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Book Review

Behind Bars

Behind Bars by Gould

The Definitive Guide to Music Notation

Elaine Gould
Faber Music, 2011 xviii + 676 pp
ISBN-10: 0571514561
ISBN-13: 978-0571514564
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Rather like objections to change in language, which is as old as… change in language – indeed almost as old as language itself – dissatisfaction with the potentially hugely complex system of recording music for performance is almost as old as that very system. Most musicians would agree that notation is a compromise. And since player pianos, piano rolls and now electronic sequencers and Digital Audio Workstations which capture input from, say, a MIDI device and preserve it perfectly (or, at least, as well as it was played – under the right conditions) for later presentation, efforts to provide both composers and musicians with the best possible ways to notate music are as important as ever. Particularly since the ranges of what composers and performers demand of instruments and the voice have also grown rapidly and dramatically. Elaine Gould's new book from Faber Music, Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation could not be more timely. Nor more useful, authoritative, meticulously researched and produced and more approachable. Given the subject, that's a huge achievement. And given the way the book's been written and produced, that achievement is as close to the last word on the subject for a generation; as such it cannot be recommended too highly.

Gould has been Senior New Music Editor at Faber for almost 25 years; before that she was a freelance copyist with an almost unparalleled experience – and consequently high reputation – for several leading British music publishers. In her career she has been responsible for editing the music of such composers as Knussen, Harvey, Benjamin, Colin Matthews and Adès. Her qualifications for such a book as Behind Bars are beyond doubt.

In almost 700 pages, Gould introduces, describes, explains, illustrates and contextualizes every conceivable aspect of modern notation, which makes this a nigh-indispensable book for composers, performers and arrangers who need both to understand and stay current with the art and science of musical notation. It seems to leave out, fudge, or fail to clarify nothing. Divided into three parts of roughly equal length, Gould looks at the accepted conventions of notation; the need for and execution of idiomatic styles; and the emerging (or established) standards of layout and presentation. Her great achievement is to cover the same ground as do orthodox textbooks which set out the rules; but with the additional aim of advocating (and demonstrating how to achieve) clarity and at the same time advancing notational systems and structures that are so sound, and so obviously to be welcomed, that they are likely to become the universally accepted norms for the foreseeable future.

What's also remarkable about the book, in addition to its superlative clarity, is the way it manages to cater for someone with less experience than (and different needs from) the specialist; and yet at the same time cater admirably for the specialist as well. Wherever appropriate or necessary, topics are introduced with a clean, clear definition… "A tuplet is a rhythmic devision that does not divide into standard groups of two or three" [page 193], for instance. Then – in this case almost two dozen – pages of examples, tables, score excerpts, discussions, clarifications and amplifications follow. In that Behind Bars is not a music theory book, it's vital that every notational entity should be indexed for isolated, independent reference, as well as accessible in its own chapter, which you might well want to read through as a whole. That might well be the case for the various instrument-by-instrument chapters in the book's second section, for example. But to seek out every part of the text dealing with tenuto, stem direction or shared stave it's necessary that all pages can be found easily. And so they are in an index of over a dozen pages in length with the usual conventions of bold for main "entries" and italics for musical examples.

On top of that, each instrument does have its own index entry so that an understanding of all aspects of its notation can be gained in one session. Note that the book uses the term "entries". Yet one of its strengths is that it is not a dictionary or encyclopedia, an alphabetical list or linear grouping of articles; although it has all the advantages of such systems. Rather Behind Bars is a book which assumes that notation is a living, evolving, experience for musicians, a developing tool that benefits from our understanding of the interrelationships between methods and standards. And, although there is much writing which necessarily blurs the boundaries between description, prescription and proscription (such as the preferred ways to syllabify words in a variety of languages and situations), Gould approaches notation this way because history and experience, consensus and practicality all respond to the need for clarity and a concentration on actually making music from a score, not spending time and effort deciphering it.

Gould clearly holds understanding (even embracing) the emergence of new techniques as essential. There are sections on microtones, multiphonics, humming, dynamics for electronic sounds, flutter-tonguing and so on. As just stated, you get more from these, and arrive at a deeper understanding of them, by studying them in the places allotted to them by Gould, rather than in isolation &nadash; either, for example, because something like clustering departs from or effectively extends or even sheds brighter light on an existing norm. As explained, the layout of Behind Bars has been so superbly planned, the index is so thorough and the sequence so expertly conceived, that searching out and absorbing isolated explanations is made easy. At the same time, the logic of Gould's coverage of each topic – at least groups of topics – is enhanced by the narrative nature of the book.

The scope of the book is huge: from the theoretical and at time almost speculative discussion on, say, some aspects of fingering, to the highly practical exposition on what constitutes a score, how to present it for rehearsal, parts, abbreviations, even the title page. In over 650 substantive pages, Gould has been able to go into great detail. Stave-sharing for percussion, the labeling of divisions and the intricacies of accidentals in chords and so on; there are six pages on trills, twice as many on ties. At the same time, Gould deftly covers areas such as page breaks which, when her advice is followed, ought to have performers grateful to composers, rather than resenting their all too often detached and at times solipsistic ways. In this sense, the book makes a very significant contribution to the musical world. One can only assume that this exhortation to the notators to consider the sanity of those who use the notated lies behind the play on words of the book's title!

The standard of proofing, the judicious use of white space, the frequency of illustrative examples and gentle yet unambiguous tone of Gould's writing also combine to make this an easy book to read. Notation is complex. But Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation squares the circle between approximation and imperative for clarity and absence of "debate" as well as can be. The fact that it stretches from basic rules to advanced techniques in such a logical way also recommends it unquestionably as the now standard work on the subject.

At first sight, then, Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation appears to be a "manual" of notation. And indeed, it is just that. But much more. It's written with a style and vibrancy, a command and trenchancy that (even were it not for the contents) suggest it should be the definitive model for notation for the twenty-first century. But the contents, their thoroughness and comprehensiveness ensure that this is likely to happen. It's unfortunately expensive. But still worth what it costs. A glance at the chapter titles (conventions: ground rules; chords dotted notes ties; accidentals and key signatures; dynamics and articulation; grace notes, arpeggiated chords, trills, glissandos and vibrato; meter; tuplets; repeat signs; notation for woodwind and brass, percussion, keyboard, harp, classical guitar, strings, vocal music; preparing materials; score layout; part preparation; electroacoustic music; freedom and choice) shows what you're getting, what is covered, and how it progresses from the simple to the… electronic.

There are a number of good studies of notation, from the purely factual to the almost ruminative. But Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation must now been seen as far and away the most useful, complete and authoritative. It really is one of those books that any musician who uses notation can now not afford to be without.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.