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drawings in the manner of musical scores

The Music of Frederick Sommer



Morality and manners serve
the behavior of our needs,
where Art remains the confessor
for artists who have something to say.
-----------------—Frederick Sommer, 1995

Score 65, performance 1 Listen, 1.04MB See Score 65, with audio link below image
Score 65, performance 2 Listen, 1.41MB See Score 65, with audio link below image
Score 60, performance 2 Listen, 2.45MB See Score 60, with audio link below image
Score 32 Listen, 1.59MB See Score 32, with audio link below image
Score 66 Listen, 522KB See Score 66, with audio link below image
All audio files are in Windows Media Audio, wma
Music (P) copyright 1998, Walton Mendelson & Stephen Aldrich


Complete CD: WMA 28MB, MP3 54MB


In 1934, Frederick Sommer visited Los Angeles. Walking through the art museum one day, he noticed a display of musical scores. He saw them not as music, but as graphics, and found in them an elegance and grace that led him to a careful study of scores and notation.

He found that the best music was visually more effective and attractive. He assumed that there was a correlation between music as we hear it and its notation; and he wondered if drawings that used notational motifs and elements could be played. He made his first “drawings in the manner of musical scores” that year. (After reviewing this text, Fred asked that I refer to his scores “only” in this way. When I suggested that it was perhaps too long to be repeated throughout the text, he laughed and said, “Well, use it at least once.”)

Although people knew of his scores, and occasionally brought musicians to his house to play them, no one ever stayed with it for long. In 1967, both Stephen Aldrich and I attended Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona, where Sommer was on the faculty. We barely knew of his reputation as a photographer, and nothing of the scores. Towards the end of September he invited us to his house for dinner, but we were to come early, and I was to bring my flute. “Can you play that?” he asked, as we looked at one of the scores, framed, and sitting atop his piano. With no guidance from him, we tried. Nervous and unsure of what we were getting into, we stopped midway through. I asked Stephen where he was in the score: he pointed to where I had stopped. We knew then, mysterious though they were, the scores could be played. On May 9, 1968, the first public performance of the music of Frederick Sommer was given at Prescott College.

Sommer had no musical training. He didn’t know one note from another on his piano, nor could he read music. His record collection was surprisingly broad for that time, and his familiarity with it was thorough. What surprised me when I first met him were his visual skills: he could identify many specific pieces and almost any major composer by looking at the shapes of the notation on a page of printed music. And being an eighteen-year-old, I did test him.

Of Sommer’s known works, his drawings, glue-color on paper, photographs, and writings, it is only these scores that have been a part of his creative life throughout the entirety of his artistic career. He was still drawing elegant scores in 1997. And like his skip reading, they are the closest insight to his creative process, thinking and aesthetic.

Technology and thirty years of playing the scores have come together to allow us to make a performance on CD. While the scores don’t have specific notes, the graphic elements direct the improvised performance. Every performance is different, but the score, through its visual organization, guides us. There are two performances each of scores 5, 60 and 65.

This example is of Score 66 (listen). Pitch and duration are shown in a general, suggestive way; whereas in the transcription of the wind instrument performance of the highlighted section pitch and time are specifically defined.

Certainly, our interpretation of the scores is idiosyncratic, and can’t be considered definitive. I do not present the scores or our performances as anything other than what they are; I do not offer them as my idea of the avant-garde in music. Realistically, they are, as with the musical compositions of photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn done on piano rolls, an interesting footnote in the history of photography and music.

The score numbers are a convenience of mine. Sommer did not have a system for numbering or titling them, nor is there any way to determine when a particular score was drawn. I grouped the performances into suites, repeating the opening piece at the end of each as a kind of coda, and giving them titles.

The instruments used are a Rowland RD-500, electronic keyboard, for recording with a Kurzweil K2500R for mastering, and a Yamaha WX11 and WT-11 electronic wind instrument and sound module, for recording and mastering. The electronic wind instrument is a clarinet-shaped instrument having five octaves and the capability of simple polyphonic playing, as heard on tracks 5, 13, and 56. Its sound was changed from violin to “swamp-synth” on track 4, and to “whistle” on track 20. The keyboard was changed on tracks 4, and 6 to strings, and track 20 to “clavichord/koto”. We recorded every practice session into a computer using Midiman Winman 2X2 MIDI interface and Cakewalk Pro Audio recording software. The CD was engineered and mastered at Sweetwater Sound, Inc., in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, by Larry Pester. Over the entirety of the two suites, nine notes were changed or deleted, most of which had been corrupted either by’ the Yamaha sound module or in converting the files from one format to another. Beyond adjusting the dynamics, creating a feeling for where the music is being performed, and whatever else is part of the arcane tools of the sound engineer, these recordings are live performances: no performance has been otherwise edited or spliced together—each is what we played, as we played it.

Fred’s musical tastes ran from early Christian chant well into the first half of the twentieth century. When I first met him, his favorite piece of music, and one which he insisted required a drink—most often his version of the Brasilian batidas: 1 part honey, 1 part lemon juice, and 3 parts tequila—was Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sinfonia d-moll. He loved Satie, and would show us how one should dance to Satie, if one wanted to—this demonstration usually occurred after the liquid preparation mentioned above was too eagerly embraced. During his last few years, his musical tastes move back to Palastrina, Josquin, and Tallis, to name a few.

Despite his knowledge and taste, and, in the beginning, my asking, he never gave me advice or made suggestions regarding the direction the performances took or of what he might have had in mind when he drew the scores. He would lay on his day bed, a few feet from the piano, and listen to us. It was enough that we were playing them. He often said, however, that “you must do no less well than you can.” And that is itself remarkable advice.

The Music of Frederick Sommer is dedicated to Fred and Frances. And I would like to acknowledge and thank Chris Pichler, Nazraeli Press, whose faith and support made it possible to see the project through. An elegant, limited edition portfolio, approximately 10¼ X 12 inches, of this CD and the scores, is available from Nazraeli Press, ISBN 3-923922-81-7, item #81-7, www.nazraeli.com, phone: 520.798.1530.

[Mendelson and Aldrich] used an electronic keyboard and wind instrument to render the impressionistic staffs and smudged notes sprinkling the pages of Sommer's art. . . . The resultant music is a slow, dizzy ascent of piano (sometimes harpsichord) notes notes peaking discordantly, then descending to the dialogic broad anchor notes of the wind instrument. Dramatic and romantic, it is also unobtrusive and mesmerizing. . . My comment is: bravo! The music stands up to the best of 20th century avant-garde composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. . . His [Sommer's] belief that the best music had the most visually attrative scores can be proven with this unique book [with CD], in which sight and sound interweave symbiotically and seductively.-----------------------------------------------—Kelly Everling, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2000


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