Half Notes: Drawn Together

Half Notes: Drawn Together

By Dan Lory

I am not a professional musician. I am barely a musician at all. I took accordion lessons as a child, so I can read music when I have to. But when I hit my teens, I put the accordion in storage and forever after followed Tom Waits’ maxim: A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.

In high school I put down the sheet music, too, and picked up the guitar. Listening to vinyl albums over and over until the grooves wore out, I learned by trial and error to make the same sounds come out of my guitar. Kinda.

I know a little something about making music without reading music.

But when I was shown a preview of the animated graphic scores that CCO’s musicians will be interpreting in the June virtual music releases, my first reaction was “Say what!?”

A video of glass jars in various levels of fullness/emptiness.

A scroll unfolding, with an end page full of question marks of various sizes.

Not a half note in sight.

I could see that this musical event would be calling me to put away not just my accordion and my sheet music, and my guitar, but also every preconception I have about what music is and how it is created. You know the drill: Composers have musical ideas. They convert those ideas into little circles on lined paper that musicians, who have learned the language of music, can read. The musicians, with the help of a director, use their instruments to convert the notation into exactly what the composer intended. The audience listens and often enjoys.


Not this June. In CCO’s Drawn Together series, the composers will communicate their musical intentions not with sheet music, but with seemingly undecipherable graphics and images. How does that work? When musicians sit down with an animated score, instead of traditional written score, how do they even know how to begin? Or how to end? What’s a poor musician to do?

Pitying their plight, I asked several musicians who will be performing in CCO’s June series to tell me how they planned to deal with this uncertainty, this lack of direction. I was surprised by their unanimous reaction, summed up by Dalia Chin (flute): “…the possibilities are pretty unlimited and that is exciting as a performer!”  

What I see as uncertainty, they see as opportunity. They pointed out that it’s not really accurate to say that the musicians will be making music without the aid of a score. It’s just that the score—represented in animated graphics—is more invitation than direction.

Graphic notation is based on the conviction that music is always there inside us, waiting for something to kindle it, to call it forth. With a graphic score a composer throws her cards on the table and invites the musicians to read them as they see them. The graphic score sparks a collaboration between composer, director, and musicians, where instinct takes precedence over experience; intuition over reason. The music that eventually comes forth may not be at all the hand that the composer thought she dealt. The result is a musical creation that none of the players fully envision at the start.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. If music is always there inside us—latent, vibrant, just waiting to be tapped—then what’s stopping me from making music myself? Here. Now. Rather than be a passive listener to what others create, why not ask myself what those animated graphic scores inspire in me? Why not add my own two beats to the musical creation that emerges?

With Drawn Together, that is what the Chicago Composers Orchestra is inviting us to do. Each animated graphic score will be shared with us as we listen to what the musicians are creating from them. Whether you consider yourself a musician or not, rather than just listen passively, try to open your heart and your mind and see what each animated score calls forth from you. You might surprise yourself. And you will become part of the process of translating an animated drawing into living music.

CCO is a community that stands on four pillars—composers, musicians, director, and audience. During the month of June, in a way we have never done before, CCO will create the opportunity for all of us together—all four pillars—to be inspired by a common score, and together to draw a musical vision.

In that act of creating together, we will create community. We will be drawn together by what we draw together.

– Dan Lory

Drawn Together Broadcasts Mondays in June. Join us for live-streamed releases. Hear performances of animated scores by CCO musicians and see a live interpretation by a different orchestral musicians each week. Listen, watch, and engage in a Q&A session with the musicians and composers.

– title image from score by composer Joseph Colombo

About Half-Notes:

Half-Notes are reflections by Dan Lory, CCO’s non-expert in residence, on CCO’s programs and concerts.

Dan Lory calls himself a music lover who is unencumbered by knowledge of music theory. Enjoy Dan’s take on CCO’s June 2020 series titled Drawn Together. We think these reflections will help all listeners—from music experts to the theory-unencumbered among us—enjoy the program more fully.