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Artist in Residence Spotlight: Transforming Music Notation

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simon alexander-adams

This post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence.

Simon Alexander-Adams is a Detroit-based multimedia artist, musician, and designer working within the intersection of art and technology. He has directed multimedia performances that enable connections between sonic, visual, and kinetic forms; designed new interfaces for musical expression; and produced interactive installation art. Simon’s compositions have been performed at international festivals, including the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Cinetopia.

Renegades in art are incredibly important.  They remind us that our carefully constructed systems and rule books for life are just that – constructed. They can give us the jolt necessary to become aware of the patterns that enclose our perception, and if we let it, provide the space for transformative experiences.

I believe we all start life with intense curiosity, open minds, and a strong sense of exploration. In a way, it is requisite to organize the mass of sensory information that bombards us as we come into existence. Language develops and solidifies, be it spoken or sung, sonic or visual, coded, logical, emotional, or physical. We learn the rules, syntax, and conventions associated with language – and if we don’t we fail to communicate with one another. In essence, we love rules, systems and predictability.

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When I was in middle school, I started taking cello lessons. My teacher taught using the ubiquitous “Suzuki method” that so many early string players remember (fondly or not). Yet, this was not the only method she used. She supplemented this method with fiddle tunes transposed for cello, composition assignments, and improvisational exercises, encouraging exploration simultaneously with traditional mastery of the instrument.

I remember one assignment was to create my own musical instrument, along with a corresponding notation system. I explored my house looking for objects that might be utilized to make interesting sounds. Eventually, I settled on a broken piece of a toy walkie-talkie headset, scraping it along a metal grate by our fireplace in various gestures. I then created a set of glyph’s to represent each gesture, and composed a short piece using my notation system. At the time, this seemed completely normal. Music was already notated using graphic notation (albeit a standardized one); however, there was certainly no notation I knew of to write for walkie-talkie and metal grating. It seemed paramount that one should exist.

Excerpt from Seven Systems by Simon Alexander-Adams

Excerpt from Seven Systems by Simon Alexander-Adams

Fast forward 15 years or so and I find that I’m still making graphic scores .The difference is that I am more aware of the history of graphic notation – from Earle Brown, to Cornelius Cardew and Iannis Xenakis – and I let what I know of the practice inform my own. While graphic notation was definitely a renegade act in the 1950’s, I don’t see it as one at present since it has been in practice for over 60 years with countless composers making use of non-traditional notation systems. Yet, to some, graphic notation is still very much a renegade act. For those who have a rigid conception of the “rules” of musical notation and believe in a strict adherence to them, it certainly is renegade. Like many things in life, a renegade act is ascribed meaning through social and historical context – both of which differ per individual experience. In a similar way, we might unwittingly perform renegade acts as a child (disobeying authority figures, making graphic scores for household items). It isn’t until we have a concept of the rules that we can intentionally break them, and embody the spirit of a renegade. Ultimately, it becomes a question of intention and perspective.

So, why is it important that we encourage renegade musical and artistic work? I believe it is to question many of the social norms that are ingrained to the point that they have become the background of our existence. In the same way we tune out the noise of an airplane or lawnmower in the distance once it remains long enough, we are great at tuning out any pattern in life that remains constant for too long. Renegade art has the power to expose these patterns to us, allowing us to question our values, actions and way of being. Art can transform us if we let it.

Follow this blog for more from our artists in residence as they attend Renegade performances this season

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