Seeing sounds / 16 October 2015 / 16 October 2015

We are pleased to have Giallo feature an article written for us by our friend Guido Barbieri, founder, along with Fabiana Piersanti, of SHE LIVES association.


In musical notation, sign and sound are in basic conflict. The one is ink fixed to paper, the other a wave mobile in time and space. Unavoidably, they are made of different stuff, like a rock and an oak tree, a songbird and oxygen and, indeed, no mark of pen nor black dot hung upon the lines and spaces of a score will ever manage to entirely render the fullness, complexity and unpredictability of a real sound made of frequencies and pitches.

Over time, this source conflict has taken different forms, and gone through endless metamorphoses. In actual fact, for many centuries sound did not need to be preceded or followed by a sign. For example, from the rise of the first religious communities until the advent of the Holy Roman Empire, the Christian hymn developed and was passed down without ever having to be written: for eight hundred years, more than four thousand songs were handed down from generation to generation through the use of a remarkably advanced technique: memorisation.

The first known signs, besides those that survived the decline of the Assyrian and Greek civilisations, did not indicate the pitch, much less the duration, of sounds at all. In the white spaces of prayer books in Carolingian scriptoriums, monk scribes traced simple conventional graphemes to remind cantors not what, but how, to sing: sounds were shouted, liquid, whispered, connected and disconnected from the throat or from the thorax.

Paradoxically, what is known as adiastematic notation (“without intervals”), which is not fixed on the lines and spaces of tetragrams and staffs, is most closely related to notation in new and very new music, i.e. in the music of our times. From the late Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, the Western music community identified with a common language. With the introduction of the system of five lines and four spaces – the modern staff –, composers and performers accepted an artificial, but perfectly functional, convention. Each sound a sign, a certain pitch, an absolute duration. This artificial notation allowed Western ars musicae to produce masterpieces, and the common music that belongs to the historical realm of historical tradition.

However, sometime around the 1920s, as musical thinking began to feel imprisoned within the confines of an ancient, inert, predictable sound, and was trying desperately to invent a new dimension, the “notation pact” exploded. In order to indicate previously unheard and unexpected sounds to performers that were born only of their imaginations, composers had to resort to a kind of “private notation”, in signs that were still unwritten. From a standard notation system, based on a limited number of graphic signs (notes), they moved to a system that was strictly individual, with a potentially unlimited alphabet of signs (sounds). The metamorphosis that led from the writing of notes to the writing of sounds is the capital paradigm of the new music. Compositional thinking was freed from limits, rules and conventions and ventured out on the road of experimentation: as each work potentially built its own writing system, every new sound called for a new sign, and the alphabet multiplied endlessly. This process of the liberation of sound from the shackles of traditional signs reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, in correspondence with the triumph of improvisation, that is, of a compositional praxis that did not pretend to anchor the sound result to the performance within a preordained notation. In this new dimension, the composer’s world is flanked by the active role of the performer, who becomes co-author of the work, and music handwriting adapts: the staff shatters, fragments, multiplies, the number of lines and spaces increases, often disappearing to be replaced by a galaxy of graphemes.

Examples are legion: in Atlas Eclipticalis, John Cage superimposes a map of the sky on a sheet of staff paper and makes many small holes corresponding with the apical stars. Lifting the Atlas, a world of indeterminate signs remains on paper to which the performer must attribute order, direction and meaning. In almost all his works, Sylvano Bussotti maintains the staff, but distributes lines and spaces freely, recomposing traditional signs according to a purely pictorial logic: in this way, each score is transformed into a visual work. Salvatore Sciarrino, the most famous writer of sounds of our time, summarises his musical thinking in a series of flow charts that make up the visual representation of the sound figures on which each individual work is built.

It thus seems that musical writing, having abandoned the Cartesian axis of determined notation, organises the graphic arrangement of sound according to a powerfully and compellingly visual logic: before being listened to, the sound must first be “seen”. Only passing through this synaesthetic door can one start to move freely in time and space.

Guido Barbieri – SHE LIVES