Michelle Ziegler

Not Just For Safekeeping – Composers’ Sketchbooks As Working Tools

Since the discovery and publication of the sketches of Ludwig van Beethoven, composers’ sketchbooks have been investigated in order to establish work chronologies and trace the compositional process. However, a systematic analysis of sketchbooks as objects with different material properties and functions has yet to be conducted. In contrast to single sheets of paper, sketchbooks feature the binding of several pages in a single block. The binding provides the stability required for a storage medium: between two solid covers, composers retain notations with the intention of further work and safekeeping. Apart from this general property, composers’ sketchbooks vary greatly in shape and function. In the 1910s and 1920s, for instance, Igor Stravinsky used sketchbooks ranging from simple notebooks to exquisite albums with delicate paper in order to conceive his compositions, as well as to store fair copies. Alternatively, composers like Steve Reich relied on uniform sketchbooks for long periods as a regular working tool for different tasks in the compositional practices. A closer examination of the medium in the 20th century reveals that sketchbooks are used at different stages of the creative process for specific purposes.
A recent challenge of the immaterial-hermeneutical basics of understanding in the humanities and a new interest in matters and materiality in the research field of “New Materialisms” (Kimmich 2011) evoke new perspectives for the investigation of the compositional process. Apart from (and in addition to) theoretical questions and aesthetic concepts, the practical means of the composers’ workshop have to be considered. There is an imminent need for a closer focus on the materiality of writing. Musical notation appears on a two-dimensional surface through the application (or removal) of writing material with specific writing tools. According to Sybille Krämer’s theoretical framework of notational iconicity, notations mediate between the material and the immaterial through imagination, hand and eye (Krämer 2009). A phenomenological approach to the medium of the sketchbook is based on a description of the material features to explore writing practices.
This paper examines the material properties of sketchbooks in order to identify different functions in the creative process. Examples from the manuscript collections of Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Steve Reich serve to demonstrate how sketchbooks are used to fix single elements in a specific context (within a specific writing space and a network of references) and to organise longer sections of compositions. Sketchbooks thereby exceed a mere memory-supporting role of visualisation and gain an operative function as working tools to store, structure, reflect on and develop thoughts and ideas in the compositional process. On the basis of a comparative approach, the study of individual uses of the medium gives insight into individual artistic practices and provides the basis for a systematic analysis.


Paul Sacher Stiftung, Switzerland

Is currently working as a postdoc in the DACH research project Writing Music–Iconic, performative, operative, and material aspects in music notation(s) at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. She studied musicology, history of art and communication science at the university of Fribourg (CH) and received her PhD 2018 at the university of Bern with a dissertation on the graphic notations of the Swiss composer Hermann Meier. She published articles in newspapers and magazines such as Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Dissonance and Schweizer Musikzeitung. She was artistic director of the Musikpodium der Stadt Zürich (2012–15) and curator of the exhibition Mondrian-Musik (2017–18).