Material Bias | April 20-21 | Material Cultures of Musical Notation, Utrecht University, Netherlands


You Nakai is giving a paper called “Material Bias” at the Material Cultures of Musical Notation conference at Utrecht University on Friday.

“It was David Tudor himself who rephrased ‘nature’ as ‘bias’ on a later occasion. Talking about loudspeakers, he observed: ‘Each output mechanism has its own bias. So I must see what its properties are as a natural phenomenon, and not spend my time making it do something against its nature.’ (Tudor 1972: 26) The translation of “nature” into “bias” turns the positivity of the latter into a negativity, as bias does not determine or identify, only constrain. It thereby reveals indeterminacy as a spectrum; as a matter of degree, rather than of kind. For example, a musical score can be understood as a textual bias that constrains, through symbols usually written on paper, the possibility of what can be done––a semiotic bias, so to speak. In this view, a note on a stave does not determine the sound to be produced; it merely imposes a limit on what can be done, especially in regard to pitch and duration. Other signs on the score add other constraints, such as the type of instrument to be used which is usually specified in language. There are further constraints that are unwritten yet imposed either as socio-cultural norms or physical-physiological conditions: performers, for instance, are usually expected to not hum along with whatever is being played, or to not take off their clothes while performing; they are also expected to be constrained by gravity, or to have ten fingers and two arms, no more, no less.


However, Tudor’s approach also explored another aspect of the musical score that had been relatively ignored in standard practice. Starting from Feldman’s Intersection 3 the pianist wrote out a separate realization score instead of playing directly from the composer’s score. This added yet another phase to the process of realization. And what he focused on in this phase was the physical properties of the score: taking precise measurements of the pages and using the obtained numbers in one way or another to determine parametric values. Other materials would be employed in this task of measurement, some of which Tudor even designed himself. Holzaepfel revealed two such instruments used in the realization of Earle Brown’s Four Systems (1954) to measure the horizontal lines: (1) a template with 88 tracks covering all the keys of the piano to determine exact pitch; and (2) a pair of calipers to determine exact duration. The given material biased the universe of possibilities not only through signs and norms but also through its own tangible and measurable nature. The focus of Tudor’s realization circa 1954 thus became grounded on the material bias of the score, which was not only semiotic but also physical.”