Assorted Program Notes


Postface to an Anthology of Prose Scores:

The prose score is a wonderful tool for getting ideas straight; figuring out the conceptual lines and limits of a work both in general and in particular. It is particularly efficient for describing situations that may lead to a field of outcomes, unforseeable (unforhearable?) in detail.

I started making scores with words - both as a way of communicating to musicians who had no knowledge of "conventional" notation and as a kind of sketching procedure before making a "conventional" score - well before I became aware of similar scores by others (Wolff, Cage, The Scratch Orchestra, Young, Oliveros, Stockhausen, Lucier, Mumma, Maue, Barlow), but the more I learned of this tradition, the more I began to appreciate the specific dynamics and advantages of the genre.

Prose scores demand surgical editing but invite whimsy; they need to be as technical as the assembly instructions that should have come with the bicycle that your father couldn´t finish putting together on Christmas eve; they need to be attractive to the reader/performer; they might have literary qualities of their own (my "Poor Dog Musics" was once published in a literary journal (I have since withdrawn this score, it being politically incorrect in the extreme)); they may be as precise or a general as you like.

I stopped making prose scores for public use sometime in the late eighties: the times and my own interests seemed to ask for new music in conventional notation. I do continue to make prose scores for private use and as a warm-up while composing a new piece, but the group of pieces included here strike me now as an accurate record of my musical work from 83-88, and point out areas of activity that have proven rich for subsequent work.

DJW, Frankfurt, 1996


Note for the first performance of Planxty and Field Study:

Imagine, if you will, a densely forested plain, stretched between forbidding mountains. Passage across this plain is obtained only through natural breaks in the vegetation, creating, in effect, a kind of labyrinth, whose paths change constantly through the interaction between seasonal change and accidental or random variations in the foliage pattern. A traveler returning across the plain cannot always depend upon her memory of the previous journey and a successful passage will (almost) always require mistakes.

The character of these mistakes can be taken as the traveler's individual "style" or as, perhaps, an ornament.



FIELD STUDY was made for a concert of the Gesellschaft für Akustische Lebenshilfe, Kiel. It is the first of a long series of pieces in which the idea of a "field" finds a musical expression. The four movements work out distinctive routes for making musics from first principles. In each case, a bit of material and some modest procedures were allowed to interact regardless of the consequences. I hear the resulting musics as acoustical traces of the "fields" implied by the marriage of the particular materials and procedures chosen. The ensemble (violin, trombone, banjo & guitar) is made of instruments which happened to be available for the concert: accidental, but in retrospect, they make a fine kind of "consort", one somewhat reminiscent of that found in Morley's Book of Consort Lessons.

FIELD STUDY is frankly a journeyman's composition, written very much in the spirit of those minimal days. It has a kernel of radically condensed ideas that would be continuously revisited in subsequent work.




Program Note:

All "fieldworkers" -- whether a farmer, working his field, or an ethnologist encountering a culture with which she is unfamiliar, or a musician, learning to play a new work -- must learn to observe the landscape from varying distances and perspectives. This require a great deal of patience. One might be able to hear FIELDWORK (STRING QUARTET II.) on three levels: as a single complex tone, extended to 10 or 12 minutes duration, as an extremely slowly moving melody composed of single tones and aggregates, and as a series of complex tones within the single tones of this melody. The 16 open strings of the quartet are so tuned that they approximate tones related as the first 16 prime partials (or octave multiples thereof) of single complex tone, reflecting a platonic ideal that fades over the course of time. The players are given a certain amount of freedom with regard to the temporal articulation of individual tones within an otherwise strict metrical context. All timbres are defined precisely. I wrote FIELDWORK as a gift for the 60th birthday of my teacher, Gordon Mumma. It is part of an on-going series of "Field Studies".

Performance Instructions:

FIELDWORK is meant to be played on the sixteen open strings of the quartet in the following tuning (expressed in cent deviations from equal temperament):

Violin I: Viola:
I e" +29.1 I a' -26.5
II g' -34.5 II db' +5.0
III bb +29.6 III g +2.0
IV f# -48.7 IV Bb -31.2
Violin II: Cello:
I e" -13.6 I ab +40.5
II f' +11.5 II d# -48.7
III b +45 III Gb +28.3
IV eb -2.5 IV C +/- 0.0

As this represents a fairly radical retuning, it is best played on a set of instruments reserved for this piece, thus minimizing pitch drift during a performance (although a certain amount of drift is to be expected, indeed welcomed).

2. Articulation instructions: Six distinct types of articulation are required: sul ponticello, sul tasto, and flautando are familiar. Natural harmonics used with these articulation types are notated as arabic numbered flageolets. The sounding pitch is notated on the auxillary stave. Col legno is always beaten with a short acellerando and a somewhat longer, gradual ritardando and diminuendo. Pulsing bow indicates that the bow should be very firmly and slowly drawn so that the individual pulses of the passing bow stroke are as articulate as possible. The effect is somewhat like a bowed pizzzicato, with a definite pitch and as steady a rhythm as possible (ca. 60 mm). Pressure bow indicates that the bow should be drawn so firmly against the string as to produce a rough tone around an octave below the pitch of the open string.

3. Tempo and metric articulation : Each whole note should be thought of as a single pulse of 10 to 12 seconds duration. Players may nuance this strict "downbeat" by delayed attacks of up to two or three seconds and likewise fade out dynamically in the "offbeat" . Tones which extend slightly into additional measures are indicated by grace notes.

4. Physical placement : The players should be arrayed on the stage at distances from one another greater than ordinary for quartet playing but not distant enough to suggest antiphonal effects (3 metres seems appropriate).


Dessins d'enfants (1) for piano and trombone (1999)

Dessins d'enfants are combinatorial objects which are drawings with vertices and edges on topological surfaces. Their interest lies in their relation with the set of algebraic curves defined over the closure of the rationals, and the corresponding action of the absolute Galois group on them. Dessins d'enfants were named by the great mathematician Alexander Groethendieck. The contemporary universe of mathematicians is said to be divided into "Those who do understand Grothendieck", and "Those who don't understand Grothendieck". Similarly, the world will probably be divided between those who understand the composition Dessins d'enfants (1) and those who don't. Dessins d'enfants is an open-ended collection of pieces for Hildegard Kleeb and Roland Dahinden which may be presented in any combination or order.