Color in Notation
Submitted by Sandra Aberkalns, Robin Hoffman, and Charlotte Wile - January 16, 2001
On December 15, 2000, Sandra Aberkalns, Robin Hoffman, and Charlotte Wile met at the Dance Notation Bureau to discuss the use of color in notation. Following is a transcript of an audio recording of that conversation.
SANDRA: Color has recently been introduced into LabanWriter as something that can be used by anyone if they have a color printer. There have been precedents for scores being done in color. The first one was by Clover Roope in 1965 to 1966, and she used it in the Martha Graham technique. The colors that she used were red, to show motivating movement; green, which showed positions more fully described in the glossary; blue, which I think is redundant, because it shows movements resulting from motivation; and black pencil, to show other details. In the year 2000 I notated a William Forsythe work, Artifact II, using color (blue, red, and black). The information is available in the score. Blue was basically to show choices that the dancers can make within the choreography. Red was used to show specific improv. And black was used for notation as we understand it. Charlotte Wile has recently played with the use of color, and I will let her describe briefly how she has used it so far.
CHARLOTTE: The way that I'm using color can be seen in specific postings on the bulletin board [Wile, September 22, 2000 in the Effort discussion; Wile, November 15, 2000 and December 11, 2000 in the Phrasing discussion].
SANDRA: This was for Effort?
CHARLOTTE: I used color to expand the meaning of specific symbols, in this case the meaning of Effort and Effort Phrasing indications, which you can see in my postings.
SANDRA: The colors?
CHARLOTTE: The colors that were used--I can't remember, but I didn't think the colors were as important as the concepts that I tried to get across. One had to do with differentiating between inner Effort and outer Effort. So that one color--maybe it was red--meant this is what I feel I'm doing, and the other color would say this is what the viewer thinks I'm doing. And they may be different.
SANDRA: Oh cool!
ROBIN: So intent versus the perceived effect.
CHARLOTTE: Exactly, exactly. So it was a different use of color than I think Sandra was going for. And in the other posting I used the idea of color to differentiate between varying degrees of Effort in Effort Phrasing. So if you just wrote an Effort Phrasing symbol in black, it left open the degree of the use of energy. So it could be a small amount of energy that's expanded, or a medium amount of energy that's expanded, or an intense, high amount of energy that's expanded. Then you could differentiate this with color. Say you have an accent, I used yellow--I can't remember--no, I used green. Green would mean just a slight accent, a slight amount of energy used. Blue? Was that it? Yes, blue meant a medium amount of accented energy, and red was a very intense accent. So you had the option then of either keeping it open, or being specific through the use of color.
ROBIN: I like the idea of this because I think that it gives you a really quick visual clue about the lay of the land when you're looking through a piece. I mean, and I'm certainly less familiar with Motif than Structured Notation, but you already get that from looking at a score just by the density of symbols. Or the length of symbols (which can tell whether things are more legato or staccato), or lots of turns, or lots of jumps, or what have you. But, what you are describing is the use of energy. It seems like that would be very visual, and it could be--I want to say--I don't think I'm using the right word--empathetic. I mean--because we respond to colors. And if you're associating a color with a certain feeling, like I think you are, then you might start getting those feelings as you start reading the score --as you're looking at it. You might start having a feeling about how you want to perform it before you actually put it into your body. Which could in some circumstances be a real good thing.
CHARLOTTE: That's an excellent point.
SANDRA: Also, because in music I have heard musicians complain that in certain older pieces of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, or whichever one of the "Greats," that, for example in the piano pieces, if it says strong, they don't know how strong. What did strong mean? It is a relative term.
SANDRA: So the use of color--it's still relative, but it gives you a better indication than writing a ''p" or double "p," or a triple "p." They all mean various degrees of pianissimo, but it still--it zones in just a little more while still leaving flexibility. So that's really nice.
ROBIN: And it is always going to be up to the performer to decide what strong means or what strong feels like I guess. When Sandra did her score, and talked about this, the idea that sparked in my mind was with regard to the use of color to describe improvisational sections or parts of the choreography that required some improvisation on the part of the performer. Or required some decisions (personal decisions), things that weren't set in stone. Maybe you would want to give a suggestion to the reader, but you would also want to make it clear that it was up to the reader to make it his or her own, or to make choices. Not to just strictly follow what someone had done before. I'm concerned about one score, in my rather lengthy cue from my last couple years at Taylor company, that has a lot of physical comedy in it. And physical comedy, I think, often has to be very personal. It has to be meant. I wouldn't perform it as perhaps someone in the first cast did, because I would have to mean it in my own specific way. But I need to write something. And sometimes writing a symbol with an ad-lib. sign next to it is just not enough. I mean, we all discuss what that means anyway. So I'm not sure if it's the solution or not, but that was the first idea that popped into my head when I saw how Sandra was using color to make clear when a dancer needed to make choices in the Forsythe work. Because that's a big concept in the dance.
SANDRA: So, the use of color would facilitate to the reader's eye when the dancer moves into this more flexible area. So that's clear. But would it also get rid of a lot of word notes and extraneous material that you would maybe need if it were left in black? Or will you still need copious word notes to define the parameters of what the improv. is?
ROBIN: I think in the case that I'm considering here, that word notes are definitely going to be needed. There's just no way around it, because there's a character background to be discussed, and there are some words that describe motivation that I think would just be foolhardy to do without. I don't know. Not that you necessarily wouldn't still come up with the answers, but I think that the word notes would give you that extra clue, like they often do. Any time you have something from the choreographer that came out of his mouth at that moment--you just can't leave it out. But sometimes there's a step, or gestures associated with the step, or the way of using the torso to express the idea (especially if you have to use the torso or the arms to express the idea). That's something that's not set in stone. The idea is more important than the actual writing out of any specific gesture, I suppose. And that's where you might use color. I don't know if it's really better than how we've dealt with it before, but I think it's worth exploring. That's what I wonder about. Sometimes I come to those things [in my scores] and I'm just like... well...you know, I don't know what to write, except that this should be improvised along the lines of what's written here, and it just seems like I could do better with such a devise.
CHARLOTTE: What was striking for me in Sandra's score, and what you're talking about, is that you are realizing that there are many different levels, or types of improvisation.
CHARLOTTE: Or genre of improvisation. So what this means is that we have to then start modifying the ad. lib. signs. But with the use of color, this eliminates that need. This gives us a whole other range of possibilities for indications, without having to invent...
ROBIN: ...new symbols
CHARLOTTE: ...new symbols for this new idea: improvisation.
ROBIN: And without having to crowd the page more.
SANDRA: But it's hard to believe, I mean there's been improv. as long as there's been dance. Has choreography changed so much that we really do need color to show this new kind of relationship with the choreographer/dancer that wasn't there before? That the way people used to write ad. lib, or improv. was absolutely appropriate, and they really didn't need any more? Or is it just possible that back in the "old days" they just figured that they didn't want to be bothered.
ROBIN: I think that a lot of times in some of the older scores that I've read, it was a case of things being quite codified. And possibly it hadn't occurred to anyone yet, which is completely natural and understandable, that there would be people reading it who wouldn't already be familiar with a certain technique. Like in the old ballet scores they don't get into a lot of stylistic detail very often. And that's possibly intentional, because with whatever style you're used to in your company, you'll probably perform it. But lately we've seen scores that have attempted to describe stylistic detail. For instance, when you [Sandra] were working with Winthrop Corey you were trying to capture the wisdom of someone who was coaching, and trying to capture a specific wisdom about a style. So even in ballet, which is codified, like a Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, there can be a great deal of detail, and there can be choices. And when you're detailing something so specific as what this person was coaching, and the legacy that they were giving, then I think that you want to be that detailed. You want to go there.
SANDRA: But also I think one of the things that has changed, and someone on our bulletin board can correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that improvs. in the past were kind of--they started out as improvisations, but by the time rehearsals were finished they were pretty much set, because the choreographer… Paul Taylor does that. It starts out as a pure improv. But then he molds it into whatever he wants, and it does become more set, with a lot less flexibility. So, in something like the Forsythe, the whole idea of improvisation and choices is that it will be different every single performance. He doesn't want to see it set. So that does change the game a little bit...
ROBIN: Oh yes!
SANDRA: ...as to the approach that the scores need to take, I think.
CHARLOTTE: I also wonder if, in the past, when notation began, there was a need to prove that the system worked, and there was hesitancy possibly to notate improvisational pieces because one wouldn't be as apt then to say: Look! You can read back this notation exactly as it was performed. And so perhaps the dances that were chosen to notate were dances that were set. Now we have more confidence, obviously, in the system. We know that it works. We know that it's possible to write down with a great deal of accuracy movement that then can be reproduced, even when people don't know anything about the dance. And we're more confident of our ability to find ways to capture only that which is needed in an improvisational setting. Does that make sense?
ROBIN: Yes. It does. Yes. I had a thought, and it's just ... gone away somewhere. Well, it will come back to me, I'm sure.
SANDRA: Let's talk about the ramifications of color. What the pitfalls are, what it means from a technological point of view, and if there are any advantages. Before we get started, I would like to make one point. While the use of color is really pretty, and it looks really cool, and it seems to have a lot of applications----that it's already possible to use---- and we have already discussed that a little bit. It's even in music's history. Very few music scores are actually in color. Color is the bee's knees when it's really something that you need, but it's not something that you need all the time. So, I'm just saying that in music, historically, the scores that use color are very rare--they are few and far between. Just think that Mozart, Beethoven and Bach wrote some of the greatest classics without color! So, who ever wants to pick it up from there go ahead.
CHARLOTTE: I wonder if that had something to do with the difficulty of printing or reproduction? Maybe more scores will be done now in color, because we have the ability to reproduce.
SANDRA: But, just because we have the ability to do this, does this mean that we should? That's the question.
ROBIN: Obviously, we won't need it all the time, I would think. However, I guess my question----I guess we'll see this down the line----is are we going to feel the need to agree upon what certain colors mean? Or are we going to, for awhile I suppose, see how each glossary is going to be different--to see what colors a person chooses--and should it be that way? Or, should we eventually try to standardize on certain issues? Reserve certain colors to mean certain things if we find that a lot of people are using color in their scores? I'm curious about that. But, it is definitely, well, almost definitely, a result of having this new technology available to us, and the ability to reproduce. It's still expensive to reproduce. So that's one reason why it's not probably going to take off so fast quite yet. However, any time you have a new tool you don't really know, you can't really guess at the ramifications completely until you've used it for awhile. And a couple of precedents have now been set, so that's a big deal right there. But I think my experience in the Internet world where the people have tried to do very grandiose, big, ambitious projects--and some of them have been really successful and some of them have really not. And really, nobody knew what to do or what not to do until they had already made the mistakes. So we may have to go through making some mistakes and probably have a lot of spirited, healthy discussion about it too. I can imagine. I'm looking forward to that because I think that's how we all grow as notators and how the system stays alive and grows with us.
SANDRA: So, now color is available. Then the next time someone needs to say something new, where do we start moving from here?
ROBIN: Oh who knows! [Laughter] Holograms!
SANDRA: Ah, well, for Forsythe, I've already imagined a three-dimensional score. Yea, so that's almost like going into holograms.
CHARLOTTE: Three-dimensional scores, wow, what an idea!
SANDRA: I don't know if it would work though. I mean it would really need to have the right choreographer, and it would be like a mini-project. It would almost be like using the technology when you could first put video on the Internet. Most of them were what? 10-15 seconds long. If they were a half-minute it was major! For the Forsythe, on the CD-ROM, Robin and I were putting video clips that were a minute and a half plus. It was fantastic, but the technology grew that fast. So I can see starting with a short segment [in 3-d].
CHARLOTTE: People on the Theory Bulletin Board may not know about the CD-ROM that you [Sandra and Robin] created, and I wonder if you would be willingly to share a little about that. I think it was a very innovative idea that was part of this use of color. But the whole project was very exciting, and though it's a little off the track, would you share a little about that?
ROBIN: Sure. I think that our collaboration, or my support of Sandra's presentation…
SANDRA: … No, it was collaboration…
ROBIN: … was intended to really use all the tools, all the dimensions of tools that Sandra had available to her to make her point. She wanted to talk about things and show them in more than one way. She wanted to show them from more than one angle. And I think we did a pretty good job.
SANDRA: But one of my big problems was that I was having real difficulties in describing in words what the use of color meant in my score. Words were not enough in this case. So when Robin came to me with the idea of doing this CD-ROM for my presentation at the Millennium conference in Washington DC (July 2000), at first I don't think that either of us realized what the ramifications of it would be. Because it ended up not only being for the presentation, but it became an actual adjunct to the score where I could write the words saying this is what the colors mean. The CD itself reinforces, and shows over and over again, through short little clips of the same section being done by different casts, why the use of color was necessary. And because it is done in short, clean-cut clips, I think the point is made more quickly to the reader, rather than someone just watching the video over and over, because they get over stimulated. So by using these few examples…
ROBIN: … Isolated examples…
SANDRA: … yes, isolated examples, and really focusing in on the problem. Then the reader can go back and look at the entire video and not be so over stimulated, but actually be able to focus in a lot more quickly. So the CD-ROM ended up being a godsend. And it's SO William Forsythe. It's like, perfect. The use of color, the use of technology, the use of words! But, there you go back again; it fits in with the choreographic intent. I didn't choose color just for the heck of it.
ROBIN: Just because it was there. In fact, you didn't even know it was there. You weren't even using LabanWriter.
SANDRA: Yes, it wasn't even officially on LabanWriter until I was about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through the score. So I started the score before LabanWriter officially even had color.
CHARLOTTE: I think that this issue that you brought up [choreographic intent] is true for any score that we write in structured Labanotation or in Motif Description. What we choose to write--the density of the notation, the type of symbols that we use, the unit, the demarcation of units--is always dependent upon the purpose of your notation. It must be dependent upon and reflect the purpose of your notation. And I think that when a score speaks to us it is because it does reflect why the score was being written, and whom it is being written for. And you [Sandra], certainly to my mind, succeeded in doing that in your Forsythe score. There's this one moment also on the CD-ROM that I would like to point out that was just fabulous, that particularly struck me.
ROBIN: What was that?
CHARLOTTE: When you superimposed two dancers, two clips, one on top of the other, so we could see simultaneously the difference between the interpretations. Of course, in a score we can do that by showing things side-by-side. And then you did that also in the CD-ROM. It was brilliant. It was wonderful.
SANDRA: Oh, we, [Robin and Sandra] came up with that one together! We had them side-by-side, and it just wasn't working, because it was that couple on the right side of the screen. Then I said, "Well, what if we do this," and Robin said, "Well, what if we do this"? And then we did this and this and this, and put them on top of each other, and then it was like, YES! However, I would like people to know though that the CD-ROM is not available for general use. Its use is restricted. Well, actually right now, we don't even know what permission Forsythe will grant the score; if there will even be educational use.
ROBIN: Or study it.
SANDRA: Right! If you get permission to study it, will you be able to view the CD-ROM?
ROBIN: It would be so great if he would give permission for educational use.
SANDRA: Well, we'll see.
ROBIN: You never know how people are going…
SANDRA: … Somebody needs to ask!
SANDRA: Then we [DNB] can ask! So where does this all go from here?
ROBIN: I guess we just have to keep notating. And the individual projects will----it's like you [Sandra] said in your presentation for the Millennium conference: Choreography is what changes notation. Choreographers are the ones who define what direction we go as notators, and what problems we have to solve, and what solutions we come up with. So, as dance goes, there we go.
SANDRA: But in Charlotte's case, there is no choreographer driving her.
ROBIN: Oh! That's true!
SANDRA: I mean, in Effort, Laban Movement Analysis----well, no. The movement, the analysis itself would drive it a little bit, but your [Charlotte's] initial ideas and explorations into color were just driven by the idea itself.
CHARLOTTE: Well, it was also driven by my experience in working with Effort, in trying to document Effort in Motif description. And I know that in some cases I want to leave certain aspects of the Effort attitude open, and in other cases I want to become more specific, depending upon on why I'm writing. So this idea of using color seemed to present a solution to that issue. So, it wasn't that I sat down and said, "Oh, invent a symbol." It was that the symbol and the indication came out of a need--the need for differentiating between an inner attitude and an outer attitude which grew out of a discussion on the bulletin board that some of my students from the Certificate Program had. What is Effort? Is it what I feel, or is it what someone else perceives? And then, it came to me; if there is a difference, then how would we indicate that difference? So I think that most of the time our notation grows out of a movement need, or a need that we encounter in our experience as movers, or in trying to document something.
SANDRA: I would love to come across a score, although I don't know what the problems are with published music, where I would need to manipulate the music in color as well as the notation. Because there are so many times, I'll use Paul [Taylor] as an example, where the phrasing that he's listening to, or the things that he hears in the music, are emphasized very differently than how the musicians are actually hearing it. And the type of movement that is superimposed on this music is totally in contrast to this. So we could use--let's say-- red for hot, blue for cold. The music can be running hot and the choreography could be running cold. Or vice versus. I've never come across that score--yet--but I wonder if someday there would be that possibility.
CHARLOTTE: Did you [Robin] find it technologically challenging to create the CD-ROM? I know that I came up with a couple of problems with trying to put color on the HTML, which I could talk about in a second. However, I think that this idea of expanding our scores with multi-media examples is wonderful, and I'm wondering if it is something that would require the expertise that you have Robin, in working with computers?
ROBIN: I wouldn't say that it wasn't challenging for me. I mean, I had done almost everything that we did on that CD-ROM technically before. However, of course, we still ran into a few new challenges. I have a pretty fair amount of study in that kind of technology under my belt now. But I still maintain that anybody who can learn to be a notator can learn to work in a computer in that way.
SANDRA: Well, we didn't have to reproduce the color on the CD-ROM. The score, because its in color, we scanned in the pages. Then Robin manipulated it to make it as clear as possible. We had to bring things into better focus. So the color is like reproducing, like color Xerox. That's no problem on the CD-ROM.
ROBIN: Oh, so is that what you were asking?
CHARLOTTE: No, no. I was asking about what you were addressing. But yes, what Sandra was talking about was the smaller issue that I actually ended up with. These things sound small, but they loom large and can take hours and hours to solve. If something doesn't work technically, then it won't be used. If something on LabanWriter doesn't come out when you reproduce it, then you won't use it in a score. For example, if a symbol can't be drawn small enough then you end up not using it in the score. So the technical things do make a difference. And I had the problem of trying to convert LabanWriter's use of color into PhotoShop, which was the way that I then made it into the HTML document for the Web page. Right now I think that there are some bugs in LabanWriter in that regard that need to get fixed----and undoubtedly they will be.
SANDRA: So Robin, have you experimented with color on LabanWriter? How does it work?
ROBIN: I really haven't used it yet, but it's actually very easy. You select the symbols and then there's a color picker where you can choose what color you want those symbols to be.
SANDRA: How many colors are available?
ROBIN: I think that…
ROBIN: …yea, it's pretty much the full spectrum. I forget what the palette is, or if there are several palettes available. Whether it's RGB, or…
CHARLOTTE: … Enough for our needs I think!
ROBIN: At the moment certainly!
SANDRA: So you can select a whole group of symbols across the board, or you can just make one symbol in color?
CHARLOTTE: Or a part of the symbol, which is what I did on my----no I take it back. What I needed to do for my posting was to make part of my symbol one color and part of it another color. So what I did was to take what I wrote in LabanWriter and put it into [Microsoft] Word. Then you can change your symbol in Word into an object, and then turn it into a color. Sounds like a lot of work, and it can be, but the results are wonderful.
ROBIN: When the results are worth it…
SANDRA: Oh, but isn't this a can of worms? If people start doing notation symbols in two or three colors--what a mess! OK. It seems that there is room for discussion on this, and I agree with Robin that Pandora's box--well, I call it Pandora's Box. I don't know, maybe that's looking at it from a negative point of view rather than a positive. 'Cause we all know what happened to Pandora when she opened the box.
ROBIN: Well Sandra, then you're Pandora 'cause you opened the box!
SANDRA: Ah, not a good place to be! But Robin's point of view is that we just need to let it run its course and see where it goes. And then, if down the line it's necessary to make rules or guidelines as to color usage, that should come in the future. Charlotte hasn't really said anything about how she feels about all this though.
CHARLOTTE: I feel that, similarly, it's important to allow the system to evolve. This is true not only in the use of color, but in general, whenever we're trying to clarify or enhance the system. But I really think, very strongly, that it's important whenever we create new ways of notating to keep in mind what has been standardized and to make sure that we're consistent. To make sure that we don't contaminate or destroy the system by creating new ways of writing that are inconsistent with what has gone on in the past. I really feel very strongly about that. Otherwise the system ceases to be something that we use to communicate between each other…
ROBIN: … Yes, universal.
CHARLOTTE: Yes, it will no longer be universal, and standardization ultimately has to be there.
ROBIN: So use color, but use it responsibly!
SANDRA: So, people on the Theory Bulletin Board we've started the conversation for you. We are trying this new format, and please, if anyone wants to contribute to this conversation, make your voice heard! Thank you.