Everyone handles graphic scores differently. It’s what makes them fun. Here’s an example of how I do it: 

The creative club Disquiet Junto passed out an assignment this week to interpret the long hidden “Design I” by club member Glenn Sogge. It was written in the spring of 1977. It’s a very straightforward graphical score.

Glenn Sogge’s “Design I”

When first looking over a graphical score I like to get a sense of it and establish my own impression of what’s going on. This one is very straightforward, contains some traditional musical notation (a repeat) to give it some form. It had two graphic elements: triangles and blocks, and also a wavery line.

It looked to me like I can use it as a kind of variable map with two sound elements over time. The triangles and blocks and then a wavery line.

For graphical scores it’s often up the performer to sort out how the visual elements influence the sounds that are made. And everyone approaches this differently. So don’t feel like my way is the only way. It’s the only way I did it this time on this day.

Experimenting with it

I knew I didn’t want to just do a volume fade with the triangles and blocks because that would feel too simple for me.

I started with letting the triangles represent an increase in notes in a random trill–going from two notes to three to four.

This was fun but started to wear out my left hand and I can’t say I was satisfied with how it sounded.

In addition, there was the logistical problem of what to do with that wavery line. I knew I wanted to do this piece as double bass alone, so I wasn’t going to resort to one of my modular synth rigs or effects pedals(though in retrospect that might be pretty fun to try in the future).

If my left hand was slamming away on random trill-like material there wasn’t much I could do easily to get at another pitch for the wavery line.

So I put that aside and tried to think of another approach.

First Right Answer

A friend of mine always encourages me to discard the “first right answer.” The thinking goes that whatever you come up with first may be great, but there’s probably something even greater yet and you’re just priming the pump. So discard the first right answer and then much wilder, out-of-the-box, and strategically valuable thoughts can occur.

Having decided to discard my first right answer of matching the triangles to pitches in a trill, I was free to think of my next thing.

I settled in on letting the triangles represent a shift from regular regular tone to overtone or spectral content in the sound. This also worked with my own criteria of not making dynamics (volume) a big part of the this piece because the spectral/overtone would naturally shift from louder to softer–the inverse of the visual representation.

Focusing on the nature of the tone also meant I could set the pitch at an open string, so my left hand was free to do something with that wavery line. I decided it would be a left hand hammered pizzicato on a note that was mostly pleasant with the pitch used for the triangles. A little vibrato on that pitch would satisfy my desire to get “wavery” with it.

Putting it in action

Since I performed the content matched to the triangles with a bow (arco), I could use visual cues to try and match the shape of the triangles. In addition, I could use bow placement to even out the sound.

Knowing that the mostly-harmonic portions would be relatively quiet and also easier to produce near the bridge (sul ponticello), I played the more full toned portions up near the fingerboard (sul tasto) where the tone is quieter and “woolier.”

This meant that over the course of a long change from “solid” tone to “spectral” tone the bow would be at an angle traveling down the string. This made a useful visual cue for me to follow.

As most of the triangles were linear in shape, straight edges moving at a constant rate, so long as my bow was moving at a constant rate (and I was adjusting pressure to yield the right mix of harmonic to solid tone) then I felt I was doing alright interpreting the score.

There is one portion where the shape indicates that it is to get to the harmonic content quicker and stay there a little longer. There are also some stopped sections which gain more harmonic content. Basically, I was able to map all of this visually to placement of the bow on the string (and the pressure adjustments to match).


I could definitely continue working on this. I haven’t really worked on making smooth transitions between solid tone and spectral tone before; none of the pieces I’m working on call for it. But I found it a fun challenge and I like the sound of it. Maybe I’ll keep this piece in my performance rep and keep toying with it.

Here’s what it sounded like today:

I also took the opportunity to experiment with some different mics than I usually use. I used an omni pattern in my usual mid/side array and as a result, the traffic outside my studio is much more apparent. Though that could really bother me sometimes, I like the way it works out in this recording. The cares lend a sort of verité feel.

solo bass