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In the spring of 1989, the late great Umberto Eco published his influential book 'Opera Aperta', later translated into English as 'The Open Work'. Within it Eco proposes the concept of semiotic 'openness', as a means to analyse the variety of ways in which artists, composers and writers incorporate chance, ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning in to their work. This deliberate incorporation of chance with in the creative act, Eco argues, marks the boundary between the pre-modern and modern eras within each genre.
In the words of Eco, "... a classical composition, whether it be a Bach fugue, Verdi's Aida, or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, posits an assemblage of sound units which the composer arranged in a closed, well-defined manner before presenting it to the listener. He converted his idea into conventional symbols which more or less oblige the eventual performer to reproduce the format devised by the composer himself, whereas the new musical works referred to above reject the definitive, concluded message and multiply the formal possibilities of the distribution of their elements." (1)
using the established musical notation of the time
As exemplars of his theory Eco chooses several important instrumental works by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), the Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), and Belgian and French composers Henri Pousseur (1929-2009) and Pierre Boulez (1925-2016).
These scores he argues, have been deliberately designed in order to leave key parts of their musical arrangements open to chance and alteration by others, revealing the inherently creative nature of roles played by conductors and musicians as translators of musical codes, and highlighting the role of individual audience members as interpreters.
Rather than relying upon standard dictionary like, 'one-to-one' symbolic systems of traditional musical scores, the impossible ideal of which is an exact reproduction of a piece of music, these composers were creating scores which acted more like the interconnected reference networks of encyclopedias. Their manuscripts were no longer being deigned to be read from from left to right and top to bottom, but instead behaved more like a rhizomatic networks, from which music arrises as an unpredictable emergent phenomenon.
Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives, Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Between 1963 and 1967 he worked on his monumental graphic score titled 'Treatise', in reference to the work of the german philosopher and mystical logician Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cardew's Treatise takes the form of 193 pages of beautifully crafted diagrammatic structures with no instruction as to how they should to be interpreted by performers, how many performers there should be or even what instruments they should use. Cardew does suggests however that there should be a pre-emptive collaborative meeting before each performance.
The Upstairs Gallery Press, Buffalo, New York.
Diagramming allowed composers to question and expand our very notions of how music is created, transcribed, interpreted and experienced, thus heralding the dawn of what Eco saw as the modern period. Below are a selection of graphic scores chosen to highlight the shear range of ambitious and novel diagrammatic techniques from this remarkable period in the history of music. However one of these manuscripts predates the others by over 600 years...
1) Umberto Eco, The open work, Translated by Anna Cancogni, Harvard University Press, 1989. p.19.
2) Umberto Eco, Ibid. p.1.