Flip-book world

Scratching, bending, and musical scores

For hundreds of years, composers have argued over what’s the best way to represent music on the page, and many have experimented with weird new modes of notation. But until I read a piece this week in the New York Times about the avante-garde performer Margaret Leng Tan, I’d never heard of George Crumb. Crumb is famous for drawing his scores in hallucinogenic shapes evocative of the mood he’s trying to set, such as the spiral-shaped score for “Spiral Galaxy: Aquarius”, pictured above. I wish more of his scores were online — they’re quite trippy to look at.

Music is, when you think about it, one of the strangest challenges in the field of information representation. Acoustic instruments can do all manner of subtle things: How do you accurately score the bend and vibrato of some of the notes in a B.B. King solo? DJing presents even more challenges: One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen is the booklet on how to musically score a sequence of scratches on a record — the “Turntablist Transcription Method” produced in 2000 by a trio of DJs. (You can download the entire thing here in PDF form.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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