Today's post was written by Denton McCabe. McCabe currently lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. An autodidactic composer and musician, McCabe’s father was a painter who introduced him to the work of an array of contemporary artists. McCabe is currently working on performances that combine art, spoken word, and music.
In the history of art and music, there are few individuals who have successfully combined the two. While attempts have been made between notable collaborators (Stravinksy and Picasso, Basquiat and Ramelzee, or Salvador Dali and Alice Cooper), there are significantly few artists and composers who are actually the same person.
Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti (b. 1931) has been a rather controversial figure in contemporary music. His scores are unconventionally notated and tend to draw from his experience as a painter, set designer, costume designer, and poet. In contemporary music circles, Bussotti is notorious for producing rich and complex graphic scores that defy all laws of tradition and academicism.
In the above excerpt from Pieces de Chair II (1970), Bussotti includes obvious nods to the notational practices of American composer John Cage, but the score also contains absurdities such as “O Mathematiques severes” whiting out a series of notes (perhaps in reference to the irrational rhythms of Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy, who were emerging at the time and shared a similar emphasis as Bussotti on unorthodox notation by way of complexity and calculation), or “nostalgia di casa” (which roughly translates as “homesick” and leaves one completely clueless as to the reasoning behind the inclusion of this phrase). Images like these are characteristic of Bussotti’s compositions and it is this ambiguity that has made his scores so memorable.
The second example comes from the set 5 Piano Pieces for David Tudor, written for the genius champion of avant-garde piano music. The score indicates that all notes should be very soft in intensity, “always.” The three sections of music indicate durations of 30, 15, and 45 seconds. This type of score is something for an interpreter to negotiate and approach in one’s own unique manner. It is possible that Bussotti innately knew that David Tudor would be completely capable of turning his design into a beautiful auditory experience.
Bussotti’s major contributions to music notation were made between the 1950s and 1970s, just before contemporary music became obsessed with stylistic pretensions such as minimalism, the new complexity, neo-romanticism, and other stylistic “isms.” While Bussotti remains far from a household name, his music and scores have influenced generations of composers who have sought new directions in notation and his scores of the 1950s may have had more in common with contemporary art than any composer’s work before, or since.