An interview with Elaine Gould, part 2: Behind Bars

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with Elaine Gould, senior new music editor at Faber Music and author of the music notation treatise Behind Bars, conducted by Justin Tokke and published here in partnership with Music Engraving Tips. Part 1, “Early years at Faber,” was released last week.

The writing of Behind Bars

Q.: Can you give us a brief account of how and why this book came to be?

I was already thinking along the lines of, well, it would be good to write down some of the things that I needed to persistently tell other copyists to do all the time: writing endless style sheets and notation rules down. At the same time, our commissioning editor was working on new books for a new syllabus that was coming out, to replace the exams we have here [in the UK] for 16-year-olds. The old O-levels were being replaced by GCSEs [General Certificate of Secondary Education].

She [the editor] said to me, “Can you write something for that market? Can you write a ‘Notation for Beginners’, in effect?” I said, “OK, yes, I’d love the chance to do something.” So ‘Notation for Beginners’ started off. I think I drafted about three chapters before I went back to her — it must have been at least two weeks later — and said, “You know what, I don’t really know this education market at that level. But what I would like to do is write down everything I know, and I’d like to write it for the top end of the market.”

I think there is a gap there. The wonderful old books were out of print. The Gardner Read [Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice] and Kurt Stone [Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook] — both wonderful books which I’ve read and absorbed at university — were pretty much out of print. So there was this gap in the market. So, I persuaded Faber, that actually, yes, I thought there was a big book there we could publish. None of us realized exactly how big that would be!

I thought I could just write down everything that I knew off the top of my head, and that’s all there was to say. That’s how the first draft was. Of course, as soon as I got to the end of the first draft, I started to research and started to know that I actually that was so much more to say. Every time I finished a draft, I’d go back and flesh it out further. It got to a point where I thought, yes, I’ve gotten most of what I need; most of what I think should be there.

I spent a lot of time on refining the structure and revising the content as I went along. So I started that in 1991. I finished a pretty fulsome draft in 1996, at which point I asked three pretty eminent musicians — composers and a conductor — to read the whole thing through and give me their honest opinion of the content: what was there, what should stay, should there be anything that should go, should there be anything else included. I had their feedback which was, on the whole, incredibly encouraging and very positive. They were quite tough on me when saying, “You’ve mentioned this and this, but what do you think of this, do you recommend this? Should people be using this kind of technique or laying out something in a particular way?”

At that point I came down very much on, yes, this is going to stay, in I’m going to recommend this or not. If I didn’t have cast-iron arguments on the way to do things, or haven’t found things in my research that suggested that there were common ways of doing things, and things that I didn’t have an intellectually watertight reason for keeping in went [away] at that point. Because I knew that I had to stand by everything that I wrote from the book. It wasn’t enough to have anything woolly in there.

I actually wanted to find reasons why particular notation things are done in particular ways. If I found a rule or found a reason why engravers had been doing something for a long time — and why there was a reason they were doing that — to write that down, so that people would be able to remember, the reader would have a reason to remember why something is done in a particular way.

Quite a lot of that I didn’t find in other notation books. There were rules that engravers had passed down to generation on generation, I think, in the traditional publishing houses, where they’ve been doing the engraving. Some of those things that I researched and thought, well, there looks like there’s a pattern here across what different engraving houses are doing as I go along, as well as comment on it if I think it could be done in a clearer way or reviewing it with the passage of time.

Q.: Your book is affectionately referred to as “The Bible” on Music Engraving Tips. It is constantly used as a reference for authoritative answers to questions on the forum, sometimes without considering the contextual prose around the examples. How do you feel about being considered such an authority figure in this area. Do you think the book is misused in this way?

Well, that’s a big responsibility to live up to! Of course, everyone at Faber wanted me to be “the expert,” so I realized that as soon as I set myself up to write a book, that immediately that I was setting myself up to be recognized as an expert. That pressure — that you have to stand by everything you write, and therefore everything that you write you want to be correct, and you want it not to be misleading, hence the music examples with the context and trying to write around what to use where and when, and put the conditions in. And, of course, it’s possible to misread how to use something if you don’t read on and read through the rest of  the paragraph or related subjects.

No one has really documented this particular thing before very much. So there needs to be a decision made, or, rather, that’s what I want the book to be about. It’s to help people make decisions very quickly. So I don’t mind if people disagree at all with what I say should be the case, or what I recommend when there are different options, but I want to raise this awareness that there is an issue to be decided upon, and something to be edited — a consistency point about a particular aspect of the notation to be addressed. That’s the important thing. Once you’ve read that in a book, you should be aware of whatever the point is in your own compositions or your own engraving. That’ll make a decision about how you want something to look.

If you’re unaware of something, then you will let it be written in an inconsistent way, which will raise questions for the musician. That’s why I put in everything — really everything I could think of that thought would be useful — so many things that I had never found written down where I wanted the answers. When I was a music copyist, I remember having schools and thinking well, OK, I’ve got six sharps on this right-hand chord; how do I arrange them? There was nobody who had an answer! There was a silence on the phone when I rang Faber and said, “How exactly would you like me to do this, because I’ve looked at this score, X, Y, and Z, and they do it differently.”

Of course, once I’ve started researching, that’s when I found that things were much more complex that I thought. Every conceivable way you could ever think that a person could arrange any amount of symbols on a page, someone will have done it in every possible way you can think of at some time or other. That’s when I realized I will I need to actually formulate some reasons for doing it in a particular way. Hopefully, those will make sense to other people. There will be a logic than will then be followed through.

Q.: A huge amount of an engraver’s knowledge is functionally institutional: house styles, things that are passed down, etc. To Behind Bars’ credit, it writes down a lot of these things that are just in people’s heads. The Gardner Read and Kurt Stone books do a pretty good job in certain areas, but are nowhere near as comprehensive of an overview, which is why I think people gravitate to Behind Bars. Almost every conceivable situation has been covered, and I think a lot of people are very appreciative of that.

That’s wonderful. That was exactly my aim. Those two books some really great strengths. The Kurt Stone is a real inspiration in terms of its succinctness and its layout. It was a breath of fresh air after some of the other rather more verbose books. You can find things really easily [in the Stone] and I just thought that’s what I want to do. I really want to combine the information that these two books give, plus I want to do a lot of research with players and to update anything that those two previous books had documented, but where there might be other things to say.

It’s very easy to forget, when you’re in the complex world of very dense scores, and suddenly you think, “how should those rests be looking in 3/4?” Or how should something very simple look, after a while you’ve been looking at a score where something is done in a non-traditional way? You can sometimes actually think, “What is right?”

That’s why every single point was going to be made with a music example, because people have been having to spend a lot of time reading the text. The most interesting thing was how long it took us to get the examples that were not supposed to look good! The engraver who did the music examples said, “this looks terrible,” and I said, “yes, that’s the point!” To train people to realize why something doesn’t look legible, as well as why it does and why it’s so important that something is fixed.

Q.: Jared from Melbourne, Australia writes: At what stage will it be necessary to write “Behind Bars II?”

I’m  pretty happy with with what’s in there. We could have put more in; in the end, there were so much that I felt it was so important to say. Anything that seemed that it was only going to be used by very few people just came out, because there was so much information there I didn’t want to make the information that was there any harder to find, by having lots of things that didn’t seem relevant to anybody.

Interestingly, one or two of the critics — or the reviewers, should I say — when the book came out in 2011, there were really wasn’t very much that they thought should be there that wasn’t there already. There was an interesting comment from Julian Anderson in his Tempo review. He thought I could have taken account of more extended techniques and notation, particularly Sciarrino and Lachenmann — two middle European composers writing a lot of extended techniques with very, very individual notation. I said to Julian, “I think that’s a really terrific idea — to write a book with the extended techniques — and you’re going to write it!”

Example of notation by Hemult Lachenmann. Such complex notation was not included in Behind Bars.

It was a difficult line to draw between what is notation and what is orchestration, and at what point do I stop documenting extended techniques; how many do I want to introduce. In the original draft that I finished in 1996, we felt that we had a little bit too much of documenting techniques, because you had to explain them and then say the notation was ‘this.’ If there was another source I could refer people to, then that was something I did, with the harp in particular [referring to Carlos Salzedo’s Modern Study of the Harp and the Kurt Stone book].

I kept in everything I thought that was pretty much in common usage. I did put in recommended symbols. I don’t think I invented anything. All the symbols that I suggested came from ones that have been used, because as you know, my main concern is that the notation is communication. As soon as you start putting in fancy or individual symbols that musicians don’t know what they mean, then you start to put a layer of complexity in your score, and you start to actually push them away; I think you alienate them.

As soon as they’re looking at music and they don’t know why something is on the page and they’ve got to look it up — they’re not just playing your one piece, ever — you’ve got notation that they’ve got to sit down and read. Have they got time to do that? Are they doing this one piece in a workshop with one rehearsal for half an hour? Have they got time to even look at what it is you’re trying to do or trying to express with some new things that maybe they don’t know? Or is that simply going to take up the entire rehearsal time while the conductor explains to them how you play something, when in fact it could have been written in a way that they were more likely to understand? Then you spend time rehearsing the piece and not rehearsing the notation. So again, you know that’s one of my big messages in the book: what one should focus on is that ease of communication.


Elaine Gould’s book, Behind Bars, is available from Amazon and other retailers.

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