust to spend four days in solitude without eating. Stockhausen tended to get positive results from his more extreme expectations. On the other end of the seriousness spectrum, the Twitter account Text Score a Day sends out daily missions which are more humorous and speculative than actually performative.

Michael Baldwin sends out the sole copies of the scores of his ephemeral scores project by post, with the understanding that they may or may not be realized, and that any realization is completely out of his hands. Jennifer Walshe has started a project called THMOTES. The scores are delivered through a free Android/iOS app called Snapchat, and then quickly disappear. “The results of that brief interaction,” she writes, “are in your kind and capable hands/brain.”

As I’m trying to work out this little spectrum from work for the mind’s ear to unperformed sounds, to sound made by the listener only, I realize that I’ve mixed these modes in my own work. In one piece, memories of sounds, imagined sounds, and actual noises in the environment are all streams of activity which can be followed. Pauline Oliveros’s Ear Piece (Word Events, p. 115) asks about listening both speculatively (“What will you hear in the near future?”) and concretely, in the here and now of the reader.

Warren Burt has done a similar exercise to this one, but I’d have to say much more thoughtfully, and in a more far-reaching way, in a 2009 essay called Ways of Listening.

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