Notation as a communication object: As a means of preventing the stream of music, so fleeting that it dies away even as it rings out, from flowing inexorably into the ‘sea of forgetting’, many cultures have developed their own particular techniques for archiving musical knowledge: Besides oral traditions, which enable the transmission of knowledge within the bounds of the “communicative memory” (J. Assmann 1992), these methods have included culture-specific forms of written documentation of music. (For a historical overview of the origin and proliferation of musical notations, see “Notation” [2MGG]; “Notation” [2NGr]; Phillips 2000; Gallo 1984.) Capturing the ephemeral in writing is what makes particular forms of archiving, distribution, and representation possible in the first place. In the “permanency” and “reification” of the written form, music attains – and this is an initial factor of musical notation, carrying in its wake a host of consequences – its own presence independent of the immediate context in which it was composed.
Notation as a tool and thought form: The assertion that literacy in combination with the emergence of polyphonic compositions is one of the main attractions of the music of the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe and that the possibility of rendering music in written form marks the beginning of the history of European music is one of the most overused commonplaces in narratives on the history of music (cf., e.g., Taruskin 2005:I:1f.) This commonplace needs to be mapped more precisely, however, when one considers that literacy is on the one hand neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for the composition of polyphonic music and is on the other hand by no means limited to this chronotope alone: Just as there is non-literate composing in manifold cultures, there are also manifold ways and means of rendering non-composed music in written form. Nevertheless, the emergence of polyphonic composition and the development of complex systems of musical notation at the same place and time is striking beyond all measure, because this is the point at which the special (operational, explorative, cognitive) significance of music writing becomes manifest within the creative process of composing. The central factor with regard to a theory of music writing in this constellation of early polyphony, composition, and notation lies in the development from “memorizational” to “compositional” writings. Music writing becomes an explicit “tool” for composing (Kaden 1984:443; similarly, from a philosophical perspective: Krämer 2006:80). This leads to a further factor that a theory of music writing will need to close in on: Music writing is by no means limited to the act of representing a (pre- existing) sound event or a (pre-existing) musical intention in writing. Rather, what it first of all does is create its own reality space. In the act of composing, music writing itself turns out to be a “sort of predispositive factor for the generation of musical ideas” – music writing functions thus as an operative component of creative compositional (self-)reflection, while musical notation advances in the internal discourse of writing to the status of “thought form” (Borio 2004, Fuhrmann 2011).
Notation as a material object: In the task of opening this reality space up for perceptive, reflexively operative, and performative access and lending it a certain durability, writing is bound to its material embodiment. Materiality, without which there can be no writing, is a necessary precondition in all of its facets. Integrated into concrete cultural contexts, the material always already possesses eo ipso a special significance in its traditional usuality and its specific materiality. Yet the material does not constitute a neutral entity that takes shape only in its use as writing. To frame this idea in more pointed terms, neither the writing pen nor the white sheet of paper and the notes written on it are neutral – rather, they are potentialities in their own right that play a constitutive role in the writing process. The materiality of writing serves as the mediating authority of this process, and the inescapable “mediality” of the material is thus a third factor of which a theory of music writing will need to remain conscious (cf. Greber/Ehlich/Müller 2002).
Notation as a visual object: Independent of every act of reading musical notation and understanding it in a hermeneutic sense, the trained eye will identify many – and quite “important” – aspects of a score merely by lending a glance at its appearance. This glance makes reference to the visuality inherent inthe writing itself, which is part of the basic condition of every writing as a medium: Situated as they are in flat two-dimensional form, writings are visible objects that can always also be perceived in their intrinsic visual quality. This idiosyncratic, sensuous quality (“Eigensinnlichkeit”) of music writing – extending above and beyond its function of representing the music itself by means of a sign system (its musical “sense,” so to speak) – is quite well known to musicians reproducing the music to a score: Conductors and instrumentalists consult manuscripts of the composers they are performing in order to find answers to their interpretational questions through grapho/philological study of autograph sketches, drafts, and scores; performers of “early music” attempt to confront the perils and inadequacies of trans-scriptions in modern notation (cf., for a fundamental discussion of the problem of transcribing, Bent 1994) by basing their performances on knowledge of the original notations. This allows us to theoretically extrapolate two further aspects: First, there is a very close link between the visually registered iconicity of writing and a quasi-automated “trans-lation” into physical performative action, part of which functions beyond the realm of reading in the sense of understanding. Second, it turns out that the visible body of writing, in which the writing becomes manifest in its own evident nature (Strätling/Witte 2006:8f.) as a visual object of perception, is capable of undermining, if not even subverting entirely, the role of notation as a purely transitive medium with regard to the realization of a musical intention. And this leads us at last to a fourth key factor of a theory of music writing regarding visual perceptibility: Music writing makes a musical event visible in its visualization, and this can extend to the writing of graphical instructions for physical action, such as in music theater or in composers’ sketches. Musical notation reveals in this connection its essential gestural or, to use an expression from Adorno, “neumic” character (Adorno 2001:81; Mersch 2003:40). In the process, it even approximates a visual mimetic practice: It becomes a reality of bodily and affective gesture or of ‘audible gestures’.