Back in August, I had the opportunity to be a part of the 2022 Impulse New Music Festival (INMF), which was a wonderful experience. As part of the program, I was commissioned by the festival to write a solo flute piece for Erin McKibben, who premiered it on September 4, 2022. (You can see her performance here.)
In addition to working with Erin, I had the opportunity to take lessons with composers Benjamin J. Rolle, Andrew Tholl, and Vera Ivanova. We discussed all kinds of things, from microtonal music to writing grants to contemporary notation. It’s this last one I will talk a bit about in this post.
Previous to my time at INMF, I was aware of various types of contemporary notation. I had seen it; I had heard music played from scores that used it; I had just never played it myself. None of my musical training, ever, included interpreting scores using contemporary notation. So, though I was aware of it, I was not truly familiar with it. My feeling was “that’s for other people.” Other people to write, other people to play.
To me, it was like reading Beowulf in the original Old English. Sure, it’s important. Sure, a select few would find that interesting. But it’s not my gig, and not something I care to invest time into understanding.
Maybe I had a bad attitude toward contemporary notation. Or maybe it’s just because I have so many other things to do and learn which have taken priority that I couldn’t be bothered.
But it doesn’t matter now, because Vera and Erin convinced me (rather easily, once I heard their perspective) that updating some of my notation was a good idea.
They introduced me to terms I had not known, so I was able to figure out how to adapt my score in the notation files. As a performer, Erin explained to me how contemporary notation can allow composers to be even more clear about how notes and phrases should be played, whereas older styles of notation may leave too many decisions up to the performer, leading to drastic differences in performances or even some confusion on the part of the performer on how best to play the piece.
In my piece, Hope Rising, that mostly centered on the rubato inherent to my piece. How much should the beats be stretched or sped up? Exactly where should an accelerando or ritard start? How great is the change in tempo from one end to the other in these spots?
Traditional notation would only say things like “rubato”, “accelerando” or “ritard,” but contemporary notation can get more specific. My piece already communicated some flexibility in the tempo, as I had no bar lines. But I learned to use spacial notation to visually shrink or stretch the length of a beat. I learned to include feather beaming to visually show where accelerandos and ritards begin and end within a phrase.
I was surprised how seamlessly the contemporary notation fit into my already-existing score. The new notation changed absolutely nothing in my piece. I didn’t have to change my style of composition at all to use it.
I did have to make some adjustments in the notation file, which only took a long time because I’m still new to the software and kept making mistakes that caused problems with formatting. The actual contemporary notation was easy to add! And, honestly, it didn’t change much in the look of the score in most places. However, I must agree that in the places where it is used, it does communicate the idea of the music more clearly than the original.
It’s the same piece, but different.
Here are pics of the before and after: