Guest post: Gavett on Beat Furrer’s FAMA …

We are pleased to share Jeffrey Gavett’s post about notational issues in the music of Beat Furrer and Timothy McCormack, originally posted on the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble’s blog. This Thursday and Friday at Bohemian National Hall in New York, Ekmeles joins forces with the Talea Ensemble in the US premiere of Furrer’s FAMA (details here).  

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Preparing the vocal ensemble parts in Beat Furrer’s FAMA has been an athletic physical challenge, and a catalyst for a lot of thinking about music, notation, and the voice. The score to this work is in the composer’s hand, which is becoming less and less common. The ubiquity of Sibelius and Finale have led to most scores being computer-engraved, including scores from major publishing houses who used to go through the painstaking and difficult task of literally engraving music for composers:

Now it is often the composer herself who must submit a score to the publisher, fully edited and formatted in the software of her choosing. For the composer and publisher, computer-engraved scores allow for easier corrections, re-formatting, and extraction and transposition of parts. For the performer, they allow for a standardized legibility that a composer rushing to meet a deadline may not always provide.

I’ve found myself becoming deeply engaged with the visual aspect of scores lately, what with our recent Augenmusik program. Each of the scores from that program has a unique visual world it inhabits, immediately presenting something of the work to the performer. On the other hand, the standardized default computer-engraved formatting of scores can lead to a homogenous visual presentation, which completely ignores the way that a musician will take in the score. While Furrer’s hand is not always as immediately legible as an engraved score, I think it has something to show us about the music. It is angular and sharp, with blocks of repetition across the page. The hard angles of Furrer’s flags and stems seem to communicate the precision with which the rhythms are to be executed. The time-saving device of writing in repeat marks for literal repetitions of measures also serves to illuminate their structural nature.

Perhaps this attraction to hand-written scores is nothing but nostalgia for a craft gradually being left by the wayside, but I think there’s something to the human connection it makes. In the same way that even a scrawled letter can communicate more than a double-spaced Times New Roman printout of the same text, a hand-written score can be a more intimate connection to the composer than a default Sibelius/Finale engraved score can. That isn’t to say that computer engraving precludes communication and individuation of a composer’s visual personality – many tech-savvy composers are doing incredible things with computer engraving.Timothy McCormack for one has managed to bend some notation software to his will to a remarkable degree, displayed in the score excerpt below, from his Mirror Stratum for contrabass clarinet and cello:

 

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