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

4. MAKING | composition

In 2008 I developed a series of three simple graphic scores: Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians. The pieces are highly collaborative, featuring improvisation within a defined structure. I present the scores here in the order of making. The second score, Strathspey/Reel, is the focus of this exposition and was devised first. After composition, I chose to adjust the order so that the freest score (Conversation Piece) comes first and the visual information in each score increases through the series, from simple lines in Score I to fragments of standard music notation in Score III.

Aims and objectives

As composer, my primary aim for these simple graphic scores was to create space for the musicians’ individual traditional styles and skills while providing a structure for performance as an ensemble. Graphic notation is potentially accessible to both readers and non-readers of standard staff notation. This is of interest because, from my experience, I have observed that a significant number of highly skilled and professional musicians in the traditional music sector work primarily ‘by ear’.

Following on from previous projects, I also aimed to further explore playing with the familiar and constructed performance contexts: this time using gesture in the scores. Some informal discussion of movement as ‘dancicality’ in music performers, vis-à-vis musicality in dancers, has taken place in this field and I think this is an interesting area for future research.

The objectives for this series of simple scores were, principally, to:

  • Explore a new creative direction
  • Explore how the performers positioned themselves in relation to the scores and their perceptions of traditional music
  • Explore musical dialogue and interaction, and in-performance communication
  • Attempt to provide a vehicle through which both readers and non-readers of standard notation could be immediately creative together

Figure 1. Session in the Ben Nevis bar, Glasgow, from left to right: Unknown, unknown, Steve Forman, Aileen Reid, Ross Coupar and Luc McNally

My hopes for these scores grew from a very open, slightly distanced, experiment and came to include key personal experiences of traditional music. Having literally stumbled upon my first graphic score on the floor of the then RSAMD [Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland] I filed it away safely, wondering what it was and what it might possibly sound like. Years later, for this Creative Project, I tentatively began to explore notation forms through John Cage, and others, and imagined how these ideas might possibly be applied to traditional music and musicians – I’m still imagining.

On reflection though, these scores have come to embody two things of importance for me: the essence of what makes traditional music so important to me. It’s not the music. In fact, it’s the people and the traces of them bundled up in a shared and ever-morphing musical imprint, plus, my own urge to play with established ideas.

(Creative journal entryWatson 2012)

Pieces For Four Traditional Musicians II: Strathspey/Reel (Score II)

Score II features the headings ‘Strathspey’ and then ‘Reel’ – both traditional tune forms. It is modelled on the common strathspey-to-reel structure used in traditional music and dance in Scotland for hundreds of years and so makes a special feature of a particularly idiosyncratic transition in Scottish traditional music. The move from 4/4 strathspey to 4/4 reel, often an exciting moment of pent-up, jagged rhythm taking flight into an energetic full-flow stream of melody, is a classic structure of tension and release. Variations are found in different contexts: the measured and consistent pulse of this transition when accompanying Scottish step dance, the leap in tempo of excited (pub) session players, and the disruption of the transition in modern concert arrangements by placing a 6/8 jig or a 7/8 composition between the strathspey and reel. An example: Alasdair Fraser plays Highlands of Banffshire (strathspey) into The Merry Making (reel) (Fraser and McManus 1999: 01:57–03:17).

Score II includes information such as tune form (this obviously has rhythmic implications) and the suggestion of a starting note or key signature. I consciously kept the notation as simple and approachable as possible. This was due to my increasing awareness, following an earlier creative project, that we don’t yet have a body of new traditional performers with experience of experimental music, abstract concepts, and graphic scores. I was also aware that there would be a limit to how much visual information would be conducive to reading, understanding, and performing the score.

Aware that traditional musicians bring their own stylistic knowledge to performance, and because an objective of the scores was to encourage improvisation in the performers’ own musical voices, I decided not to prescribe any ornamentation or specific stylistic details and therefore symbols for these were unnecessary. However, symbols to direct the musicians’ interaction were required for Score II.

The intended function of the symbols in Score II is directing the interaction between the musicians: playing alone, responding to or playing ‘with’ other performers, and playing together as a group. Empty boxes could be read as silence.

Figure 2. Sketch for Score II

Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians I: Conversation Piece (Score I)

Figure 3. Score I 'final' version

Score I is the most ‘open’ score, it is essentially a simple musical map with four paths that meet and cross at various points. The composition of this piece is not random – its design sets out where I wanted the musical conversations to take place in the context of the piece as a whole, and the textures that could be created. However, unlike the other scores, these moments do not correlate with any established traditional music forms, so although the notation is simple, it presents particular issues for the players to negotiate in making a performance. 


Scores II and III feature more overt use of traditional music aspects including traditional tune forms, actions associated with session behaviour, and melodic themes that would comfortably sit within the traditional idiom.


Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians III: Jigs (Score III)

Score III includes four themes in jig form that are conventionally notated, with instructions provided to teach, by ear, the appropriate themes to any non-readers in the ensemble. This score is most obviously influenced by session playing. It includes gestures associated with a session (musicians entering, smoking, tapping feet) as well as aiming to create a floating effect of similar tunes overlapping and drifting in and out of synchronisation. This is to emulate the effect of several tunes happening at once either in the same session or in several sessions as might be found in a larger venue or festival event.

Figure 4. Score III 'final' version