Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Yamamoto Tadasu, Aomori Contemporary Art Center, Aomori Public University.

by Daniel Barbiero
(October 2018)

Ideally, an open composition presents us with a microcosm of what, for lack of a better way of phrasing it, can be described as an existential dilemma. How do we find our place within a given situation that offers us possibilities for taking appropriate action--possibilities, and not certainties--among which we must choose, in real time and often in the absence of complete or even adequate information regarding how the means we have at hand will bring us to our projected ends? Japanese experimental composer Makoto Nomuraís Root Music, an open composition that took the form of a wall sculpture/graphic score, presents just such a dilemma at the same time that it raises questions about the nature of composition. And it does these things in an elegant, and elegantly witty way.

I first learned of Root Music during an email conversation with the composer on a more or less unrelated matter. My introduction to the work came by way of two videos of very different interpretations of the piece--one for an amateur string trio of violin, viola and cello, and the other a piano performance by the composer--and a photograph that had been taken of the installation. I was attracted to the piece by the concept behind it as well as by the way the concept had been realized as a physical work.

Nomura (b. 1968 in Nagoya) is a multifaceted artist. In addition to composing experimental works, he performs on piano, melodica and traditional Japanese roof tiles, and is a music educator as well. His experimental compositions often involve collaboration with musicians and non-musicians alike, and may include the participation of animals and even vegetables. Nomuraís early experience with group improvisation, most notably with the five-piece ensemble Pou-fou in the early 1990ís, opened him up to possibilities inherent in the concept of composition as the product of many hands and many voices. Root Music springs from his interest in developing those possibilities.

Root Music was created when Nomura was a resident artist at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center for three months in 2012. The composer conceived of growing a vegetable garden in five lines; as the site of the garden, he chose a rooftop location containing a shallow plot of ground. Because the ground was so shallow, the roots of the plants spread out horizontally rather than reached down vertically; Nomura was fascinated by the unusual shapes this gave the roots, which resembled blotches of ink or stars exuding rays in irregular patterns. In order to prepare the installation, he dried the roots and then, once dried, he arranged them along two walls of the gallery in five undulating, diverging and converging lines: the five lines of a musical staff. Thus composed, the sculpture served as a graphic score in three dimensions. All that remained was to move a piano into the gallery and to invite viewers to play the score.

Root Musicís mimicry of standard notation--a mimicry whose deviations from conventional expectations embody a cheerfully subversive wit--makes it immediately accessible to a musician setting out to perform it. Thereís a convincing simulacrum of a staff, and notes in the form of the dried roots strung out irregularly along the five lines. So far so good, but the real mechanics of the piece--the demands it makes on the performer, who must also be a semi-improvising interpreter--are revealed not by what it makes explicit, but rather on what it omits. As with any good open score, the real work begins with what isnít there.

What isnít there is, first of all, one of the most basic pieces of information an interpreter needs to orient himself or herself: the clef. One has to imagine which clef one is reading. This is part of the compositionís subtle humor--itís a humor realized as a certain pragmatic adaptability in unusual circumstances. In the absence of an indication of clef, Root Music can be read for instruments in the bass, tenor, alto or treble range. It may even be possible to change (imaginary) clefs at any point during a performance, moving from, say, bass clef to tenor clef whenever it suits the unfolding performance. The realization of Root Music by the string trio shows how the same root, i.e. note, can be read simultaneously as three different pitches by three instruments using three different clefs (to take a mark on the lowest line as an example, it would be a G, F, and E for the bass, alto and treble clefs respectively). In its clefless state, each mark carries within it the potential for a polyphonic reading.

Also absent are indicators to shape the specifics of phrasing. Nomura omits indication of the pitchesí durations, offering only marks resembling ink blotches on the lines. These marks lack beams or other indications of time value, nor is there a time signature or any barlines given, for that matter. As for the sequence in which the notes should be played, the undulations and uneven spacings of the staff lines throw the entire notion of a fixed sequence into question. The exact sequence of notes must often be chosen by the performer, who must read vertically as well as horizontally when coming to a judgment about which note precedes or succeeds any other note. Itís possible to read the same section of the score in different ways, yielding different note sequences each time from the same set of marks. This ambiguity carries over into chording as well. Some groups of notes can be read as vertically stacked into chords, yet--again, given the linesí undulation and unevenness--those same groups can be read as following a horizontal sequence instead. Much depends on how one wants to read the relative positions of the lines. And if one chooses to conjure chords from these clusters of marks, even the harmonic possibilities thus made available lead to a deeper ambiguity at the heart of the piece. In a gently ironic turn, by restricting pitches to the lines of the staff, Nomura not only limits the available pitch material to five notes (assuming no octave transpositions), but effectively makes possible harmonies that can form proper chords--which never settle down within a tonal center. Chords come and go restlessly, giving the piece a quality of harmonic uprootedness that ironically mirrors, and sonically models, the physical uprootedness of the material the score is made of. Root Music is, in effect, rootless music.

Working from the photograph of Nomuraís installation--which I had to do, since the installation had been dismantled long before--I chose for my own interpretation to read the score as being in the tenor clef. I briefly considered a fluid interpretation in which Iíd move, more or less arbitrarily, between tenor and treble clefs (a bass clef interpretation would involve a compass too low for what I consider to be my instrumental voice, which falls quite naturally within the high tenor/low treble range). But instead, I was intrigued by the idea of limiting the realization to the five notes on the lines of the tenor clef alone--from lowest to highest, D-F-A-C-E--which not only lie comfortably on the fingerboard but are spoken quite clearly by the instrument I chose to play it on.

Once the decision regarding clef had been made, the finer-grained choices of phrasing had to be confronted. These choices entailed decisions as to whether or not pitches should be read as a linear sequence--a horizontal reading--or as vertical stacks to be played as chords. A pre-performance reading of the score gave me some idea of where I thought lines and chords should be, but as often happens, once the actual performance was underway, I simply followed whatever local intuitions I had about whether or not a set of marks presented themselves as a line or as chords. Here the ink-blot-like nature of the roots meant making decisions on the basis of ambiguous visual input--truly a musical Rorschach test in which oneís choices reflect as much about oneís musical instincts as about the objective marks before oneís eyes. During several run-throughs, before recording a take, I found myself playing certain sections of the score differently each time; the more I played the more I came to be drawn to the harmonic choices Nomuraís own choice--of placing notes on the staff lines only--made possible. In a tenor clef, these notes imply the related keys of D minor, A minor, C major and F major; depending on which combinations of notes I sounded together, I could keep the piece off balance and prevent it from settling into any one of those keys.

In short, there was nothing inevitable about the way I interpreted Root Music; any particular choice I made could always have been different and most likely would be different given a subsequent realization. My performance is just one possible way of playing the piece--not only one possible way of playing it as such, but one possible way of my playing it.

In being what it is, Root Music holds out the possibility of being something else--of always being at least potentially something other than what we take it to be at any given time, under any given interpretation. Really though, this is just a generic observation about the way an open score works. But even so, underneath Root Musicís indeterminacy, there is a core constancy in that it carries and conveys its composerís notion of what counts as a composition, and how a composition can be made. This is a point that leads back to Nomuraís experience with Pou-fou. As he recalled in a 2012 interview, he saw that although the group hadnít started out with the intention of creating ďworks,Ē they gradually began to think of their group improvisations as group compositions, which made him wonder where the line is drawn between improvisation and composition, and what ďcreating a workĒ actually means. This led him to an interest in collaborative composition, which is what, in essence, Root Music is: a composition open to the collaborative completion by the performers who realize it.

It is a vital part of Root Music that it is not a composition in which Nomuraís ideas predominate to the exclusion of ideas that might arise during any given realization. While it is true that, like any effective graphic score, Root Music makes possible a series of choices that are the performerís own but that are determined to some recognizable extent by what the score contains, it does not impose Nomuraís own aesthetic on the performer. This is so is apparent on the evidence of the string trioís realization of the piece, which differs substantially in feel and organization from Nomuraís own realization for piano (as does my own, for that matter). Nomura has said that collaborative compositions may include elements quite different from, and even opposed to, his own musical values and methods. But he welcomes these as leading him to the serendipitous discovery of musical worlds other than his own.

As a collaborative undertaking, Root Musicís status as a work is something thatís always open to question. It would seem to exist in an ontological intermediate zone bounded by the score on one side, and the performance on the other. As such, it neatly evades the either/or question of whether or not the work should be identified with the score, on the one hand, as the notated record of the composerís intent, or, on the other hand, with any given performance. Instead, itís a both/and proposition: both score and performance make the work what it is, as each requires the other for fulfilling the conditions of its own existence. This relationship of reciprocity would seem to go to the essence of collaborative composition.

But what if one part of that equation--the score--no longer exists? Strictly speaking, the score to Root Music no longer exists, since it was created as an installation with a finite life that ended when Nomuraís residency at the Aomori Center ended. Afterward, it was dismantled and presumably eventually disintegrated altogether, as all organic matter must. Like sound itself, which endures for a time and then decays into the nothingness of silent air, Root Music as an installation was an ephemeral thing, made of ephemeral materials. But because it was documented through photographs and videos, the piece was granted an afterlife in the guise of an image of itself--as a meta-work. Interestingly, that Root Music had this afterlife speaks to Nomuraís fundamental question of what it is to create a work, but from the other side, as it were--the side of collaborative re-creation. This may not be something Nomura explicitly intended with the piece, but I suspect he would welcome the conceptual shading that Root Musicís second life throws on the notion of a collaborative work. Itís possible to see the documentary record as a kind of third collaborator binding together Nomura and future performers, allowing them to be collaborators across time. As I discovered, the meta-work effectively can fill the same function as the original installation, precisely to the extent that the latter was intended to elicit the collaboration of a performer. Through its documentary afterlife, Root Music can continue to invite us to participate in a group composition.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER