Marthe Vassallo’s position on musical notation (or “writing” vs “orality”)

Marthe Vassallo’s position on musical notation (or “writing” vs “orality”)

I wanted to share this very intelligently stated position on musical notation by Marthe Vassallo, one of the great singers of Breton traditional music who is also an accomplished classical singer. It’s in French, but I put some of the highlights in English below.

As I understand it, she is "participating" in a panel at a conference she wasn’t able to attend on the topic of "writing" vs "orality" - in French/Breton traditional music circles, there is some confusion, as if "writing" and "orality" were completely different countries (although many of us have argued against sheetmusic on the session, English is mercifully unburdened with words that make it quite so easy to fall into the trap of calling them "different countries").

Marthe is coming from a context where "writing" is naively thought to be the kingdom of complexity, fixedness, constraints, prescriptionism and copyright, and "orality" is a sort of communist paradise, of variation, freedom, etc. So some of the issues she brings up are not those we tend to focus on here - and in the same way, she is less focused than we might be on the problem of people turning up at sessions with sheetmusic and expecting to be made welcome.

My notes:

Any music:
- Not everything is written
- Infinity of parameters and writing them all would be impossible/render reading them difficult. Particularly on the fly

We write
1. What can be written
2. What is important
3. What is not obvious

We don’t write
1. What we can’t write
2. What is not important
3. What is important, but obvious (to both transcriber and intended reader)

Example: she doesn’t note rhythm where it is unimportant. Or so obvious it doesn’t need noting. Same with melodic variations

Sheet music is *never* enough. Always (ideally) written and shared in a situation where there is consensus on what is obvious and what what is written means. And this consensus varies

Contrast 2 versions of stabat mater by pergolese (1967 vs 2005) - hugely different interpretations, same sheetmusic

Far from fixing, writing opens the window to variation - maybe even greater than aural transmission, but not on same variables

Ideally the reader should know who the transcriber was, and what assumptions they were operating under. But we have to learn to move on particularly with old documents that we only have sheetmusic for - if we can’t know, we can’t know - but that shouldn’t stop us from using them.

Authority, authorship and versions. Some musics tend to return to sheet music as the source version in a kind of star pattern, whereas others have a more linear branching pattern (but maybe more a question of genres than because written)

And fixity also exists in non written musics (some church music). And even more fix is the recording!

Written music asks a breaking down of music that may not be the one musicians focus on: exact value of a note with regard to a tonic. Beats and measures, etc. (vs, e.g melodic movements). So do readers also perceive music differently? Maybe, maybe not…

Either way, dots vs no dots is a very minor distinction compared to all the others between musical genres

[questions apparently asked by the conference panel organisors]
Is sheet music in teaching
- prescriptive? —> only if we want it to be
- memory support? —> yes
- analytical support? —> depends what we want to analyse, whether it’s noted and whether it’s notable

Is it possible to share music with artists from a different background without sheet music?
—> More importantly is it possible to do it without aural?! (Only if you like surprises)

Written music offers different arrangement and orchestration possibilities

If we ask what to teach musicians, it depends in what we want them to (be able to) do later. No easy answer

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Re: Marthe Vassallo’s position on musical notation (or “writing” vs “orality”)

Thank you for sharing this and introducing me to a marvelous performer. Very interesting to hear that there is reasonable discussion about this topic. 😉

Re: Marthe Vassallo’s position on musical notation (or “writing” vs “orality”)

I agree with everything except, " …return to sheet music as the source version in a kind of star pattern, whereas others have a more linear branching pattern …", which I don’t understand. Interesting, thank you Tirno.

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