Andrew Hugill on Musical Transliteracy

Professor Andrew Hugill, Director of the IOCT at De Montfort University, is credited with the first print mention of transliteracy. It appears in his book The Digital Musician (Routledge, 2008). He can also be seen speaking about musical transliteracy in this snippet from the May 2007 Transliteracy Colloquium.
Here is an excerpt from The Digital Musician:

One major respect in which the digital musician can differ from a classically trained musician is the degree of ‘musical literacy ’ they attain, in other words, the ability to read music notation. For the musician working with sounds, conventional music notation is apparently almost totally useless. It is usually inadequate to cover the complexities of timbre, timings, spectra and the rest, which are the elements of technological music-making. It carries cultural baggage that could be dropped: its scales and harmonies, its tuning system and crude rhythms, its ‘period ’ detail and emphasis on the printable ‘canon ’ of ‘masterpieces ’. It represents a musical practice, in which the musician abandons all pretence of an individual voice and slavishly treads the notated path trodden by countless thousands before, towards a performative result that is deemed to be ‘musical ’ to the extent that it seems to resemble other efforts in the same direction. The point has been argued forcefully by Trevor Wishart9 and many others that the ‘pitch lattice ’ of five-line staff notation might as well be bars on the cage that imprisons music, so completely does it embody the hierarchies of an outmoded musical system. There seems to be a strong case for abandoning its use. Music notation is really a set of instructions to performers, to make certain sounds at certain times. The fact that the music score has become an object of study, a ‘readable ’ substitute for the act of music-making, is a by-product of the evolution of, variously, academic (i.e., conservatoires, universities, etc.) and commercial (i.e., music publishers) interests. The consequences have been profound.
Christopher Small recounts10 the story that the composer Brahms turned down an invitation to attend a performance of Mozart ’s Don Giovanni because he would rather stay at home and read the score. The implication is that a performance of a piece of music is a poor substitute for the ‘object ’ that is represented in the score (and in the inner ear). Performance becomes reduction by definition. This inversion of the natural order of things seems to go against the ‘sculptural ’ approach of sonic manipulation driven by aural awareness. The supreme elements here are the sounds themselves, not any notated representation, let alone any instructions to the performers. Musical literacy may be replaced by transliteracy, which has been defined by Sue Thomas as follows: Transliteracy is a new term derived from the verb ‘to transliterate ’, meaning to write or print a letter or word using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or language. Today we extend the act of transliteration and apply it to the increasingly wide range of communication platforms and tools at our disposal. From early signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV and film to networked digital media, the concept of transliteracy provides a cohesion of communication modes relevant to reading, writing, interpretation and interaction.
This term is equally relevant to music as to any other medium. The ability to ‘read ’ across a range of software and tools, media and platforms and creative and performance situations is crucial. The digital musician must be able to adapt rapidly and comfortably to an increasingly varied world. This transliteracy might even, under the right circumstances, include an ability to read conventional music notation, in order to be ready for those situations in which the digital musician encounters other musicians who have that kind of literacy. In addition, there may be situations in which the production of some kind of ‘score ’, be it graphical or textual, technical or conventionally musical, becomes necessary. The essence of transliteracy is that there are many musical situations in which various forms of ‘notation ’ may be used and for which the digital musician should be prepared on a need-to-know basis.

Hugill, A. (2008) The Digital Musician. New York: Routledge. pp.122-123


One thought on “Andrew Hugill on Musical Transliteracy

Comments are closed.