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

7. FINDING | conclusions

Pieces for Four Traditional Musicians I, II, and III


These are the final recordings and scores that emerged from the workshop with Team A, as played by Martin Green (piano accordion), Catriona McKay (Scottish harp), Aidan O’Rourke (fiddle), and Kevin Mackenzie (guitar).

Figure 9. Score I, 'final' version (colour version also available)

Figure 10. Score II, 'final' version, with key

Figure 11. Score III, 'final' version

Summary of findings

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

My artistic aims were successfully realised in these simple graphic scores. In particular, I learned a large amount about notation and NTP approaches when workshopping the scores, which I then applied to the later works. I toyed with the idea that these irregularities should be part of the scores, in the way that human interaction is full of irregularity; but, of course, that is built on complex understandings developed over time. I was interested in how the scores were received as a whole and what the team thought of the music they produced:

LW So last question, did you like the sounds that came out of it?

AO Yeah.

KM I did yeah.

MG Some of them yes.

KM I really liked number II and I really liked no. I after we played it a little bit. I thought when we first played it, everybody just went mbuchchchchch [explosion sound] . . . but I thought later on . . . I thought the last time we did it especially was great.

MG But as a group I thought we got better.
KM Yeah, we did, becoming used to the way things were sounding.

MG So, yeah, I think the bits towards the end . . . The last couple of takes of II and the final take of I were particularly nice.

AO Same. (Team A 2008: 11)


In Score II, the moment of transition from strathspey to reel also reflects a sort of organised freedom, a liminal moment, neither one place or another – these moments particularly resonate with me as opportunities for the strengths of traditional performers to be realised. If performed at standard tempos it is very difficult to include all the detail in this score without rehearsal and learning or knowing the score. Score II seems to exemplify the old/new, conventional/innovative dichotomy and it produced both interesting and revealing results in the Team A workshop.


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:

  • Whether viewed as ‘noise’, ‘golden noise’, or ‘structures for listening’, the creative practitioners involved in the study and I have been artistically excited by these works. And they have led to adjustments and additions in existing approaches to our creative practice(s).
  • I see graphic scores, improvisation, and experiments with notation more generally as ‘modes of innovation’ with rich creative potential.


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

  • Team A were very quick to move beyond conventional, idiomatic sounds when confronted with the graphic scores.
  • Clearly these traditional musicians are very comfortable with innovation and interested in expanding their practice.
  • The performers and fieldwork participants in this study seem to position themselves as moving between the core and outer periphery of traditional music and in some cases venturing significantly beyond it.
  • Creatively challenging, experimental music is increasingly becoming an accepted and ‘normal’ part of a professional or student traditional musician's activity in Scotland.
  • Pro-active innovation is not only an accepted part of our practice but a desired part – as can be seen in the numbers and scope of the new works being attempted (Watson, Lori. [in development]. New Traditional School: Database of New Works 1976–2021. Edinburgh: School of Scottish Studies Archives).

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

  • Interaction and in-performance communication are key strengths for skilled traditional musicians who will seemingly instinctively make musical choices in performance in response to the sounds and gestures around them.
  • Improvised invention was delivered with ease using short, repeated melodic and chordal motifs, and drawing on the conventions of tune form, rhythmic pattern, and ensemble playing.
  • Small-scale variations, including phrasing and ornamentation, were used expressively throughout the improvisations.


In this exposition, a set of graphic scores for and by traditional musicians, and the workshop recordings made as they interpreted them, exposed important aspects of contemporary traditional music practice. These include idiomatic knowledge such as the relationship between two tune types, where a change of key is conventionally appropriate, and aspects of tempo. Other aspects of contemporary practice included a willingness to explore new ideas, the ability to change musical ‘voice’, the desire not to sound contrived, and the ability to communicate closely in performance, adapt to unexpected events almost immediately, and achieve a coherent performance from a range of information, not just what is on the page. These indicate a number of strengths that traditional musicians can bring to contemporary practice, an area for further exploration.


Can we call this traditional music?

A key issue arising from this enquiry is where this music might be situated: Is it still related to traditional music? Clearly, these creative experiments are moving into quite abstract territory, as does some of Thoumire’s work. Thoumire thought that the new works associated with the new traditional school fit into existing categories of musical activity e.g. contemporary music (Thoumire 2011 and 2006b), but I’m not so sure. Or, at least, I’m not sure how long those categories can realistically contain the emerging, developing practitioners.

An audience member in Cape Breton, Canada, asked, ‘So what makes it, in your mind, traditional?’ My reaction at the time was, ‘I don’t think at any point I said that was traditional music. The point is that it is music coming from traditional musicians.’ (Watson, 2008a)

This is important in relation to these scores because they are so dependent on the (new) traditional performer to create a piece/performance out of them. I have experienced quite a wide range of reaction to this music, as you might expect. With responses from ‘It’s not even music, it’s just noises’ to ‘golden noise’, meaning sounds that you would not compose or perhaps conceive of in advance but that emerge in performance. Surely, this is one of the most attractive points of improvisation and experimental practice. My own sense of this is that yes, this is related to traditional music, key idiomatic aspects are embedded here, and it is now part of the practice of traditional musicians in Scotland.


Concluding remarks

There is a music as discourse taking place in contemporary traditional music. Musician/composers share new ideas and provocations through composition, collaboration, and performance.

For some time now, traditional arts have been seeking parity with other arts. Although there are encouraging signs of this across the globe, traditional arts are, in one sense, disadvantaged by the lack of explicit knowledge available. The complex skills and knowledges are still learned primarily through participation rather than more didactic methods. Fear of standardisation is frequently expressed in discussions around this.

Traditional music studies can embrace artistic research as a means of articulating and understanding the wealth and variety of tacit knowledge that is precious in oral/traditional culture as well as developing new, innovative forms of traditional music. Prioritising the strengths from within traditional music practices, rather than relying on cross-genre, cross-cultural, cross-media collaboration, could be a fruitful means of advancement.

Seen as part of the wider activity of the new traditional school in Scotland, the experimental music-making in this exposition highlights the process of adopting newness while being mindful of past and current convention, much of which is important professionally, socially, and personally. In this relatively unfamiliar task, and having set out to engage with the scores without discussion, these musicians created something musical, expressive, engaging, and meaningful, an immediate musical work that demonstrated complex interaction as a group. To conclude, ‘here is art that invites us to think’ (Borgdorff 2012: 72) about interpretation, convention, community, innovation, and the nature and development of traditional music practice via simple ‘structures for freedom . . . structures for listening’ (Mackenzie in Team A 2008).