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  • Christopher Williams


Music that features the interface of notation and improvisation tends to dwell in liminal regions of musical labour. It thus calls much entrenched musical vocabulary into question. The word score is one such example. What seems like a synonym for notation in everyday parlance turns out to be something quite different on closer inspection – more regulatory, yet at the same time more inclusive. This article explores three different meanings of the word score through the lens of composer-improviser Bob Ostertag's 1990s tetralogy Say No More: a cut, an index of a game, and a record kept. Say No More consists of a chain of tape pieces and ensemble pieces in which performers Joey Baron, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway and Phil Minton were put in front of a machine-made mirror of themselves … with wacky lenses that distorted the image into something superhuman. In the performances the musicians tried to keep up with their digital reflection, a task at which they could only fail. Although the notation seems to play a minor role in this dynamic, its usage in the score as a whole offers important lessons on what writing might still have to offer composers in the digital era.



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1 Andersen, Eric, ‘In Mezzo a Quattro Tempi’, in Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, ed. Lely, John and Saunders, James (London: Continuum, 2012), p. 79.

2 Flusser, Vilém, Into the Universe of Technical Images (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. 169.

3 Christopher Williams,‘Tactile Paths: On and Through Notation for Improvisers’, PhD diss., University of Leiden. (accessed 26 September 2017).

4 Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. ‘notation’, accessed 2 September 2016.

5 Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. ‘score’, accessed 2 September 2016.

6 ‘Until the twelfth century, most manuscripts were ruled in hardpoint, that is, with blind lines scored with a stylus or back of the knife. Scribes ruled hard and sometimes cut through the parchment by mistake’. Department of Medieval Studies, Central European University, ‘Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production’, Medieval Manuscript Manual. (accessed 20 November 2016).

7 Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (New York: Routledge), p. 85.

8 All recordings and unpublished scores in the SNM series are available at

9 Bob Ostertag, Say No More (ReCDec 59, 1993), CD.

10 Ostertag, Bob, Say No More In Person (Transit – 444444, 1993), CD.

11 Ostertag, Bob, Verbatim (Rastascan Records – BRD029, 1996), CD.

12 Ostertag, Bob, Verbatim Flesh and Blood (Rastascan Records – BRD 035, 1998)

13 Bob Ostertag, unpublished interview with the author, 6 July 2016. Mark Dresser adds, ‘One thing, that Ostertag didn't mention in the recording process of Say No More, it was not just “play” but to me play your strongest stuff. That definitely put a[n] even more impossible spin on the de/reconstruction, beyond motility, beyond … normal endurance and accelerated beyond what was possible. What was interesting was to perform a gesture that emulated that kind of intensity.’ From Mark Dresser's Facebook page., (accessed 29 December 2016).

14 See Dresser's repeated upwards ‘smear’ glissandi at 9:30–13:30 of Tongue-Tied (1).

15 See Say No More (1), 5:15–6:30, and Tongue-Tied (1), 4:20–5:00.

16 See Chapter 1 of ‘Tactile Paths’ for a more detailed discussion of the performer–instrument coupling (‘Seeing the Full Sounding’.

17 Denley, Jim, ‘Improvisation: The Entanglement of Awareness and Physicality’, Sounds Australian 32 (1992), p. 29.

18 Evens, Aden, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 154.

19 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘score’ (accessed 2 September 2016).

20 Bob Ostertag, unpublished interview with the author, 6 July 2016.

21 Ostertag, Bob, Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 138.

22 Cobussen, Marcel, The Field of Musical Improvisation (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2017).

23 For an extensive self-portrait of this scene, see Zorn, John, ed., Arcana: Musicians on Music, vols 1–7 (New York: Hips Road, 2000–2014).

24 As quoted in Lock, Graham, ‘“What I Call a Sound”: Anthony Braxton's Synaesthetic Ideal and Notations for Improvisers’, Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études Critiques En Improvisation 4 no. 1 (2008). (accessed 26 September 2017).

25 Bob Ostertag, unpublished interview with the author, 6 July 2016.

26 Bob Ostertag, unpublished interview with the author, 6 July 2016.

27 See John Zorn – Cobra – On Improvisation (1992). (accessed 27 September 2017).

28 See Lock, Graham, Forces In Motion: The Music And Thoughts Of Anthony Braxton (New York: Da Capo Press, 1989).

29 Bob Ostertag, unpublished interview with the author, 6 July 2016.

30 Bob Ostertag, unpublished interview with the author, 6 July 2016.

31 Bailey, Derek, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1993), p. 103.

32 Gary Peters, ‘The Obligation to Improvise’, paper presented at PoMI II, Oxford University, 9 September 2014, pp. 9–10. Available at

33 Cardew, Cornelius, ‘Treatise Handbook’, in Cornelius Cardew: A Reader, ed. Prévost, Eddie (Harlow: Copula, 2006), pp. 126–8.

34 See two cases discussed in my ‘Tactile Paths’ in particular: A Treatise Remix, in which I improvise over time in the studio with a collection of historical recordings., or Barrett's fOKT,, which like SNM makes extensive use of sampling.

35 Cobussen, The Field of Musical Improvisation.

36 Flusser, Vilém, ‘The Future of Writing’, in Writings, ed. Ströhl, Andreas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), pp. 63–9.

37 Flusser, ‘The Future of Writing’, p. 65.

38 Flusser, ‘The Future of Writing’, p. 64.

39 Flusser, ‘The Future of Writing’, p. 65.

40 Flusser, ‘The Future of Writing’, p. 67.

41 Collins, Nicolas, ‘Beyond Notation: Communicating Music’, Leonardo Music Journal 21 (2011), pp. 56 . This is Collins’ introduction to the issue of the same title.

42 See numerous examples in Leonardo Music Journal 21 (2011).

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