“Cartoons to Improvise”: Experimentation & Exploration with Graphic Notation

Illustration of a quail and musical notations

Exhibit open May 1 through June 30, 2022

All notation stemmed from an attempt to express sound in a visual medium. Through the centuries, those attempts became codified into notation systems. Graphic notation, in its current sense, is a return to those original impulses, to break through the limits and structures of traditional notation systems and generate more individualized, spontaneous performances.

Each graphic score is unique. Some are simple, some complex. Some include instructions, some leave even the interpretation of the images up to the performers. Some are thought experiments. Rarely will a composer use the same technique twice. Each rendition is idiosyncratic, wholly unlike any other performance.

Due to its interpretive and experimental nature, the art form takes some criticism. Composer/conductor Pierre Boulez said dismissively that he was: “not interested in giving the musicians cartoons to improvise.”

But for many others, graphic notation is freeing, creating more authentic communication from composer to performer to audience.

Enjoy a sampling of works from the UMKC Music/Media Library collection (and beyond!), curated by library staff, that dive into the eclectic sonic and visual experiences of graphic notation. Like what you see? Most material is available for check out.

Collection display curated by UMKC Music/Media Library staff.

Brief History of Graphic Notatin

Though graphic notation appears to be a phenomenon of the 20th century avant garde, musicians have used a variety of methods to convey their musical ideas, within and beyond traditional western notation formats.

Music notation can be dated back to the Egyptians where visualizations of musical sounds were noted as hieroglyphs. Carvings from the Pharaonic period notate hand positions related to melody and rhythm.

Ars subtilior (subtle art) was a movement from the late Medieval/early Renaissance period, in which scores were artistically rendered to create an image (AKA “eye music”), often related to the subject of the music.

Born in France, Baude Cordier (c.1380-c.1440) wrote some of the earliest examples, using coloration and other techniques. Some of his work is preserved in the Chantilly Codex, including the score for “Belle, Bonne, Sage,” in the shape of a heart, and “Tout par compas suy composés” (“With a compass was I composed”), a round written in the shape of a circle.

Western graphic notation was most prominent in the 1950s and 1960s. Experimentation with indeterminacy, improvisation, and electronics brought a need for a new way to notate music. As such, many composers turned to graphic scores or verbal notation. Often times graphic scores brought added freedom to the performer with greater room for interpretation. In the realm of electronics, composers pondered how to notate new aspects of sound and whether a score was even needed if the performer was a computer.

When visiting “Cartoons to Improvise,” learn more about the connection with visual art, how graphic notation is used in music education, and how electronic music is notated. See highlights from the collections, from John Cage’s Notations and Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21 to selections in our Shining A Light collection. And check out the LPs covers from the Marr Sound Archives, too.

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Case dimensions: 5’ long x 30” wide x 9” high sitting atop 3’ legs

Glass exhibit table


The First Floor Gallery is located just inside the main entrance of the Miller Nichols Library.

Wall with exhibit content

Conference Room 325

Located on the Third Floor of Miller Nichols Library. For access, enter the library at the north ground floor entrance or the west first floor entrance. Then take the stairs or the elevator to the third floor..

Map of third floor of Miller Nichols Library