Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

You are here Disciplines > Music > News Events

News & Events


Visual Sounds: Notation and the Imagination

Inaugural lecture presentation by Professor Jane Alden

Professor Jane Alden will give her inaugural lecture entitled ‘Visual Sounds: Notation and the Imagination’ on Tuesday, 13th October. Please see the abstract for her lecture outlined below.

Event Details
Date:      Tuesday, 13th October
Time:     6pm
Venue:  Samuel Beckett Theatre

All welcome
RSVP by noon, Friday 9th October 2015 T: (01) 896 1200 / E:



When asked to describe Treatise (1963–67), Cornelius Cardew said “Well, it’s a vertebrate.” The spine that supports this musical creature is a graphic score, 193 pages in length, consisting of lines and shapes inscribed over an empty pair of musical staves. The score is a landmark of calligraphic and conceptual originality, but until 2011 it had never been realized purely by voices. This was particularly surprising given Cardew’s own choral background (as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral), and John Tilbury’s suggestion that anthropocentric interests motivated Cardew’s exploration of indeterminate notation. 

I formed an experimental choral ensemble, the Vocal Constructivists, to give the first sung performance of Treatise. Our collaborative music-making evoked discordant collisions and the juxtaposition of different approaches. A common language evolved, from performance to performance, offering, with the help of the audience, various temporary finalizations.

Following the emergence of live art in the 1960s, and a shift from representationalism to performativity, phenomenology appeared to take over from semiotics as the lens through which performance is “read.” The history of pieces whose notation is integral to their meaning extends back at least as far as the fourteenth century. The text in Baude Cordier’s Tout par compas begins by describing itself: “I am composed completely by a compass.” It begs “chase me around with glee”, indicating that the outer circle can be performed by two voices in canon while the tenor sings the inner circle. 

My practice-led work with the Vocal Constructivists forces me to question the binarism of the shift from a text-based to a phenomenological understanding of music as event. Our process has shown me that musical markings on a page can have their own performative potential inherent in, rather than separate from, their calligraphic exactness. Notational innovation still serves to ask audiences, following Cardew, “How does it keep my imagination at work?”.