Contemporary Notation and Limited Indeterminacy: Roger Reynods'

"...From Behind the Unreasoning Mask"




David Loucky




In preparing a work of contemporary music for public performance, the interpreting musician should ask himself a series of questions: Who is the composer of this piece? What are his compositional ideals? What are his objectives for this piece? How does he seek to realize them? Investigation into such topics can yield worthwhile clues especially for the performance of a complex work. Roger Reynolds' "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" for trombone, percussion, assistant percussion and four channel tape, is such a piece. This study will examine Reynolds' ideas about traditional and contemporary notation, some ideals for the performance of his works, and specific examples from this piece, which illustrate the use of notation to achieve Reynolds' compositional aesthetic.



"...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" was composed in 1975. In the same year, Roger Reynolds published a theoretical treatise entitled Mind Models.[1] In a chapter on notation, Reynolds outlines six functions of traditional notation and discusses five characteristics of what he considers effective notation. These ideas are summarized as follows.


The primary role of notation is to transmit a composer's intent, first to the performer, and via the performer to the audience. With the growth of technology, this function can now be served by means other than printed symbols: tape, film, digital storage and video.


Another purpose of traditional notation is to store a composer's ideas both in time and space. As music continues to combine sound with visual media, however, such notation becomes increasingly difficult. Because traditional symbols are chiefly concerned with a sound result, multi-media pieces often require a composer's immediate presence in preparation for a performance.


Reynolds' third function of notation is for abstract representation. The ability to represent a musical idea abstractly is essential in the crystallization process of composition. It allows the composer to rearrange and modify ideas quickly and easily. A well developed abstract picture also enables one to accurately remember far more material than specific standard symbols can.

A function of notation that primarily serves the performer is that of a liberating reference. During actual performance, the notation should act as a set of cues, to which the players refer when necessary. Simple representation of materials allows the performer to concentrate on the details of the music, inflection, tone color, rhythm, intonation and so on. An interesting factor in Reynolds' discussion is his suggestion of notational "modes" for complex situations: one for technical mastery, one for exploration of musical relationships, and the last for reference in performance.


A fifth role of musical notation is its capacity for the generation of richness. Musicians bring various resources from experience to notated concepts, and these resources adapt and enlarge the musical substance of a work. Thus compositions maintain an existence beyond the score. The notation must assume a wealthy tradition of performance practice that invariably serves as a guide in the development of a performance.


Reynolds lists the process of communication with the self as his final function of notation. Sketches, notebooks, photos and tapes can be revisited at later dates, and the transmitter of information becomes the receiver. This function seems akin to that of abstract representation. Both are concerned with the development of ideas over the course of time, during the crystallization process of composition. The sketches are valuable in that they allow ideas to develop at an unconscious level. When reconsidered, the sketched idea can become more developed and more deeply rooted.

I find that composition involves a certain necessary schizophrenia. That is to say,I have at the same time to maintain a complete confidence in the correctness and the force of my initial decisions while at the same time withhold final agreement until I've found the various portions of the totality... During the tool-building stage... the results are never completely foreseeable. Things that emerge...can alter theway in which I finally realize the initial ideas... Thus, there is a fair amount of interaction.[2]

Reynolds also outlines five essential elements of "good" or effective notation.[3] The first of these, economy, calls for the communication of musical materials accurately and compactly. "Germinal brilliance seems to flourish with brevity and conciseness of instruction..."[4] Symbols should be primarily graphic and secondarily verbal. Graphic symbols are used to represent events or actions. Extended processes or attitudes, however, are better expressed by words or flow charts comprised of arrows, brackets and the like. Reynolds recommends that the composer deviate from traditional notational symbols only when absolutely necessary. Results will be optimal when the performer is on as familiar turf as possible.


A second criterion for effective notation is allowance for a broad scope. Too often notation calls the performer's attention to either minute detail or broad outline. Good notation should make the entire range of a composition clear, as the listener attempts to comprehend the work. Not only must the sequence of detail be evident (microscopic), but the context must be apparent as well (macroscopic).


Generality is the qualifying criterion for economy. Symbols in a successful notational system must be nonspecific enough to allow for a variety of situations. Symbols should be suggestive without being restrictively precise.


Notation must be appropriate. Symbols and the manner of their presentation should reflect the quality of a composer's compositional position. They should also imply the nature of the composer's expected results in performance.


The final guiding criterion for effective notation is clear definition of terms. Decisions must be made regarding the "knowledge, ability, or good will" of the performers. Those symbols or words which are unfamiliar to the average performer should be clarified, and undesirable (but traditional) approaches should be ruled out.


"...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask"

Reynolds offers the following introduction to this piece:

From Behind the Unreasoning Mask" (From "The Quarter Deck" in Moby Dick by Herman  Melville) is framed and terraced by 6 series of unique transient events that are arrayed into a sonic grid. They comprise the mask from behind which the live performers make their tatement. The taped sounds act as cues, beginning, ending, redefining live events. The tape should be reproduced at a forceful level, but one that the live players can challenge and occasionally equal. A constant interplay of changing attitudes is inherent in the score between the different aspects of the actions simultaneously performed by one performer (e.g., the performer is sometimes asked to maintain two patterned series of accelerations and ritards simultaneously, yet independently)."[5]

It should be obvious that this piece must be experienced in concert. The visual aspects of a massive percussion set-up, the maneuvering from instrument to instrument, and the rotating movements of the trombonist responding to the loudspeakers located in each corner of the hall cannot be adequately described on paper or fully experienced aurally. As complicated as the piece is, and as imperfect as a performance of it may be, it never fails to make an impression on the audience. Reynolds does not make use of theatrical gesture for its own sake, however, and severely criticizes such practice. "...Theater (too often, amusement) as a substitute for self-sufficient sound is not defensible in the way that theatrical elaboration or illumination of sound materials is."[6]

It is significant that Mind Models and "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" were both published in 1975. A brief look at the notation of the piece reveals direct connections between Reynolds' theory and his practice.


Reynolds chooses to notate vocal sounds by the use of traditional notes with the addition of a word or phrase: "Hum," "Sing ingressively," "Sing egressively." Other contemporary composers prefer to indicate white notes for singing and black notes for playing. In his Sequenza V for solo trombone, a notational landmark in the repertoire, Luciano Berio uses the symbol of a white note with a superscribed left-facing arrow to designate ingressive singing (Example 1).

Example 1: Berio, Sequenza V at rehearsal "B".

Berio Sequenza V   1963 by Universal Editions (London) Ltd. London. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of

European American Music Distributors Corporation, sole U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition (London) Ltd., London.


Reynolds' and Berio's differing notational preferences can also be seen in their symbol choices for mute effects. Whereas Berio adds a separate line to every system for the notation of the plunger, Reynolds favors the now standard symbols of the jazz tradition (Example 2). While each of these approaches has distinct advantages, Reynolds' method eliminates the need to learn a new language or dialect of symbols. The performer simply reads a word or sees an already familiar symbol and then attends to the task of producing the requested effect.

                                          Example 2: Plunger notation in "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 12'26" to 12'36".




                         Example 3: "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 2'13" to 4'21".

                                                                  1975 by C.F. Peters Corporation. All examples in this paper used by permission.


These two examples illustrate Reynolds' concern for economy in notation. The notation is intended to communicate accurately and succinctly. Deviation from traditional symbols occurs only when these symbols cannot communicate effectively - even with the addition of a word of explanation. The technical demands in Reynolds' music are already considerable. His notational ideals reflect a desire to make the business of understanding his written symbols and producing his intentions as straightforward as possible.


There are numerous possible examples from this piece that could be used to illustrate "appropriate notation," reflecting the quality of the composer's compositional position. Perhaps the most striking compositional intent is Reynolds' desire for the performers' creative input. While the score is carefully notated, there are many places where "ad lib" or similar phrasing is used to indicate the manner in which a section is to be executed. A collaborative effort between the composer and the performers is the intended result.


A similar example of notation that implies the composer's expected results occurs at 2'13" (Example 3). The trombone begins with a 13 second phrase in response to a cue in channel 4 of the tape. The instructions indicate, "begin with effort to repeat exactly/capitalize on slight irregularities." After the seventh rendition of the phrase, Reynolds states, "Beginning here, make progressively more radical deviations from basic form." Gradually these irregularities lead to the disintegration of the initial phrase and a formation of a different three-note fragment. What is interesting about this passage is the manner in which the first phrase deteriorates and the second fragment develops. There is an infinite number of possible ways that this process can occur. Exactly how this will occur in any given performance will only be determined by the performer, yet the overall effect will be the same .


An illustration of Reynolds' "definition of terms" occurs at 2'27" in the percussion part (Example 4). The repeated B's in the xylophone are described as an "irregular pattern." Reynolds realizes that the graphic representation, already irregular, could be interpreted literally, but that is not his intent. He therefore includes a qualifying instruction which precludes such an interpretation. "Graphic indications in percussion part suggest accelerations and ritards. They are not to be taken literally (precise number or placement of notes)."

                                                           Example 4: "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 2'29" to 3'34"


What are Reynolds' views on indeterminate music?

The range of inference that one can draw from a repeatable experience is certainly one of he things that I find most delightful about art. Although many of the extraordinary experiences we have during our lives are unrepeatable, musical experience - the flow of information involving the listener in the act of anticipation and reflection - is repeatable in at least some form."[7]


Reynolds seems interested in controlling the larger structures of music, the broader scope, while leaving the details of musical interpretation up to the performer.


In his article "Indeterminacy: Some Considerations" Reynolds outlines a problem in the performance of indeterminate music, which he calls a "negative ideal" - asking the performers to avoid objectionable conventions. "These efforts are often termed successful when they conform to a negative ideal...and not because of a general recognition of skillfulness." Musicians who are trained to produce positive results will inevitably be unfamiliar and uncomfortable "'trying' to make definite actions indeterminately."


Reynolds lists two alternative approaches to a "sort of indeterminacy" that is limited and more closely tied to traditional performance training. Using standard notational technique for the most part, he composes "events too complex for practical control or phenomena which maintain a significant independence in spite of the performer's positive efforts."[8]


A splendid example from "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" that demonstrates his notation of an event "too complex for practical control," is found at 12'11" in the percussion part (Example 5). For exactly one minute and five seconds, the percussionist is asked to play a very specifically notated passage comprised of three-note chords and glissandi on vibraphone and glockenspiel. There is no regular rhythmic pulse that could help divide the 65 seconds up. After seven repetitions of the first chord, each occurring on the various septuplet subdivisions of a beat (quarter note = 60), the second chord enters. As each new chord enters, the previous chords continue their patterns. The second chord is repeated twelve times, twice at each of the various sextuplet subdivisions of a beat, before the third chord enters. The notes of the third chord are so widely spaced between the two instruments that the assistant percussionist must play the top note of the chord on the percussionist's head cue for each of five repetitions. Shortly after the introduction of the third chord, a two-note chord enters and is repeated eight times in the last seventeen seconds. If this 65 second section is performed precisely, there is a one second pause before the entrance of a general four channel crash from the tape.




                         Example 5: "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 12'10" to 13'20", percussion and assistant

How is the percussionist to play this section accurately time after time? How can a performer feel an accurate one second pulse for 65 seconds when there are no regularly occurring reference cues in either the tape or the trombone part, and when the percussion part itself is only rarely "on the beat?" The use of a stopwatch or a metronome with only a light cue would simply give the performer one additional thing to look at. The inclusion of any time keeping device, regardless of its accuracy, faces the problem of when to start it. What about minute inconsistencies in the speed of the tape deck? How can the percussionist give an accurate cue to the assistant percussionist in such a thick texture, and how can the assistant play exactly on cue?

In rehearsals and performances, despite their sincerest diligence and most profound efforts, my percussionists invariably discovered that they were not always properly lined up with the tape cues. Just to get realigned would involve skipping material, adding material (silence) or altering speeds to gradually become more closely matched up. In any case, this act of getting back on track necessitates further divergence from the actual score. Is such a realignment error to be regarded with greater or lesser sympathy?


Reynolds, of course, expects that the players will make every positive effort to realize the notated intent. In the process, the performer will obtain "an anticipated but unpredictable result."[9] Something visual will also be conveyed to the audience, which is one of Reynolds' interests as well.

In the final analysis, however, any performance will predictably be fraught with small and large "mistakes" when compared to the score - mistakes in pitch, tempo, rhythm, dynamics and ensemble. Such a result, it must be concluded, is exactly what Reynolds expects and intends. He knows that such a passage is "too complex for practical control" and that there will be numerous inaccuracies in any performance of it. Which inaccuracies will occur in any given performance is a question that falls into Reynolds' concept of limited indeterminacy.


Reynolds' second suggestion for arriving at an indeterminate result is to notate "phenomena which maintain a significant independence in spite of the performer's positive efforts." A specific example that he lists in this article is also found in our music example: "the shifting density patterns produced by a set of Japanese glass wind chimes in motion."[10] (Example 6)

                         Example 6: "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 3'20" to 3'25", wind chimes, percussion


Another phenomenon is readily identified: the point in time at which the bass drum head will begin to vibrate in response to a superball mallet rubbed consistently against it (Example 7).

                Example 7: "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 13'30" to 13'47", assistant


Other natural phenomena have less to do with the characteristics of the instrument and more to do with those of the individual performer. In a lengthy section without tape accompaniment at 7'50", the trombonist is directed to play for about one minute without a break in sound (Example 8). Continuous sound is maintained by playing and/or singing egressively and by singing ingressively on a given pitch. Reynolds specifies time durations for each note, whether played, sung or ingressively sung, but actual time durations for these notes must necessarily be determined by the lung capacity and breath control of the individual player. It is exceedingly difficult to sing ingressively for five seconds at a loud dynamic. The lungs inflate quickly. Thus a player with greater lung capacity has the potential to sing such a note for a longer time span and at a louder dynamic than a player with smaller lung capacity.


Finally, possible dynamic levels, especially in the last four minutes of the piece, will be highly individualized, based on the performer, his natural stamina, his experience in conserving energy, the program's previous content and a host of other factors. Such natural and unique characteristics of instruments and performers produce musical results which cannot be entirely predicted or modified. This must certainly be Reynolds' intent.


Although potential for "error," both great and small, is extremely high in a piece of such complexity, Reynolds never condones careless, underrehearsed or sloppy performance. Throughout the notated score are verbal phrases of encouragement, which are overwhelmingly positive in wording: "repeat exactly," "keep...tremolo going," "strive for perfect pitch and speed stability," "imitate vibraphone vibrato precisely," "maintain intensity." Reynolds is attempting to anticipate the points at which discouraged players will settle for less than acceptable results. He maintains that careless or unskilled performance will be displeasing both to the composer as well as to the listener. "It is a serious miscalculation to expect that people will be moved, altered, or enlightened by observing inept performance..."[11]



                       In approaching a theory of the "work," and which renditions are true performances of the work, Reynolds would probably agree with Walton's definition: "...I propose that we consider a sound-event a performance of a given work just in case its role, in the context in which it occurs, is to present the sound-pattern identified with that work."[12] Walton's theory makes allowance for unintended divergence from the score in actual performance due to natural phenomena, characteristics of the instrument or of the performer. Indeed, since a fundamental characteristic of the performer is the basic fact of his humanity, one can hardly expect completely inerrant performance of all things at all times.





                                                Example 8: "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask" at 7'50" to 9'40".


           Man is not Machine. Inaccuracies due to human flaws and inadequacies must somehow be viewed positively, just as the rich potential of human nature is viewed positively. Machine is also not Man, and therefore cannot feel, respond sensitively or freely and flexibly interpret. Surely this is one of Reynolds' purposes for this piece: the juxtaposition of Man and Machine. Each can be simultaneously viewed positively or negatively. The tape performer: perfect and consistent or inflexible and monotonous. The human performer: inaccurate and imprecise or innovative and dynamic. Consistent and undeviating results can be expected from a machine. It is the human ingredient that yields a level of uncertainty and spontaneity in performance that Reynolds finds intriguing.




Boulanger, Richard, "Interview with Roger Reynolds, Joji Yuasa, and Charles Wuorinen," Computer Music Journal, Vol. 8, Winter, 1984.


Reynolds, Roger, "...From Behind The Unreasoning Mask", C. F. Peters, Corp., New York, 1975.


Reynolds, Roger, "Happenings in Japan and Elsewhere," Arts in Society, Vol. 5, Fall, 1968.


Reynolds, Roger," Indeterminacy: Some Considerations," Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1965.


Reynolds, Roger, Mind Models: New Forms of Musical Experience, Praeger

Publications, New York, 1975.


Walton, Kendall L., "The Preservation and Portrayal of Sound Patterns," In Theory Only, Vol. 2, Nos. 11-12, 1977.












[1] Reynolds, Roger. Mind Models: New Forms of Musical Experience. Prager PUblishers, New York, 1975, pp. 161-166.

[2] Boulanger, Richard. "Interview with Roger Reynolds," Joji Yuasa and Charles Wuorinin," Computer Music Journal, Vol.8, Winter 1984, p.49.

[3] Reynolds, Roger. Mind Models, pp.166-176.

[4] Reynolds, Roger. "Indeterminacy: Some Consideration," Perspectives of New Music. Vo..4/1, 1965, p.137.

[5] Reynolds, Roger. "...From Behind the Unreasoning Mask, C.F. Peters Corp., 1975, Score notes.

[6] Reynolds, Roger. "Indeterminacy: Some Consideration," Perspectives of New Music, Vol.4\1, 1965, p.136.

[7] Boulanger, Richard. "Interview with Roger Reynolds, Joji Yuasa and Charles Wuorinen," Computer Music Journal, vol.8, Winter 1984, p.45.

[8] Reynolds, Roger. "Indeterminacy: Some Considerations," Perspectives of New Music Vol.4\1, 1965, p.137.

[9] Reynolds, Roger. ibid.

[10] Reynolds, Roger. ibid, p.139.

[11] Reynolds, Roger, "Happenings in Japan and Elsewhere," Arts in Society, Vol.5, Fall 1968, p.97.

[12] Walton, Kendall L., "The Presence and Portrayal of Sound Patterns," In Theory Only, Vol.2\11-12, 1977, p.13.