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
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 (seen below) 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.
Anthony Coleman and Survivors Breakfast Explore Treatise
Anthony Coleman Rehearses Treatise
In approaching ensembles with the idea of allowing us to record their first approaches toward pages 21 and 22 of Treatise, we were looking for specific qualities; traits that would give the listener multiple insights into the depths of rigor, communication, and creativity that the piece could inspire. Based on this criteria, it because clear immediately that the first person we would contact was pianist and composer Anthony Coleman. Anyone who has heard Anthony's music can extract the feeling of erudition and the diversity of influences he has cultivated over the years, but if you've been lucky enough to have a conversation with him, you realize that his study and love of music is something profoundly unique.
Besides his own musical work, Anthony has been a member of the superb faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music for the past nine years. In that time, he has refined phenomenal student ensembles; teaching the students to think for themselves while giving them the tools to navigate some of the farthest reaches of experimental music. We approached Anthony to see if he would record a special class with his most recent ensemble, Survivors Breakfast, to tackle the Treatise project. Luckily, the timing was right to coincide with the final class of their school year and it is a testament to the enterprise of these students that they were able to engage on our proposed task so completely before leaving for the summer break.
For a bit of background, each ensemble participating in this project was given the same two pages of Treatise (pages 21 and 22, reproduced below for reference while listening) as well as the briefest of backgrounds on Cardew and the composition. They are given the choice to do as much or as little research as they would like, but that our preference would be for them to approach the graphic score as a fresh experience, and with as little historical baggage as possible.
In the Survivors Breakfast explication, the students take a discursive approach with the guidance of Coleman who, as he says in his introduction, purposely didn't consult his copy of Cardew's Treatise Handbook or any other research materials. Starting from an intuitive reading of the two pages, the group makes collective decisions regarding instrumentation, timbre, and duration of each event and each silence (finally going so far as to measure each sound as a number of conducted beats). They then rehearse different events to test theories about how they should be performed, returning to the entire two page version to make sure the overall piece of music remains intact.
After two continuous hours of refining and deconstructing the piece, they come up with a version that is the culmination of debate and democratic process. After, they discuss what the piece's impact could be in different concert settings and how it relates to other work they've studied. It is a testament to their interest and commitment that they often refer to a desire to have "more time" to work with the pages to see how far they could stretch their explication.
We've edited the two hours down to create a narrative of how the rehearsal developed the piece, removing false starts and discussion that doesn't ultimately play into their final version of the piece.
Survivors Breakfast is:
Leo Hardman-Hill: Trumpet
Sarah Hughes: Saxophone (first half of the rehearsal)
Mark Goldstein: Saxophone (last half of the rehearsal)
Wendy Eisenberg: Guitar
Do Yeon Kim: Gayageum
Eden MacAdam-Somer: Violin, Viola
Hugo Abraham: Bass
MIVOS Quartet Talks to SA about Treatise
MIVOS and Nate Wooley on Treatise
MIVOS quartet represents an increasingly rare occurrence in contemporary music. For economic reasons, most ensembles have to encompass a large pool of shifting personalities and players just to be able to regularly perform. The members of MIVOS have committed themselves to being a “band”; an intensely cohesive and intimate string quartet that understands each other musically and personally in a way that gives depth and immediacy to the music they commission and perform. Whether it’s Helmut Lachenmann or Pauline Oliveros, MIVOS undertakes each work as a single entity over four musicians - although they are each fantastic soloists in their own ways).
This equanimity, as well as their history of tackling highly complex scores that often feature improvisation, made MIVOS a perfect candidate for Sound American’s Cardew project. What we didn’t consider is how finely tuned and efficient the group would be. Our editor arrived at the end of one of their almost daily rehearsals to record their initial attempt at pages 21 and 22 of Treatise.* Without a lot of extraneous explanation or decision-making, the group launched into a reading of page 21 - heard here before the group dialogue begins. Much of the decision-making involved in performing treatise – the decision-making that had been worked out on such a micro-level with Anthony Coleman and Survivors Breakfast had been performed almost by telepathy. Group members understood their place in the texture immediately and concentrated more on improvising within the parameters of the graphic score.
The whole process happened so fast, and the result was so finished in a certain way, that the editor had to stop and clarify what parameters had been set. This led to a discovery of what was possible and what was presupposed. An ensemble like MIVOS performs a high percentage of graphic element composition, and it became clear that they had specific ideas of what graphic notation meant to them. This is an interesting situation. The emphasis of this issue has been specifically on how does a performer interpret one very specific set of graphic cues. However, we haven’t asked what happens when a continuing practice of interpreting graphic cues in general comes into play.
MIVOS, with this kind of practice firmly in place, was able to look at pages 21 and 22 and immediately produce a viable version of the work – one that is convincing, vibrant and musical. Some may argue that this way of working creates a static performance model of a work that may be conceived of as being primarily about fluidity and spontaneity. It is exactly this kind of comfort with the decoding of graphic notation, however, that allows the individual players to improvise with his or her own idea of each graphic element. As opposed to a highly cohesive ensemble version, MIVOS approaches Treatise with the confidence of their years of working together and with an attitude more like an organism than a machine.
White/Pitsiokos/Yeh Gently Shred Treatise
White/Yeh/Pitsiokos Navigate Treatise
The following is a departure but, like all interesting travels away from the norm, it contains points of reference; areas of recognition that provide a base of understanding for what is new and different. The alterity begins with the make up of the ensemble. In every other case we're presenting in this issue, the performers are already part of some sort of formal collective - be it the classroom setting of Anthony Coleman's Breakfast Survivors to the professional working groups of MIVOS, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, or So Percussion. We specifically asked Philip White to create a casual grouping of musicians to work together on Treatise and he hand-picked a leviathan.
The music of C. Spencer Yeh and Chris Pitsiokos (as well as White) is not known lovely background music to a quiet evening at home with friends and Lambrusco. Their predilection toward rawness is part of the beauty of their work, but also a step outside what many fans of Cardew may perceive to be a common practice in interpreting Treatise specifically. The sound palette that comes from the electronics (White), alto saxophone (Pitsiokos) and violin (Yeh) could be credibly denied the moniker "chamber music" but it does not discount the rigor and creativity of the artists themselves.
And, rigor is where the listener first finds areas of recognition. From the beginning of the rehearsal, the group's questions about intepretation are not that different from those we've already encountered: "What do we do about the middle line?", "What do the numbers mean?". However, each question seems to have multiple and equally plausible solutions. The decisions to look at the middle line as amplitude and the numbers as a form of timbral form, for example, invert the views of the notation we've experienced so far.
As the rehearsal progresses, the two pages of Treatise are interpreted in ways that give more weight to the aesthetics of these specific players and less to a perception of what Cardew may have "had in mind" as he worked through the notation. The trio, as it nears the conclusion of its exploration, is the first in our experiment to look at each event as being subject to each player's sense of duration. This is in response to their dissatisfaction with the "stop/start" nature of the graphic music, and is a response that comes directly from their own sense of what is musically interesting.
The final version of the piece sums up the powers and personalities of the players. While it embodies the spontaneous feel of three artists "jamming" on Treatise - working with each symbol to sculpt a group sound by adjusting in real time - the performance, as a result of their rehearsal discussion, is still a highly rigorous, practiced, and elegant composition. The trio has found a way to present an image of Cardew in saturated colors versus austere black and white.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing Are Detained By Treatise
MOPDTK's Take On Treatise
I register the weight of the gun in my hand. It feels masculine and real. I raise it and take aim at the cowering jazz quartet in the studio. "Dance, monkey, dance!", I scream.
They pick up their instruments and let a single collective tear fall as they turn to page 21 of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise.
Okay, all a bit overwrought, but it's their metaphor, not mine. And, there was probably more than a little duress involved in Mostly Other People Do The Killing's inclusion in this issue. I'm happy that arms were twisted - and, ultimately, that I was the one doing the twisting.
When I originally spoke to bassist and composer Moppa Elliott about including his "terrorist jazz quartet", I knew I was going to get something very different and, that ultimately, there was going to have to be some energy put into placing whatever I received from them in a context for publication.
And, I wasn't wrong.
It's important for me to state that this is the exact reason I asked them to take part in this issue. In the beginning, I knew that, even with little or no information about Treatise's history or performance practice, many of the groups involved in this project would treat the piece with a specific kind of "respect". We all recognize, as musicians, what is perceived as proper in a circumstance like this and intuit what we may refer to as a correct way to perform what we're given. With an exercise such as the one we've been undertaking in this issue (with Anthony Coleman, MIVOS, White/Yeh/Pitsiokos and next week's So Percussion) the polite quality of that intuition can create very similar approaches. The results are beautiful and insightful, but we create an incomplete picture if these examples are our only versions for comparison.
In response, you find the least polite and least correct group you can find and set them loose. What you get is what we have here: a relatively wild, somewhat underrehearsed version of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise Pages 21-22.
There is something illuminatiing, however, buried under their irreverence. "I don't feel inspired by this", says drummer Kevin Shea, before they begin. This is a valid response, especially coming from a jazz quartet at the end of a day of recording their own music and under (very slight) pressure from an outside source, but it isn't a response that surprised me.
It's no secret that there is history of a gently joking dismissal of conceptual music in general and, specifically, graphic notation. Sometimes this simply comes from the musicians having, at one time or another, been presented with a half-assed "graphic score" that consists of some doodles and or food stains and asked, in a very pretentious tone, to perform it as a serious composition. They then improvise something with their eyes closed and the composer adds it to her or his list of performances, even though the concept was minimized at best or, more likely, completely ignored. This, sadly, has become the pattern of attention paid to graphic notation, even at its most elegant.
In the case of improvisors, especially those from the jazz tradition, graphic scores can be read as an attempt to co-opt the skills they've honed through years of practice as the composer takes credit. It's easy to look at this attitude as a lack of rigor or an unwillingness to take the music "seriously", but it leads to, in fact, a very valid way to interpret any piece of music. Instead of engaging, as many of our participants have, at the level we accept as the norm for Treatise or finding ways to subvert that norm, another option is to sidestep the question altogether, often with humor. The results are just as musical.
And so, MOPDTK's light-hearted take on our project unwittingly provides another facet to the way we see Treatise - Not in the positive, nor the negative, but an exploration of the indifferent. - Nate Wooley
So Percussion Plays with Treatise
So Percussion Plays Treatise
Every once in a while a chance series of events works to place a form and structure on a project far more elegant than the one you originally conceived.
Initially, this week's article was to be a conversation between John Tilbury and Michael Parsons about Cardew's Treatise. We were excited about this, owing to the history of each with Cardew himself, as well as their erudition about all things contemporary music and improvisation. Just a few weeks ago, both participants decided they didn't want to take part in the discussion after all. Their reasoning was perfectly sound and acceptable - they simply didn't have the time and felt, upon further consideration, that they had said what they wanted on the topic - but it threw us into a bit of a tailspin as to how to wrap things up here.
Enter Sō Percussion.
Our initial plan was that Sō would be the last little espresso to finish off the issue. We had been in contact about this project since the beginning and the percussion quartet was, luckily for us, ahead of schedule in their rehearsal and performance of Treatise, so we didn't miss a beat.
And, what they sent us somehow ended up being a perfect culmination of the ideas that had been mulled over, cultivated, mowed under, and barrelled through in this issue. Their discussion of the Cardew excerpt is possibly the most free thinking and open example of a kind of social discourse that is at the heart of Treatise's spirit.