Tablature Overtures

A recent discussion on one of the clawhammer banjo lists touched on two perennial questions of tablature:

  1. Is it a substitute (or better) than learning a tune from a recording?
  2. Why are some tabs so hard to make sense of?

I’m not going to tackle the first one other than to say: both are useful, in my experience. But the second question got me thinking about the differences between tablature and other notation systems.

Tablature describes what to do, not what sound to produce

As someone who learned traditional western notation first, this was a revelation to me. Tablature seems more like a cousin to Labanotation or other dance notation systems than to traditional music notation. I think the possibilities of this type of notation are worth exploring in other musical contexts.

Why is this type of notation a good fit for the banjo? For another instrument (played in a traditional manner) describing physical action may be overkill. For example, each key on a piano produces a unique sound, so there’s no ambiguity when Common Practice music notation specifies a particular pitch. A few fingering notes about how to play the passage usually suffice. The banjo, among other instruments, can produce the same pitch in a number of different ways, so tab can greatly clarify the intended way to perform. This is especially important given multiple tunings that are common with old time banjo music.

(As an aside, I’ve often played around with “performing” the same tune using very different tunings. The motions are identical, but the resulting sound can be quite different. I recently read that gamelan musicians may play the same piece in a different tuning and will refer to the resulting music by a different name altogether.)

This action-oriented quality of tablature can also be an advantage for conveying stylistic aspects of a particular performer. For instance, certain passages may be just as easily performed using pull-offs or drop-thumb technique, so the choice of which to use can illuminate a particular performer’s approach. Of course, tablature is no better than any other notational system at conveying subtle aspects of style such as rhythmic feel or accent.

So again, why can it be hard to make sense of certain tablature? Because it describes what to do and not what sound to produce. If you don’t already know what a particular tune is supposed to sound like, you may have trouble decoding the tablature. And to make it even harder…

Tablature differentiates musical function even less than Common Practice notation

It’s usually easy to tell the intended function of each musical part in common practice notation such as melody vs. accompaniment or figure vs. ground. Sometimes these distinctions are accidental or stylistic. For example, melodies tend to involve the highest notes, and harmonies tend to be outlined by bass notes which are–not surprisingly–low, so the parts are often written on separate staves or their stems point in opposite directions. Foreground and background parts are often differentiated rhythmically and thus barred separately. Even when such rules break down, they often do so in a predictable fashion (i.e. the tenor line carries the melody in Shape Note singing). Or course, anyone who has looked at late-romantic or impressionistic piano music knows that ambiguity abounds even in Common Practice notation, especially the further the music itself gets from the Common Practice era.

Tablature is much less clear, even when given something as simple as an 8-bar, tonal fiddle tune. Of course, some gestures are easy to decode. The typical clawhammer bum-ditty is an obvious rhythm and harmonic filler, but even a string of 8th notes could be ambiguous, with some belonging squarely to the melody and others serving as decoration. Usually the notes played by the fifth string drone are a safe bet to belong to the accompaniment, but with “melodic” clawhammer styles you can no longer assume that activity on the fifth string is unrelated to the melody.

Now back to our original question: why are some tabs so hard to understand? Because with tablature, every action specified must be decoded at least twice: once into sound, and then that sound must be placed in a musical context.

ASAC Presents The Synapse Brothers, Matts Weston and Davignon

Albany Sonic Arts presents an evening of percussive-driven electronic music featuring The Synapse Brothers (Bob Gluck, John Myers), Matt Weston and Matt Davignon.

Saturday July 25 @ 8pm
Upstate Artists Guild
247 Lark St.
$5 suggested donation

If you’d like to study up for this show, check out Davignon’s Some Notes on Drum Machining.

Artist Bios:

The Synapse Brothers fuse together elements of electroacoustic music with improvised jazz and funk. Bob Gluck on the keyboard and electronics and John Myers playing guitars and MIDI-guitar will play live. They will be virtually accompanied by sound designer Pat Gleeson’s lustrous beats and sounds. Bob is well known for his presence on the local jazz scene. His repertoire spans jazz performance both acoustic and with electronics and free improvisation, avant-garde concert music and music for electronic expansions of acoustical instruments, including the ram¹s horn, Disklavier (computer-assisted piano) and Turkish baglama saz. Bob Gluck is Associate Professor of Music and Director of the University at Albany Electronic Music Studio.

Matt Weston has recently relocated to Albany, and we couldn’t be luckier to have such an incredible musician in our midst. Matt plays percussion and electronics, and has performed throughout the US and in Europe. He has appeared on CNN, VH1, and CBS TV. He has studied and/or collaborated with Arthur Brooks, Bill Dixon, Kevin Drumm, Milford Graves, William Parker, Jack Wright and others. He has recorded for the Tautology, Sachimay, Breaking World Records, Imvated, Crank Satori, BoxMedia, and Drag City labels. He currently records for the new 7272music label. In addition to his solo work, Weston is a member of Barn Owl (with guitarist Chris Cooper and bassist Andy Crespo); and is guitarist with Thrillpillow (with guitarist/vocalist Plum Crane, bassist/vocalist Maggie Nowinski, and drummer James Z).

Matt Davignon is an experimental musician living in Oakland, California. Since 1993, he has developed his own unique style of music, which focuses largely on textures, arrhythmic patterns and musical imperfections. Since 2004, he has been working almost exclusively with a drum machine. Instead of using it as a rhythm device, he plays the pads manually while processing the sounds through an array of effects devices and samplers, improvising music made of organic-sounding textures, hums, gurgles and crackles. Matt is also a member of the Crank Ensemble, and is the founder of the Pmocatat Ensemble. He’s active in organizing experimental & unusual music performances in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to being responsible for such events as The San Francisco Found Objects Festival, and regular DroneShift concerts, he’s one of the curators for the Luggage Store Gallery Experimental Music Series.

John Cohen Banjo Workshop on the Down Home Radio Show

I’ve been picking and grinning along to this recording of a banjo workshop led by John Cohen. He covers so much stylistic territory for old time banjo and touches on some of my favorite players. Mentioned repeatedly is Cohen’s classic banjo compilation, High Atmosphere. It’s great to hear Cohen talk about the tunes and the players. Even better is hearing him marvel at the possibilities afforded by different picking styles and tunings. Host Eli Smith has also put together a companion mix tape of the original recordings. Highly recommended.

ASAC Presents The Human Quena Orchestra, Grab Ass Cowboys and More

Much more…so much more. Albany Sonic Arts pulls out the noise stops for tomorrow’s show.

Firday July 17 @ 8pm
Upstate Artists Guild
247 Lark St.
$5 suggested donation

The Human Quena Orchestra – Punishing duo from PA/CA on Crucial Blast Records.
“like having your face ground into a brick wall” -Signal to Noise Magazine

Grab Ass Cowboys – Albany freeformnoiserock cheapskates

Requiem – 1/2 of Human Quena Orchestra…sweet drone shindig

Derealize – (also known as Worlds of Sh*t) – a one man harsh noise mugging