Play what you see: how graphic scores can unleash your inner musical genius

When musical notation failed the great avant garde composers, they drew a picture instead. Now, a new project hopes everyone else will follow in their footsteps

Matt Ashdown is determined to make all aspects of music-making open to everyone – composing, recording and performing. Haven’t got an instrument? His Falmouth-based arts organisation, Moogie Wonderland, will help you build a synthesiser on a bread board for less than a tenner. Or you can use one of the “noise stations” that they’ve already assembled and instantly make your live debut – no experience required. At one show in 2017, featuring Damo Suzuki from krautrock group Can, an 11-year-old girl joined in the mayhem. The experience helped to improve her confidence, her dad told Ashdown afterwards. At another gig, led by American electronic musician Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples, Aphex Twin was spotted in the crowd. He made his way to the stage, where, Ashdown recalls, “he bashed a tray hooked up to a fuzz pedal, I think, and came up with some weird guitar effects”.

Damo Suzuki takes part in a public improvisation, in 2017.
Damo Suzuki takes part in a public improvisation, in 2017. Photograph: -

For his latest project, Scores of People, Ashdown is hoping to engage creative minds far beyond Cornwall and particularly encourage children, young people and those with learning disabilities to get involved. Over the next few weeks, he’s asking anyone stuck at home with a few spare moments to come up with a graphic score and either upload it directly to the Moogie Wonderland site or post it on Instagram using the hashtag #scoresofpeople. Musicians – beginners, amateurs or professionals – will then play the scores and make recordings, which will be added online.

For Ashdown, the joy of graphic notation is that it allows everyone to become a composer. You don’t need to be able to play an instrument or understand traditional stave notation; instead you use shapes, colours, a game – anything – to convey musical ideas. It’s perhaps the most egalitarian method of writing music and yet it finds its roots in the carnage of the post-world war two avant garde, during which time western classical music reached a kind of breaking point and became meaningless to the vast majority of people. “More and more staccato and brutal,” French composer Pierre Boulez instructed players of his savage, mind-melting Piano Sonata No 2 from 1948. “Pulverise the sound; quick, dry attack, as if from bottom to top; stay without nuances at very high volume.”

Alice Mahoney’s rocks.
Alice Mahoney’s rocks. Photograph: -

Something had to give, and when composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman and Karlheinz Stockhausen began to look beyond traditional instrumentation and form – creating works that were no less eccentric, but fun – they found they had to create new systems for notation. Take John Cage’s Water Music from 1952. To perform it, a musician must pour water from one vessel to another, shuffle a pack of cards and switch stations on a radio, among other things. These actions are plotted pictorially, but precisely. Others, like British composer Cornelius Cardew, went in a different direction in the 1960s – writing scores made up of abstract, geometric designs open to wildly different interpretations, depending on who’s playing the piece. You can feast your eyes on them as artworks in their own right.

Ashdown says he decided to use graphic scores for a Moogie Wonderland project after seeing an exhibition by the multimedia artist Nam June Paik at Tate Modern last year. “There was a piece that he’d made with magnetic tape – loads of strips of tape from cassettes all over a canvas. You could get a tape head, scroll over the magnetic tape and make music. The piece was essentially a graphic score, and you could also play it in whatever you chose. It made me to think of ways to visualise music for anyone, and to look more into graphic scores by experimental artists like Pauline Oliveros and Wadada Leo Smith.”

To help inspire participants, Ashdown has already commissioned scores from 12 artists – nearly all from Cornwall and six of whom have learning disabilities. They’ll be available to do online workshops, too. “They come from very different backgrounds and have distinct styles,” he says. “I wanted that variety, so contributors can see one person’s score, think: ‘I love that,’ and have a go at doing that kind of thing. Rhys Edwards, who makes music as Jakokoyak, is doing a film as a score. He’s going to be shooting at Gwenapp Pit – an old grass amphitheatre in Cornwall, where John Peel interviewed Aphex Twin in the late-90s. He’s using the steps of the amphitheatre as lines in a stave. His plan is to film people walking up and down the steps, and they’ll form a kind of notation.”

An extract from Rhys Edwards’ graphic score in the form of a film, shot in a Cornish amphitheatre

There are no rules here, just a desire to encourage anyone’s musical urges and responses to the pandemic. “It’s very much a share and swap process, designed to connect people through music at a time of social distancing,” says Ashdown. But would he also like to one day stage a concert of performances of the graphic scores in Falmouth? That was the original plan, and he hopes of course that it will still happen.


Phil Hebblethwaite

The GuardianTramp

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