Alexander Ness

updated 9.1.2013 by rrs



The following interview was conducted via an email questionnaire in mid-2013 by Ryan Ross Smith.

RRS: What was the first piece you created using animated notation?

AN: My first piece with an animated score was Akousmetria. A video of the score synced with the first live performance is available here:

Akousmetria started as a graphic score for six musicians. The piece is a series of rhythmic mensuration canons in complex ratios. Each staff represents a rhythmic layer, and the instruments, which are color-coded, jump between the staves, rather than corresponding to a single staff as they would in conventional notation. Here's an example of a single staff:

The top staff from the beginning of the piece.

Each "note" consists of a hollow notehead on one of six staff lines and a dynamic envelope underneath.

Each staff line represents a sound of the performer's choosing.

RRS: What led you to start using animated notation? [This could be aesthetic/artistic concerns, technological experimentation, a bet and/or dare, etc.]

AN: I started using animated notation because I was tired of specifying the sort of details one is obliged to specify with conventional notation. I wanted to exercise less control over pitch and sound quality, and more control over rhythmic coordination and dynamic envelopes.

RRS: Where there particular compositions/notational approaches/technologies/video games/etc. that exerted any influence over your [early and/or present] work?

AN: Many. Here's a short list, ordered roughly by banality (from the most obvious to the most esoteric):

  • Graphic/alternative scores by the usual suspects: Stockhausen, Cage, Brown, etc;
  • Classic music animations: Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, etc. (the catalog of the Center for Visual Music);
  • Ars nova and ars subtilior music notation;
  • Graphic scores by my friends in New York, particularly Jim Altieri and Sam Pluta;
  • Hugo Zemp's animated notation in Head Voice, Chest Voice.

RRS: How would you describe your current work with animated notation?

AN: When I start using animated notation, I wanted to use it to achieve a degree of rhythmic coordination that would be impossible with conventional notation. But when Akousmetria was performed for the first time, I became more interested in the fact that the animated notation upset the conventional balance of expectations between the composer, the performer, and the audience. Now that the audience could see what the musicians were supposed to be playing, the musicians were no longer in control of the performance: their errors were exposed. This made my role as a composer more ambiguous: was I trying to pit the two factions against each other, and if so, whose side was I on? Was Akousmetria a work of art, or a game with winners and losers? Since Akousmetria, I've been interested in using animated notation to explore these dynamics, particularly in Ideomania for the Jack Quartet, the Five Audiovisual Compositions I created with Yoni Niv, and the various interactions of Schismatics (first a PLOrk composition, then an installation).

RRS: Where do you see your work with animated notation going in the future?

AN: At the moment, I'm not that interested in making new pieces with animated notation. I'm more interested in using my experiences with animated notation to reevaluate my understanding and use of Western notation. I think there's a tendency among experimental composers to think of conventional notation as something they must avoid; I certainly felt this way when I made my first animated compositions. But now I think that the idea of "conventional" notation is a little too easy. Firstly, which conventions are we talking about, and for whom? In my next works, I'd like to play around with some of the forgotten conventions (musica ficta, mensural notation, figured bass, etc.) to deal with some of the same themes as before, but in a historical light.

RRS: What potential, if any, does animated notation have for future work IN GENERAL?

AN: Animated notation is just a technique, and a technique is no substitute for a provocative musical idea. Animated notation can express some really striking ideas, but it can also express some really naive ones. It depends entirely on the artists involved.


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