Saul Steinberg, the evolution of notation, and the musical line

Note from David Yang:

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Happy New Year! Technically, I get to celebrate three: Western, Chinese, and Jewish. This recent one has the least interesting culinary tradition - I perceive it as more a drinking than an eating holiday - but I celebrated by going out for dim sum anyway.

Two months to go until the
Year of the Dragon

but never too early to start noshing

A while ago, an audience member approached me after a concert and shyly asked “what do all those little black dots on the paper mean?” At first, I thought he was pulling my leg, but sure enough, he had never seen printed music before. I spent the rest of the reception happily sharing the rudiments of musical notation.

It is a weird thing - writing down music - if you think about it: you are trying to describe sound on paper in such a way that a complete stranger will understand what you are hearing in your head and can then reproduce it.

14th Century manuscript

The earliest known record of musical notation dates from two thousand years ago on a cuneiform tablet but the basics of what we consider standard western musical notation started to come into focus around 1,000 years ago in 11th Century Italy. Guido of Arezzo, a Benedictine monk, was the first to develop the modern musical staff in order to teach chants to singers, placing “higher” notes above “lower” ones on lines.

Guido of Arezzo (c.991 – 1033)
Due to the popularity of his teachings causing
resentment among the other monks,

Guido had to leave his abbey,
becoming both the first music theorist

to develop modern musical notation and the
last to ever claim to be popular in any way.

Since the beginning, composers have been experimenting with finding a better way to communicate what they want to say yet still, our system for musical notation remains a highly imperfect manner in which to describe sound.

“Pierrot Lunaire" by Arnold Schoenberg

Unsurprisingly, early 20th Century-Musical-Bad-Boy Arnold Schoenberg was a recent agitator in pushing the limits of notation. In his ground-breaking work, "Pierrot Lunaire" (1912), he has the soprano “speak-sing “(sprechstimmer), adding a little “X” across each note stem indicating she should follow the general direction he marked but not adhere to exact pitches. The effect is deeply strange and slightly terrifying, kind of like how Ren talks from “Ren and Stimpy.”

...also note the fantastic, atmospheric,
atonal background music

On an instrument like the violin, the player is constantly adjusting pitch and intonation; a note leading up might be higher than the same note heading down. Composers who wish to notate such “microtonal” music have to be creative with conventional markings.

Microtonal Duet by Brennan Robison
Note the arrows on the accidentals,
the distorted # sign on the fourth note,
and the reversed flat on the eighth.
These are indications to bend the note's pitch
one way or another.

Some composers see their relationship to musicians as a partnership, creating space for an aleatoric (the musician gets to decide) aspect to performances. This can lead to dispensing with the staff altogether, adding only the most basic elements of time, articulation, and dynamics, and just writing graphically how the pitch should go up or down, letting the performer personalize the rest.

“Fluttering” by Lars Bröndum

Taken to an extreme, this can get out of hand.  

A measure from Cathy Berberian’s “Stripsody.”
Cathy Berberian’s “Stripsody” in performance

Inevitably, you find composers treating the visual representation of the score itself as conveying an aesthetic message.

George Crumb’s “Spiral Galaxy” from “Makrokosmos”
Crumb’s hand-written scores are striking and beautiful.

Then again, maybe they’ve been doing this all along…

 Anonymous 14th Century ballade “En la maison Dedalus”

And then there is Saul Steinberg, the promethean illustrator for the New Yorker. He wielded his pen the way a violinist wields the bow, depicting the feeling I get from listening to music without making a sound. In middle school, my father gave me a prodigious Steinberg omnibus. My first time through was like tearing open up a box of chocolates where you want to take a little bite out of each one. Thumbing through that book, I felt as if I could almost hear some of the drawings, like reading pure musical notation where you don’t even need music anymore.

Saul Steinberg

There is an improvisatory quality to his work that anyone who has doodled sitting in a slow class understands intuitively. The New Yorker’s Ian Frazier summed it up:

He said that he always tried to draw like a child. The portrait photo he engineered of his adult self holding hands with a life-size cutout photo of himself at age six shows how seriously he took this idea. The goal was to draw like a child who never stopped drawing that way even as he aged and his subject matter became not childish. The young Saul in the sailor suit and short pants of a middle-class Romanian boy of the early nineteen-twenties remained his permanent companion. He enjoyed this society; he often said that he was his own best company. Perhaps because he survived the war, he made a point of not doing things that he didn’t want to do, true to the sincerest instincts of his child self. He did what he wanted more faithfully and to better artistic effect than anybody I’ve ever known.

And they are just so funny, the drawn line treated like a melody.

Below is a gallery of some of my favorite Steinberg doodles.

Happy New Year!

David Yang, Artistic Director

Saul Steinberg
(1914 – 1999)
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