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.
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.
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.
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.
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. We then delve into Treatise itself, with a fantastic animated tour through the score’s elements and structure thanks to Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. These two pages are highly suggested for those coming to Treatise for the first time.
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.
After digesting the history and theory it’s important to remember that Treatise is, in the end, a means to a musical end. It is in that spirit that we’ve convinced five performing ensembles at the height of their respective genres to let us record them in the process of explicating the same two-page version of Treatise exclusively for this issue. The first of these appears in this first group of articles and features pianist and composer Anthony Coleman and his student performance group, Survivors Breakfast, from the New England Conservatory.
There have been some changes to the format of Sound American. One of the major changes is the schedule of releasing content. Over the past two issues, we have experimented with medium or small initial publication, followed by an accrual of new items every few weeks until the new issue is ready to publish. This is the result of experiments aimed at getting our readership to digest each article as opposed to “binge reading” the larger issues. We will follow that same model for SA12 by publishing new articles every 7-10 days.
Another new development affects the online archive of past issues. Posting 11 back issues – each with its own wealth of text, video, photos, and sound – has become unwieldy and gets in the way of the experience of the new issue. Therefore we will feature an Archive Item of the Day every week day on the site as a chance to reconnect with some of your favorite past articles. As a special inaugural post, we feature an interview from our next issue featuring the mighty Pedro Costa of Clean Feed Records! You can check in on new content publishing dates and what the article of the day will be by following us on Twitter @SoundAmerican.
- Nate Wooley, Editor