Notating Dennis

I’ve come up with what I think is a comfortable performance notation for Dennis Johnson’s November. It’s all noteheads in a pulseless continuum, but I needed to preserve his motivically significant phrasing without imposing any kind of rhythmic grid. So I made a Sibelius score of 5/4 measures, each lasting ten seconds at 8th-note = 60, and within that placed each note where its attack point comes on the tape, to the nearest 16th-note. Then I went through and deleted all rests, stems, and bar lines, reducing the music to stemless noteheads. The result is pretty much in proportional notation; Sibelius shifts the rhythmic spacing for readability, but I used small-value rests throughout to squeeze the music into relative space-time uniformity, certainly close enough, I think, for intuitive performance purposes. (If there’s a way to make Sibelius absolutely proportional, I’d love to hear it.) Hoping you can read it squeezed into this space, here’s a sample of the result (each system represents one minute):


And here’s an mp3 of this passage in the original 1962 recording so you can compare. (I suppose you might have to reopen Postclassic in an additional browser window to listen and follow along at once.) This is one of my favorite moments in the performance, where the relatively dense (by ’50s minimalism standards) section on the dominant of G# minor gives way to a kind of beatific deceptive cadence and much slower material. Each section of the piece, each tonality, has its own atmosphere and tempo that seems drawn from the intervals played around with.

And that’s the problem: you can’t gather that from the original notation. The first three systems above are all drawn from this little bit of Johnson’s score labeled IIIa and IIIb:


Wherever this material recurs, it’s the fastest part of the piece, with a kind of anxious melody leading down from F# to D# to C#. In some notes he apparently made later in the 1980s, Johnson singles this material out to try to figure out what his logical process was, which was a kind of ABACABACDCDB, and so on, among closely related figures. The E major material that follows, on the other hand, doesn’t appear in the manuscript score at all. The piece is intended to be improvised from the scores, and needn’t duplicate the tape; in fact, an alleged four hours is missing from the tape. So neither the score nor the tape is sufficient to construct a performance. Using the score, a pianist could play the work, but only after considerable study of the available 112 minutes on the tape, to find out how Johnson moved from one section to another and how he characterized the material in each section. It’s a peculiarly hybrid form of improvisation, in which you’re limited to what’s on the page, but the page isn’t enough. Hopefully my transcription will yield up enough analytical insight to resurrect some version of the whole thing.


  1. says

    This is a nice way to present the score. (By the way, the fourth chord in the second system is missing its sharps.)
    KG replies: Thanks. I could let the accidentals carry over, but I’m trying to be consistent.

  2. says

    For the Sibelius question you can go to House Style > Engraving Rules. Within the Engraving Rules window that comes up, select Staves. There is an option which says “Justify staves when page is at least” [number box] “% full.” The default is 65%. If you change that number to 100% it surpress all of the auto-formatting which should let you put all the notes where you want. I’ve used it for graphic notation before and I think it works quite well. Hope that helps!
    KG replies: Hmmm. I’e used that to defuse the default for vertical staff-spacing, but I didn’t think it had any effect on the spacing of notes along a horizontal axis. Am I missing something?

  3. says

    What a great work! Both the composer’s and yours, redoing the composition, in some way.
    Has the composer given any directions as to what he considers an authentic performance of the piece?
    KG replies: All he’ll say is that the recording must be taken as the most authoritative document.

  4. says

    What really amazes me about these 5 & 6 minute clips is that they seem to last only 2 or 3 minutes when listening. I can’t recall any other music that so plays with my time sense. You said in an earlier post about another piece by someone else that was hours long something along the lines of, “Is that all?” when it was over.
    Makes me wonder if inducing a time sense altered state is a stated goal of very slow music, or just a side effect. And that made me wonder if there’s anything like a text or manifesto laying out the nature of this new music and what it’s trying to do. I’d been assuming it was mostly art for art’s sake.
    That this piece was written in the 50’s is astonishing. Your bringing it is back a wonderful piece of work. Thanks again for making it available.

  5. says

    “(If there’s a way to make Sibelius absolutely proportional, I’d love to hear it.)”
    I don’t know about absolute, but if you put in a dummy voice of straight values, say 8ths or 16ths, then mute it and hide it, it will force the spacing to be better.
    KG replies: Thanks, I tried it, and it did straighten things up a bit – but also revealed that my spacing was already pretty close, since not much shifted. I can hide the notes on the extra staff, but not the extra staff itself. I might mention that I’m still on Sibelius *2*, having grown up with it as a boy and sworn to my mother that I would never forsake it.

  6. says

    “I can hide the notes on the extra staff, but not the extra staff itself. I might mention that I’m still on Sibelius *2*,…”
    I get around that by inputtng the dummy voice as Voice 2 in one of the other staves. Then you can hide only that voice. However, then you can’t mute it. I get around that, if I need MIDI playback of the file, by saving an “audio” version of it before I put in the dummy voice, and only use the latter version for printing.
    I am also running Sibelius 2. I bought the upgrade to 4, even installed it, in fact, even talked them into letting me have both versions on one computer. But I never run 4. All of my Sibelius work-arounds are based on Version 2.

  7. mclaren says

    Lyle Sanford mentioned “What really amazes me about these 5 & 6 minute clips is that they seem to last only 2 or 3 minutes when listening. I can’t recall any other music that so plays with my time sense.”
    Time dilation seems a central effect of much minimalist and postminimalist music. It happens when I listen to Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, also Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Instruments and Violin Phase and Piano Phase, also Philip Glass’s Einstein On the Beach, also Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room [everything to this point classic minimalism, everything after this postminimalist], also Larry Fast’s Computer Music Experiments Vol. 1, also Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening, also Stephen Scott’s Minerva’s Web and The Tears Of Niobe, also Eliane Radigue’s Kyema: Intermediate States, also Phil Niblock’s Four Full Flutes, also Larry Polansky’s Another You (17 Variations For Microtonal Harp), also Barry Truax’s Riverrun and The Wings Of Nike.
    Kyle may disagree about the exact classification of some of these pieces, in which case he’s right and I’m wrong, since he knows tons more about contemporary music than I do. Haven’t heard LaMonte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano but from all reports it seems as though it belongs to the group of post-1960 pieces exhibiting radical time dilation (i.e., after listening to it, you think the piece was much shorter than it really was).

  8. says

    The composer Mike Winter has done a lot of work with proportional notation; he has created score generators that create scores from rules and data sets, for example, and some produce proportional notation. Check out his essay on automatic score generation here:
    Seems odd that someone hasn’t developed software that would make proportional notation easy and natural – it’s not that big of a technical problem to turn space into time.