Notation vs BINKY vs visualisation

I was in the public library the other day & as always my first stop was the new books section and I couldn’t but help get this gorgeous book out, Notations 21 – in fact I’m pretty sure it was sitting there waiting, just for me….

notations 21

And if thats not what public libraries are for then I don’t know anything.. ie providing access to books that are beautiful & micro_specific, which you might balk at owning unless you’re sure, but once experienced alter your perceptions forever! As did this book: “Drawing inspiration from John Cage’s Notations, Notations 21 features illustrated musical scores from more than 100 international composers, all of whom are making amazing breakthroughs in the art of notation. These spectacularly beautiful and fascinatingly creative visual pieces not only make for exciting music, but inspiring visual art as well. The scores are accompanied by written contributions from the artists that explore every facet of their creative processes, from inspiration to execution. Contributors include the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi, as well as emerging composers whose compositions are also visually astounding and important.”

The website associated with the book has some example scores and there is an associated blog worth a visit too… I find the book fascinating from at least a couple of different angles. Firstly it provides interesting insight into the creative process of some very interesting composers – inevitably I tagged the graphic scores that appealed to me & went hunting for the associated music and made some beautiful discoveries in the process (more of this in a minute and in following posts) But the second & deeper angle that intrigued me was with regards to the relevance/possible application to my own work and practice, especially my next film project. And thats where the BINKY part comes in

I’d guess people reading this will fall into two discrete sections, those who know BINKYs all too well, and those who have no idea what I’m talking about. So for the latter, you could consider that a BINKY is a graphic score that is created after the fact ie after all of the films soundtrack elements are created & edited. A BINKY is a visual aid for re-recording mixers inheriting the sound editors work, in effect its a retroactive visualisation of whats on which track & when… Thanks to ubiquitous ProTools monitors we don’t tend to create BINKYs anymore, mixers can see what sounds are coming up on what tracks. I wish I owned a camera the last time a BINKY was required for a film I worked on. Despite hunting through all my archive of work records I don’t have a copy of one (if you do, please uplaod it somewhere & post a link in the comments or email me a copy – it would be great to see one)

I do remember having a BINKY for every predub for the film Saving Grace in 1997, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t for Stickmen in 2000, so it was somewhere between those two dates that it was, for me, phased out. I understand some re-recording mixers still like to have them, even in small scale, and I can see why – and its why I’m writing this post – the idea of having some visual form of the soundtrack & its elements that you can write on, scribble notes etc has huge appeal… It also interests me that historically there has been almost this crossover between two entirely different means & motivations for displaying the form of otherwise invisible sound. Its by no means a new phenomena, and my comment about PT monitors might make you think its redundant, but as a conceptual aid I think not…

Eisenstein viz

Since the first time I ever saw the image above, of Eisensteins diagram (from a scene of Alexander Nevsky) I’ve been fascinated by it. When you consider how complex a five minute piece of music is, and then scale it up to be a two hour piece of cinema constructed from fragments, you can no doubt imagine the range of complexity and deep understanding required in film making. Similarly when I’ve seen photos of Walter Murch’s approach to physically plotting the emotional action in a film it has resonated deeply with me: of course you would need some physical aid to focus on & clarify the multiple arcs of something so ephemeral & fleeting as cinema! (Images from the book Behind the Seen)

Murch cards

Murch cards

Similarly, but created after-the-fact, is this character/plot chart created in LEGO for the film Fight Club:

Fight Club Lego

(Notes for the obsessives: Red = Chapter divisions, Blue = Narrator, White = Tyler Durden, Yellow = Marla Singer, Orange = Violence/Fight Club, Cornflower Blue = Bosses/Work/The Huddled Masses of the World, Green = Big Bob/Support Groups, Light Green = Space Monkeys/Project Mayhem, Black = Death/Mortality & height = intensity of course!)

So what’s my point with all this? Well…. the fact is, music software developers have basically taken the audio waveform & commodified it, as a retroactive force – we create sound & the waveforms represent sound, not vice versa. The same was true with BINKYs – the sound had already been recorded, edited & synced via at times manual means eg literally cutting 35mm mag into film sound rolls, and the BINKY displayed that sound retroactively. The graphic score seeks to pre-visualize, but it would seem in ways idiosyncratic to each composer, in both actual form and whether the score represents specific individual instruction or more generalised concepts to follow… Heres some of my scribbles emulating various styles used in 21N:


Compared with Mass Black Implosion by Iannis Xenakis:


I’d love to post lots of examples of graphical scores here but will instead collect up some reference links worth a visit.. This subject is something I’d like to pursue on my next feature film project, as for the first time (for me) ever I have the rare opportunity to straddle both sound design and composition, and would love to develop a means of managing both individual cues/scenes and the overall progression, structure and emotional arc of the soundtrack as it is created. Of course I’ll be discussing this with the picture editor, as I imagine some combination of both Eisenstein and Murchs approach as well as some elements of a graphic score for music and/or sound.

“Experimental music scores are enigmatic, opaque, demanding, irritating, humorous, childlike; the best, like Cardew’s Treatise, are also inspiring, giving rise, on occasion, to a music of vitality, intelligence and elegance.” – John Tilbury

– Cornelius Cardews Treatise
– Graphical Score blog
– Hans-Christoph Steiner Solitude
Untitled 2010 by Jorinde Voigt
Diatope Sketch 1978/1979 by Iannis Xenakis.
– Graphic notation at wikipedia
NYME collection of single-image graphic scores
– New Music Box: Picturing Music: The Return of Graphic Notation
– Music Handbook examples of graphic scores
– DataisNature: Graphic Music – sound pictograms
– A Spiral Cage: graphic score posts
– The Wire Magazines Enigma Machines: How To Decode Graphic Scores
– WMFUs Gallery of Graphic Notation
– Nonprojects; Anthony Braxton’s Synaesthetic Ideal and Notations for Improvisers
– Eye Magazine: Graphic scores liberate music from the five-line grid
– Creative use of sound wiki: Graphic Scores
N21 example scores
N21 blog

Please add any other links in the comments, but I’m personally interested in a couple of aspects of this: do you or have you ever created or used a graphic score? In what context?

Another thought I had over the weekend, and it was a random thought while messing with my modular synth was this: What if all the best music is actually made with the computer turned off? This isn’t a pronouncement, its a deliberately provocative question… And relative to all of the above, usually if the computer is on & involved in creating music it is likely that visual feedback is equally a constant (do you ever work with the screens off?) which again had me thinking back to the earlier comment about having a form of score that you can write on, thereby evolving the form of music entirely in the analogue/non-computer based world…. Just because we have constant access to computers does not necessarily mean we must employ them. Self evident? Yes. Acted on/switched off? For me, rarely… until that question struck me…. Hmmmmmm….

7 thoughts on “Notation vs BINKY vs visualisation

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  3. mimou

    I had a chance to participate in a project involving Cardew’s music. We rehearsed and performed parts of his ‘Great Learning’ based on texts of Confucius and involving experimental scores. We also kinda played with Treatise scores – amazing experience as they actually only inspire you without constraints regarding time or scale. Some interpretations of those scores involved dance – why not?

  4. Freak Without A Cause

    Long time reader, first time posting. Graphic notation is fascinating because its syntax can be so unique. The drawback, though…is that it can be so unique. If you’re not familiar with a composer’s symbols, the notation then has a learning curve that you wouldn’t have with traditional notation. But with electronic music where elements like texture, tone color, effects (like reverb or delay) can be applied with such precision it makes perfect sense to notate those elements.

    I just finished writing a Drum N Bass-lite song using Sibelius and have been using Reaper to orchestrate the instruments with VSTs. But I found that with 2 knob twists I could radically change the texture of a Solina-type synth to add intensity a specific section. On a hunch, I decided to print out the song in Sibelius and found that there were plenty of other places where a knob turn would be effective. Since the VST has knobs I simply wrote a number that correspond to a clock. Where the speed knob is turned towards 9o’clock, I’d write “Speed 9” under an quarter note with a diagnol line angled UPWARDS to a “3” at, say, a half note. That means turn the knob UP to about the 3o’clock position. And the angle of the line lets me quickly know that I’m making an FX more intense. With that in mind, I could fill in other parts of the printed score without needing the computer. I’m sure I’ll be wrong on some points when I get to Reaper again but I feel like I have a plan of attack and that helps me to weed out what parameters I need against those I’d be wasting my time with.

    PS I think the Xenakis song is called ST/48-1240162. “Black Mass” may be its nickname. He did a few pieces starting with the letters “ST”.

  5. stickers

    Xenakis and his graphic scores is definitely amazing and appreciative. I’ve been learning enough from this details. It gives me an idea. Thanks for sharing!

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