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


3. APPROACHING | methodology

We should not say ‘Here is a theory that sheds light on artistic practice’, but ‘Here is art that invites us to think’. (Borgdorff 2012: 72)

This study has combined ethnographic and artistic approaches. It can be considered artistic research, as an investigation of a new area of practice. The practice-based approach is underpinned throughout by ethnomusicological methods, particularly fieldwork. My approach to ethnomusicological research has been informally called both ‘doorstep ethnomusicology’ and ‘insider ethnomusicology’ as I attempt to create, understand, and document tacit knowledge in traditional music practice within my own community of practice. This perhaps extends the ethnomusicological emic-etic interface (Nettl 2005: 228) into a highly reflexive (Barz and Cooley 2008; Etherington 2004) position as an artist/researcher who has emerged through the community being studied. Autoethnography (Freeman 2010; Ellis 1999) has been an important method of articulating my own experiential knowledge, which informs my writing.

As a scholar of traditional and folk music whose training included substantial fieldwork, folklore, and contextual study as well as live and studio performance, collaboration, and composition, the meeting point and productive connection between ethnomusicology and artistic research seem entirely appropriate. There are questions relating to the practice and creative processes of traditional arts that invite perspectives and approaches beyond those currently offered in ethnomusicology, including the questions outlined in this exposition (please see 1. BEGINNING). Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl indicated in 2005 that music scholars ‘know very little about the way in which music comes about, especially in its innovative aspect, which is what they most admire’ (Nettl 2005: 27–28). Although practice-based/-as/-led research and performance research are increasingly discussed in ethnomusicology (Ramnarine 2004; McKerrell 2021), artistic process and artistry – that is, the ideas and skills, and their implementation, of the traditional artist – require an approach and a community that centre the creative work and expose its tacit knowledge.

My research incorporates the new practice of innovative, beyond-tune composition by traditional musicians. I position this practice as central to my research: as method (my own creative process); as devised intervention (workshops with new traditional composers and performers); and as artefact for interrogation (scores, recordings, etc. for analysis).

Art practice – both the art object and the creative process – embodies situated, tacit knowledge that can be revealed and articulated by means of experimentation and interpretation. . . . Art practice qualifies as research if its purpose is to expand our knowledge and understanding by conducting an original investigation in and through art objects and creative processes. (Borgdorff 2012: 71)

Fieldwork and the articulations it produced have also been one of the acts that bound members of the community together in a deeper understanding of themselves and their activities in relation to each other. The workshop presented here is an example of this. Fieldwork interviews and workshops have also forged and maintained vital connections between myself and my music, the tradition, and my evolving research.

The main inspirations for my graphic scores included my experiences of sessions (informal music exchanges) and traditional musician interaction, particularly with highly skilled professional or student traditional performers. In sessions populated by these practitioners, the use of improvisation is becoming a more highly developed practice – an intentional and expected part of the session. To me, this seems like a ‘natural’ rather than a ‘contrived’ progression. As these practitioners develop their arranging skills for performance beyond the musical forms associated with traditional dance, the sessions begin to reflect these new forms as well as the repertoire within them.

The series of three simple graphic scores presented here (Watson 2008), each exploring a different approach, were composed for four traditional musicians, or potentially a larger ensemble of four sections.

Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians I: Conversation Piece
Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians II: Strathspey/Reel
Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians III: Jigs

I have now carried out more than eight workshops and reflective performances with these scores and a variety of different traditional musicians. They have also been performed and recorded by international workshop groups in North America and Scandinavia. The tacit knowledge experienced during experiments with these three simple graphic scores, which I continue to articulate, informed the developing innovative practice of a substantial group of performers and composers. It also informed subsequent works of my own including Eildon, Lowood I (Watson 2014), and the more complex graphic score As Water Wears the Rock (Watson 2010).


Team A workshop

The Team A workshop for the simple graphic scores featured four professional traditional musicians based in Scotland: Martin Green (accordion), Aidan O’Rourke (fiddle), Catriona McKay (Scottish harp), and Kevin MacKenzie (guitar).

In choosing musicians for Team A, I had four prerequisites:

  • A developed and recognised understanding of traditional music (either through early music development or extensive apprenticeship)
  • Experience of performing and creating new, innovative music compositions by new traditional composers (NTCs). (They might also be considered NTCs themselves.)
  • Some improvisation ability
  • Working musical relationships already established within the group


I was further able to assume that the musicians would be familiar with working ‘by ear’ and that some of them would also be competent readers of standard music notation. In particular, Martin Green prefers to work ‘by ear’ rather than from staff notation.

These musicians are recognised as leading professionals in the field and are popular performers. They are also colleagues and friends and I feel privileged to have had their enthusiastic participation in this project. Of the five workshops groups, Team A is the only group of professionals that I did not participate in as performer. I acted only as composer and observer in this workshop.

Members of Team A are also very familiar with each other through long-term association in the Scottish music scene. This is evident in the transcriptions as the musicians frequently joke, laugh, and finish each other’s sentences (Team A 2008: 1–11). The transcription excerpts are available in section 5. PLAYING of this exposition.