About Active Notation

Example parametric abstractions of a phrase from Continuum with Blues.

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Active Notation is the collective name for a set of approaches that seek to ‘re-conceptualise’ the nature of notation and the performers relationship with it: that musical notation no longer needs to be fixed upon the page, but can, with computer technology, be dynamically delivered to the performer in new ways. Central to this is the use of the laptop to replace the conventional music stand. This use of the computer
as an integral element of composition makes these works for Active Notation successors to Nigel Morgan’s previous compositions with interactive systems, such as ARRAY: Compass and Interactions. The following pages provide an outline of Nigel Morgan’s pieces for Active Notation.

Continuum with Blues (for electric guitar) was the first experiment in using Active Notation to create a piece in which the entire final movement was not ‘fixed’, but could be re-ordered either by the player or computer. Furthermore, phrases in the piece may be shown with one or more parametric elements abstracted (for example, a melodic phrase may be shown with an absence of rhythmic information).
Continuum with Blues was premiered by Alan Thomas in a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University and Plymouth University during the ICCMR seminar series in 2007. The event, which has been archived here, had Nigel Morgan’s paper Re-Conceptualising Performance with ‘Active’ Notation presented in Plymouth with ‘live’ illustrations from a concert taking place on the MMU campus.


Active Notation system for Self Portrait. The screen of the musical director’s laptop (left) shows a full view of the piece, while players (right) have tailored versions for their instrumental groups.
The 2006 revision of Self Portrait (2002) used a further attribute of Active Notation to make practical the use of Open Form in a composition for ensemble of significant duration. Since the experiments in the 1950s of Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio there are now many works that adopt Open Form. However, the practicalities of working with conventionally printed scores often make engaging with this device unfeasible for players, who invariably end up playing the composer’s original realisation. Self Portrait uses network technology to address this issue – the musical director may control the movement between the various ‘panels’ that comprise the work as well as adding annotations indicating repeats and so forth. These changes are then distributed to laptops used by the players ensuring that all players see the same material simultaneously. Furthermore, virtual page turns are all initiated by the director and sent to the other machines on the network, eliminating the need for the instrumentalists to interrupt their playing or lose their place within the Open Form re-configuration of the piece.The proposed 2008 revision of Touching the Distance (for solo piano) will enable the performer to perform from a laptop with a USB foot-pedal to control page turns. The seven movements of Touching the Distance were intended not to be played in order, but to provide material from which the performer might construct their own ‘adventure’ through the provided material. Although the final movement of the printed score contains a realisation of such an ‘adventure’, the forthcoming revision will allow the performer to work easily in an Open Form context creating his or her own score using a graphical drag-and-drop system. Computer interventions may also be called upon to add an element of surprise or re-direction for the player.


Fifteen Images (Le Jardin Pluvieux)
(2009) goes beyond the use of Active Notation as a method of simply re-ordering and suggesting possible interpretations of the fully notated score. It incorporates these elements and additionally allows the performer to investigate the compositional process itself as part of a unique multilayer online score.In such a multi-layered approach the performer-improviser can decide which
representation, or representations, of the material might be displayed during performance. He or she may be happiest playing from a harmonic abstract overlaid with some rhythmic detail. Alternatively, once acquainted with the scales or colour-tonalities that each Image is based around, performance may be read from an abstracted version of the score showing no common notation at all: simply the play of colour.

Images from Pippo Lionni’s Facts of Life and John Dack’s Notes on the Realisation of Scambi.

It is envisaged that the music contained in the Facts of Life project will make Active Notation a central part of their composition, integrating visuals and audio processing into the Active scores, as well as allowing further practical engagement with Open Form. The first of these pieces will be written for cellist Peter Gregson in 2009.As part of the Middlesex University’s Scambi Project, Nigel Morgan hopes to realise an instrumental version of Henri Pousseur’s notable Open Form electroacoustic tape composition
Scambi. This Active Notation reinterpretation will allow the performer to assemble a performance in the same way that a performance of the original tape work is realised, using dynamic recording and playback to simulate the multiple speaker configurations that would be integral to a performance of Pousseur’s tape version.