Structures for Freedom: Graphic Scores and In-Performance Communication by Traditional Musicians, Lori Watson

2. MEANING | context

In this section, I have provided definitions and brief discussion of key terms.


Traditional music

Traditional music in Scotland includes locally-made music, whether of known authorship or not, and whether extant in written or recorded form or not, which has had a significant life in oral tradition. (Elliott, Collinson, and Duesenberry 2001)

As Elliott, Collinson, and Duesenberry suggest, the process of orality and oral/aural tradition is fundamental to the traditional arts in Scotland and includes ‘any music not transmitted in writing – that is music learned aurally, whether played or sung’ (McLucas 2013). However, Elliott, Collinson, and Duesenberry’s standard definition from Grove Music Online does not account for ‘living tradition’, traditional music as a creative genre, or the peripheral activity of traditional musicians, where we see expert application of traditional music knowledge without a significant life in oral tradition. Further definitions and readings on traditional music in Scotland can be found in Collinson (1966), Purser (2007), and McKerrell (2015), among others. 

To distinguish between different meanings of the term, traditional/Traditional can be used, as can numbered terms: traditional1, traditional2, and so on.

For the purposes of this exposition, I use ‘traditional’ as an all-encompassing term representative of music created within the traditional (or folk) idiom, demonstrating the current, common conventions of form, structure, and style, including:

  • music preserved and interpreted from historical tradition
  • music of known as well as unknown authorship
  • music that has passed into shared oral tradition
  • music that is yet unshared (though usually documented in recording or notation)


Key social contexts for traditional music performance include ceilidhs, ceilidh dances, sessions, and variations on these: informal musical exchanges in houses, village halls, and more recently pubs and bars. The performance of traditional music often involves traditional dance, story, and other traditional practices.

Community, the new traditional school in Scotland, and beyond-tune composition 

Tim Rice identifies four kinds of community in ‘Ethnomusicological Theory’ (2010):

(1) communities defined geographically, such as nations, regions, cities, towns, and villages; (2) communities defined by ethnic, racial, religious, and kinship (family) groups; (3) communities formed around a shared style, affinity, taste, or practice such as punk rock, surfing, motorcycle racing, or Barbie Dolls (see Slobin 1993 for affinity groups(...)); and (4) communities organized as, or within, institutions, such as musical ensembles, schools and conservatories, recording and broadcast companies, places of worship, the military, prisons, and clubs and bars. (Rice 2010: 109)

The community for this research relates to Rice’s community (3): a community of practice currently active in Scotland. Although institutions (4), both educational and commercial/commissioning, have played a role in its development.

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human reference: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school . . . (Wenger-Trayner 2015: 1)

The two key communities I refer to are innovating, composing traditional musicians and performers, and the wider traditional and folk music community they work within.

A key music context for the creative work discussed in this exposition is the beyond-tune compositional activity of traditional musicians in Scotland since the mid-1980s. An overview of this new area of artistic activity in Scotland is provided in my doctoral thesis, ‘The New Traditional School in Scotland: Innovation, Beyond-Tune Composition and a Traditional Musician’s Creative Practice’ (Watson 2013), and an article, currently in development, ‘Beyond-Tune Composition: Introducing the New Traditional School in Scotland’.

My current working definition of a ‘beyond-tune’ composition is a musical composition:

  • Created by a traditional musician (while living in Scotland, for the purposes of this research)
  • Composed for music performance or listening (not scores created for radio, TV, film, or theatre)
  • Composed for any instrumentation (or voice) but often with a traditional/folk element
  • Approximately eight minutes or longer or, if shorter in length, innovating significantly from the conventions of traditional music (this could include free improvisation or technology-enhanced music)
  • Not a conventional set of tunes or traditional/folk song (Watson 2021)


A similar mode of expression is used by Niall Vallely in his thesis ‘Beyond the Tune: New Irish Music’. Vallely described this kind of composition from an Irish perspective as 'music that reaches beyond the boundaries of traditional dance music' (Vallely 2018: 26).

Scottish and Irish traditional musics have much in common including the form of common dance tune types such as reels, jigs, marches, polkas, strathspeys, and so on. The form of these is conventionally (there are exceptions) two measures of eight or sixteen bars each repeated, then the whole tune repeated. Tunes for dancing are usually organised in sets of three or more of the same tune type (again, there are exceptions), while tunes for listening are more likely to vary the tune type within the set (e.g., a strathspey, a jig, and reels played in succession).

I am currently expanding a database of beyond-tune and innovating compositions, composers, and performers in Scotland from 1976 to 2021. I hope that the database will form the basis of a digitally accessible resource as an output in 2024–25. To date, I have documented over 170 composers, 230 compositions, and 300 performers. Due to the significantly different or extended practice of these composing traditional musicians, I refer to them as ‘new traditional composers’ (NTCs). The performers are a mixture of traditional musicians, cross-genre musicians, and those from other musical genres. Through rehearsal and performance of these new works, the musicians are developing a unique set of skills; I therefore describe them as ‘new traditional performers’ (NTPs). I describe the community of practice including composers, performers, and creative works produced as the ‘new traditional school’ (NTS) in Scotland (Watson 2013).

Signs of this extended practice are also visible in creative work and scholarship in areas with musical traditions related to Scotland and Ireland: including in Celtic regions, Scandinavia, and to a lesser extent North America. Early and influential works from the 1960s to the 1990s include those by Seán Ó Riada (Cork), Shaun Davey (Belfast), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (Tipperary), Alan Stivell (Riom, though representing Breton music), Henning Sommero (Surnadal), and Edward McGuire and William Jackson (Glasgow).

While similarities can be identified in compositional practice, creative process, impetus, and attitude, the composers themselves have limited awareness of each other’s works. The works and practice of these new traditional composers are, as yet, largely unacknowledged.


Improvisation and graphic scores

The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines improvisation as

improvisation (extemporization)

A performance according to the inventive whim of the moment, i.e. without a written or printed score, and not from memory. It has been an important element in music through the centuries. (Kennedy, Kennedy, and Rutherford-Johnson 2013)


The same source defines graphic scores as ‘Scores by 20th‐cent. avant‐garde composers that employ drawn visual analogues in order to convey the composer’s intentions with regard to the required sounds and textures. Earliest examples incl. Feldman’s Projections 1950–1. Some graphic scores indicate distinct music parameters, as in examples by Feldman, Stockhausen, and Ligeti. Others deliberately omit any notational sign or music indication, seeking only to stimulate the performer’s creativity. Examples by Bussotti, Earle Brown, and Cardew are often pictorially delightful if musically enigmatic’ (Kennedy, Kennedy, and Rutherford-Johnson 2013).

Again, this research challenges accepted definitions. I combine a form of free improvisation recognisable to some traditional musicians in Scotland with graphic notation that provides a structure or map for performance. (I am obviously not a twentieth-century avant-garde composer.)

Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl wrote in 1974: ‘All performers improvise to some extent’ (1974: 19). Indeed, we all improvise in daily life: most interaction and conversation is improvised. I view the graphic scores presented here, and traditional music sessions, as a kind of musical conversation.

Improvisation, as a key characteristic of oral culture, is integral to some of the oldest musical traditions in the world. An example in Scotland is traditional ballad performance, with which I am familiar.

My practical understanding and use of improvisation were initiated in social music practice in sessions and rehearsals (and soundchecks). They were later informed by development opportunities delivered by the organisation Distil. These included a workshop on free improvisation with Tim Garland and a participatory improvising workshop with composer Brian Irvine and other traditional musicians including the formation of a Distil Improvising Orchestra (sadly short-lived). In addition to improvisation in traditional music, I align my understanding and experience of improvisation and graphic scores with the approaches of Raymond MacDonald, George Burt, and the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, which has included musicians with a traditional music background: GIO video (GlasgowImprovisers 2013). John Cage’s Silence (1968), Notations (1969), and Scottish Circus (1990) were strong influences on my own graphic scores, later informed and significantly developed by working with traditional musicians including the workshop described later in this exposition.

There are a number of traditional musicians in Scotland who have used improvisation as a significant part of their creative practice: the artists featured in this exposition (Aidan O’Rourke, Martin Green, Catriona McKay, Kevin Mackenzie), Adam Sutherland, Mairi Campbell, and groups Lau and India Alba. Improvisation groups, beyond those primarily connected with the jazz music community, have been in operation in Scotland including Scot Free. Improvisation has become a feature in the performances of popular traditional/folk bands such as Dallahan.

Simon Thoumire, an innovator and high-profile exponent of traditional music, has often collaborated with jazz musicians in Scotland. Improvisation is an important part of Thoumire’s performance and creative process. Thoumire describes his musical boundaries: ‘Well my barriers are right at the free improvisation. . . . and there’s nowhere left to go after that, to be honest’ (Thoumire 2006a). Thoumire also spoke about traditional/folk musicians and improvisation: ‘We all improvise. Even the ones who don’t ‘improvise’, well they ornament anyway. We all do it’ (Thoumire 2006b)

Improvisation, viewed as a continuum with composition, can be integral to traditional music practice: as part of the composition process, small variations made in repeated melodies, recovering from a ‘mistake’, and displays of expressive virtuosity.

Improvising music, it appears, is best envisioned as an artistic forum rather than an artistic form; a social and sonic space in which to explore various cooperative and conflicting interactive strategies. (Borgo 2005: 34–35)