A More Cheery Post: Pens & Music

40 years ago, in my callow youth, I wanted to be a composer. Now, in my dotage, I’m writing some more. Why not?

As in so many areas of my life, I got really good at some aspects of this, while totally neglecting most of it. Thus, my ear wouldn’t get me out of a sophomore level ear training class, my sight-reading chops are pathetic, my knowledge of music theory is very spotty – but my music script is very nice. Observe:

Not a masterpiece of the calligrapher’s art by any means, but very clear and readable.

I wrote this out, so the date on the cover page says, in August, 1983 – 38 years ago. The Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble was willing to perform this at an actual people-pay-to-get-in concert, so I thought it my duty to write it up nicely for them.

This was all before music transcription software, of course, so the only way to get it this nice was to do it all by by hand. Music paper didn’t come (as far as I could find) in systems of four staves, but just in pages of 10, 12, 16, 20 or whatever staves, and you just had to work around it. This would not do – spacing was all wrong, the space left for text and dynamic marking too small.

I hunted around and found these:

Sorry for the poor focus. They look like tiny racoon hands!

These – they came in sets of, I think, 5 nibs – are for inking staves. With these, and a nice cork-backed metal ruler, one can make one’s own music paper with whatever groupings and spacing one desires! For example:

Draft layout for 2 systems of 6 per page custom music paper. Made it yesterday for my current project. Will probably take another stab at it to get it a little cleaner.

What I did: made a single page laid out exactly as I liked, then took it down to the copy shop and had them print up a bunch. I even had them create tablets out of them, to keep the sheets together. Then, wrote the piece up, took the finished good copy back to the copy shop and had them print out copies on nicer paper, enough for the singers and director (and a few extras for me).

Time-consuming as all heck, but strangely satisfying.

For the lettering and dynamic markings, one needs another set of special pens. I used architectural pens (CAD was not a thing yet, in 1983, so architects had to learn how to letter, and so there were pens for that). They still sell them:

Made in Germany. Can’t tell if they still make them, or if it’s just old supplies being sold off. Suckers are $15 a pop these days. I remember them being dear back in 1983.

Mine – I have 2 – have been drying out for over 30 years in the cigar boxes I kept them in. In a departure from my normal practice, discovered that I’d saved the folded piece of paper that came with the pens describing how to disassemble and clean them. Their state went beyond anything mere cleaning was going to fix, so I took them completely apart, and soaked them and scrubbed them with a toothbrush, then soaked them some more over night in vinegar water.

Not clean – yet. Acetone? Will that dissolve the plastic?

Somehow, I had not lost the cigar boxes I kept all my inking supplies in. Various nibs and pens, nice pencils and erasers, little rulers, and two bottles of ink, one of which was still good! The other, nicer bottle with the dropper cap, was dried solid. Nonetheless, I was able, after a bit of cleaning up, to use at least the stave nibs. They were – not so good. Only after cleaning and fiddling with them for some time was I able to get them more-or-less working. As you can see in the example from 1983, it is possible to ink very nice staves with these things, and from the examples from yesterday, not so much now. But, with continued use, the results kept getting better. So – I will keep trying until I get good enough results or frustrated enough to throw them away.

Might look into getting some new stave nibs, if they still make them. They were cheap, back then. Hope I can salvage at least one of the architectural pens. Don’t even want to go there with the other fountain pens, which have also been drying out for almost 40 years. I have fancier calligraphy nibs and pens as well, but find them not so useful for music.

How things stand: as I near completion of the Gloria I felt compelled to write, I also felt compelled to drag out my tools for making fair copies. Before anybody tells me: yes, I know they make software for all this now, I even have some and have even used it a little. But: the software is very frustrating! Sure, once I master it, it will be much faster than writing it out by hand, and I can go right from the screen to fair copies. I get it. Maybe I’ll even do it, some day.

I learned how to write out music competently just in time for that skill set to become obsolete. Perhaps buggy whip making will be my next hobby.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

17 thoughts on “A More Cheery Post: Pens & Music”

  1. Ok, I really want to read this post, because that looks like an AWESOME staff-writing pen you’ve got and I want to know more! But I keep getting stuck on that first photo, and I cannot tear myself away from it because I’m trying to hum along with it, and WHAT THE HELL KIND OF TIME SIGNATURE IS THAT?!?

    I had no idea I was so sensitive to “how many beats per measure?” but since I can’t work it out for that piece of music… I cannot move on. Syntax error. System shut down. Boop.

      1. Ah. So it was written under the influence (of polyphony). I guess I can forgive you, then. Still, 3/2 is bloody hard to read. If you want actual people to sing it, 3/4 would probably work better? In the (not adequately humble) opinion of one lay chanter, that is. You’re the composer and you will, of course, do what your muse dictates 😉

      2. I didn’t really think about it all that much. Just seemed to be in 3/2 to me. Besides, isn’t white notation beautiful-looking? And one needed write in all those annoying flags.

      3. It does look elegant. It’s just that reading all those dots and remembering that it’s one beat per half note, *at the same time* makes my head hurt. I’m semi-competent at reading music, but now you’re asking me to figure fractions at the same time. The mumbling in my head goes like:

        2=1, then plus 1/2 of the –dang, remember it’s a one, not a two… ok that’s just a dotted quarter note in drag as a half note, oh crap! A whole note! OK, a whole note is three beats here, plus one half. Uh, OK, so half of three is one-and-a-half, plus three is OH FOR PETE’S SAKE how can you have four and a half beats in a measure??? Where did my life go so wrong? Why didn’t I just become an accountant?

      4. I guess I led a sheltered life, musically speaking: half note gets a beat. Done. 😉

        More seriously, I learned to read music, as much as I can, singing in a chant/polyphony choir. 3/2 doesn’t seem any weirder than anything else to me.

      5. Well, to be fair, the music I’m working from these days is notated like this:

        Click to access b3140_More.pdf

        …and I am still nowhere near competent at reading it (along with a lot of other halfwit American converts), so we have “translations” into familiar Western notation… which we try to read while keeping in mind as much as possible the grace notes and conventions that are marked in the original, but which are difficult to notate on a staff. And also, the time signatures are just a friendly suggestion and you should mostly ignore the key signatures in favor of the tone and scale (chromatic, soft chromatic, enharmonic, diatonic) marked at the top of the page.

        It’s all about what you’ve practiced recently 😉

  2. Rubbing alcohol will remove ink. Whether it will work for soaking your pens is another question, but it might be worth a go.

    1. Thanks! for the nibs, went with acetone and (gulp!) steel wool. Worked pretty well. For the disassembled technical pens, went with acetone, cotton balls, toothpicks and a toothbrush. Now I need an ink dropper to fill the cartridges to see if I got them clean enough. So maybe I should let them soak in rubbing alcohol overnight, since I am not getting the dropper today anyway?

  3. I read somewhere that Stravinsky used a stylus with five small disks at the business end, which he inked with a stamp pad and rolled on blank paper to drew staves. He used different color inks for different instruments.

  4. Stave nibs! What a neat idea. I’d never thought of this before but how delightfully obvious a tool once you actually see it. And now I must figure out a way to park my laptop on my piano so I can try out your musick…..

    1. It is like a tiny, elegant version of those wacky huge multi-chalk-holder tools every elementary teacher had when I was a kid, for putting handwriting exercises up on the chalkboard. I love it!

      1. I’d forgot about those, too.

        Patrick O’Brian puts at least one scene in the Aubrey/Maturin novels in which Stephen is ruling off staves when Jack comes into the cabin. POB doesn’t offer any detail of technique or tools, but from now on I’m going to imagine Stephen is using one of these.

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