Without Bar Lines

The San Francisco Public Library is a fantastic resource for music, be it scores, texts, or recordings. Yesterday I stopped by to return some scores and pick up some books I had looked for online, picking a number of Lou Harrison CD’s as well as Gustave Frederic Soderlund’s “Direct Approache to Counterpoint in the 16th Century”. Reading the book today, I came across a passage that really struck me: one of the things he discusses doing as part of the recommended exercises is to notate the exercise both with and without barlines. I had looked at early scores before, both with and without barlines, but for some reason when looking at it today that there was something more there when looking at examples shown both with and without barlines. In the music without barlines, the line’s contour and structure seemed so much clearer than that with the barlines. In reading and humming along, I really did feel as if the line was more free, that somehow reading it without the imposition of a larger metrical structure gave the experience of performing it a sense of freedom and cohesion of the line as a whole.

I always did find the issue of notating musical ideas particularly tricky, in how to represent the idea as it is and balancing that with notating the idea in a way that would best make sense to a performer. Back in college, I remember spending quite some time before finally settling on a method of using unmetereed music that contained bars only when necessary for helping synchronize music between performers (largely inspired my Messiaen’s Piano writing). I had found that this made the music the most performable for the ideas, but it was always tedious to notate and I was never satisfied with how foreign the written form was compared to the sonic one. For example, taking a motive that was originally straight eighth notes, then repeating but using two quintuplet quarter-notes for every eight note, so starting on the upbeat would then require notating in quintuplet eight notes to get the idea into something somewhat performable, but how daunting that appeared, when really it was just a motive slightly augmented and translated in time…

One of the primary reasons I created blue was so that I could do these types of freely breathing transformations of motives and have them so that the visual representation could maintain the essence of the musical structure and display them in a way that would make the form of the music transparent. In some ways, after all this time, certain aspects of blue’s visual feedback still do not do enough, but on the whole, that goal has been achieved. The musical ideas are written as if without bar lines, the sounds freely moving, the idea transparent, all together in the same space, breathing in time…

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