From Sound to Symbol and Back


Again: Transcription/Composition


by Jack Body

The inter-relationship between the development of Western musical notation and Western traditions of music making is a fascinating one. Whereas in its earliest forms notation was regarded as an aid to memory, contemporary views of the function of the notated score tend to see it as a highly specific text intended to be read (realised in sound) with precision and accuracy, tempered by the current conventions of taste and performance practice. But most composers also acknowledge the integral part that notation plays in the creative act - the writing down of notes is seldom simply a specific representation of an imagined sound phenomenon since the notation itself can suggest complex possibilities which the ear and mind, unaided, might never be able to encompass. This can lead composers into new areas of exploration and experimentation. The development of Western tonal harmony might be linked directly to the use of notation, just as the rhythmic complexity of much of the so-called avant garde music of the 1950s and 60s is fundamentally a "paper music". This fascination with the process of composition as the manipulation of notational symbols is not new - the Ars Nova composers of the fourteenth century were as absorbed in the possibilities notation had to offer as any Stockhausen or Cage. Indeed the increase in complexity of the Western notational system over, say, the last two hundred years is probably symptomatic of the growing separation of the roles of the composer and the performer, and the alienation of the composer from his audience.

Thus notation is at once a medium for liberation and alienation. The magnificent edifice of tonal harmony might well be largely attributable to the Western notational system, but Western music arguably lost as much as it gained. Comparatively, the rhythms of Western music can seem rather stiff, regimented and essentially simplistic beside the living corporeality and sophistication of many Indian and African musics. (Of course, other music traditions have their own notational systems, but they are seldom as specific in detail as Western notation, and more often than not function simply as memory aids to the performer). Although many Western composers in the last forty years have challenged the traditional concepts of the use and function of notation, the prevalent Western view is that the notated score is an authoritative text created by the composer, highly specific in its details, a set of performance instructions which permit little or no argument. The score takes on a sacrosanct quality. It becomes "the music", while a performance is only "a performance", "an interpretation".

Notation has been put to other uses however. Transcription, the representation in notation of a music heard (but not yet seen!), is one of the most important tools of ethnomusicology. This reversal of the symbol-to-sound compositional process makes possible detailed analysis and discussion of the sonic phenomenon which we call music. Notation, the two dimensional spatial representation of an immaterial temporal event, is the means whereby we can grasp the intangible. The obvious trap however is that the notated representation can be misread as an "authoritative text", and the music itself perceived as a "performed version" of this text. Worse still is when the notation is taken as a substitute for the sound phenomenon, itself becoming the subject of commentary and analysis without reference to the music as sound.

For over a decade I have had an ongoing interest in musical transcription. It has occupied me at those times when I've unable to focus on original composition - I recollect that Ravel is said to have used orchestration (of his own and other composer's music) in similar circumstances. In the first place I am drawn to a music in which I sense a particular quality, melodic perhaps, or rhythmic, which my ears find attractive but which I have difficulty in deciphering. I want to understand what is happening in this music, what it is which gives it this special quality. My idea is to learn something that I might be able to apply in my own composition.

In practice however I frequently find myself so astonished by, and in admiration of the music I am transcribing that I have little inclination to try to compete with it. Instead I try to recreate it in another form, and through this recreation transmit at least something of those qualities to which I first responded. My "arrangement" is not a replica of the original, nor is it a substitute. For me this exercise of "double-transcription" from sound to symbol and back into sound again, is a fascinating process. Firstly, I am forced to be painfully specific about what I think I am listening to, about what my brain perceives of what my ears hear. I must try to distinguish the essential from the unessential - speed of vibrato might be more important than concepts of fixed pitch for instance. Mine is not an ethnomusicogical study, even though I might refer to authoritative documentation. I consider the music simply as a sound phenomenon which I trying to make sense of.

In attempting to notate what I interpret as the essential features of what I hear I have to find, invent or adapt symbols which best represent my perceptions. This makes me very conscious of the conventions of notation, how these conventions function and the limitations they exercise over the music we make and how we listen. Once I have some kind of abstract notation I am free to consider how this music might be recreated in a form playable by Western musicians, more or less following the conventions of Western notation, and yet preserving what I see as some of the essential qualities of the original music.

As I composer I have found this whole process of "deconstruction and reconstruction" invaluable for the insights it has given me and the skills I have had to learn. At Victoria University for the last decade or more I have supervised a transcription project for third year composition students. I always expect to be challenged to justify the inclusion of such a requirement in a composition course but I'm seldom asked - it doesn't take long before students become absorbed by the fascination and rewards of transcription. At the very least it's a superb ear training exercise, and all composers know the value of sharp ears!

My borrowings from other musical traditions might be construed as a type of cultural exploitation - certainly current attitudes about cultural property in New Zealand makes one particularly sensitive about these issues. But intercultural exchange is a universal phenomenon. In my own work I try to fulfil some basic responsibilities towards the material I "appropriate":

- Wherever possible I use recordings that I have made myself. This means that I have some knowledge of the social and cultural context to which the music belongs, and will have negotiated some kind of relationship with the original performers.

- When I use music from sources other than my own recordings I try to acknowledge the source, giving if possible the title of the work, and the names of both performer and recordist.

- My transcription generally presents the original music in its entirety, either simply as itself, translated into another medium or as a identifiably separate entity around which I build an additional musical superstructure.
The first work of mine that developed out of this double-transcription process was Melodies for Orchestra, commissioned in 1982 by the NZSO to celebrate the centenary of the University of Auckland. For this I chose three unrelated pieces of music:1) a Greek dance, a horos, played by a lyra, a two stringed fiddle, 2) a melody played by an open ended vertical flute, the saluang, from West Sumatra, Indonesia, and 3) a popular song played by a street band of trumpets, clarinets and drums in Pune, India. The choice of these three examples was quite arbitary- it simply happened that these were pieces that I had been listening to at that time, music that caught my ears and fired my curiosity. The horos for instance had a rhythmic ambiguity that my ears could not unravel. (Ex.l)

The music moved at such speed that it could almost fit into a simple triple time. Yet I sensed that beneath this surface there was a fundamental asymmetry. By slowing down the tape (a common transcribing technique) I could trace more precisely the grouping of the beats. Taking the ornamental figures as accented beats it seemed that the music fell into the improbable sub-grouping of 5+5+4 - I say improbable, because of the fantastic tempo of the music and the fact that I couldn't find any reference to such a grouping in writings about Greek music. (Ex.2)

The regular repetition of this asymmetrical group was itself subverted by changes to a new pitch level which sometimes occurred halfway through a group.

When I came arrange this horos in terms of a western orchestra I faced a dilemma. No orchestral musician could duplicate this pattern with sufficient accuracy at such a hectic tempo. Even if two solo violinists were able to maintain something resembling this pattern, how could the rest of the orchestra synchronise with them? My solution (which I thought quite elegant!) was simply to superimpose a regular 3/4 so that the soloists are displaced an additional half beat every bar. (Ex.3)

This slightly distorts the particular rhythmic character of the original, but in its own terms I think the orchestral result is vigorous and exciting. (Ex.4)

The second section is based on a fragment of saluang playing. Generally this instrument accompanies singing, but before the voice enters the flute plays an opening gesture, which, as far as I can ascertain, is always the same. This introduction contrasts dramatically with what follows - whereas the singing is strongly rhythmic with fast circular movement within a very narrow pitch range the introduction is more static with some very wide, dramatic leaps.

The final section of Melodies uses a recording of an Indian street band playing film music themes. This ensemble of Western drums, clarinets and trumpets plays a wild and boisterous music with the instruments largely in their uppermost registers. The music is a wonderful example of heterophony with each instrument playing its own particular variant of the basic melody. (Ex.5)

While one might imagine that this music would translate easily to a Western orchestra, I discovered that the rhythmic drumming lost its essential driving quality. In retrospect I concluded that the original drummers were propelling the ensemble forward by slightly anticipating the beat. Orchestral percussionists had learnt all too well to play in time, on the beat! (Ex.6)

My next transcription was of two examples of music for the valiha, one of the most characteristic instruments of Madagascar. It is a tube zither, generically related to similar instruments I've seen in Indonesia and the Philippines. Of the two examples I chose the first is the most remarkable with its astonishing switching between compound and simple groupings. (Ex.7)

The virtuosity in the speed of the performance and the imaginative constantly varied recycling of motives was something I tried to capture in my version for two guitars. (Ex.8)

In spite of the excellence of these two performers, indeed perhaps because of it, the vigour of the original performance has been reduced. And this is a frequent paradox I find, since the Western musicians who have the necessary degree of skill, often find it difficult to discard the evenness and refinement of tone and sense of rhythmic accuracy (according to my notation) which they have taken years to acquire. But it is this unevenness of tone and rhythm in the original performance that gives it such an explosive energy.

This same valiha piece became the central movement of my next transcription work, Three Transcriptions for String Quartet.

Here the transformation process is even greater. In string quartet terms this movement is virtuoso in the extreme - an extended movement, pizzicato throughout, at the limit of possible tempo. (The players complained of sore and blistered fingers!) Yet in comparison with the original this version sounds subdued and mellow. Even though the pitches and rhythms are reproduced fairly accurately the slower tempo and changed timbre give this piece a quality quite different from the original. (Ex.9)

The first of these Three Transcriptions was taken from a recording sent to me by a friend in China. I recognised it as the sound of a multiple Jews harp. I've long been fascinated by music based on the overtone series, and Jews harps in particular have had a special appeal. The player creates melodies by reinforcing within his mouth cavity selected harmonics of the fundamental tone which sounds as a drone. These melodies are often difficult to perceive unless the ear is carefully focused. By using more than one instrument, each with a different fundamental, the player considerably increases the number of possible harmonics he can work with. (Ex.10).

By retuning some of the strings of the lst violin and cello to match the fundamental tones of the original instrument I was able to reproduce most of the melodic line on natural harmonics. (Ex.11).

Another transcription work is Interior, commissioned by the Karlheinz Company of Auckland University in 1987. The composition layers live music over a tape of field recordings made in China. A comparison with my Melodies for Orchestra of l982 is perhaps instructive. There I transcribed the "found musics" for Western instruments reproducing the originals as closely as possible. These "literal transferences" became the core of the work, a skeleton around which I could weave an orchestral fabric. In Interior the source material is presented as original field recordings which remain in the foreground throughout most of the composition. The live ensemble functions more as an enhancement - analogous perhaps to the kind of "electronic enhancement" to which many less than perfect recordings are subjected. The intention of this "enhancement" however is to direct our listening into the interior of the music. The first section for instance features the three pronged Jews harp of the same type that I used for the first movement of Three Transcriptions, though on this occasion my own recording. (Ex.12)

The live instruments pick out odd notes of the overtone melody and so focus our listening. As the movement proceeds the live ensemble gradually takes over from the tape. (Ex.13)

The second movement presents a vocal music of great power and simplicity. Here the instruments are almost silenced and do little more than provide a kind of sympathetic echo to the singing.

Gradually the ensemble returns providing a background for a solo lusheng mouthorgan. This eventually leads to a spirited dance for a group of lusheng. The live ensemble joins in, doubling some of the melodic lines, thus clarifying the essentially polyphonic structure of the music. By the end everyone is having a good time, and the two ensembles, one live and one on tape, seem to merged and become one....(Ex.14)

The sounds of an Indonesian street hawker of candy-floss (Indonesian 'arum manis', American 'cotton candy') became the basis of a work for string quartet and tape. The hawker plays a Chinese-styled fiddle, which he called a rebab. In my composition, called Arum Manis, he becomes the soloist, in absentia, with the amplified string quartet weaving a filigree texture around the recording of his playing. (Ex.15)

I don't regard my work with transcription as an end in itself, even though it produces transcriptions / arrangements / compositions which are played. It is the process itself which excites and stimulates me, for the way it challenges my preconceptions about how I hear and perceive music, as well calling into question the function and limitations of notation. I even feel that my compositions not directly related to transcription are frequently enriched and fertilised by my transcription studies.


(See also the radio programme, Musical Transcription: From Sound to Symbol and Home Again).