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  • Writer's pictureJeff Lederer

Sloppy Ink on Rough Paper - Notated Music

Sloppy Ink on Rough Paper – An Essay by a composer.

When I was in graduate school in 1984 studying composition with Ramon Zupko (the period in which the first chamber piece on this program, “Song for the Kaliyuga” was created), Zupko made me create my scores on Vellum paper, with a fountain pen. I had created quite a few scores as an undergraduate student at Oberlin while studying with Wendell Logan, and some of them were pretty ambitious (like “Cruxifiction” for Soprano soloist, jazz quartet and chamber orchestra based on the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”), but I had created these pieces for various jazz groups and other ensembles in pencil on large yellow-ish pads of Judy Green score paper. This new medium of Vellum paper and fountain pen was quite different – thin, semi-translucent and brittle paper, and the ink was drawn from a small jar with a medieval instrument with a sharp end which interacted with the uneven surface of the vellum in a rough and uncontrollable way at first. The rationale for the use of ink on vellum given to me was that it could be photo-copied well using the technology of the time, but in fact even in 1984 this was an outdated and archaic medium for notating music.

The real reason for using the Vellum paper wasn’t revealed to me until later in my time with Zupko – seeing me frustrated with my sloppy penmanship in this awkward medium, Zupko finally revealed the truth to me. He required that I use it because in this process of notating music, where mistakes were scrapped off the page laboriously with a straight edge razor blade, I wouldn’t commit a single note or gesture to paper unless “I really meant it”. Ok, thanks Zupko.

I have made my musical life primarily as an improvisor, or at least operating in the regions in-between notated music and improvisation, and the mantra of “In the Moment” has guided much of my activity and thinking. Why then have I always been so interested in capturing sounds, pitches, rhythms, and fixing them to the page? It is an impulse I have had since the first piano piece I wrote (1979, also premiering on this program), and that continues up until today, although today is the first performance of any of these notated pieces. I am not a subscriber to the idea of improvisation as “speeded up composition”, or composition as “fixed improvisations” – I think the two processes are fundamentally different. When I am composing, I am quite careful; I have a roadmap in my mind and commit the ink to the vellum only when I am sure that I can satisfy the directions I have established for the musical energy. When I am improvising, there is no roadmap at all (as those who have heard me can attest to), and the musical energies go where they want to based on the situation in that exact moment and place and musical company.

We are living in a time when music has become cheap (and by cheap, I mean free), and musical sounds have become almost ubiquitous. Our current software based-notational systems famously enable a flood of new music composition. Computer based notational systems are of course a tool that is difficult to avoid and I use and love them, but the potential for cut and paste music making is there as well for our Cntrl-V generation.

I am filled with happiness and satisfaction today to have the great joy of realizing my musical mapping on the page with these wonderful performers, for the first time. It is a gift like no other, and one which will no doubt bear witness to all of the joyful and painful experiences of sloppy ink on rough paper.

Jeff Lederer, Guilford Vt - July 5, 2022

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