Category Archives: Composing How and Why

24 – Graphic Scoring and the Composing Continuum

Beyond Common Music Notation : The collections of Cage & Sauer : After Kelemen : A rapid composition, simulation and graphing continuum : Working with graphical units : Mulholland’s How to Consecrate and Imaginary Circle : The Triangle of the Art : Scripting and the ‘poietic’ thread : Fifteen Images : Mapping Yorkshire

Beyond Common Music Notation

During the 1950s, contemporary composers began to experiment more freely with alternatives to symbolic, or common music notation (CMN). We have already encountered Feldman’s ‘graph score’ notation with regard to Duos, Trios, Quartets, and in this chapter we will look at other alternative methods to scoring for live performance, and the relationship between scripting, graphic or extended scores, and the production of reference recordings to assist players in their interpretation, as well as to assist the composer in explorations of how a piece should be articulated.

The interest in developing new methods by which to express musical ideas can be related to musical concerns stemming from the need to produce effects that would be unwieldy to express in common music notation: for example, complex, pointillistic textures. The development of the graphic score also have parallels with the incorporation of improvisation or improvisatory concepts into the traditions of contemporary classical music – listen, for example, to the performance below of Feldman’s Atlantis (1959). This is one of Feldman’s ‘graph score’ pieces, composed on squared paper, in which each square indicated a fixed period of time, and the number therein tells the player how many notes to play during that time. Listen particularly the piano solo, which has an improvisatory quality stemming from the individual tastes of each player and their interpretation of the numerical material… although it is also doubtless well rehearsed.

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23 – Thinking in Script: Mechanisms and Logic

The challenge of scripting languages : Generating Material with a Logical Test :  A ‘Cage Machine’ : The Limits of If…Then…Else : Implementing a More Complex System : Scripting a Hexadic Progression : Modular Composition with Progressions : Compound Operations

Throughout this book, we have often presented code by way of small, illustrative script snippets alongside occasional longer pieces, such as the 12-tone invention in chapter 10. Longer pieces, such as the aforementioned invention, often demonstrate a fairly linear flow of list processing as a way of demonstrating the technique and thinking behind scripted composition. However, there will be many compositional situations in which the making of the final piece will not necessarily follow such a linear ‘waterfall’ coding approach, and may need to make use of loops, logic and the preparation of bespoke functions (we encountered some of these in chapters 7, 12, 16 and 21).

This chapter explores the use of logical mechanisms and mathematical operators. These two methods of interpreting and manipulating data are fundamental to the practice of scripting and programming at large. At its most basic, a logical operation is a test or series of tests, for example:


This statement would look at a variable called ‘a’ and ask itself a number of questions. If a is either equal to one 1, or more than 10 then a course of action is taken – e.g. setting the variable b to 2 or 4 respectively. Otherwise, if a is any other number then b is set to 0. Naturally, we can use such statements to respond to changes in variables within our scripts. A mathematical operator is usually a simple mathematical process, such as add, subtract, divide or multiply.

Within many of the commonly invoked functions that we have encountered in this book are often series of such logical and mathematical operations. These allow functions to react appropriately to their various parameters, and also helps them to perform complex list manipulations in order to yield an output. Often we find ourselves in compositional situations where we too need to develop our own functions, or make use of such logical and mathematical operations.

One instance in which we may particularly need to do this is in creating script-based realisations of other compositional systems. In this chapter, we will look how a knowledge of logical and mathematical operations is necessary particularly to implement formalised yet inherently speculative systems such as those explored by John Cage. Continue reading

A Parametric Supplement

The next few months will see a series of supplementary chapters to Composing: How and Why being published on this blog. Ultimately they will be incorporated into the second edition of Parametric Composition. This short post outlines the areas to be covered, along with some illustrative examples.

The first new chapter, Thinking in Script: Mechanisms and Logic, will look at how indeterminate compositional systems can be realised in script using a range of logical and mathematical techniques. The chapter begins by looking at the computational components of Cage’s Music of Changes, which are swiftly explored in terms of rapid compositional prototyping. The chapter then turns to a more recent manifestation of indeterminacy arising from the underground experimental music scene in the form of Ben Chasny’s Hexadic System. Originally devised as a method of composing for guitar, the chapter explores how more complex system involving various forms of logical mechanism  can be realised in code, and extended into the medium of keyboard composition.

The next chapter, Graphic and Active Scores, explores how the graphic output of scripting systems can be incorporated into the notion of a ‘composing continuum’ to allow a composer to realise complex, improvisatory musical gestures alongside graphical analogues. An example of such a process can be found below, inspired by Milko Kelemen’s 1966 composition Composé, but realised by exporting data from Opusmodus as both graphical and musical formats:

Beyond Twelve Tones will examine the possibilities for spectral, electroacoustic, and live-coded composition in the context of parametric scripting. The complexities of workflows for working ‘beyond twelve tones’ – be that with microtonal or electroacoustic sound – are explored here.

The final new chapter - Analysis and Companionship - looks at some of the analytic potentials of working with script, particularly with regard to developing companion pieces. Starting from Dominic Sedivy’s observations about the use of harmonic continua in the music of Bach, the chapter then proceeds to explore the zwölftonspiel and trope systems of Josef Matthias Hauer both analytically and compositionally. The sympathies between the music of Bach and Hauer is explored with regard to the practice of creating ‘companion’ pieces for canonic works of both classical and contemporary music.

We hope these themes and examples will pique your interest – if you wish to be notified when each chapter is uploaded then don’t forget to follow our Twitter and Facebook accounts!

22 – Strategies

Towards the composing continuum : the IAMUS project : the desire for aesthetic control : starting the composing journey – the conditions for creativity : playful improvisation : verbal thinking and planning : After Hindemith – the 4-stage approach of Paul Hindemith : the diary evidence of the start of a piano trio : combining code with hand-crafted material : Strategic thinking in a fully-coded work : Objects of Curiosity II(The Prisoner) - a large-scale piece for double bass and string orchestra : how musical decision drive code solutions and structures : general strategic advice : strategic visualisation in large ensembles groups : aesthetic ‘honing’ : Xenakis and Barbaud : being realistic about the coding of musical detail.

This sequence of chapters has been assembled to demonstrate the possibilities and advantages of script-based programming.  For so many composers the computer is already a partner in the creative process, at some point or another, but it is still rare at this level of engagement during the onset of the composing act. Many researchers and developers continue to see the goal of Computer-Assisted Composing as moving towards a seamless continuum from pre-composition, those first thoughts and nebulous ideas, to the fully- finished score.

There are already fledgling systems that begin to offer something close to such a continuum, notably the IAMUS computer cluster. Sadly, the existing papers available on this academic development don’t suggest how professional composers might align and integrate their work, style and preoccupations with the attributes of this geonomic system. It would appear that the Melonomics’ technology the computer cluster uses can hold a library of existing compositions by one composer (or many) and from this generate further works. But this facility bypasses what most composers might desire from a partnership with a computer and its software, which is not about automation of the composing process but having a degree of personal control that allows either for improvisation and experimentation or as a means for calculation and realising complex formulations and ideas.

The recent Composers’ Rooms series on BBC Radio 3 during 2014 (and archived on the web) provides a valuable archive of anecdotal evidence on how composers work and think. Some composers begin compositional journeys with verbal and graphic descriptions before any sound is sought. For others the direct engagement with sound and music, usually with a keyboard, is where composition invariably begins. Continue reading

21 – Text into Music

Alban Berg’s messages to his mistress : Landscape for solo piano : text mapping in two different software environments : differences in mapping to modes : the concept of the function patterns-to-scales : how to use words to create tonalities : Quiet Form for trio : prose versus poetry : Into the Green Inverted Dawn for string quartet : changing letter direction in words : the function gen-accompaniment : Quintet for piano and winds : contrapuntal texts : Schizophonia for three ensembles : word rhythms generating pitches.

The history of music is littered with examples of words and letters masquerading as pitches, from the composers’ signatures to ‘text’ messages to the beloved. One of the most celebrated examples has to be Alban Berg’s ‘letters’ to his mistress Hann Fuchs-Roberttin scattered over the score of the Lyric Suite for string quartet of 1925, a score in which he hid the message ‘every note . . . was written as a small monument to a great love.’ George Perle’s masterly Style and Idea in the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg tells the remarkable story of how, fifty years after its composition, such messages came to light.

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20 – Instrumentarium Novum

The new instrumentarium : the Baroque idea of music as speech : the ‘affections’ of music : the contemporary jazz orchestra : the ‘open’ score : towards a model for coding orchestral music : Piece d’Orgue – the adoption of i-functions and the score-sheet : the problem of visualisation in code-based scores : rough prototyping and optimum ensemble size : Six Concertos for self-directed orchestra : phrase partitioning with find-change and find-anacrusis : Concerto 1 – three stage example of prototyping : two forms of short-score : Migrations for orchestra : expanding i-functions : using integers  in Objects of Curiosity for string orchestra ; novel tonalities in To the Dark Unseen for string dectet.

The title of this chapter is taken from a term found in a groundbreaking book of the 1990s Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech by the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The Instrumentarium is occasionally found in musicology to describe the collection of instruments used in music making at a particular point in time, so a ‘new instrumentarium’ is taken to mean either what is current today or what might be proposed for the future.

The composition of music in the 21st century challenges traditional ensembles and their attendant musical forms. New instruments and ways of extending existing instruments enrich our instrumentarium as they have through musical history. Amongst the established instruments of Classical Music composers find innovative techniques and the means towards the production of beguiling sounds. Look no further than the host of markings now considered the norm in scores for strings, mostly concerned with timbre and sound production.  But, for the most part, there is a significant cultural investment in the maintenance of traditional instrumental ensembles and in the formal instruction and education surrounding musical techniques and ‘period’ performance practice. Continue reading

19 – Composing for Orchestra I

Composers and orchestral composition : the role script-based programming has played in the composition of orchestral music : a survey of orchestral and large ensemble composition of one composer using CAC : Heartstonefor wind, piano and percussion : L-Systems and visual beat /space scoring : two BBC commissions for code-based scores realised in distributed performance : reintroducing the Baroque continuo into the orchestra : Quatuor des Timbres - computer-guided structuring and orchestration : Self-Portrait- an ensemble score in Open-FORM.

Composing for the orchestra, though regularly and seriously challenged as a culturally necessary activity for the composer, remains an imperative. The musical establishment holds onto the aesthetically pleasing phenomenon of an ensemble of musicians playing pre-composed music in a largely synchronous fashion, usually under the direction of a conductor. Traditional forms of notation continue to be required to promote and pass on performance practice inherited and largely stabilised from several centuries of education and tradition. Today’s music is sadly not today’s music, but music of the 17th to 20th centuries. Even areas of newly-minted music are required to employ musical techniques of the past, most notably in music for film and TV. Whilst there have been since the early years of the 20th century brave experiments in orchestral music, think of scores by Varese, Xenakis, Penderecki, Grisey, Harvey, Haas, composers have to wear the straight-jacket of the traditional symphony orchestra.

The down-sizing of the late 19th century orchestral medium began in the hands of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern during the inter-war years and continued post 1945 with what is now a prevalent one-to-part chamber group adopted by ensembles such as Ensemble Modern, Bang on a Can and the London Sinfonietta. There are relatively few composers who have held out against writing for the large orchestra required to play the 20th century masterworks such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a work which has spawned 21st century compositions such as Asyla by Thomas Adès, Harmonielehre by John Adams, Feria by Magnus Lindberg and Earth Dances by Harrison Birtwistle. Composing for orchestra remains the standard test and the goal of the emerging composer. There are few exceptions that come to mind, but those who have side-stepped this cultural requirement are amongst the most interesting and innovative voices today: Christopher Fox and Michael Van der Aa are two that spring to mind. Continue reading

18 – Solos

Introducing aspects of the contemporary solo repertoire : Composing with the Slonimsky Thesaurus : musical symmetry : approaches to good continuation : Interactions for Piano Left Hand : Studies in Movement for solo cello : introducing 2-D visualization : Array for solo violin – reinventing the Baroque suite : Sense of Placefor solo guitar – music generated from fingerings : use of library locations : collage : making spaces and musical punctuation using expression which set rules and conditions : Dreaming Aloud for solo guitar : Alexis Kirke’s Chromium 2 - a composition with Matlab.

For many composers making music for a solo instrument is bound up with the inspirational qualities and technical expertise of a known or admired performer. Musical literature is rich in such associations. Think of the works for solo cello of Benjamin Britten composed for Mistislav Rostropovich, or the Sonatas for solo viola by Hindemith (who played them himself), the wealth of music for the guitarist Julian Bream by Hans Werner Henze, the Sequenza series of fourteen solos by Luciano Berio composed between 1958 and 2002 for an elite body of influential performers, many of whom had already pushed the boundaries of solo performance before Berio’s rich imagination pushed them yet further.

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17 – Quintets

A ‘viola quintet’ to a model by Mozart : building a 12-chord sequence and using the chord-variation function : rhythmic articulation using the metrics of Classic poetry :  making a dialogue from melodised chordal material extended by looping : devising and working with a library location to store and retrieve poetic metrics : expanding rhythmics with length-augmentation  :  using length-rest-weight and length-condense for melodic variants :  deriving a metric structure from a poem  : a different quintet – Omphalus for piano and four percussionists : working with six of everything – clusters, Slonimsky patterns, and rhythmic motifs.

In writing for a ‘viola quintet’, the string quartet plus an extra viola, the composer is following a path already taken by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak and Bruckner. Contemporary quintets of this scoring are rare but three stand out, Painting by Numbers by Simon Roland-Jones, the Quintet (2009) by Bruno Mantovani, and The Death of King Renard by John Woolrich.

Mozart’s C major Quintet K515 was one of the most ambitious of the five quintets he wrote. It has a large-scale sonata allegro as its first movement, which became the model for my own single movement quintet, my first major composition using the Opusmodus CAC system:

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16 – Duos, Trios, Quartets

The legacy of MIDI :  new directions from Michael Van der Aa and Nick Collins : Reinventing the Classical Duo, Trio and Quartet : Boolean editors to Real-time composition systems : Touched by Machine? : Duo Batterie and Serenade : Trio Lyrique and working with MIDI percussion : Trio Lento for Piano Trio : Le Jardin Sec for string quartet : visual scanning in score-scripts :  a prelude to automated scoring and control of activity and silence : the rest in scoring of pitch : Objects of Curiosity (SuperCity) – a commission for the Kronos.

‘The past is another country : they do things differently there’. This quote opens both the novel by L.P.Hartley and David Lean’s film The Go Between. It is strangely apposite when considering the 30-year development of visual programming connected with the MIDI protocol. This data protocol has been taken as a given in this text so far because, despite the many techno-sages who denounced its future and relevance to music composition in the 1990s, it has survived if only as an effective control mechanism for parametric elements in music. It also remains because it is now embedded within the operating systems of computers, and most composers are conversant with its language as an adjunct to enabling effective simulation and referencing of the standard musical instrument library of digital samples. And, as this instrument library has developed to include every nuance of string, wind and percussion technique in a sampled form, so there has been an intriguing convergence in new and web media realisations of music between human performance with ‘real’ instruments and sampled ‘additions’.

The music of Dutch composer Michael Van der Aa exemplifies such a convergence in his multimedia work Up-Close, winner of the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition. This work makes use of a unique software application called the Double A Player able to handle to playback of samples in a musical and flexible way.


The composer and software developer Nicholas Collins has taken a similar step in technological terms with his work Concerto for Accompaniment for oboe and automatic accompaniment system. He has also used Open Sound Control (OSC)  to link to the real-time synthesis  of SuperCollider in a duet for harpsichord and computer called Sustituet.

16-2Excerpt from Concerto for Accompaniment

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