Structures for Freedom:

Graphic Scores and In-Performance Communication

by Traditional Musicians

Lori Watson

1. BEGINNING | introduction


I mean they’re kind of vague structures for freedom . . . structures for listening (Mackenzie in Team A, 2008)


This exposition articulates tacit knowledge in processes associated with contemporary traditional music practice in Scotland. Using a case-study experiment and series of workshop performances recorded in 2008, I examine the processes, communication, and performance strengths of four leading traditional and cross-genre creative musicians. In particular, examples of in-performance communication and collaboration emerge.

As both a scholar and a practising (traditional) musician I am particularly interested in the strengths traditional musicians can bring to creative practice. I identify both the traditional musician’s use of learning and playing ‘by ear’ and the related in-performance communication and ‘natural’ improvisation observed in formal and informal ensemble performance as key strengths of the genre. Consequently, I’m interested in how the strengths might be utilised in composition. This includes constructing compositions that feature substantial improvisation elements, which the performers respond to in their own musical voices.

During two of four creative projects undertaken between 2005 and 2010, I focused on graphic scores as a means of creating new music and exploring perceived boundaries of traditional music. Initially, the purpose of my work with graphic scores was to contribute to the emerging canon of ‘beyond-tune’ composition and innovative creativity from traditional musicians in Scotland. I was actively seeking to innovate, in this case, using improvisation and devised structures. However, through exploring these early graphic scores with traditional musicians, it became clear that they exposed important knowledge about traditional music practice, as well as the process and products of innovating beyond it.

There is great scope for exposing the largely tacit knowledge in the traditional arts through a process of creating-documenting-reflecting. In this exposition, primary data is drawn from creative work and experiments that took place in 2008 and a doctoral thesis submitted in 2013, both unpublished. In particular, I reveal one of five workshops I conducted in 2008 (Team A of teams A–E) and one of three scores (Score II) explored in that workshop. I provide commentary and critical reflection for my composition, documentation, and discussion of the performers’ musical and spoken responses in the workshop, and discussion of those in relation to the nature of contemporary traditional music practice.

For the traditional musicians in this study, I observed that their relationship to cultural and historical conventions was revealed as they negotiated the graphically notated, devised improvisations. This is similar to saxophonist, composer, and ethnomusicologist David Borgo’s observation:

... as musical devices and relationships are negotiated within performances and within the community of improvisers, musicians offer important rhetorical commentary on desirable social organization, the politics of representation, the public function of art, and the possibilities for resistance to embedded cultural and historical constructions. (Borgo 2005: 35)


To summarise, the main aims of this work became to:

1.  Create and develop innovative musical works for traditional musicians (and by a traditional musician)

2.  Document the spoken and musical responses to these compositions in order to expose aspects of the nature of contemporary traditional music practice:

a.   What the possibilities for graphic scores in traditional music could be

b.   How the traditional musicians positioned themselves in relation to perceived boundaries

c.   What performance, musical, or stylistic strengths the traditional musicians displayed