SA12: The Treatise Issue

Composition is the attempt to either assimilate a pre-existing set of symbols or to create your own language or semiology to communicate the sound in your head to other people.


This is the kind of simple discursive starting point that one comes to at a party then immediately abandons when someone suggests getting pizza. That simplicity though, when soberly followed, gets you into all kinds of magnificent and joyous trouble.


Take Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a somewhat left-field example. Its conceit is simple if strained through the “party” type of thinking: there is a relationship between language and things (reality).


However it is obvious that, when following this line of reasoning, someone working in the rigorous fashion and at the level of Wittgenstein finds the pathways of ideas to be endless, varied, and magnificently complex. If you don’t believe me, read the first proposition – a scant seven terse lines – and see how long it takes you before you begin drawing diagrams to envision and understand the structure of his logic.


This digression into Wittgenstein does have a purpose beyond my own self-satisfaction as it relates to the idea of composing as the attempt to create a set of symbols for communication of an idea and, specifically, to the composition that is at the center of this twelfth issue of Sound American.


Most composers and performers of any music have agreed upon some sort of traditional notation or collectively interpreted and understood set of symbols that relate the ideas of the composer to the performers, who then “read” the symbols as sound. There are some composers, however, who have spent at least part of their lives traveling down a musical analogue of Wittgenstein’s magnificently complex pathway, finding new ways of expressing their logic and questioning the way composers notate music, as well as the way performers perceive and make it “sound”.


Probably the most fascinating example of such an artist is Cornelius Cardew. Inspired by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Cardew spent a significant portion of his short life working on a 193 page graphic score called Treatise (the English translation of the Latin Tractatus) that would call into question the simple concept of composition as semiology for performance.


Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise



Treatise is one of the most stunningly beautiful graphic scores of the 20th century. It’s a mix of lines, circles, numbers, and objects derived from traditional music notation, all drawn with an expert draftsman’s eye and hand – Cardew supported his family for some years as a graphic designer for Aldus Books publishing in London – and arranged around a thick black line that runs through the vast majority of the piece. Each page has its own character and charm. Some give an intuitive feeling of space and expansiveness, while others are cluttered or claustrophobic. The use of the thick line and symbols derived from musical notation add a level of consistency and identification that almost feels narrative.


And, if this was all there was to Treatise there is a good chance that we wouldn’t be spending an entire issue exploring its meaning. But, what makes this specific work of Cardew’s special and unique is what it lacks.


Cardew did not include a key to his symbols. He purposely was ambiguous when writing about Treatise and left very little by way of instructions for its performance – essentially leaving the “reading” part of the equation elucidated above entirely up to the performers. This makes for a very dangerous and unique moment in musical history. Even at the apex of John Cage’s profession of freeing composition from the ego of the composer, there still existed an element of a sanctioned “correct” performance of his work. With Treatise as much of this last vestige of the composer was removed from the field of play and the piece, if treated respectfully and with the rigor it demanded, forced the musicians to take part in a social atmosphere of collective creation.


For the idealist, this means that each reading of the composition can be a distillation of the performer’s history and knowledge by using the composition as a framework for discussion and collective decision-making. It is this idealist point of view that we’d like to maintain to the best of our ability for this issue of Sound American.



About This Issue




A solid point of reference is necessary for any investigation, even when the subject is as pluralist as Treatise. The point of reference for all things Cornelius Cardew is British pianist, composer, improviser and author John Tilbury. Over the next weeks, Sound American will feature serialized excerpts from Tilbury’s epic biography: Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) a life unfinished. The first portion of this excerpt is featured in our opening articles along with what could be considered a quintessential (if such a thing could theoretically exist) excerpt of his performance of Treatise (with Michael Duch and Rhodri Davies).


The first articles of this issue are designed to give readers at different levels a picture of what Treatise is, how it works, and what it means as a composition, and we start with a thumbnail sketch of the life and work of Cornelius Cardew meant to briefly touch on the general highlights of a short but extremely powerful life in the creative arts.

A Brief Biography of Cornelius Cardew

On paper, it seems relatively simple to sum up the life and work of Cornelius Cardew. In reality, it is frighteningly difficult. In his short forty-five years, Cardew defined himself as an erudite researcher who was hungry to perform some of the knottiest music of a particularly knotty time in musical history. He then redefined himself as a conceptualist who, along with John Cage, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, sought to inject a new kind of rigor into a more ambiguous way of defining composition. And, in the period before his untimely death, he redefined himself again as a musical force for populism and an active opponent against the composers he worked with and championed in his early life.


Although this issue of Sound American takes a very pointed look at only one of Cardew's compositions, it is important to have an overview of his work and life available to provide the context for his radical work. An artist does not exist in a vacuum but reacts to the atmosphere of creativity around them, expanding on the ideas and aesthetic trends of those they learn from, and with whom they participate in experimentation. Cornelius Cardew is no different. What follows is an extreme simplification of the composer’s biography. For those interested in delving much much deeper, we suggest exploring the many links to print, sound, and visuals that are included at the bottom of this page.


Cardew was born into a family of artists in 1936. His father was Michael Cardew, recognized as one of the great slipware potters of the twentieth century. He grew up in Cornwall, England where until his admittance, at age 17, to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Thus begins the first great phase of the composer’s musical life. Trained as a pianist and cellist, Cardew had a great interest in the new ideas that were beginning to bloom around contemporary music at that time. He taught himself guitar so that he could take part in the British premiere of Pierre Boulez’s early complex masterwork Le marteau sans maître. As a young composer, Cornelius immersed himself in the hyper-serialist works of Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, while also exploring the emerging discipline of composition for electronics. This latter interest led to his attendance of the Studio for Electronic Music in Köln where he began his relationship as Stockhausen’s assistant, most notably working with the German on the score to his massive work for four orchestras and choirs: Carré.


After hearing a concert of John Cage and David Tudor in 1958 Cardew turned away from the structure of Boulez and Stockhausen toward the new languages of indeterminate music being explored by Cage, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown. It is arguable that Cardew took the graphic score and performer weighted composition of the New York school to a logical conclusion with works like the text based composition The Great Learning and, the focus of this issue, Treatise. These compositions, by withholding interpretation of the signs that make up the scores, removed the expectation in performance to a much greater degree than most of his peers and predecessors.

This period of experimentation spawned two collaborations that proved to be incredibly important; not only for Cardew, but for many modern proponents of an improvisation/composition dialectic. In 1966, he joined AMM, an experimental improvising group in London with an instrumentation that grew around the central figures of Eddie Prévost, John Tilbury, and Keith Rowe. One way to sum up AMM’s music at that time (and now) is its tendency to explore pure sound and architecture as opposed to the linear ideas involved in more jazz based improvising groups. Even though the group maintained a strict improvisatory ideal, it featured Christian Wolff at one point, as well as Cardew. This relationship seems to have had a hand into leading Cardew further away from traditionally notated composition toward his graphic notation work of the 1960s.*


The second great collaboration came as a result of the above-mentioned The Great Learning. This performance of this work of Cardew's was the impetus for the formation of the Scratch Orchestra with like-minded composers Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. This group favored a populist approach to performance, featuring a combination of trained and untrained musicians, professed a “reverse seniority” hierarchy (or anti-hierarchy) and relied on graphic rather than traditional notation so that anyone could participate. The group operated from 1969 until about 1974 at which time the politics of the group were leading to new avenues and a third period of activity and redefinition for Cardew.


Beginning in the early 1970s, Cardew concentrated his musical efforts on the political by creating music whose purpose was simultaneously populist, Marxist, Maoist, and also critical of the excesses of the avant-garde tradition represented by Stockhausen and Cage. Moving from hyper-serialism to the new rigor of graphic notation, Cardew’s music from this last period took English folk music tradition as the delivery system for populist political statements such as We Sing for the Future and Smash the Social Contract. Cardew was a co-founding member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain starting in 1979 and his political commitment began to overtake his musical output, culminating in controversial text Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. He died on December 13, 1981; the victim of a mysterious hit and run car accident. The driver was never located.