Week 6 – Graphical Scores/Nataraja

In music a graphical score can be thought of as music written in the form of a diagram or picture, rather than notation. Graphical scores may convey meanings through the use of symbols in the form of geometric shapes or colours which may be explained by a key. Graphical score composers began to gain recognition in the 50’s and the method experienced its peak popularity through the 60’s and 70’s. Notable composers who used graphic scores during this period include John Cage, Brian Eno, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ligeti and more. Stockhausen’s scores retained elements of standard musical notation within them as a starting point from which more abstract graphical ideas could be developed, whereas Cage’s graphic scores, at first impression, did not look like music notation at all, in a style which combined drawing with peculiar shapes and lettering.

Stockhausen Graphic Score – Mikrophonie 1 (1964)


John Cage Graphic score – Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Fontana Mix (1958).


Since the 70’s artists such as academian Tom Phillips, DJ Aphex Twin and software designer Hans Christoph Steiner to name a few have all experimented with graphic scores. Below is the graphical score for Han Christoph Steiner’s Solitude (2004), created using Pure Data’s data structures. It reads from left to right. The different colours and shapes in the score control various parameters of different samples which are played back.

Hans Christoph Steiner – Solitude (2004). http://mp3.at.or.at/composer/me/Solitude_-_Hans-Christoph_Steiner_-_2004.mp3


For this week’s composition the task was to compose a piece using the supplied image as graphic score. The image was Nataraja by Bridget Riley (1993), pictured below:

Nataraja 1993 by Bridget Riley born 1931

Nataraja is typical of much of Riley’s work from 1986 onwards in that it is a diagonal stripe painting. The painting is divided up vertically and diagonally into separate areas of different colours. The relationship between the different colours is complex due to many different colours being represented in as many as twenty different shades. The position of colours has been thoughtfully arranged with respect to correspondence, contrast and proportion. The idea is that the painting creates a balanced and unified visual field, whilst also representing individual and contrasting areas of colour. The term ‘Nataraja’ means ‘lord of the dance’ in Hindu Mythology, in reference to the God Shiva in his form as the cosmic dancer. Riley’s use of the term Nataraja is in reference to a theme of rhythm and counter-rhythm, which are main concepts in the painting.

This week’s composition was approached with the following considerations:

  • Colour – The painting is very colourful and bright, therefor the music/sounds used should reflect that and create a bright positive ambience.
  • Rhythm – Trevor Wishart (On Sonic Art, 1985) describes Western Music as being ‘lattice’ oriented in terms of its organisation being restricted to the specific intervals laid out in standard notation. As this painting is very lattice-like in appearance being divided up into a grid of diagonal boxes then the music should reflect this with use of even tempo rhythm and tonality in the sense of appropriate scales and modes.
  • Line – As the painting is repetitive in term of the horizontal and vertical lines then the music is repetitive in nature with an underlying piano motif which is basically looped but changes key/is transposed to give more movement and tonal colour.
  • Space – The painting is very busy and there is no space therefore the music is very busy with the fast piano underpinning the whole thing which never lets up. Melody lines on top provided by guitar enhance the tonal colour and movement.
  • Texture – Although there are a lot of notes, it is not a mish mash, notes can all be heard and appreciated distinctly in their own right. Textures of sounds used are fairly clean, good quality and bright sounding to reflect the painting.
  • Implied Depth – The painting is very up front and in your face, so is the music.

Obviously, there are many different ways in which a task such as this could be approached. My approach was to capture the mood of and rhythm of the painting and translate that using melodies and harmonies which sounded colourful, rhythmical and busy. This was just my personal interpretation others may differ, depending on culture musical background etc… A link to this week’s composition is below:




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