Graphic orchestral music

Aspects of the design of contemporary orchestral music
with examples of graphic notation
© Norbert Stein

This small compendium enables us to view and analyse key elements and design options of contemporary orchestra music beyond traditional notation in the five-line stave system.

From the spectrum of possible states, movements and events in the orchestra pit described below, Norbert Stein has developed an artistically graphic sign language for his Pata compositions that is based on musical practice. This enables the generation of clear musical situations and events for an orchestra and the control of complex musical processes. Thanks to its openness with regard to which instruments are included in an ensemble, an infinite variety of resulting sounds is conceivable for the production of a graphic Pata ensemble.

To give the individual expressiveness of an improvising orchestra pit an opportunity to develop its personality, its defining composition modules are designed to maintain the balance between “as specific as compositionally necessary” and “as open as necessary for a lively orchestra“.

The orchestra geography and its possibilities

Regions in the orchestra area

The division of the orchestra into several spatial units enables the music to be presented as a regional event. The local regions in the orchestra pit can definitely supersede other internal limitations such as instrument families.
Various events in the various orchestral regions create the depiction and the experience of simultaneity/parallelism.

Example of the division of orchestra area into four regions:

The switch of events from one region to another region or a switch of events within a region that remains the same creates transformation of the orchestra topography.

Regional movements in the orchestra area

Orchestra events can change their position in the orchestra area.

Possible event movements are:

  • a sudden change or
  • a continuous change

Example of a notated event transformation:
The event migrates/flows in exclusive, small orchestra sections (this means a change in the orchestra section, which tends to remain constant in number)

The grouping of the ensemble

Groupings of the musicians

Groupings within the ensemble are possibly based on the following criteria:

  • Instrument families:
    • Wind instruments
      • Woodwind
      • Brass
    • String instruments
    • Keyboard instruments
    • Electronic instruments
    • etc.
  • Local position of musicians in the orchestra area:
    • Front
    • Back
    • Left
    • Right
    • Middle
    • All/Tutti
    • etc.
  • Extramusical group formation of the musicians :
    • Alphabetically by first names or surnames
    • Male, female
    • etc.
  • Selected minor formation:
    • Solo
    • Duo
    • Trio
    • Quartet
    • Quintet
    • etc

Example of grouping by instrument groups (brass – woodwind – voice – string harmony instruments – percussion):

The properties of the events and their regions

Tempo of events

All musical events can either occur on the basis of metric timing or organic time experience.

Metric timing uses pulse/metre/beats to the bar as a measurable tempo with static timing (e.g. tempo 120 MM) and organic sense of time is based on speed as a “perceived” organic form of time.

In orchestra practice, it has proven effective to divide the tempo into seven key tempo concepts/tempo levels:

Ultra fast and ultra slow form transitions in the tempo breakdown:

  • Ultra fast is understood as a high level of density
  • Ultra slow is understood as an almost static progression
  • The tempo breakdown of the high level of density transcends to temporal weightlessness, the dissolution of time
  • The tempo breakdown of the “almost static progression” transcends to temporal freezing, stopping time

Example of a notated deceleration in five steps (“ON CUE Tutti becomes slower until it freezes“):

Density of events

Possibilities for changing density:

  • sudden changes or
  • continuos changes

Example of a notation of a change of event density (and pitch) of a “pixel field”:

Pitch of events

In orchestra practice, it has proven effective to divide this into five key pitches:

Possibilities for changing pitch: ultra high and ultra deep form transitions into regions that are inaudible to humans.

Possibilities for changing pitch:

  • sudden changes or
  • continuos changes
  • change in glissandi that takes place via micro intervals

Example of a continuous change in pitch across all pitch ranges:

Example of a notated change in pitch (a change in sound as a successive interlinking of three groups and then as a tutti change in 12 simultaneous blocks):

Example of a notated change in pitch as a triple loop:

Volume of events

In orchestra practice, it has proven effective to divide this into five key pitches:

Possibilities for changing volume:

  • sudden changes or
  • continuos changes

Material landscapes and their possibilities

The superposition

The “superposition” describes the orchestra situation of unformedness, the temporary sea of possibilities in front of the forming and defining intervention of the conductor, the original chaos, the untreated stone block of the sculptor in which all possible forms are still hidden:

  • Everyone plays (or doesn’t play) in their own world
  • There is no conscious communication or intentional design among the musicians

With the compositional use of the “superposition”, the resulting soundscape is open to events, but has its own character as a “collective anarchy”.
Example of a superposition: the warming up of a symphony orchestra before the appearance of the conductor.

Material worlds

A limitation to exclusive material to produce music and/or certain characteristic methods of playing enables the production of distinct forms of sound.

  • Exclusive material worlds:
    • only air
    • only sounds
    • only metal
    • etc
  • Certain methods of playing:
    • trilling
    • pizzicato
    • multiphonics
    • sporadic
    • etc
  • Certain states of events
    • Tempo of events
    • Pitch of events
    • Density of events
    • Volume of events
    • etc.

Examples of symbols to produce certain material worlds by selecting characteristic sounds or production of sounds or methods of playing:

Changes of sounds or material worlds can occur for the whole orchestra or in orchestra regions.

A change can occur as a sudden change or as a gradual transformation.

a global orchestra change can be designed as the final result of successive changes of individual orchestra regions. Scenic weighting

Scenic weighting

When designing musical occurrences, actions of the players can take place on various function levels with various positions in the depth of the event space:

  • Foreground:
    • Soloists
    • Features
    • etc.
  • Middle ground:
    • Environment
    • Grooves
    • Soundscapes
    • Event worlds
    • etc.
  • Background:
    • Soundscapes
    • Event worlds
    • Choreographic actions
    • etc.
  • Subsidiary events

Example of building up to an event: soloist (foreground) – interlocking rhythms (middle ground) – strange little noises (background) – free event situation (subsidiary event)

A hierarchy within the function levels can be attained by e.g. differing levels of volume.

Window in the graphic flow

“Window” describes the possibility to specifically incorporate traditionally composed music(parts) in the graphic notation -> >References

Possible use of a musical window:

  • as a break, insert
  • as a background
  • as a subsidiary event

Effect of a musical window:

  • aesthetic contrast to the graphically generated music world
  • reference to spiritual plurality
  • etc.

Material landscapes and their possibilities

The collective knowledge

“References” uses the skills of the group of musicians via a wide range of aesthetics, styles and methods of playing in the musical world and, merely by naming the term, uses the capability of the ensemble to improvisationally create these modes and expressively move itself within them. This demonstrates the strength and diversity of an improvisational orchestra.

Possible references are:

  • Music cultures :
    • Jazz
    • New music
    • Choral
    • etc.
  • Extramusical pictures of motion and situations:
    • Lead
    • Mercury
    • Tai Chi
    • etc.
  • Behaviours:
    • hesitant
    • timid
    • hectic
    • bold
    • etc.
  • Associative fantasies:
    • Ice crystals
    • Deep Swamp
    • etc.

Example of a notation symbol to create sound by associative fantasy:

Example of a production of graphic orchestra music:
Video recording of a production of the first movement of the “Graffiti Suite” by the James-Choice-Orchestra as part of the MusikTriennale Cologne:

Further realization of graphic orchestral music: “Graffiti Suite” (Norbert Stein Patamusic played by NDR Bigband).

The double CD is available in the Pata shop.

Theory & Practice / Graphic orchestra music © Norbert Stein Pata Music