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.

Pg. 7 from Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning

Download of the complete score is available from The EMC Blog

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?

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! 


Richard Barrett (1959) is internationally active as both composer and improvising performer, and has collaborated with many leading performers in both areas, while developing works and ideas which increasingly leave behind the distinctions between them. His long-term collaborations include the electronic duo FURT which he formed with Paul Obermayer in 1986 (and its more recent octet version fORCH), composing for and performing with the ELISION contemporary music group since 1990, and regular appearances with the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble since 2003.

Recent larger projects include CONSTRUCTION, a two-hour work for twenty-three performers and three-dimensional sound system, premiered by ELISION in 2011, the hour-long life-form for cello and electronics, premiered by Arne Deforce in 2012, and world-line for electric lap steel guitar and ensemble for Daryl Buckley and ELISION, premiered in October 2014. He is currently working on a new evening-length project close-up - a collaboration with Ensemble Studio6 of Belgrade, where he has been based since the end of 2013 - and a new work for the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart.

He studied composition principally with Peter Wiegold, and currently teaches at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague and at the University of Leiden, having previously held a professorship at Brunel University in London. His work as composer and performer is documented on over 25 CDs, including six discs devoted to his compositions and eight by FURT.