Wednesday, August 15, 2012, um, Notational Signatures

I'm fond of saying to students that a musical score is just a set of instructions. Indeed, one of my Music Ed colleagues doesn't even like to refer to sheet music as "music," preferring to have her children's choirs look at their "notation." After all, all those dots and lines don't actually produce any sound on their own. They're not music. Still, I don't mind referring to these instructions as "music" since the word has clearly inherited that additional meaning. "Notation" sounds cold and too distanced from the music that is somehow magically embedded on paper. (Of course, "notation" "sounds cold" because I'm not used to using it this way; language gets much of its flavor from experience.)

Perhaps notation isn't the same thing as music, but there's still something aesthetically satisfying about these "instructions," even when we don't get to hear music. This, of course, has a lot to do with the meanings suggested by all those dots and lines. I love sightreading, I love studying scores, I love the dozen or so anthologies of scores aligned on a bookshelf above my desk, I love looking at all the other scores filling a large bookshelf nearby, I even love the digital joys of IMSLP. It stands to reason that notes themselves might start to appear beautiful, if only by association.

I wrote a few years ago about the pleasure of following a score while listening, with the idea being that watching the notes go by can be a good catalyst for listening (even for the uninitiated). But I also find that notes can be worth looking at simply for their own suggestive kinds of beauty. By suggestive, I especially mean the reference to particular sounds and patterns, which is why I find it annoying when musical signs are just tossed around like Clip Art. [e.g. the lazy use of musical notes in this disappointing Google logo.] See how I'm dancing back and forth between saying musical notation is beautiful on its own and yet stressing that "beautiful on its own" is connected to what the notes mean as music. It's a Hofstadter-y "strange loop." 

Words, words, words. Mainly, I just came here today to talk about a couple of images I created to personalize my Facebook page. The truth is, Facebook is notably uniform and bland in its look - which is mostly a good thing. (MySpace was a visual disaster because approximately 93% of people shouldn't be given free reign over choices about graphic design.) However, every now and then the Facebook gods throw us a design curve that provides the tiny potential for some creativity.

When, in 2011, they rolled out the "photo-strip" header at the top of profile pages, I was first just annoyed. The idea was that the five photos in which one was most recently tagged would become a little Muybridge-esque visual time capsule...


Facebook Photostrip

...with the added surprise that you never knew when someone might tag some 2nd grade picture of you that would suddenly be part of your banner story.

Come to think of it, I'm now disappointed that I never thought to use either of the first two just-created dummy photostrips for my page. But what I did do was decide that those five tagged photos might look cool if they became five measures of music. (This meant tagging myself in these score images and then vigilantly un-checking new photos in which I was tagged.) For some reason, I ultimately decided on the hypnotic opening of Scriabin's Vers la flamme, a piece I've never played, although I intend to. (I have, elsewhere, claimed Scriabin and Poulenc as the composers I like most above their reputations.) Vers la flamme is about as sensual (in the sense of creating a presence that can be felt) as music gets, so maybe that's why I was inspired to objectify it as image.

Like so many of my projects (like this very post!), this ended up taking longer than I intended since getting the measures to be equal lengths required putting the music into Finale (and, sadly, leaving out the pick-up notes). But this five measure group works well as an entity because the arrival at the fifth bar kind of lets us know this piece is going strange places.

Here are those measures as they appear in the score:

And here's what they looked like atop my Facebook page:

Elegant, mysterious, and....yes, just a tiny bit pretentious in its coded, insider messaging. ("What you don't recognize this music? You must not be as smart as I!")

But then, of course, Facebook comes along with this new Timeline feature and suddenly the photostrip was being phased out. I finally got the word this week that my page was automatically going to be converted to the new Timeline format, which replaces the "at least it's small" photostrip with a huge header of a photo (of the user's choosing). These photos take up way too much screen real estate and they're also oddly paired with a small, nested version of the user's profile pic. Thus, I'd avoided making the switch for months, both because I liked my little bit of Scriabin and because I was opposed to this clunky new look. But, it's a free service, so you get what you pay for - which, in this case, is not much choice.

After some playing around with images of piano keyboards, I finally ended up with the following as my new banner image:

[click to view larger]

It's not perfect - maybe a little overstuffed, but I like its painterly look and, of course, you will see that I couldn't give up my Scriabin signature, now heading right towards us due to some simple 3-D rendering. The m.5 chord looks even more ominous now with the notes getting progressively larger. I'm also pleased with the way the notes are poised in the air like ghosts (if you rotate your screen away from you, the notes will likely disappear!), although in an ideal world the bass clef notes floating over the keys would be a bit darker. Are these notes left over from a past performance? Are they waiting to be played? Are they happening right now (all five measures at once?)?

So that's today's story of music as image. Facebook remains annoying, but sometimes crazy constraints inspire unexpected creativity; for me at least, Scriabin's notes add multiple layers of texture that seem to bring the keys to life. Those who are reading on my actual blog (as opposed to in a feed-reader) will also "note" that my homemade template has featured Bach's notes as background image almost since the beginning. (A few of you may remember MMmusing's "Yellow" period.) I created that looping image of Bach's Invention in A Minor for another website way back in the early days of the Internet, but I think it still holds up. (Bach, of course, is great for looping, which is how he made it into Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach.) Ironically, I worked hard to distort those notes to make them look like refugees from some ancient manuscript, and now they are getting ancient, at least in web terms.

Finally, note that my attraction to notes as images is based to some degree on my understanding that notes really are music, in a mystical sort of way. In his fascinating book MusicophiliaOliver Sacks uses the term "musical imaging" to describe the way in which we can "hear" sounds in our imaginations - and only after typing that sentence did I think that the word "image" is embedded in the word "imagination." So we now have a strange loop in which musical notes are understood as images that inspire internal musical imaging, and thus became images that can inspire the imagination even more than mere images.

See also:

Music as Image/Image as Music

The Joy of (looking at) Music


Christina said...

"...there's still something aesthetically satisfying about these "instructions," even when we don't get to hear music." --Love this idea. When I was young, my piano teacher would have me turn pages for her when she accompanied large masses and other choral concerts, which was a fascinating and exciting way to experience the performance both visually and aurally. I enjoyed your project with Prof. Z years ago and I'm so glad to see you are still writing about these ideas. You could publish a book soon!


Thanks, Christina. Your Scriabin portrait is probably my favorite thing in my office (even more than all the scores). At some point, I'll probably write about it...