Carolin Ratzinger, Nikolaus Urbanek, Sophie Zehetmayer (eds.): Musik und Schrift. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf musikalische Notationen, Wilhelm Fink, 2020 (Theorie der musikalischen Schrift 1).
© Wilhelm Fink Verlag

Writing about writing is a paradoxical act—seeing as it involves articulating oneself using the very tool that one is attempting to describe. Writing about musical writing or notation is even more paradoxical, since doing so forces one to deal with a music-related phenomenon using the means of written verbal communication. It was fully cognisant of the insolubility of this fact that the international D-A-CH project Writing Music. Iconic, performative, operative and material aspects in musical notation(s) set out to do nothing less than develop a (writing-centred) theoretical basis upon which to speak, write, and think about musical notations. With the double goal of well-reflected “musicological theory construction” and of embedding considerations in the “current discourse on the transdisciplinary topic of writing” (p. VII), their efforts promise a long-overdue examination of problematic terminological aspects as well as an attempt to address gaps in the research, some of which have persisted for years (the music terminology dictionary Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie, for example, contains no entries on “written music,” “notation”, or “nota”—and at the same time, the occasionally indiscriminate use of ostensibly clear German terms such as Notation, Notationssystem, Notenschrift, Notentext, and Notenbild observable in both everyday and specialised language continues to boggle the mind).

The ambition of this project, which is based at the University of Gießen, the University of Innsbruck, the mdw in Vienna, and the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel and headed by Federico Celestini, Matteo Nanni, Simon Obert, and Nikolaus Urbanek, goes far beyond purely lexical and terminological definitions: this initial volume in their series Theorie der musikalischen Schrift [Theory of Musical Notation], published at the end of 2019, provides a comprehensive survey of this field of research and situates its own approach to theorising musical notation between the concrete aspects of notation’s materiality, operativity, iconicity, and performativity (Celestini, Nanni, Obert, Urbanek). At the same time, it opens up an extraordinarily broad view of historical and present-day thinking on musical notation that more or less paves the way for the ten further contributions’ interdisciplinary perspectives on the topic of music and notation. The three editors succeeded in soliciting contributions from the lecturers and panel discussion participants who appeared in the corresponding lecture series held during the winter semester of 2016/2017 at the mdw: protagonists of the current debates on writing, writtenness, literacy, and notational imagery such as Jan Assmann, Birgit Mersmann, and Sybille Krämer shed light on this topic from the horizon-broadening outside standpoints of cultural studies, science of art, and graphemic theory, while Manfred Hermann Schmid and Christian Grüny provide further enrichment from perspectives informed by music history and music aesthetics in order to also make clear the potential of the “cultural technique” of writing as it relates to music. The individual historical considerations that follow, which concern very early notational practices of the Central European, Slavic, and Byzantine Middle Ages (Max Haas†, to whose memory the editors have dedicated this volume), the role of notation in the early modern musical riddle craze (Katelijne Schiltz), the relationship between score and performance during the 17th century (Silke Leopold), and the new music of the second half of the 20th century (Dörte Schmidt), are rounded out by the meritorious nearly 40-page transcript (Sophie Zehetmayer) of a panel discussion between contemporary composers (Karlheinz Essl, Johannes Kreidler, Iris ter Schiphorst, Johannes Maria Staud) and Bernhard Günther, artistic director of the festival Wien Modern.

Even if certain music-theoretical aspects (such as the role of notation in the digital age or in non-European cultures) could only be alluded to within the space of this first volume, one does end up with a clear impression of musical notation’s exceptional function within the compositional practice of the Latin/Western sphere, with implications ranging far beyond the mere written documentation of sounds. It is thus with some justification indeed that one can be curious about subsequent volumes in this series.

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