How to interpret graphic scores

I have just finished my five-date solo piano tour, ONE, which featured me as the performer, Debbie Sharp as a video installation artist, and Jacob Thompson-Bell as producer. It was a lot of fun, if a bit exhausting, and it was great to see some OCA students in the audience at two of the gigs.

My task, in the second half of each performance, was to interpret a book of graphic scores, created by Claudia Molitor. A graphic score is like a traditional score, insofar as it uses lines, dots, and other shapes to represent music. However, graphic scores tend to use non-standard symbols with no fixed meaning and they are therefore open to interpretation; if two people were to approach playing a graphic score, it is very likely that both performances would be significantly different to one another.

On the ONE tour, I was frequently asked how I was interpreting the graphic scores, to what extent I was improvising on the spot, to what extent I was memorising a pre-planned interpretation. I think the easiest way to answer this question is to discuss two of my favourite pages from the graphic score book:

Whilst a traditional score is read from left to right, start to finish, there is no need for graphic scores to be interpreted in this manner. However, in this case, I did interpret the score in this manner. I decided that the red circles were to be high-pitched major chords; red is a primary colour and major chords have a similarly bright feel to them, thus it seemed appropriate (to me, at least!) The grey circles possess a different character; they are industrial and mechanical and therefore I decided I was to perform repetitive, low-pitched, aggressive, clunky gestures (in stark contrast to the red circle material).

Consequently, each time I performed this page, a major chord was followed by a mechanical gesture, followed by two major chords etc. My interpretation of this page was pre-planned to the extent I had decided what the red circles and grey circles meant, but the major chords and the mechanical gestures changed with each performance, and there was therefore an element of improvisation too.

This page was, by a significant margin, my favourite page to play. The background is wallpaper found in Lotherton Hall in Leeds, one of our five venues, and the other elements are taken from music by composer Michael Betteridge. Unlike the other page, I did not approach this from left to right, start to finish. Instead, I saw these beautiful flowers growing organically, sinuously, out of the note E, and my interpretation followed suit; I would play the note E and a melody would develop out of that note, the texture would gradually become more complex and contrapuntal. Twice, I interrupted this material with ‘crowd sounds’ (as indicated in the score), which I interpreted as a low, indistinct rumble.

Just like the other page, my performance of this page was both pre-planned (melodies growing out of repeated E notes) and improvised (the melodies were always unique).
My approach to the other pages varied wildly; sometimes I adhered very closely to what was on the page, on one occasion I improvised an entire five minute melody based upon a single word contained within the score, sometimes I created a texture by combining two pages at once, and at one point I decided to stop playing and talk to the audience instead! Therefore there is no single, correct approach to interpreting graphic scores; a graphic score exists to help you create something beautiful, not as a series of instructions that must be followed.

If you want to have a go at performing a graphic score, why not find a copy of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise which is one of the most famous, and most extensive in existence. Alternatively, you could create your own graphic score, and persuade your friends to perform it!

Also published on Medium.


  1. Martin Devek 1 October 2017 at 1:55 pm

    Great article. Would love to have more background information about your practice thought and perhaps some externs from the concerts!

  2. Vicki Downey 16 October 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks Ben, that was really interesting. It’s great to hear commentary about modern music that helps to demystify it. You’ve explained the decision making process with examples that really help to illustrate it, and make it easier to imagine what’s involved.


Leave a Reply