AMN Reviews: John Lely and James Saunders – Word Events

John Lely and James Saunders: Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (London & New York: Continuum Books, 2012)

Word Events provides a well-organized view into verbal scores from the inside by offering technical and historical perspectives from leading composers along with commentary by the two coeditors, both of whom are themselves composers. With its well-selected collection of scores and in-depth analysis and exegesis, Word Events is an essential anthology of historical compositions and their contemporary inheritors.

Verbal scores employ ordinary language to describe or provide instructions for actions that constitute a performance of some sort, which may produce a piece of sound art, visual art, an action, or simply a moment of awareness. Like conceptual artworks, to which verbal performance scores bear a close family resemblance, compositions in words tend to concern themselves with prescribing or describing given creative conditions or processes. The resulting object, if any, is not necessary.

Significant interest in the use of words as a compositional medium can be traced back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. As the book makes clear, the reasons have to do both with the possibilities inherent in scoring with language and with accidents of history. With their reliance on plain language, verbal scores represented a direct means of conveying the actions and processes asked of the performer. In contrast to the graphic scores that also were coming into use during this time, verbal scores eliminated the reliance on novel and sometimes arcane sets of symbols. In addition, verbal scores could also be used by non-specialist or untrained performers since, as Gavin Bryars points out, the common currency of everyday language, in contrast to the specialized knowledge needed to interpret a conventional musical score or idiomatic graphic notation, is broadly accessible. But even for performers trained to use conventional scores, the relative simplicity of verbal scores provided some relief from what many, including composer John White, considered the over-complexity of the Darmstadt-influenced compositions prevalent during the period. And Eric Anderson brings up a more prosaic, though no less compelling reason for the attractions of verbal scores: Their often minimal or non-material end products were well-suited to avant-garde artists lacking resources.

Because they employ language as their medium, word scores are liable to analysis at different levels, whether syntactic, pragmatic, as speech acts, or otherwise. Thus coeditor John Lely contributes an essay containing a detailed grammatical analysis of English language scores. Lely’s analysis relies on the descriptive approach of Systemic Functional Grammar, which considers a given work in regard to context, register or genre, tense, modality, and so forth. Lely’s lengthy essay provides insight into the mechanical details of the scores—how they state their goals, put forward directions for their realization, and even hedge their expectations of an outcome.

As Lely’s essay makes clear, word scores may encompass a significant diversity of form and intent. This is demonstrated in the book’s second part, which serves as an invaluable anthology of verbal scores spanning fifty years. In addition to the scores themselves are commentaries provided by coeditor James Saunders. Saunders’ contributions, often based on his interviews with the composers, tell of the intent behind the scores, the historical background from which they arose, and describe how they were realized.

The variety of scores included, which span the period from the early postwar era to the present, is impressive. The editors don’t limit the selection to scores for works of sound art; scores associated with the world of visual art, such as those of Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner, are included as well.

What emerges from a reading of these scores is a sense of the malleability of language, which opens up diverse possibilities for both composer and performer. These possibilities range from the precision of explicitly delineated instructions to the enigma of the koan-like utterance. Considered as speech acts, a majority of the scores would count as directives of some sort—sets of directions of varying specificity, or recipes for a performance or process. The focus on process rather than on an explicitly prescribed product introduces a certain amount of indeterminacy in regard to the results obtained. Realizations of verbally scored musical pieces, for example, may differ significantly from occasion to occasion, as some of the composers acknowledge. At perhaps the furthest edge of indeterminacy are scores from the more recent generation of composers, exemplified by the work of Michael Pisaro, Mark So and Manfred Werder. Their scores, embodying an often disjunctive or grammatically decontextualized use of language, eschew instruction and instead rely on a poetics of suggestion and indirection.

Word Events is very highly recommended to anyone interested in this important area of contemporary composition.

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