Graphic Zoukination – Sarah Belle Reid’s “Moth”

Front and back of "Moth," by Sarah Belle Reid (images reproduced with permission of Sarah Belle Reid). Click for a clear view.
“Moth,” by Sarah Belle Reid, interpreted by Robert Stikmanz, September 2019.

Sarah Belle Reid was a featured artist and workshop presenter at the 2017 New Media Art & Sound Summit (NMASS) here in Austin. Instrumentalist, composer, inventor and conceptualist, Sarah was brilliant, warm and epically nice from the moment she arrived. I state that authoritatively because I was staffing the door when she checked in. I also attended her workshop and performances, and spent most of the event outside my volunteer shifts hanging around as audience. Lucky for me that over the course of the festival we had occasion to talk.

Some of our talk got me thinking about the kinesthetics of performance. How and how much does the physical act of making music shape musical thinking? Playing a piano, do the motions themselves admit creative possibilities distinct from those of another musician sliding a fingertip and tapping a touchpad?  After NMASS, when Sarah sent two documents she had promised, I answered with follow-on from our conversation and a recording of my very, very best (slightly) experimental track. She responded with thoughtful comments about kinesthetics that showed her interest in the subject was neither casual or new. She also invited me to participate in the Postcard project.

Inventing new electronics for the musical frontier, performing around the world, and (if I am not mistaken) working on a doctorate, leave Sarah Belle Reid with gobs of time for another major activity, composing graphic scores.  A graphic score represents composition diagrammatically and/or illustratively by other than standard musical notation. Some graphic scores zero in on hyper-specification, but many are created as frameworks for meaning that stand empty until an interpreter idiosyncratically fills them. Visually, the scores are often quite beautiful.

The Postcard project involves Sarah creating a unique graphic score on a postcard for each participant. A participant agrees to interpret the score, document the interpretation, send the document to Sarah, and create a postcard score for her to interpret in turn. Defending my agreement to take part, when she asked face to face at NMASS if I played music, I answered truthfully, “Only for the dust mites in the living room.” She must have had this in mind when creating “Moth,” the postcard I received. Compared to others displayed on her Patreon account, it seems a slow pitch. That’s a description relative to other scores by Sarah Belle Reid. Spare by comparison does not mean anything about it is simple-minded.

The graphic score of “Moth” occupies the face of the card. The title is on the reverse with this verbal instruction: “Traverse this score however you’d like. Consider white space with equal care as notations. Let your listening and your imagination guide you.”

My understanding of the word, score, meant approaching all elements (including white space) as indicative, none as purely decorative. I spent a couple of weeks considering the image without trying to interpret it. Once the elements sorted into types, the types suggested number of parameters and their degrees of variation.  That’s substantial information even without specifying parameters of what. It might summarize as, “Whatever it is that you do, do it in a way consistent with indicated diversity and range of change.” That is latitudinous but not arbitrary. For one, the elements must map to one’s vocabulary of interpretation, and that collapses many quanta of possibility into particular strums.

Eyes so prepared, the first thing I observed about “Moth” is that the diversity of parametric indicators exceeded the number of parameters I had available to indicate. This score clearly implied music of greater sophistication than anything I played, or even could play on the day the card came. Adding to the intimidation were recordings by other participants, some of the more technologically-enabled of which dashed any thought I had of hiding by cabling through my amateur’s bag of pedals and pots. Eventually I decided that with other bases covered by skilled performers, I was probably the only finger-picking Irish bouzoukist in the project, and so my best contribution would be to offer what I know, nekkid fingers on unamplified strings. While starting to experiment under influence of the score, I also set out to learn more of my instrument.*

Fast forward to now. Although enlarged by theft from guitarists of various styles, mandolineros, ukuleleacs and perpetrators of banjo, my technique has yet to show a trace of traditional Irish bouzouki. I still don’t flatpick. The armamentarium now includes enough variety to allow choice of what parameters the score might indicate, but I adopted a default reading ages ago. For months, I have been working to internalize this reading so that it comes like second nature when I hit the iPad’s red spot to record.

Dozens of attempts later, not one capture is blooper free. Every time, I played a practice run smoothly, hit the red spot, and found fingers go rubbery. A couple of times I tried hitting Record right away, thinking to fool myself by nabbing the practice run. Fingers rubberized sooner. Finally, I decided the problem is that, having worked out a reading of the score, I stopped imagining it. That violates the composer’s instruction. The first step to mitigating an error is to stop making it. In this case that means again letting imagination guide. So I imagined that I had already done what Sarah asked.

I have engaged the score and devised an interpretation. I have documented that interpretation (many times over). The recorded performances have not been flawless, sabotaged less by lack of skill than by anxiety about recording for cool peeps and sophisticated ears. I decided to imagine that this does not invalidate the seriousness of imperfect tracks. I also decided to imagine that the best effort to date was worth submitting to Sarah as my document of participation. After all, that’s what she asked for, not flawless performance.

The track on which I choose to stand is unsteady rhythmically, rife with twangy foibles, and in two places I suddenly flew off with unplanned interpolations that had to be yanked back to the plotted path. Referencing the score, I took the horizontal axis of the dotted trail as progress from start to finish, and the vertical axis as left hand position up and down the neck. The changing density of dots sorta/kinda corresponded to dynamics. All other marks I assigned to categories of right hand activity and used them to shape phrasing and figuration. The underlying motif finger-picks a simple line over droning bass, progress inflected when indicated by the score.

Why the title is “Moth,” I do not know. It was a meaningful choice, as lepidoptera are among my fascinations.  The title provided two allegories to guide reading. The first was life cycle — egg, successive caterpillar instars, pupa, emergence, adult, demise — and the second was “day in the life” behavior of adults —the ways different moths fly, the drive to reproduce, advance by indirection, predator evasion, the way a moth will tax itself to death bumping against a window, etc. Moths serve handily as symbols of metamorphosis or transformation, especially one wonderful in kind but of a homely shape that passes unnoticed.

Metamorphosis is not a bad note to end on. It took two years of experiment, exploration and practice to reach the take-away: a larger understanding of music and ways to approach it. The exercise was hard. I had to grow to meet the challenge. Thanks to “Moth,” these nekkid fingers can hit strings today in manners unknown before. The dust mites and I are richer for it. Of course, I am not yet done. There is a blank postcard waiting, a tabula rasa. Time to shift the shoe to the other foot, and become the composer.

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* For anyone who has just come in, I am not (much) Irish. My number one chordophone is an Irish bouzouki. A kind of elongated tenor mandolin, the instrument emerged in the early nineteen-sixties after Irish musicians retuned and repurposed Greek bouzoukis. I never play Irish music. Or Greek music, either.

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