Graphic Scores

An exhibition of contemporary approaches to graphic scores to mark the 50th Anniversary of the British Music Collection. Curated by Jacob Thompson-Bell

By Sound and Music

Jacob Thompson-Bell

Sketch of Graphic Score by Katie EnglishSound and Music


Graphic scores offer opportunities for experimentation and multi-media forms of composition, participatory practice, site-specific work and creative ways of listening to the world around us. They form a large part of my own compositional practice and I have been fortunate to meet many other composers and artists making fascinating work that uses visuals to convey sonic or musical experiences. Exploring the work of my contemporaries has shown me that notation can encompass everything from graphic symbols to text, photography, illustration, video and sculpture.

Introduction (ctd.)

This exhibition is divided into four parts, each exploring different approaches, to celebrate just some of the ways in which British artists are working with graphic scores today.

Part 1: Storytelling

Part 2: Composition as Performance

Part 3: Place and Landscape

Part 4: Listening

The artists featured use graphic scores to tell stories, to map or document the sounds of a specific geographical location, to encourage people to listen again to their surroundings, and to examine issues of authorship and compositional process.

Angelystor (p.3) by Phil LegardSound and Music

Part 1: Storytelling

Graphic scores can offer evocative forms of storytelling, bringing together the sonic, visual and emotional aspects of an event or place. The score is a storybook that can be seen and heard, recounting a narrative that has already happened, whilst providing an impetus for people to make and imagine new sounds.

Angelystor (p.13) by Phil LegardSound and Music

Phil Legard

Phil Legard’s score is inspired by the folk heritage of the churchyard of St Digain, in the Welsh village of Llangernyw, home to the oldest living thing in the British Isles - a 5,000 year old yew tree.

Through graphic notation, illustration and visual collage, Legard’s score retells the story of ‘Angelystor’, the angel of death.

Each year, the spirit is said to visit the church on All-Hallows’ Eve, announcing the names of those who will die in the parish over the coming year.

The church of St Digain, Llangernyw.

Angelystor (p.9) by Phil LegardSound and Music

Folklore tells of a local man, John Ap Robert, who challenged the truth of this story.

One Halloween night, he goes to the churchyard to disprove the legend.

Angelystor (p.10) by Phil LegardSound and Music

But, as John Ap Robert is standing in the churchyard at midnight, Angelystor appears...

...and the disbeliever hears his own name called out...

...prophesying that he will die the following year.

Phil Legard - Angelystor Trailer by Phil LegardSound and Music

Anyone can take Legard’s illustrated pages and use them as the basis for a musical improvisation. At the same time, Angelystor records something of the feel and heritage of the location on which it is based.

Legard’s score is also partnered with an extended sound work weaving together music and field recordings from the location, with the score acting as a kind of map for listeners.

Box 1: The Amputee (2004) by Adam de la CourSound and Music

Three Box Scores
Adam de la Cour

These box scores by Adam de la Cour tell a story in a more abstract way than Legard’s score but they are nevertheless each inscribed with narrative meaning.

Box 2: The Foetus on the Sofa (2006) by Adam de la CourSound and Music

Box 2: The Foetus on the Sofa
Adam de la Cour

This box score traces a surreal kind of autobiographical narrative, made possible only by the physical and literary media through which it is conveyed.

The box blurs memories of childhood, with recollections of film and artworks de la Cour has seen, featuring transcribed choreography from Jacques Tati's Playtime, and elements from Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise.

The box is even etched with the murmurings of a daemon voice, recalling childhood nightmares.

The instructions tell us the score is to be realised by “2 vacuum cleaners/vocalist in foetal position on a sofa/'daemon' voice/sample of a cat purr”.

The inevitable distance between the musical interpretation and the physical features of the box itself is perhaps analogous to the fuzzy recollection of nightmares and past cinematic encounters that inspired this work.

Listen on SoundCloud

Box 3: The Mirror Dwarf​ (2006) by Adam de la CourSound and Music

Box 3: The Mirror Dwarf
Adam de la Cour

This score offers a similarly cryptic retelling of scenes from Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small, tracing the movement of the characters on screen.

The dwarf laughter is also referenced and sampled in the recording. The DVDs found within the box contain footage of the original camera traces, to be imitated (indicated by the mirrors opposite each DVD panel when the box is closed).

At the End of School Assembly, page 1 of 4, Shiva Feshareki, 2014, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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At the End of School Assembly
Shiva Feshareki

Graphic scores have the potential to challenge some of the traditional creative hierarchies by perpetuating more democratic, inclusive forms of music making and appreciation.

Shiva Feshareki’s score is inspired by stories written to her by eight and nine-year-old school children. In the first performance, at the Royal College of Music in 2014, the children also narrated their stories alongside the composed scores.

At the End of School Assembly, page 2 of 4, Shiva Feshareki, 2014, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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This piece is an example of how the combined media inherent within graphic scores can allow composers to communicate on a variety of levels.

The work reveals its origins through the imagery, speaking directly to the young people who provided its narratives, whilst allowing any performing musician the license to bring their own musical experiences to bear on the interpretation.

DEVICE 001, Page 21 (2017) by Emma-Kate MattthewsSound and Music

Part 2: Composing as Performance

Graphic scores can engage with the act of ‘composing’ as a kind of performance in its own right – subject to the same physical movements, mistakes and serendipities as any ‘live’ musical event. The placing of a pen on a piece of paper, tracing motion across the page, mapping out a musical space; solid sculptural objects recalling sounds or musical gestures. The resultant lines and shapes are left over artefacts, evidence of a sonic idea or intention that can be picked up by others looking for inspiration to listen or make music.

Voice Box: Master Score, Claudia Molitor, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Claudia Molitor

This sequence of one-page scores presents the same simple vocal melody notated repeatedly by Molitor under different compromising circumstances – whilst trampolining, writing with her foot, writing with the pen on the end of a 2m rod...

This intentionally absurd process emphasises how different environments and tools profoundly affect the music composers choose (and are able) to dream up.

Voice Box: With Foot, Claudia Molitor, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Voice Box: Pen Attached to 2m Rod, Claudia Molitor, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Voice Box: Trampolining, Claudia Molitor, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Claudia Molitor says: "Uncontrolled markings enter the score, setting the unintentional alongside the intentional.

The (de)formed score testifies to a failed authorship and flawed rationalism of an initial compositional intention.

The work resonates against the historicity of the score as the primary site for musical meaning."

DEVICE 001, Page 21 (2017) by Emma-Kate MattthewsSound and Music

Emma-Kate Matthews

Architect and composer Emma-Kate Matthews’ score, created for the London Graduate Orchestra, seems to explode out of the confines of traditional stave-based notation.

This page is both an instruction to performers and a self-contained visual piece, performed on the page.

Matthews still considers “any score and/or drawing produced to facilitate the performance of a musical composition, as a means to an end and not an end in itself.”

However, the use of open-ended graphic elements acts something like a compositional signature, embedding the composer’s presence within the score.

(Read the full New Voices interview)

Early Graphic Score for DEVICE 001, Emma-Kate Matthew, 2017, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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This early graphic score, is designed to map out the narrative for DEVICE 001, showing the overall development of texture for the final work.

Emma-Kate Matthews working with the London Graduate Orchestra, Chloe Richardson, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Scintillia (image 1), Jennifer Walshe, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Scintillia Jennifer Walshe

Graphic scores often have a sense of humour about them. There is something deliberately ridiculous about claiming deep conceptual connections between abstract visual shapes and detailed musical gestures, which can make us think critically about the role of the composer.

Jennifer Walshe’s Scintillia, scored for solo voice, with film canister and comb, and attributed to one of her Grupat alter egos, Detleva Verens, presents a score created through placing a collection of large bamboo sticks in arrangements on the ground.

Scintillia (image 2), Jennifer Walshe, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Walshe (Verens), further complicating (or satirising) the distance between these sticks and the resultant music, tells us that the various shapes created by the formations of the bamboo are inspired by pictures taken by satellites orbiting the earth in space.

What might be called an artistic “work”, in homage to a seriousness of intent, has become a “play ground”, a fluctuating centre for activity on or around the composer’s own acts of listening and notating.

Listen on SoundCloud

Halifax (2016) by Katie EnglishSound and Music

Part 3: Place and Landscape

The meeting of sonic and visual dimensions that graphic scores explore can create powerful geographical connections. Artists can use them to map and document the sounds of a specific location. Once performed, these scores can become site-specific meditations, or give rise to fresh musical responses that encourage people to reappraise the landscape around them.

Fresh Yorkshire Aires by Jacob Thompson-BellSound and Music

Mapping Yorkshire

In 2016, I commissioned a series of new graphic scores from artists based in Yorkshire, as part of a project called Fresh Yorkshire Aires. The scores were exhibited and published as a book compilation.

The brief was to create a score that drew inspiration from the landscape of the region.

Fresh Yorkshire Aires also includes an online showcase of graphic score work and sound-visualising media by Yorkshire-based artists.

Katie English explaining her score to Matthew Bourne by Jez riley FrenchSound and Music

Hills and Mills
Katie English

Katie English (a.k.a. Isnaj Dui) was one of the artists commissioned. Her score reimagines the skyline around Halifax.

Here, she explains her initial sketches to pianist Matthew Bourne.

This view shows the skyline around Bradford Old Rd, Halifax, England.

Katie English used her score to map features like these to create a sequence of graphic notation.

Hills and Mills (p.1 - 2) (2016) by Katie EnglishSound and Music

Katie says: "I decided to make my piece about my surroundings in Halifax. The town has a rich industrial history but is also surrounded by rolling hillsides and moorland and I felt that this visually dramatic landscape lent itself perfectly to a musical score...

Hills and Mills (p.3 - 4) (2016) by Katie EnglishSound and Music

...I have included abstracted versions of a few local landmarks alongside the gentle slopes of the hills...

... and criss-cross shapes of the moorland grasses, which reminded me of musical staves.” (Katie English)

Philip Thomas performing from 'Hills and Mills', by Katie English by Matthew MoorhouseSound and Music

Philip Thomas giving the premiere performance with Matthew Bourne, at The Gallery at Munro House, Leeds, June 2016.

Creating IMAGIRO (2017) by Jobina TinnemansSound and Music

Jobina Tinnemans

Jobina Tinnemans’ IMAGIRO scores transpose her own “reading” of the Icelandic landscape into a vast panoramic score.

In IMAGIRO Landmannalaugar, the undulating horizon translates into sweeping lines of brushed ink.

Here, Tinnemans creates the 24 metre x 1.5 metre score.

IMAGIRO Landmannalaugar (2017) by Jobina TinnemansSound and Music

The score requires the performers to progress across the length of the canvas... musically interpret the textures and dynamics of her mark making...

...opening up a single gesture into full harmonics from whichever angle the musicians are moving through the panorama.

Jobina Tinnemans says: “Rugged wild landscapes with their hills and mountains read like music to me.

The Icelandic use the work fjallasyn to describe a distant view, especially in clear weather and from a point where you can see a big part of a highland area – a panorama with many peaks.”

IMAGIRO Landmannalaugar by Jobina TinnemansSound and Music

score for listening # 52 by Jez riley FrenchSound and Music

Part 4: Listening

Graphic scores aren’t just for musicians to perform, they can also be scores for listening, encouraging us to attend more deeply to the sounds around us. These scores highlight the sounds that subconsciously colour our experience of particular times, places or objects. Some of them can also be performed musically, others are designed to be "heard" simply by looking.

score for listening # 8 by Jez riley FrenchSound and Music

scores for listening
Jez riley French

Jez riley French's images are intended as listening scores, encouraging a deeper level of engagement with the texture and character of everyday sounds we might otherwise take for granted.

score for listening # 32, Jez riley French, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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score for listening # 52, Jez riley French, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Jez riley French says: “The works invite musicians, audiences and individuals in their locales, to reflect on the sounds around them and pause for a time, allowing the sounds that we, as a species, often filter out to become present again in our perception."

Sound Sculptures (Image1) by Liz OsborneSound and Music

Sound Sculptures
Liz Osborne

Liz Osborne’s Sound Sculptures explore the link between looking and listening.

Liz Osborne says: “For this collection of sound sculptures, I was inspired by the Fluxus movement to create objects that bring attention to the idea of sound rather than hearing the sound itself.

Using found objects and everyday materials, I wanted to explore the boundary of sound and music, addressing our sometimes passive experience of music in the everyday object.”

Sound Sculptures (Image 2), Liz Osborne, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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A music stand, or the abstracted form of a musical instrument, anticipating an imminent musical event.

Sound Sculptures (Image 3), Liz Osborne, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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A (silent) teapot-music box suddenly giving rise to an internal rendition of Two For Tea.

Sound Sculptures (Image 4), Liz Osborne, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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These sculptures may not be graphic scores in the typical sense but they invite us to think musically.

Sounds in Tom's Deli, Somerset House (2014) by Jacob Thompson-BellSound and Music

Sounds in Tom's Deli
Jacob Thompson-Bell

Much of my own work engages with listening, using graphic score transcription to map the sounds of specific places.

This score was created in response to sounds in Tom's Deli at Somerset House, London, on 20 February 2014.

The ear at the centre represents my listening, with the notation travelling outwards in a spiral, transcribing the recording between 16:05 - 16:06 that day. The scribbling pencil denotes the sound of my sketching, caught on the microphone as I noted down what I heard.

This score is part of a collection created as part of a Sound and Music Embedded residency at Somerset House, 2013-15.

Sketch of Graphic Score by Katie EnglishSound and Music

More Information

Graphic scores are a very broad area of compositional practice and this exhibition only touches on a few of the ways in which they can be used. If you would like to see and hear more work, try some of the following links.

More Information Links
Fresh Yorkshire Aires – graphic score work by Yorkshire-based artists

Graphic Music Scores in Pictures, The Guardian – some classic graphic scores from the twentieth century

Graphic Score Explorations – an exhibition of recently commissioned graphic scores for string ensemble

Artist List and Links
Curator: Jacob Thompson-Bell

Phil Legard
Shiva Feshareki
Adam de la Cour
Claudia Molitor
Emma-Kate Matthews
Jennifer Walshe
Katie English
Jobina Tinnemans
Jez riley French
Liz Osborne

Credits: Story

Created for the British Music Collection, with thanks to Sound and Music.

Special thanks to Harry Cooper at Sound and Music and to the artists whose work is featured in this exhibition.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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