History Lessons dates from 1978, and was my first (and so far only) experiment with so-called “alternative” notation. It began as a study in contrasts between musical information organized and accessed sequentially, like on a tape, and that same information organized and accessed randomly, like on a disk. Traditional musical notation is usually written in a way where music proceeds linearly, as if time moves from left to right; there are ways around this, of course, but they are limited: the repeat or da capo signs, for example.
I’d always been amused by a sentence reportedly uttered by Voltaire: “History is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead.” That one sentence comprises the total sound material of the piece. I wrote out the sentence phonetically using the International Phonetic Alphabet (“histori: iz ^ pæk ^v triks wi: plei ^p^n ð^ ded”). One thing I noticed was how some phonemes are heard in only one of the words (h, o, z, æ, v, w, lei, a:, n, ð) while other phonemes can be heard in more than one word: (I, s, t, r, i:, ^, p, k).
h i s t o r i: history
i z is
p æ k pack
^ v of
i s t r k tricks
i: w we
p lei play
^ p a:n upon
^ ð the
In fact, each word contains at least one phoneme that is unique to it — except “tricks”, which is entirely made up of phonemes found in other words. But also, each word contains at least one shared phoneme, except “dead” – its two phonemes (“d” and “e”) aren’t found in any other word.
Lesson 1, subtitled “Score: Sequential Access”, consists of sixteen numbered sections of unequal length. At the end of each section the singer either proceeds on to the next one, in sequential order, or is given a choice to skip to some other alternate section, indicated in the score as a number, or numbers, between the two dots of a repeat sign.
That number may be sequentially ahead in the score (think “fast-forward”) or behind (think “rewind”). The singer is free to do as they wish. No tempo is given. While infinite loops are possible, the singer will eventually choose to move on, and will eventually get to the double bar.
Lesson 2 is subtitled “Map: Random Access”. Here the singer is faced with eight randomly accessible entry points, representing the eight different sounds which begin each word of Voltaire’s sentence. The singer constructs a “route” from each entry point, by following the notational arrows which point either “toward the word” (reconstructing the original), or “against the word” (constructing new sound combinations). The same entry point can be used more than once to construct a different route, but at least one route must be constructed from each entry point.