Dissertation Index

Author: Weisser, Benedict J.

Title: Notational Practice in Contemporary Music: A Critique of Three Compositional Models (Luciano Berio, John Cage, and Brian Ferneyhough)

Institution: The City University of New York

Begun: July 1995

Completed: July 1998


The purpose of this dissertation is to to examine the integration of notation and content in contemporary music. In particular, it is to show that for the three composers I have chosen, Luciano Berio, John Cage, and Brian Ferneyhough, the notation of a work is not just a traditional “encoding” but is inextricably linked to its form and content. Their compositional agendas are in many respects defined by their notation.

Following an introductory chapter, in which the breadth of twentieth-century notational innovation and experimentation is presented, chapter two deals with the music of Luciano Berio. I compare the 1958 version of his Sequenza I with the 1992 version in metered notation. The title of chapter two, “notation-as-play within a predefined system,” is the basis of what I see as the success of Berio’s works both from a compositional as well as a performance standpoint.

In chapter three I study notational aspects of the late music of John Cage, the works known as the “time-bracket” or “number” pieces. In these late works, Cage uses notation to reconcile and accommodate himself to certain elements of musical expression, most notably harmony and the very notion of vertical relationships. Purely notational considerations produce harmonic situations that Cage could accept, a flexible, “anarchic harmony” which is also highly determinate and “coherent.”

In the case of Brian Ferneyhough, the subject of chapter four, notation is approached as a kind of “inventory of processes,” where various pre-compositional generations of multi-metric structures and compositional transformations of material are presented in an ostensibly unfiltered manner. One now encounters a situation where the composer has no discernible interest in compromising his material to the predispositions of the performer. Instead, Ferneyhough is interested in using notation as a “behavior-altering agent,” a new notion of “communication” radically different from both Berio and Cage.

Finally, in a concluding chapter I put Berio, Cage, and Ferneyhough in a deeper context, comparing them to each other and reflecting on their importance. I also venture my own opinions as to the future influence of the kind of notational thought they each embody.

Keywords: graphic notation, proportional notation, Eco, time-brackets, number pieces, experimental music, McLuhan, new complexity


List of Examples
Chapter 1 - An Introduction to Notational Practice since 1945
Chapter 2 - Luciano Berio: Notation-as-play within a predefined system
Chapter 3 - John Cage: “...the whole paper would potentially be sound”: Time-Brackets and the Number Pieces (1981-92)
Chapter 4 - Brian Ferneyhough: Notation-as-Inventory
Chapter 5 - Conclusions
Appendix A - Interview with Luciano Berio
Appendix B - Berio, Sequenza I (1958 version)
Appendix C - Berio, Sequenza I (revised version, 1992; marked up by B.W.)


Benedict Weisser
Visiting Assistant Professor of Composition, Oberlin Conservatory of Music
77 West College Street
Oberlin, OH 44074
phone: 440 775 8254
e-mail: BenWeisser@aol.com

home address:
140 Elm Street apt. 2
Oberlin, OH 44074
phone: 440 775 0248
FAX: 440 775 8942

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