“The musical score is the worst thing in the history of music” – Mark Fell and Rian Treanor on notation


Each month in our print magazine, artists or groups sit down and listen to records which they are asked to comment on – each with no prior knowledge of what it is they are about to hear. In The Wire 444, father and son producer duo Mark Fell and Rian Treanor turned off the stereo and turned to musical notation.

Morton Feldman
Rothko Chapel
Edition Peters 1971
MF: You’ve got to look, because the next bit isn’t a piece of sound [Shows a musical score of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel].
RT: So I’m looking at a score, which I don’t know how to describe. I don’t really know anything about scores, but it’s like, a traditional Western notation thing.
MF: Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman. What have you got to say about that?
RT: I do like that piece. I don’t like it as much as some of his own stuff. But have you got a specific question?
MF: What do you like about his his work?
RT: One thing is, I don’t know anything about his work. But I listen to it all the time. He’s somebody who I can listen to his music pretty much at any point in time and really enjoy, any point of the day, or whatever I’m doing. And there’s lots of music that I just can’t listen to in some context. It’s a really brilliant balance between, like structure… but it also is it does things that I really don’t expect. It’s quite inharmonic or dissonant or something…
MF: I think technically speaking, inharmonic and dissonant probably mean… well, we don’t know do we because we’re not, we’re not musically trained.
RT: What I’m trying to say is the pitches, I don’t expect them to happen. So I enjoy that. It’s also really linear. But there’s these strange cycles that happen. I don’t know how he’s doing it but I love it.
MF: I’ve been talking to this guy Nick Moroz. He’s actually done all these structural analyses of Feldman’s work and the behaviours. He’s got all these diagrams. And I was like, is there a process? Is there a structure? And it seems that there isn’t, you know. In that sense, it’s quite different to something like Terry Riley’s work, I guess, or Steve Reich. But the question is, why do you think I’m showing you a piece of a score and not playing the music?
RT: Because it’s very specifically, like, classical modernist music. It’s very specifically, classical music, which is score based. But I don’t know why you’d show me the score.
MF: If you pointed someone to that and said, ‘what is it?’ They’d say, ‘that’s music’. But it’s not music is it?
RT: It’s doodles.
MF: What we’re reading here isn’t music. Like, a cookbook isn’t food, is it? Why do we say this is music? We’re not looking at music right now. We’re looking at some instructions to make music. There’s a mistake there isn’t there.
RT: It’s really strange isn’t it, like the priority. And like, I don’t really know how old a score is. But I guess in terms of the like, human race it’s very new.
MF: I mean, I think the Western linear score is relatively new. I think it was invented in Italian monasteries, and went through a series of developments and stuff. But also, the other thing is, that people said that when you look at the score, time is represented spatially. But it isn’t, is it? There’s no time represented. What’s represented is order and sequence, not time.
RT: I’ve never understood it. Like, the way they define time. I know that there’s notes happening vertically, the different pitches happen vertically. But that’s about all I know.
MF: But the two main points I want to make are that the score isn’t music. It’s the instructions to make music. And time isn’t represented in a musical score. Never at any point does it say one inch equals one minute. In my opinion, I think the musical score is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of music. I think it’s done more damage to music than any other invention. As a technology, the musical score fundamentally skewed the whole of musical practice in the wrong direction, I think.
RT: [Laughs] It’s a pretty bold statement, but I know what you’re saying. What impact does the score have on those things like spontaneous composition, or the hierarchy between player and composer?
MF: It’s at the centre, for me, of a toxic network of categories. And also, it’s stupid. Imagine a game of chess, like, 400 years ago, someone sat in a room on their own, and wrote down a really complex game of chess, with lots of really complex moves. And ever since then, people get together in a room and watch two actors perform this perfect game of chess. But the way that that the moves were planned was by lots and lots of thought that happened outside of the actual performance itself. So it’s like, why would you do that? I don’t understand why you would sit in an audience with a bunch of other people listening to the same thing over and over again, for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I think whoever is reading music, and learning to read music, should stop doing it immediately. If you want to make music, do not learn how to read scores, or write scores.
RT: I know what you’re saying, but I like how that does maybe relate to electronic music, in terms of you can even make stuff on a timeline or, I guess, live on a drum machine. Really, I think a score is like a timeline. You plot things from point A to point B, and you have these trajectories of intensity and you always say thing like, oh, you’re listening to a piece of music in a club, you can tell it’s just all this pre-planned thing… a crescendo that then goes to a drop, and so on.
MF: It’s an imitation, it’s an imitation of the kind of things that might happen if you were doing it in real time. Like, now we’re having this kind of peak experience – but it’s all imitations of that, it’s all caricatures of musical intensity. That’s what I hear when I listen to score based music. I’m just listening to this stupid caricature of levels of energy that would otherwise happen in an unplanned manner.
RT: On a practical level, like I was saying before, I’ve always made music on a computer, which in itself has to be pre-programmed. I guess my interest is, how do I make something that has this spontaneousness to it? How can you make this linear thing that has an energy of it being alive? Whenever I work in a timeline, which is basically the score, it’s just dead.
MF: When people work in scores or timelines, it’s all about ‘How do I make it feel natural? How do I make it feel like it’s flowing and fluid?’ But it never is. Because you as a composer, are jumping in and out, pressing start and stop. You don’t inhabit the same timeframe as the music. You’re not in the music at all.
RT: You’re plotting something.
MF: Yeah. And so why is it that you’re always trying to make it tell this lie, that you are actually within it? And that’s all it is. The score is all about telling a lie.
RT: I mean, you could say in that way. But also like you can, you can make things in that way that you couldn’t do in any other way.
MF: That’s a weird thing, because now we’re looking at this Rothko chapel piece by Morton Feldman, which we agree is mind-blowingly brilliant.
RT: Yeah [laughs].
MF: I presume he didn’t use the score just as a means of documenting his ideas, but he used the score as a means of constructing those musical ideas and structures. So here’s an example of someone that actually contradicts what I’ve just said. And actually, you know, for both of us, Morton Feldman is one of the things that we listen to the whole time. So that’s why I chose this. I could have chosen some Vivaldi or something, which would have been a total no-brainer, about how rubbish it was.

Subscribers to The Wire can read the full Invisible Jukebox between Mark Fell and Rian Treanor via our digital edition. Mark Fell took the Invisible Jukebox before as a member of SND in The Wire 293.


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