[Yasmin] Oral Traditions and the Digital Arts

rg-notation-1-small.jpg“… As a musician/ composer I am studying new digital forms of notation and especially the replacement of oral instructions and oral transmissions by what I call “encapsulated traditions” which can be likened to software manuals.

Notations are interesting entities, because they usually are not artworks themselves but invite actions that produce artworks.

Usually, throughout different musical cultures, notations constitute that part of a performative action that someone (author, cultural environment etc.) considers non-contingent on the performance context i.e. the essence of the work. E.g. western music notation has struggled over centuries to define pitch (vulgo: melody) and durations (vulgo: rhythm) in notationally unambiguous ways, where chinese music notation was more concentrated on pitch and timbre (e.g. how to play a note). Indian tabla notation (an oral notation, incidentally) stresses the fact that rhythm and timbre are considered as one intertwined parameter, whereas in many other music cultures they are separate parameters etc.

So notation is a code that conveys the “essential”, non-contingent aspects of a performative artwork: but there always needs to be an accompanying oral tradition that transports the knowledge bases necessary for decoding.

This decoding is not as linear as in written language, because the relationships between notation and performance depend not only on correct decoding but also on a decoding process that is a) recursive (structures on several different levels and timescales directly influence each other in every direction); b) time-sensitive (uneven decoding speed destroys vital information e.g. rhythm); c) interactive (new “decoder settings” change the meaning of the performance and spawn new decoder settings a process usually called “interpretation”); and d) draws on a vast knowledge base of other instances of notation, cultural conventions, historical connotations etc.

It has been said that music is something like a second reality that is closely correlated with the first reality in many surprising ways, but that making it needs to be learned as intensely if one adopted a new and alien culture. Almost all of this learning must be done through oral transmission (music teachers), as notation already belongs to the second reality. (I do not want to presume that this relationship is the same for the sciences and mathematics, but I strongly suspect so…)

Surprisingly, and in spite of being the one of the two arts that have for millenia been co-evolving with technology (architecture being the other), music technologies have never really adressed the complex relationships between notation and oral transmission. Most developers of music technology (digital or otherwise) assume that this relationship somehow will remain unchanged. Even softwares like Garage Band, whose declared purpose is to let the musically uneducated create great songs, uses a notational system that is a code and needs oral instructions to realize music.

I am currently experimenting with digital notations that are sensitive to the performance and thus introduce a new factor to the dynamic. The great inspiration I got from the digital realm are interactive software manuals. These are attempts at encapsulating oral instructions within the environment they act upon. I call these entities “encapsulated traditions”, because – like the old oral transmission techniques – they offer reliable and preferential decoding techniques and, ideally, correct transmission errors interactively, in order to produce meaningful performance results.

In this way I hope to find not only “new instances of made music but new ways of making music” (Jacques Attali in “Bruits”, quickly quoted from memory) where oral transmission and notation become not two interrelated but distinct processes but can be co-evolving.

Sandeep Bhagwati
Canada Research Chair Inter-X Art
Concordia University Montreal

Posted on Yasmin, May 3, 2009.

May 11, 2009
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