“Play Without Bitching About the Key,” and Other Humorous, Blunt Annotations Added to Musical Scores

The stan­dard sys­tem of musi­cal nota­tion has, through­out its evo­lu­tion, served many dif­fer­ent eras of human­i­ty, and increas­ing­ly many dif­fer­ent cul­tures, quite well indeed. Still, though, when its pure­ly visu­al ele­ments can’t get the com­po­si­tion­al inten­tion ful­ly across, one must resort to incor­po­rat­ing ver­bal instruc­tions, and some­times those instruc­tions can seem… uncon­ven­tion­al. Clas­sic FM’s list of “bizarre, per­plex­ing and dis­tress­ing per­for­mance direc­tions” includes com­mands to play at “tem­po di PBS doc­u­men­tary,” to “con­tin­ue in tem­po, ignor­ing con­duc­tor,” and — these favorites of Erik Satie — to play as if “imbi­bet” (drunk­en) and “cor­pu­len­tus” (cor­pu­lent).

Not long ago, jazz crit­ic Ted Gioia, a man who’s seen a more than a few scores in his time, tweet­ed out a set of images of what he called “blunt musi­cal direc­tions.” These instruct their per­form­ers to “play with­out bitch­ing about the key” — G‑flat major not, I gath­er, being the most enjoy­able of them all — to make a “soft moan through instru­ment if pos­si­ble,” to “STAND; TURN AROUND; BEND OVER AND PLAY OBOE BETWEEN LEGS,” to “play with­out tak­ing a pic­ture and upload­ing to Face­book,” and — per­haps most impor­tant of all — to “lay that shit down!”

To those who can’t read a score, the abil­i­ty to turn a bunch of lines, dots, and oth­er even less intu­itive­ly deci­pher­able sym­bols into full-bod­ied music on the fly looks like a super­pow­er. But those who can read a score know that the real musi­cian­ship all hap­pens between what some com­pos­er wrote on the page and what the audi­ence hears, bal­anc­ing loy­al­ty to the com­poser’s inten­tion with the degree of per­son­al inter­pre­ta­tion that makes the piece come alive. All the dis­ci­pline cul­ti­vat­ed through musi­cal train­ing no doubt ensures that most of them can resist the temp­ta­tion of Face­book while actu­al­ly play­ing, but when a com­poser’s direc­tions get real­ly ambigu­ous, cranky, or sim­ply strange — well, that’s where their pro­fes­sion­al judg­ment comes in. And so live music remains inter­est­ing, even this deep into the age of the record­ed stuff.

via @Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Curi­ous Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Com­po­si­tion 4’33”

See The Guidon­ian Hand, the Medieval Sys­tem for Read­ing Music, Get Brought Back to Life

“Hum­ming­bird,” A New Form of Music Nota­tion That’s Eas­i­er to Learn and Faster to Read

Take a Mul­ti­me­dia Tour of the But­tock Song in Hierony­mus Bosch’s Paint­ing The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • patrick dore says:

    You for­got my favorite. A Frank Zap­pa score that instructs“piano play­er turns around and sits on piano keys (both but­tocks)”.

  • Winger says:

    It kind of irri­tates me that these are usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed with no iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion about the score or who wrote it, includ­ing on Clas­sicFM’s page, Ted Gioia’s tweets, and the Imgur sites he gets his images from. It’s like these are just float­ing musi­cal exam­ples, writ­ten and edit­ed by no one, and no one is curi­ous about where they came from, or frankly if they’re even real. I am pret­ty con­fi­dent that at least a third of the sil­ly ones that fly around the inter­net are sim­ply pho­to­shopped, or oth­er­wise fake.

    This is a tru­ly ter­ri­ble prece­dent, or behav­ior to mod­el, for stu­dents. It teach­es them that “con­tent” is out there, uncre­at­ed, just ready to be con­sumed.

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