Musical Literacy versus Musical Fluency

A couple years ago while reading Dick Weissman’s book, Making a Living in Your Local Music Market, I blogged about the section in the book about Musical Literacy. As Weissman related some remarks by Bruce Ronkin:

He defines it as an awareness and understanding of all musical styles, instead of concentrating on technical aspects of music.  I think this is a very useful concept, because it places emphasis on the student and teacher being open to many musical styles.  The truth is that most of us are fixated on specific musical styles and techniques, and many of us don’t listen to a variety of musical styles.

Which tracks well with how we’ve redefined, or rather, broadened the definition of literacy. Or rather, how we’ve broadened the scope of what we mean by being literate.  Thing is, I’ve changed my mind about this. Not that what Ronkin states is untrue in any fundamental sense or that there isn’t this connotation of possessing knowledge about a subject that we refer to as being “literate in the subject.”

Example of Eastern Byzantine chant notation
An Example of Eastern Byzantine chant notation

The problem here is that this isn’t the primary definition of literacy and by focusing so much on the secondary, albeit valuable, definition we’ve left behind the denotation relating to the ability to read and write. The two definitions are not the same thing. This shift is precisely what Weissman wants to emphasize:

Bruce’s notion also re-focuses the notion of literacy, removing it from the sheer ability to read and write music notation.  It isn’t that these are not useful skills, it is rather that they don’t necessarily define musicality.

But by shifting away from the reading and writing skills, we’ve also lost all perspective on the wide variety of music notations that actually do exist or have existed in the past (and what might be developed in the future).

An Example of Korean Chôngganbo music notation

Sure, the idea of a “cultural musical literacy” can encompass knowledge of these other notation systems, but simply knowing about them and how they work isn’t the same as being able to read and write in them.  It’s the same way with language.  Knowing that Mandarin doesn’t really have bound morphemes as we find in English isn’t going to show me how to read or write in hanzi or pinyin. It can help me understand the language and how it differs from English, sure, but that’s not the same thing as actually being literate in it.

Hamparsum Limondjian developed the Hamparsum notası (notation) which was the first extensively used notation system for transcribing Ottoman Art Music from the late 1700s till the adoption of Western Music Notation.  The system is still used in Armenian Orthodox Church.
Hamparsum Limondjian developed the Hamparsum notası (notation) which was the first extensively used notation system for transcribing Ottoman Art Music from the late 1700s till the adoption of Western Music Notation. The system is still used in Armenian Orthodox Church.

And that’s the other problem.  We mistake the idea of fluency and literacy often.  Or rather, we tend to be imprecise about the terms. Being fluent in a language is generally a prerequisite to being literate in it.  While some exceptions apply–such as with ancient languages which are no longer spoken (i.e. “dead languages”)–generally we learn how to speak a language, i.e. become fluent in it, before we bother to learn to read and/or write it (if at all).

"Amazing Grace" written in jianpu, a system of notation likely derived from the French Galin-Paris-Cheve system and more commonly used in China than standard Western notation which was more dominant during the cultural revolution period.
“Amazing Grace” written in jianpu, a system of notation likely derived from the French Galin-Paris-Cheve system and more commonly used in China than standard Western notation which was more dominant during the cultural revolution period.

This is almost the exact opposite of what happens in academic musical training where we learn how to read music, an occasionally write, but rarely do we learn how to “speak” it. We even have a special name for this musical speaking–improvisation.  Think of how odd it would seem if we started referring to our ability to speak a language as improvisation (as true as that generally is) rather than simply the more normative (and frankly, descriptive) “speaking.”

Jazz aside, in most orthodox Western musical training, reading music is central. Writing it (i.e. composing) is secondary and Speaking (Improvising) it is probably a good last.

Guitar TAB chart
Guitar TAB chart

Obviously that has changed over the past few decades with the fragmentation of performing institutions once historically informed performance and new music ensembles became more common. And in the past few years, improvisation departments and classes in music conservatories are becoming ubiquitous. Trained musicians are now learning some improvisation techniques from the baroque and classical era as well as from more modern times.

Hurrian hymn to Nikkal in cunieform from Ugarit ca. 1400 BC
Hurrian hymn to Nikkal in cunieform from Ugarit ca. 1400 BC

The SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) have increasingly become specialized performing institutions that present a very specific range of music right in between (mostly late classical, romantic/post-romantic, early modern periods). Whether the latter caused the former or vice versa is besides the point because the consequences of having more and more institutions ultimately mean resources for them become more fragmented as we’re seeing in practically all forms of entertainment in this Post-Pop era. That some of these older institutions are seeing fewer returns in general says nothing about the vitality the Classical Art form as much as it says about how the revenue is becoming more distributed amongst many other “newer” organizations.

Excerpt of score for John Cage's "Fontana Mix"
Excerpt of score for John Cage’s “Fontana Mix”

And once we get outside the “purely” Western Art Music world we find that, despite all the varieties of musical notations I’ve been illustrating this blog post with, most music is transmitted orally and improvisation is the norm. That fragmentation of ensembles into the early music/late classical-romantic-early modern/new music was just one side of the coin and today we have plenty of classically trained musicians who are supplementing their training in more popular and/or world music styles.  The recording industry term “crossover” was coined for marketing purposes pretty much during the heyday of Pop music during the 80s, but musicians like Mario Lanza were already doing what we’d call crossover in the 50s.

Music improvisation is simply musical fluency. Musical Literacy, or the ability to read and/or write music, is a different thing altogether and sadly, doesn’t require fluency to be used as is usually the case with language. I think that the historical separation between music fluency and musical literacy is a side effect of increased specialization which has led to fragmentation of audiences, resources, and ultimately musical styles.

A shift into another style of music presentation will simply shift the musician into another fragmented or fragmenting industry which is why I say that diversifying your performance skills portfolio is far more useful than becoming a hyper-specialist. All classical musicians should learn how to become fluent in music, not just literate.


Borrowed materials in music or Musical Appropriation

Detail from Xu Yang's "Prosperous Suzhou" scroll which was the inspiration for Jon Silpayamanant's "Shengshi zisheng tu" 盛世滋生圖 for erhu, electronics, and video
Detail from Xu Yang’s “Prosperous Suzhou” scroll (1759) which was the inspiration for Jon Silpayamanant’s “Shengshi zisheng tu” 盛世滋生圖 for erhu, electronics, and video

Composer, Alex Temple, has written an interesting piece regarding borrowed material in music. I’ll quote the relevant section here:

[T]he response I wound up thinking about the most is actually one that I didn’t agree with.  It was from a composer who said that while she liked my music’s collage-y, turn-on-a-dime syntax, she wished that I would use my own materials rather than borrowed ones.

I can see why someone would react that way to my work.  I make a lot of allusions, and often very obvious ones.  But here’s the problem:  what kind of material wouldn’t count as borrowed?  If Dayglo Attack Machine had used atonal harmonies rather than major seventh chords, nested tuplets rather than 4/4 syncopations, and sul ponticello string overpressure rather than doubled flute and vibes, most people wouldn’t describe that as using “borrowed material”—but it would be.  I didn’t invent that language any more than I invented the language of 1960s advertising .  And in fact, those materials are further removed from me culturally than the ones I used:  not only do all of them go back at least to the 1960s, but they’re also European rather than American in origin.

At first I thought this was a good way to look at it.  We’re all using borrowed materials in music unless we’re actively creating our own idiomatic musical system–like what Harry Partch did when he developed his 43 note per octave just intonation system. As I’ve thought about it since reading the piece I also realized that the issue is far from clear cut. It’s not simply an issue of something being completely borrowed as-opposed-to something being completely original. Ironically, Harry Partch also shows how this dichotomous approach fails in that he had to create his own instruments to play his 43 note per octave system.

See, an argument could be made that, for the most part, music being composed in that Western Art Music Tradition is usually being composed for instruments which co-evolved within that same Western Art Music Tradition.  Many of the techniques, stylistic quirks, tonal and rhythmic systems were developed within the context of European Art Music–and within the context of the evolution of European Art Music Instruments.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be able to write from whatever borrowed system that exists–far from it. But what I am saying is that the whole idea of being a Classically trained composer can’t be entirely abstracted from the context of the techniques Classical trained composers have used to learn their craft.

Sure, someone could argue that those techniques aren’t specifically tied to the artform in any meaningful way, but that’s besides the point.  It’s not an essentialism or normative argument for tying the Compositional style to the instruments and tradition so much as it’s a descriptive observation about how there is a close connection between the craft and the style of the instruments and the tradition.  Otherwise we’d see as many composers writing in Classical Ottoman Turkish Music style, Japanese Court Music style, or Byzantine Chant style as often as Classical Music style and with the same chance level of occurrence.  We don’t, and shouldn’t expect to.

Near the end of the piece, Temple says:

[O]ver the years, I’ve continued to think about that conversation, because I keep running into the same ideas.  For example, Garrett Schumann recently posted on Twitter that composers who use common-practice tonality should do so “thoughtfully” and “deliberately,” and be aware of the “historical and socio-political assumptions” involved in making that choice.  I’m all for thoughtfulness and historical awareness, but what strikes me is that I never hear anyone calling on composers influenced by Saariaho or Lachenmann or Ferneyhough to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of pre-existing ideas.  It seems to be taken for granted in many new music circles that anyone who composes in a European modernist idiom is doing so because they’ve thought about all the possible options and made a historically informed decision to go with that one, but that anyone who composes in a tonal idiom is doing so naively.  The funny thing is, the assumptions that people make actually contradict each other.  If atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the “native language” of contemporary classical music, then you can’t take it for granted that anyone who uses them is doing so after years of rigorous aesthetic soul-searching.  They might just as easily be doing it because it’s the norm in their musical subculture.

Taking what I’ve said above, then some of that thoughtfulness and historical awareness and socio-political assumptions have been part of what has built the system in question.  Sure, not the totality of it–music systems can’t completely encompass the totality of any historical period.  Then again, neither can a regular linguistic text. That doesn’t mean that some of the historical meaning isn’t embedded in the text.

I think that we as musicians tend to forget that notated music is text.  Musical text, to be sure, but a kind of text nonetheless. All texts, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, etc. have been constructed in a very specific historical period and region. How the text is used, what it looks like, and how it represents something physical has as much to do with it’s being embedded in some historical and socio-political context as it does anything else.  The transmission of the text, and how to use it, is also dependent on how it co-evolved with the instruments used to reproduce it.

There’s a reason we don’t use Korean Chôngganbo, Byzantine Chant notation, or Hamparsum notası, to notate Western Classical Music, and it’s not unrelated to why we don’t use various form of tablatures or chord charts to notate it.  This isn’t a comment about complexity–other notation systems are built to noted  types complexity that Western Classical notation can always adequately represent. Part of why they were constructed is specifically to highlight compositional techniques and musical styles that are tied to the traditions within which they have evolved.  Again, a whole system of notation, instruments, performance practice, and history which are closely (though not essentially or normatively) tied together.

This is not to say that “atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the ‘native language’ of contemporary classical music” so much as just one of major dialects of contemporary classical music. To be sure, what Temple is talking about is how much the field is changing with regards to the openess of younger composers to more contemporary idioms and musical dialects and languages, but for the most part all those tend to fall within the musical techniques used in the extended European-American world.

Interestingly, I had posted the following quote to my twitter feed–not specifically in reference to Temple’s piece (I hadn’t read her piece when I posted this).

And it was semi-facetious remark directed at something completely unrelated (Doom and Gloomers), but the core sentiment is still applicable. What Temple said isn’t stupid, by all means, the main point regarding the double standard of disparaging composers for using a “borrowed idiom” over another idiom which is in many ways just as borrowed is a problem. In the end, though, the problem has more to do with how we tend to make sharp dichotomies to reinforce certain hierarchies.  It’s just classic ingroup/outgroup behavior that humans have been doing since we were hunter/gatherer tribes.

I think we need to move beyond that and find the nuances between the sharply opposed viewpoints when they exist.  And by all means, used “borrowed” materials all you want in your compositions–I’d love to hear Temple’s “Dayglo Attack Machine” whether it’s using appropriated music or not.

Modern Cello Techniques


Quartertone excercise from Modern Cello Techniques

Modern Cello Techniques is a fantastic new website dedicated to extended cello techniques by Chicago based cellist, Russell Rolen.  Of special interest to my blog readers who also are interested in Arabic and Turkish music, there is a section on Quartertones and a page with some samples from usage of them by Western classical composers.

Be advisd, though, that Western composers use quartertones and microtones in very different ways than you’d find them used in Middle Eastern or South Asian Music so don’t expect to find much that would be useful for pedagogical or learning purposes if you’re interested in non-Western microtonality.  Also, see my caveat about the whole issue of microtones here and here which help to explain some of these differences between the West and the Rest.

What’s really wonderful are all the exercises such as the one picture in this post.  As I slowly brainstorm how to start an Arabic Orchestra, I’ve only given passing thoughts on how to train the string players how to learn the ‘scales’ used in the music.  I actually hadn’t thought of approaching it in the same methodical way that our Western music training does in the copious number of method books for instruments that we have.  Mr. Rolen’s website just pointed me in a direction that I hadn’t thought about in this context and I may have to start developing some form of method book for training Western Classically trained string players in many of the Eastern Classical music styles!

Arab Music and Musical Notation

I read a review of a book titled “Arab Music and Musical Notation” (Markaz ʻUmān lil-Mūsīqá al-Taqlīdīyah) by Issam El-Mallah last night. The review was written by Kathleen Hood.

The description of chapter 3 gives one of the primary reasons that so many non-Western musics’ notation traditions are double edged swords. As she states:

In chapter 3, “Arab Musicians’ Use of European Notation,” El-Mallah examines the history of music notation in the Arab world and argues that the unquestioned use of notation has had a negative effect on the structure and performance of Arab music. The tyranny of notation tends to limit improvisation and ornamentation, characteristics that previously were the hallmarks of Arab musical style. This chapter also presents a bleak picture of the state of commercial Arab music, which is increasingly dominated by the Egyptian recording industry and in which regional diversity is sacrificed in an appeal to the broadest audience.

I fear most Western classically trained musicians would far too easily agree with the latter without really understanding how there can be a ‘complex’ art music without having notation and so might not understand the implications of the former. But it is an argument used worldwide (many of the pieces about my native Thai classical music traditions also bemoan the fact that Western notation has crept into an academic setting for teaching Classical Thai music–for exactly the same reasons El-Mallah gives above.

Korean Chôngganbo and Far Eastern music notation systems

An example of Korean Chôngganbo music notation

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been having some relatively in depth discussions about music systems and notation for them with Bryan Townsend.  A statement in one of Bryan’s recent posts got me thinking a bit about notating rhythms, for which the Near Eastern notation systems aren’t particularly well suited. Here’s that statement

So we may be forced to the conclusion that, like accurate music notation, harmony and polyphony were invented exactly once in music history. Even more astonishing, they were both invented at roughly the same time in roughly the same place: southern France, northern Italy around 1000 AD. Nailing down the details of notating rhythms took until about 1500.

However, from what I remembered about some early Far Eastern notation systems, rhythm has been notated for some centuries and with a relatively high degree of precision.  One such system, Chôngganbo (정간보), which was develped by Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450) who is also credited with creating/promulgating what many linguists consider to be the most perfect alphabet, Hangul (한글).

I only happened across Chôngganbo via a strange route.  When I was following the career of Rock and experimental musician, Mike Patton, I was delighted to find and hear a bootleg of a live performance of a collaborative work he did with  William Winant and DJ Eddie Def that was called “Phono Sanjo.”  The piece combined elements of Mike Patton’s vocal acrobatics and Winant using various percussion including some very distinctive Chinese cymbols (for those of you who listen to Chinese Opera with any regularity you know exactly what I’m talking about) and DJ Eddie Def on turntables.  Many of these live performances of the piece took place in the mid to late 90s in the Bay Area.  I first got a bootleg around 1999.

The title of the piece refers to the two aesthetic driving forces of the work.  “Phono” obviously is a reference to “Phonograph” or the turntables; “Sanjo” is actually a style of art music from Korea, so many of the actual samples used by the turntablist are samples from Sanjo recordings.  Most prominently heard in the samples is the gayageum, one of the principle instruments used for this style of music and a close cousin of the Chinese guzheng and Japanese koto (Eric–now you know how I first came across gayageum music!).  Though sanjo is primarily an instrumental style of music, Mike Patton’s vocalizations evoke some of the Far Eastern vocal traditions (in the same way that Winant used a Chinese Cymbal) in the creating of a sort of Pan-East Asian experimental music piece. Continue reading “Korean Chôngganbo and Far Eastern music notation systems”