The proliferation of graphic scores emerging in Europe and America from the mid-1950s has had a profound impact on musical thought, broadening links between performers and composers, audiences and art forms. Exploration of notational methods based on graphics flourished rapidly and diversely during the fifties and sixties, primarily as a trend amongst young radicals. So many composers producing scores of this kind used a personal vocabulary of symbols – often creating different notation systems for each work – that the effectiveness of their approaches in realising a sonic concept can be assessed only on a case-by-case basis. But the significance of early graphic scores does not depend entirely on how they sound; rather it lies in their capacity to accommodate or even to generate new forms, techniques and mediums, and to challenge notions of what constitutes a musical composition. In addition, these works demonstrate that notation can extend beyond instructional functionality to allow for prominent interpretive and aleatoric elements, and can harbour an intrinsic aesthetic value of its own, apparent before a single note is sounded.
This paper will discuss some of the enduring benefits that early forays into graphic notation have imparted to later generations of performers and composers. I will contrast these advancements with some of the problems and concerns voiced by detractors of new notational styles during the 1960s, and address whether such issues, almost half a century later, have had the predicted negative impact on current practices. This discussion will be illustrated by scores which demonstrate various forms of visual and conceptual expression in music. Drawn from both Europe and the United States, my chosen examples include the work of leading innovators John Cage, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Earle Brown, and Cornelius Cardew. They encompass scores that blend striking visual tropes with conventional music notation, as well as purely graphic or artistically conceived offerings. Some are only a page in length, others comprise a hefty volume, while others still span multiple dimensions.
During the 1950s, the post-war musical landscape was marked by a widespread distancing of tradition: a need to suppress the past and begin anew. For many composers the dominance of the Western notational system could not be exempted from ideological purging. Forms of graphic notation were cultivated to record more freely the spectrum of extended instrumental and vocal techniques flourishing within this climate of change. Put simply by composer and artist Cornelius Cardew, “musical notation is a language which determines what you can say, what you want to say determines your language.” Graphic methods also accommodate works composed for new mediums such as magnetic tape, for which mere crotchets on a stave fail to represent the gamut of available sounds and effects.
The use of sketches and visual designs devoid of metre and pitch specifications...