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), Sound American will close this issue with an exclusive discussion between Tilbury and Scratch Orchestra co-founder Michael Parsons.



Another former Cardew peer (besides Tilbury) has written eloquently about the meaning of the composer’s epic score: AMM co-founder and percussionist Eddie Prévost. Sound American is proud to reprint an excerpt - which takes an archaeological approach to Treatise - from his excellent book The First Concert: an Adaptive Appraisal of a Meta Music.

Treatments: Cardew’s Treatise – the application of signs* by Eddie Prévost


Cornelius Cardew and Treatise



  Except for some minor characteristics – a few fleeting images of some alienated, often self-contradictory and impossible, musical notes and indicators – there is not much to confirm, within the 193 pages of Cardew’s mammoth graphic score, it has anything to do with music. Except: the thoughtfully provided – but blank – pair of staves that run beneath each page of the schema. John Tilbury, the pianist, longtime friend and associate as well as the biographer of Cardew, often felt, as a performer, intimidated by the beauty of the graphics. However, I want to get beyond its hold on the viewer as beautifully constructed pen-strokes. In addition by-pass some of the precedents, and subsequent speculations, arising from Cardew’s fascination with the life and work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. [115]


One of Cardew’s observations about a musician’s relationship to the Treatise score was, as Tilbury notes, ‘anthropocentric’. [116] It reads:



    Each player interprets the score according to his own acumen and sensibility. He may be guided by many things – by the internal structure of the score itself, by his personal experience of music-making, by reference to the various traditions growing up around this and other indeterminate works, by the action of the other musicians working on the piece and – failing these – by conversation with the composer during rehearsal. [117]



From an adaptive perspective, acumen and sensibility are the main references to the biology and psychology of the participating musician. All else suggests knowledge of very specific artistic and cultural features: ‘various traditions’. Cardew therefore, implies the use of some kind of fundamental, but socially developed, human knowledge. The kind that accompanies each participant and is therefore part of their own – and possibly unique – biological and cultural condition. Thus, the figures contained within Treatise need have no specific (universal) meaning, musical or otherwise. In addition, the musician, attempting an interpretation of the score, has to reach deep within themselves to grasp some significance and make a creative response. The interpreting musicians know the symbols, to which they are lending their ingenuity, have no particular meaning, but treat them just as if they have.


[Archaeologist and author] Steve Mithen suggests: ‘[The] capacity for art is an ability to attribute meaning to inanimate objects or marks displaced from their referents’. [118] This points to an ability of adaptive consequence to Homo sapiens, enabling, for example, early humankind to predict the movement of possible prey and predators through animal tracks, and thus giving them a survival and reproductive advantage. Of course, history of humanity is a story of the development of language and giving signs to things. Western music, with its system of notation, has become the repository of one such paradigm of cognitive symbology. The meanings of its configurations are treated almost as givens. Cardew’s hypothesis attempts to go far beyond these categories.


It is the magnitude of Cardew’s Treatise that commands our attention. Anyone prepared to give so much commitment to a project is intensely serious or obsessional. The work has enormous scale, with its multitudinous features: labyrinthine rivers, craggy peaks and cavernous gorges. It can also be read as being overlaid with vistas of futuristic industrial complexes. For me, it evokes a science fictional atlas. Such is the diversity of the features and characteristics inhabiting this world, that its most devoted readers search for clues about its meaning and location. They intuit meaning within illusive repetitive themes. These have been pursued in an attempt to unlock the score’s secrets. [119] It has an almost arcane fascination for some. So populated is it with figures to stir the imagination some take it for a view of reality. [120]


Despite the kind of analysis to which, for example, Brian Dennis subjected Treatise, little more than describing the graphic nature and construction of the work has been achieved – so far it has been a reductive process of limited consequence. John Tilbury expressed his hope:



    [That] people more knowledgeable, more perspicacious, both about music and philosophy [...] will create lines of enquiry which will yield results of far-reaching and unimaginable consequences. [121]



I fear this expectation may be in vain. The search for such mathematical and philosophical parallels may be nothing more than an analogue for unearthing ancient runes and ascribing to them unprovable meanings. The code to unravel the mystery is not available. More likely, there never was a code. Not all is lost. Perhaps John, in this rare instance, is barking up the wrong tree; seeking methods of understanding not equal to the issue. In an attempt to explain the intellectual impasse, he says: ‘Like Wittgenstein [Cardew] held the view, that the aesthetic creations of the human mind enjoy a precious immunity from scientific analysis’. [122]


My suggestion is that interpretations of Treatise suffer when there is too much emphasis placed upon a reductive appreciation of its various parts. Art enters when the musician synthesizes the material. Gives it life. Ironically, an undue stress upon a reductive appraisal produces bad art just as it usually produces bad science.


The best of science doesn’t consist of mathematical models and experiments, as textbooks make it seem. These come later. It springs fresh from a more primitive mode of thought, wherein the hunter’s mind weaves ideas from old facts and fresh metaphors and the scrambled crazy images of things recently seen. To move forward is to concoct new patterns of thought, which in turn dictate the design of the models and experiments. Easy to say, difficult to achieve. [123]


All artists should echo these sentiments. [Author and founder of Sociobiology] Edward Wilson does not suggest the dead-hand of ‘scientific analysis’ that Cardew and (presumably) Wittgenstein feared. The business of enquiry and endeavour is valid (and perhaps necessary) in whatever human activity is undertaken.


If Mithen’s remark: ‘art has the ability to attribute meaning to inanimate objects’ bears any weight, then Cardew’s Treatise is indeed a trail. Just as early Homo sapiens may have pondered the significance of a fresh set of animal tracks, we can pore over Cardew’s veritable cartographic manual. It portrays a world that does not exist; an atlas for the imagination. In a sense it lays, if not a false trail, then a highly speculative one. [124] Perhaps, it encourages unrealizable journeys. Certainly Richard Barrett sensed:



    there is a sonic analogue to what is on the page, that will remain forever just out of reach, but that something about Treatise consistently makes musical sense. [125]



It is, of course, Richard’s determined sensibility making sense of the musical possibilities he believes are inherent in Treatise. His perception gives life to the proposition. Just as John Tilbury concludes:



    Treatise does not wholly belong, either to Cardew or to those whose lives it nourishes and inspires; it is offered and shared unconditionally, untethered to any rules or laws of musical composition or any other ‘figments of the musicological imagination.’ [126]

Cardew, before he joined AMM, was a composer (rightfully) struggling with the meaning and the integrity of the composing process. As we saw above, his idea was to use notation to ‘move people.’ Later this was modified slightly when he enjoined a more cooperative relationship between composer and interpreter. This he expressed as: ‘The notation should put the player on the right road’. [127] However, note the imperative should. A softer interpretation could argue for Cardew making the notation conditional. Even if this could be claimed for Cardew it is not an operational imperative favoured by most composers. Perhaps as a result of his music-making with AMM (to whose ethos and philosophy he contributed greatly) Cardew’s view on Treatise was modified further. Finally he had to grapple with the moral dilemma haunting him throughout its composition. Intellectually he had grasped the nettle earlier when he wrote: ‘one cannot “write” sound; the best one can do would be to “sound’ the sound”.’ [128]


Treatise may have been an exhaustive attempt to map a multitude of possible relationships and possibilities to which a musician could attend. It was ultimately a theoretical exercise. He was to experience the emotional charge (and some of the human messiness involved) when exposed to the living social dynamic of AMM. [129]


Brian Dennis remarked:



    [Treatise is] the author’s attempt to create a large and entirely logical world of ‘visual’ musical imagery which seems to say everything ‘about’ music but none of which is music. [130]



The question arises, if we accept the premise of Dennis’ assertion, whether the decision to write, perform and perpetuate Treatise was justified. During the early years, Cardew had doubts about whether it was worth developing Treatise, but found it impossible to forsake the piece. Maybe because he had already invested so much time, energy and thought for this to be a psychologically acceptable resolution. He records a response from Frederic Rzewski, who recommended he abandoned the project. [131] It was however, a source of enterprising explorations among the musicians to whom Cornelius entrusted his passion. Many of those privileged few musicians would have lost opportunities to work with a unique musical mind (this writer included). The artistic world would also have been deprived of an original work of graphics imbued as it is with Cardew’s inner intellectual life.


Questions remain nevertheless about the validity of the fundamental role of a composition: (and one of Cardew’s avowed considerations) which is about making, or encouraging, people to act in particular ways. There is, in my opinion, no question as to the cogency of Treatise as a rendition of a creative mind to be shared with others. However, as we have seen there is no evidence Treatise represents any system of philosophy or composing. John Tilbury, who knew Cardew closely since his earlier twenties, in his writing of the biography over a period of twenty years had access to Cardew’s voluminous diaries and notebooks. He found no evidence of any overarching system. The only residual dimension is Cardew’s silent mentorship mediated through Wittgenstein’s writings. All efforts, some of which are still ongoing, are system-seeking where no system exists.


There is no evidence that Treatise was informed by (and thereby represents) a particular range of philosophical considerations. Just as there is no evidence an AMM improvisation was informed by anything that bears the generally accepted idea of a composition. No matter how much a particular example seems to be structured and musically coherent, an AMM improvisation is not, and never has been, a creation guided by a single mind. In the middle of a performance there are all manner of issues and contingencies to be negotiated. These, in my reductive way I have described broadly, as falling into the twin- analytical propositions of heurism and dialogue. Through synthesis it is possible to create a reflective response to the informal arena referred to as music improvisation. Thus, it is with Treatise. It is the creative mind of the interpreter which invests the composition (and what is more important) the resulting music, with significance.






115 Tilbury devotes a chapter in his biography of Cardew to Treatise in which he examines the philosophical sources which informed Cardew. Tilbury also offers numerous accounts of attempts at drawing meaning and music, from this score.


116 John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew a life unfinished (2008) 116 ibid p 241.


117 ‘Treatise Handbook,’ Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2006) p 117.


118 Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996) p 183.


119 e.g. Brian Dennis, ‘Cardew ’Treatise’ ,Tempo,1991; reprinted in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2006)


120 Cardew’s attitude was ‘ ... that the musical and the real world are one. Musicality is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality’. ‘Towards and Ethic of Improvisation’ reprinted in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2006) p 133.


121 John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew a life unfinisihed (2008) p 236.


122 ibid p 241.


123 E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (1994) p 5.


124 I have this vision of Cornelius with a small ruck sack on his back running into some unknown terrain scattering a paper trail for us all to follow.


125 Richard Barrett, New Music ’87, reprinted in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2004)


126 John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew a life unfinished (2008) p 236.


127 Notation – Interpretation, etc” p 331 note 32, reprinted in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2004)


128 ibid p. 22 note 4. Republished in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2004)


129 A much fuller account of the development of Cardew’s Treatise and his part in AMM is, of course, to be found in John Tilbury’s biography: Cornelius Cardew a life unfinished (2008)


130 Brian Dennis, ‘Cardew’s Treatise (mainly the visual aspects),’ Tempo, No.17, June 1991, reprinted in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2006)


131 Cornelius Cardew ‘Treatise handbook’, reprinted in Cornelius Cardew A Reader (2006) p 104.


 * An excerpt from Prévost's book The First Concert: An Adaptive Appraisal of a Meta Music, published in 2011 by Copula Press and, along with excerpts from John Tilbury's Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) a life unfinished, reprinted by kind permission of the publishers. This text is excerpted from a chapter that also provides a fascinating reading of Miles Davis's essential 1960s recording Miles Smiles

Richard Barrett On Treatise And Improvisation








Seeing Richard Barrett's name as a source in both John Tilbury's biography of Cardew and the astounding Cardew Reader series of essays sparked a commotion at Sound American. The Welsh composer and improviser has long been on our shortest of short lists of favorite people. It also sparked a series of missed connections caused by illness, technological weirdness and seemingly inhuman travel schedules. Luckily for us, Richard patiently engaged in an email conversation with our editor, Nate Wooley as they criss-crossed each other, meeting only for a short time in Austria at which point they were both too tired to remember they were in the process of an interview.

We at SA are incredibly happy, however, that Richard took the time to answer some of our questions about Cornelius Cardew's Treatise for this issue. As expected, his views are well constructed and thought provoking. He quickly moves past the history and structure of the work to the broader topics of consistency and graphic notation's effect on improvisation; issues that inform his own work, some of which we happily feature here. As we rushed toward the publication finish line, there was a worry that the interview would would feel incomplete, but instead, it acts like another introduction to the ideas of Treatise, a different voice asking new questions about the piece and reminding us that every work comes with a responsibility to be viewed critically, and in as many ways as possible.

Sound American: In a lot of ways, you are one of the contemporary composers that best embodies Cardew’s interests and aesthetics at the time he was writing Treatise: you’re a performer as well as composer, you are involved in improvisation, and you have expanded your music beyond the bounds of traditional Western musical notation. Is there an influence here, or is it just a case of two minds coming to similar general conclusions at different times?


Richard Barrett: There is certainly an influence, which is reflected in the fact that my largest composition to date CONSTRUCTION, which was completed in 2011, is dedicated to Cardew and, in an essay about the piece that you can read on my website [where the score is also available], this influence is traced directly to my experience of performing [Cardew’s text composition] The Great Learning in 1984, although he and I did briefly meet in late 1981 (that is, no more than a few weeks before his death).


Like Cardew I'm also very concerned with the relation of music and society, and what the implications, in terms of artistic choices and attitudes, might be for an artist committed to Socialist thinking. (No doubt if Cardew had lived his ideas on this subject would have continued to evolve, since of course the world looks rather different now than in the 1970s.) Also I think his "Towards an Ethic of Improvisation" is one of the most valuable texts ever written about improvisation, and I use it regularly in my teaching work.


Thinking about Treatise has also been influential in a negative sort of way since I have serious problems with the kind of graphic notation he uses in this score (while at the same time finding it perennially fascinating).


SA: Obviously this issue is a bit of a festschrift on Treatise and so we are all very positive and idealist in how we write about the piece. I think it would be informative to press you a little on what you find unsatisfactory. You say you have issues with the kind of graphic notation he uses in the score. Are you dissatisfied with the complete system of symbols he uses, or are there particular notational elements in Treatise that don't work for you.


RB: I have problems with graphic notation in general and Treatise, being probably the graphic score which (along with all Cardew's explanatory texts) does most to engage with this medium, brings [those problems] into particularly sharp focus.


There is too much to say about this for a quick answer, but here are some thoughts:


Graphic scores harness the improvisatory imagination of performers while hanging on to a pre-free-improvisation concept of what the role of a "composer" might be, using notation as a paradigm which is then opened or, so to speak, incompleted to allow improvisation, rather than taking improvisation as a paradigm and adding notational elements to it as particular points of sonic/structural/poetic focus.


Graphic notation seems to be predicated on the idea of reducing depth of interpretation to that of sight-reading (what would it mean to learn a graphic score by heart?).


Graphic notation seems to try to refuse what might be seen as the primary function of notation - to act as a medium of communication between composers and performers - replacing this with (in Treatise certainly) something that looks more like a gesture of despair at the impossibility of such communication.



A page of Barrett's Politeia from CONSTRUCTION

SA:  In John Tilbury’s text on Treatise from his biography of Cardew, he reproduces a quote of yours that is frustratingly short and fascinating to me. He cites you as saying your attempts to perform Treatise evoked an “exquisite frustration”. I want to say that I can understand that as a feeling, but wondered if you could articulate exactly what you meant?


RB: I'm pretty sure that John is quoting from my essay on Cardew which is reprinted in the Cardew Reader. I don't have my copy to hand, but what I'm talking about there, if I recall correctly, is the feeling of having worked out a consistent way of interpreting the material on a page and then invariably finding that either something on that same page, or some or perhaps all of the following page, can't be reconciled with that consistency, and that this refusal to allow (on any scale) a consistent connection between symbols and sounds is one of the most important things the score is "saying", not just about music using graphic notation but also about free improvisation.


SA: What role do you think the concept of consistency/inconsistency takes in Treatise - or your own work for that matter?


RB: Consistency is something that can exist on numerous levels simultaneously. Treatise is, it seems to me, almost obsessively consistent in its inconsistency. I think there is something of [Karlheinz] Stockhausen's influence in this ("... not the same objects (Gestalten) in different lights. Rather different objects in the same light..." ) as there also is in my own attitude to such issues. In Treatise I find this simultaneously "troubling" and a source of fascination, a source of unanswerable questions to which a response needs to grasp at (and possibly find) something previously unimagined, if that makes sense, and therefore it is probably the most fruitful aspect of the score as far as I'm concerned.

SA: I know when we started talking about the possibility of doing an interview for this issue you impressed upon me that you had greater experience with The Great Learning, which is textually based and does have instructions for its performance. As someone that hasn't performed that piece I have an outsider's view, but it seems like the major difference between it and Treatise is the issue of reproducibility. Of course, that opens up a grey area as The Great Learning certainly leaves room for a range of performance and Treatise can have a certain unspoken performance practice that brings its possible variations within a certain contextual range. For you, as a composer and improviser, are there elements of comparison between the two pieces: one piece being better suited to performance or study than the other?



Pg. 7 from Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning

RB: The Great Learning is, for me, a model (not the only possible one of course, but one informed by Cardew's still somewhat naïve conception of music and society at the time of the Scratch Orchestra's founding) of how a musical composition might be conceived as a model of a harmoniously-functioning society, how a composition might serve to create an environment in which musicians of widely varying experience and traditional/nontraditional abilities might coexist and interact meaningfully, and how the result might be as engaging for listeners/viewers as for participants. Treatise is in comparison (necessarily) introspective and, as Cardew later pointed out in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, it fragments the interactions between composer, performer and audience which might be regarded as the essential components of music as a social phenomenon. (In the same book of course he also describes The Great Learning  as "inflated rubbish"!)


SA: You talked earlier about the connection in Cardew's work between society and music. Just as a bit of a daydream exercise, what do you think his music would look like now, given the changes in the socio-political environment in the past 40+ years?


RB: In a way some aspects of my own work are an attempt to answer that question!