Awesomeness: Behind Bars

About Awesomeness

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking recently about process, working environment, etc. – all the stuff that goes into doing what I do. And then I was thinking about tools and I wondered whether it might not be interesting1 to consider some of my main tools and what makes them so useful – from the usual books and stuff to things that just plain inspire me. So this is the start of an occasional series of posts in which I write briefly about something awesome that helps me with my composing or general staying-sanedness.

I’m starting with a fairly tame tool – but one I’m finding it increasingly difficult to start work without knowing where it is – future awesome things will be a little less obvious…

1. Or not. Interesting for me at any rate… but if you enjoy them, or have an alternative suggestion, or want to voice a huzzah for a particular tool, join in in the comments! I’m always interested in hearing about what other people find useful too.

Behind Bars

Behind Bars - cover imageSo I’m starting with a copying book

‘How dull!’ you may think, but this is actually one of the most exciting books I’ve come across in a considerable period of time. Why? Because – unlike the majority of copying books I’ve looked at in my time as a composer and accredited music copyist – this one has ANSWERS.

It’s only been around for a little over a month (Faber published it at the end of January) and already I’m inclined to agree with Simon Rattle’s hyperbolic description: ‘a kind of Holy Writ for notation’. Obviously, I’ve not read it from cover to cover yet – it’s a big book (655 pages) and I’ve only had it a month – but what I’m finding is that it really does have real live answers to real live questions.

For example, working on the violin piece the other day and becoming engulfed in a mire of varying time signatures, I found myself with 9/8 bars that didn’t follow the obvious 3 + 3 + 3 pattern of stresses. Instead their stress patterns went 2 + 3 + 4 and I didn’t know how to tackle this.

Everyone knows that you beam your music according to the time signature, but if the stresses oughtn’t to fall where the standard interpretation of that time signature say they should, then it’s going to be hard to read and doesn’t make musical sense to beam it the way convention says you should. But to beam against convention can also mess with performers’ expectations and make it harder for them to read the music.

So away to The Book I went, and sure enough, Ms Gould has an answer: use the 9/8 time signature, but indicate the pattern of stresses above the time signature with numerals: 2 + 3 + 4

Example of 9/8 with irregular stress pattern notation

What a neat solution!

Every section of the book seems incredibly detailed and covers solutions for things I never thought were questions. A large chunk of the book is also dedicated to idiomatic notation, plus there’s a final section on score layout, part preparation, electroacoustic notation and a section called ‘freedom and choice’ which covers a whole host of modern composition options – independent repetition, repeating material of unspecified order, stems without noteheads and other ways of notating free pitch. So many things!

Just flicking through Behind Bars makes me want to try out a bunch of different techniques and explore new ways of thinking about composition and notation. It’s not just a dry manual of ‘your notes should line up vertically’ and ‘ensure your dynamic marks appear slightly before the note they refer to’ – although it does of course include these sorts of basics.

Instead it’s like a manual of fresh ideas to be tried and solutions to problems that arise when you let your imagination roam freely outside the constraints of traditional musical thought. It’s a very freeing book where many notation manuals seem to be tying you down. Love it!


Do you have ‘reference’ books you find expand the way you think? Leave a comment, ask a question!

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