For Chromography: Writing in Color, Gerard Brown and I have engaged artist Jane Irish to write an essay for the exhibition brochure. She had several questions for me (Why Bach? What is the purpose of a score to you? What is your step-by-step of process?), to which I wrote a long and rambling reply. For those with the same sorts of questions, I present my responses to Jane in their entirety.
I trace this current body back to a number of years ago when the PMA had several hand-drawn scores by John Cage on display. (This was several years before the more recent Cage/Cunningham/Johns show.) I’ve never been able to find good images of them, but they were Haikus, actual music notation, hand-drawn and stunningly gorgeous. (Here’s one that is most like my memory: http://www.wikiart.org/en/
Enter Bach. I grew up playing piano, so when I was looking for a piece of music to experiment with, I went to what was familiar. The Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) stood out, partly because the first Prelude has a simple enough rhythmic structure that I could use it to develop a notation system, and partly because there were 23 more Preludes (in the first book) for me to confirm that my system could be widely applied. Of course, then magic happened, and it was clear that the Preludes in and of themselves were delightful and perfect for visualizing music. It also became clear along the way that what I was doing was much more like translating across alphabets rather than notating – it’s taking a set of communication symbols and turning them into another set of symbols, and the result inevitably changes the original content.
Although I’ve taken to calling this body of work the Bach Project, I wasn’t (and still am not) committed to working exclusively with Bach’s music. He’s a huge part of the classical music canon — a very prolific composer at a time when music and instruments were transitioning into their modern form. (“Well-Tempered Clavier” refers to the modern tuning of what is now the piano, which was a brand new development in Bach’s day.) Interestingly, for about a hundred years after his death (he died in 1750), his work all but faded out of the public eye and no one was that interested in him. But over the past 100-150 years, there’s been a huge resurgence of enthusiasm for Bach. Works that were previously considered inconsequential studies (e.g. the Cello Suites) have risen to all-time-favorite status for many musicians and music-lovers. There’s been a kind of deification of Bach as supreme-musical-genius who did things that no one had done before nor been able to do since. I suppose to some degree, working with his music is a little like working with a sacred text.
Structurally, Bach’s music is very complex, which also lends itself well to color translation. He’ll repeat rhythm patterns and melody lines, and just when you think they’re about to turn into something familiar, they turn and do something unexpected. It’s like the overall pattern is way bigger and more complex than what you can figure out. He was also a master of counterpoint, i.e. independent lines/voices that are performed simultaneously. Intersections of melody, rather than harmony.
That ended up being a lot of music history/theory, but hopefully explains why Bach caught my attention. I have also done a series based on piano music by 20th century composer Bartok, who is one of my personal favorites, and I have ideas for a few other composers I might give a nod to down the road. But Bach provides so much material to work with, I could probably spend the rest of my life happily immersed in his oeuvre.
Early on, as I was researching Bach, I ran across an Australian researcher, Martin Jarvis, who has a theory that Bach’s second wife Anna Madgalena Bach may have composed some of the pieces attributed to Bach. He bases this partly on forensic handwriting analysis of early scores and partly on dissecting the known history/biography and suggesting some details have been mis-interpreted over the years. It is widely accepted that AMB was herself a musician and served as Bach’s copyist, writing out scores. Because her handwriting shows up in scores dated long before she’s supposed to have been in his life, because her handwriting is responsible for editorial markings in some pieces, and because there are a few manuscripts that only exist in her handwriting (e.g. all of the early Cello Suite scores are in her writing), Jarvis believes it’s entirely possible she was a composition student of Bach’s before they were married and continued writing throughout Bach’s life. As an 18th century woman, she would have been very limited in what was considered “suitable” music and she may not have been given credit at all. There was a lot of controversial buzz about this recently after the New Yorker picked it up. (http://www.newyorker.com/
In any case, there’s probably no way to know for sure, and I’m not arguing that Jarvis’ conclusions are necessarily correct, but I’m fascinated by the possibility. Genius woman hidden in the shadows behind her genius husband! The first Prelude to the WTC is one of the pieces Jarvis believes AMB may have written, which made me think about all of the ways I might interpret the color pattern that would be “suitable” women’s work. And also just the way a song gets stuck in your head and you repeat the same line over and over again. So that sparked my second stream of work, applying the color pattern for Prelude No. 1 to a bunch of craft-oriented media: latchhook rug, counted cross-stitch, beaded jewelry, textile design, Rubik’s cube (just for fun!), etc. I haven’t gotten as much done yet in this stream as I’d like to, but I imagine eventually being able to furnish an entire room with products made out of the Prelude No. 1 pattern.
The translation process itself goes like this, and there are pictures/explanation on my website as well (http://melindasteffy.com/
- I sit down with the score and work out the overall layout/composition and decide which line of music I’m going to follow. Sometimes I listen to the music to get a feel for what’s important, sometimes I just go with what I can read off the page.
- My system matches each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale with 12 colors on the color wheel. Because the color wheel starts on red and Bach chose the key of C to start the WTC, and because sound/light waves don’t meaningfully line up, I decided to make C red, C# red-orange, D orange, etc. The WTC has a Prelude for every possible key signature (12 major and 12 minor keys), so the dominant colors of the Preludes shift around the color wheel. (Also a reason for choosing it as a starting project.)
- I plot the rhythms on a grid, so the length of the note determines the length of the rectangle.
- Each row is one measure of music.
- For the Bartok pieces, I kept the same color scheme, but wanted to explore an alternate pattern option. His Mikrokosmos was written for beginning piano students and has very simple right- and left-hand parts, so I went with a pie chart layout where the right hand is the outer circle and the left hand is the inner circle. Rhythms are shown via the size of the pie slices.
In relation to how I think of a score/what it’s purpose is:
A lot of the time for musicians, the score is just a functional object – symbols on a page that give you clear instructions for how to do something. It’s very much like reading a book – the letters/words/paragraphs don’t really matter as their own things, it’s the meaning they convey that is important, and as a composer/editor you want to make sure everyone can read it. What caught my attention about the Cage Haiku scores was that they weren’t just a functional object anymore. You could, of course, still follow the symbols and play the music, but the way it was crafted made it rise above just being a signifier to having a presence and meaning of its own. (Craft vs art?) I like to think about how a score can transcend its function and convey something of the essence of the music within its very structure.
Gerard asked me to send you some of the alternate notation that has caught my attention. Besides the aforementioned Haikus, I’ve stumbled across these scores/works that seem relevant for my own ideas:
- “Twenty-Five Pages” by composer Earle Brown. Can be read rightsideup or upsidedown, in treble or bass clefs. Rather than noteheads, he gives long bands that indicate the relative length of the notes in relation to each other. So much room for interpretation, while still having a clear structure. http://www.earle-brown.org/works/view/40
- Cage did another haiku-themed drawing: “Score Without Parts (40 Drawings by Thoreau): Twelve Haiku” where he used nature-like symbols as if they were music notation. http://art.famsf.org/john-cage/score-without-parts-40-drawings-thoreau-twelve-haiku-199128297
- Love early music notation where text and symbol and illustration are all jumbled together: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_notation#mediaviewer/File:EarlyMusicNotation.JPG
- Argentinian artist Xul Solar created a modified piano, trying to harmonize numbers, music and the cosmos, while also making it “universal” for people to learn by adding colored and textured keys. https://sonopuntura.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/piano-de-colores-y-texturas-de-xul-solar/