Going Behind Bars with author Elaine Gould

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A major new book on the art and practice of music notation written by publisher Faber’s chief new music editor, Elaine Gould, is published today. Called Behind Bars: The definitive guide to music notation, it aims to be a practical reference book for composers, arrangers and copyists, to help ensure that what they write on the page can be quickly and easily understood by conductors and performers alike. In November of last year I interviewed the author about how the book came about, and how she aimed to improve upon the established standard texts in the field.

Elaine Gould joined Faber as a music editor in 1987, having spent the previous seven years working as a hand copyist for various composers and publishers. In 1990, her commissioning editor asked her to consider writing a guide on notation for young composers taking the then-new GCSE Music qualification, taken by students in secondary schools aged 16-17. Elaine turned down that particular project, but in turn proposed one of her own.

“I didn’t feel that my expertise was right for that market,” she tells me, “but I had been at Faber for three years by then, and I’d inherited a lot of hand copies and was training up a new workforce to instil some standards of notation in them. Since I had been a copyist for seven years, I had worked out on the job how to do a lot of things or solve a lot of problems with the aid of the books by Gardner Read and Kurt Stone, but there was still a lot of extra information that was needed. I was forever writing style sheets for the team, and when my editor gave me the chance, I said that I would love to write down everything I know.”

Little did she know then that the project would become the focus of the next twenty years of her life. “I wrote a draft in about the first year, got to the end, found that there was a lot that needed fleshing out, and so went back to the beginning. That process went on for several years. I finished a complete draft in 1996, and handed it both to my new editor at Faber, and to three other readers, two composers and a conductor.”

It took quite a few months for Elaine’s band of readers to finish the book and consider their feedback, and following that she decided to do further restructuring. “I found some imbalances in the instrumental chapters. Trying to determine the dividing line between notation and orchestration, and working out how much orchestration you should include, was difficult. To notate a technique, you need to describe what it is, and when it’s an extended technique it’s very difficult to do that without the whole chapter becoming an orchestration book on, say, the harp. Where I knew that some of that was covered elsewhere, by another book, I would tend to reference that in the bibliography rather than go into all that detail in my own book.”

Elaine had a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve with her book. “My aim from the very start was to have a reference book that you could flick through and immediately find things, so I planned to have as many comparative examples as possible. As you flick through, you will see an example that will hopefully answer your question, and if not, you can read the text around it. I think I was always a bit frustrated with the Gardner Read book because it’s hard to find what you need. I thought there must be a way of imparting this information in a way that could be referenced quickly.”

Gardner Read’s book, Music Notation, is the most well-known of the handful of books that cover this most specialist of subjects in any detail. I ask Elaine what shortcomings she perceives in Read’s book, and how she set out to improve upon it.

“The text isn’t divided up sufficiently that you can find things really quickly,” she says. “The music examples are good as far as they go, and his is one of the few books that does have some comparative examples, so you can see a good example and sometimes one that shows how not to do something, but at the end of each chapter there’s always so much that’s left hanging. When he says, ‘This is how contemporary composers treat this subject,’ he then gives you a whole page of little examples that he doesn’t identify, and he doesn’t even recommend where to look to find out more.”

Elaine wanted to provide more specific advice about which notations to use, and where to look to find out more. “I have often tried to come down on a particular way of doing something where it has settled down in the last 30 years, since Read was published in 1980. Whereas Read leaves a lot of things hanging, in my book, by contrast, I try to recommend specific scores for people to look at if they want to see certain extended techniques in use, or for best practice in particular areas, and so on.”

How did she decide which practices to recommend, and which to avoid? “When I was a copyist, I was always ringing up publishers asking them how they wanted this or that to look, because I didn’t think it was very clear. When I started working at Faber, I suddenly had feedback on all our materials from orchestral players, people writing to us, coming in to see us, and so on. When I started writing the book, I took a lot of scores and parts out to players, and found people throwing their hands up in horror about the way certain things were written. I would ask them whether they liked the way that, say, Berio writes a particular thing, or whether they preferred the way that some German or French composers use certain symbols, and so on. From talking to them, I found out a lot of things that were common sense but hadn’t been published in a book before. For example, if you have an important solo and there are a lot of rests around it, don’t ever split that solo onto two pages.”

Behind Bars encourages composers and arrangers to think more about the performer. “Put yourself in that orchestral player’s seat, and think about what they can see, who they can hear. For example, for the chapter on percussion, I offer a reminder that the player might be surrounded by an enormous number of instruments, their stand might be several feet away from them, the conductor might be visible only through the corner of their eye, and they have got a lot of other things to do other than looking at the music. Therefore what is on the page needs to be as clear and as minimal as possible, while still being precise as to what is needed.”

Elaine is well aware that composers may rail against the apparent restrictions on their imagination and creativity that the book prescribes.

“The book is designed to give composers tools, rather than to restrict them,” she says. “Of course, with a flick of a pencil they can write whatever they like, but musicians then have to interpret that, so the book gives a lot of information about how certain notations will be interpreted. If composers are doing things that are completely contrary to how things are conventionally notated, then they are going to have real difficulties getting their music performed, recorded, and so on.

“Often you have a situation where a composer invents a new symbol because they want their piece to look unique on the page, but that is normally the opposite of what the performer wants, which is to be able to understand what’s on the page, and to be given interpretative freedom. I think the composer has to disentangle the communication on the page from the freedom the performer needs. If the performer is spending all their time working out what all of the new and unusual symbols on the page are supposed to mean, you might get a very stilted performance, because you don’t leave them enough leeway.

“The pleas all the time from performers are to give them something that they can read and learn quickly, since the reality is that they may only have a few hours to rehearse for a new performance. Those players have to give a convincing performance whatever it is, and they are judged on that performance. They can’t reasonably stand up and explain that they only received the score yesterday and they had never seen any of the notations used before. It’s in the composer’s best interest to make it as easy as possible for the performers to understand his or her intention quickly.”

Elaine is, however, sympathetic to the sometimes isolated existence of the composer or the copyist, shut away for days or weeks at a time with a particular score or set of parts, but she warns that this isolation can lead to bad decisions, and makes recommendations to help them make better ones. “In the chapter Preparing Materials, the message is to consider the conditions, before you commit anything to paper: who is the page for? Is it for the conductor? Do you have the right page size, the right number of bars on the page, the right staff size? Somebody sitting at a computer late at night running out parts onto A4 sheets needs to be reminded of what is needed to build up that page of communication.”

Although Behind Bars is squarely focused on the conventions employed in today’s concert music, of course today’s concert music includes many interesting new elements, among them performances that include complex electronic components, with performers on stage with laptops or parts of the texture produced by a sound engineer at a desk away from the stage. “A discussion of notation for electro-acoustic music hasn’t been included in many earlier books,” says Elaine, “and I spent a lot of time working with composers who work in that field all the time, looking at their scores, listening to their works, and trying to establish what should be written down for, say, the electronic devices to play. Do you even write a part for those devices? Who’s it needed for? Is it needed for a sound engineer, is it a cue for a live performer, in which case what information do you include in the performer’s part? My chapter on electro-acoustic music aims to answer these questions.”

It has been thirty years since the last major new book on music notation practice, and I ask Elaine what she thinks the next person to take on the mammoth task of writing about it will have to say about her book in two or three decades’ time.

“The electro-acoustic chapter will be the one that will date most quickly, because the technology will move on, and the issues in a further 30 years’ time will be different, even from such simple things as how people will be interacting with electronic devices. I’m sure there will be new, other ways to structure pieces to give players freedom that we haven’t conceived yet or that are so new that I haven’t put them in. One thing I talk about in the book is how some composers, such as Berio, eventually rewrote certain of their works that had originally been written in very free notation into more traditional, metric notation because they felt that this actually gave the performer more freedom than if they were left in supposedly much freer notation. The experiment of using proportional notation didn’t always work. Performers had to measure inches on the page, which is a very unnatural or at least unmusical thing to do. Rewriting the music in a more traditional way actually gives more room to communicate because the performer can get his or her nose out of the copy!”

Behind Bars is published today by Faber and can be purchased from all good booksellers, including Amazon. Students can buy the book directly from the publishers at a discounted price: see the PDF order forms linked to from the bottom of this page.

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