The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Cornelius Cardew (1936 - 1981) a life unfinished

by John Tilbury
(Copula, an imprint of Matchless Recordings and Publishing; Matching Tye, Essex)

From Chapter 3: Treatise 1963-1967

Cornelius Cardew, early 1960s
Cornelius Cardew, early 1960s                                                                        Courtesy of Copula©2009

Early interpretations of Treatise

The performance practice of Treatise was developed empirically, and Cardew’s initial experiments were carried out with composers and instrumentalists from the field of contemporary music – highly trained music readers whom he quaintly described as ‘square musicians’: among others were Frederic Rzewski, Mauricio Kagel, Sylvano Bussotti, Roger Smalley, John White, David Bedford, Kurt Schwertsik, Peter Greenham and myself. Our attitude to notation might have been described as casually, or rather unostentatiously, reverential; after all, it was through notation that the superiority of Western music had been unequivocally established, and we carried that heavy burden on our shoulders as we strove, dutifully, to give musical expression to Treatise. Moreover, we recognised the Western artistic conventions which seemed to inform the formal characteristics of Treatise; to those of us familiar with late-romantic music we could identify the gradual build-up of symphonic proportions, extending over two of my eight sections (pages 127-164), which culminates in a monumental climax of Brucknerian grandeur. This features black circles, increasing in frequency and magnitude until one of them, the largest, covers almost half a page, completely obliterating the central line which had gamely held its position until that final cataclysmic moment.

In Western culture the musical work is hypostatized as an entity in itself. Music is non-representational, abstract; we analyse its inner structure and formal relations. Preparation for Treatise was therefore dominated in the early realisations by a search for rules, and the necessity to hold by them. The rules were implicit and their discovery and application would reveal at least some of the secrets of Treatise. Rather than a creative reading of the score, it became an exercise in scholarship, trying to match the fastidiousness of the score with a method of reading which was as ingenious as it was meticulous. But the tools we were using were often inappropriate, inadequate for the symbolization of the new modes of expression which Cardew sought to elicit from interpreters. Our performances carried a surfeit of historical and stylistic sedimentation through which we sold Treatise (or its composer) short. We were unable to shed a proclivity for the clichés of contemporary music and, in some cases, of jazz, our fingers and the shapes in our hands programmed by the obligatory repetition of time-honoured figurations. In particular, we were the precocious children of the avant-garde; we were familiar with the most recent works of Cage, so that when Cardew suggested grouping symbols together and reading them in relation to ‘time-lines’ – through which various parameters of the sound could be derived – we knew that he had Cage’s Variations in mind. Christian Wolff’s scores, too, were for us an invaluable source of interpretative ideas. In our creative imagination the notational systems and performing practices, the ‘representational apparatus’ of the avant-garde were influential as well as delimiting factors.

An unfortunate consequence of this was that we tended to interpret Treatise as a succession of events (despite the fact that Cardew had criticised the predominance of ‘event’ parameters in the two earlier experimental works: Autumn 60 and Octet ‘61): a mechanical one-thing-after-another mode of procedure antithetical to the seamless flow which characterises numerous sequences of pages in Treatise. In the Handbook Cardew forewarns against this mode of interpretation, positing two basic sets of parameters: event parameters and happening parameters; and he considered it to be of primary concern for the interpreter to identify and distinguish between these parameters: ‘Events: something short, compact, homogeneous that we experience as complete (though we may only experience a part of it) and as one thing. Happenings: something that continues, the end is not legible in the beginning.’ (48)  By circumscribing symbols, by our concern for beginnings and endings, we forced our chosen signs into the ‘event’ category.

If it is true that Treatise generated considerable interest and commitment on the part of those who chose to involve themselves in it, it can also be said that some performers felt frustrated and sceptical; in Buffalo Cardew’s experiences with Treatise were not the happiest, probably because his own attitude towards it was shifting into an ambivalence which the performers sensed, and which probably undermined their confidence in their own contribution. For the two American performances he demanded an ever-increasing number of rehearsals and whereas on the one hand he would make precise demands from them, on the other he was unclear, perhaps unsure, as to what he wanted. If he wanted to create an ‘authoritative’ first version, this was not the right way to go about it. It seems to me that one has to live with Treatise for some time, just as the AMM lived with AMM music over the years, nurturing and refining it. Here, Cardew’s ‘city analogy’ is a good one, for all its limitations, because it exemplifies the depth and extent of commitment which musical interpretation demands:

Entering the city for the first time you view it at a particular time of day and year, under particular weather and light conditions. You see its surface and can form only theoretical ideas of how this surface was moulded. As you stay there over the years you see the light change in a million ways, you see the insides of houses – and having seen the inside of a house the outside will never look the same again. You get to know the inhabitants, maybe you marry one of them, eventually you are an inhabitant – a native yourself. You have become part of the city. If the city is attacked, you go to defend it; if it is under siege, you feel hunger – you are the city. When you play music, you are the music. (49)

Cardew’s documentation of early performances of Treatise, 1964-7, affords many insights not only into his own attitude to the work, but also into the idiosyncratic attitudes and anomalies of behaviour of those who were involved as interpreters: Rzewski’s interpretation of the middle line exclusively; John White’s precedent for ‘perverse readings’ by reading ascending lines as descending intervals; the composer’s own interpretation of the five-line system as a chord which is transformed according to rules connected with angles created in the course of the stave’s growth and development. More importantly, there were certain collective solutions arrived at in those early performances which were handed down and became part of a ‘tradition’ in subsequent realisations of Treatise. The frequent appearance of numbers, for example, has tended to be interpreted as note/chord repetition; that is, each player repeats his/her chosen note ‘x’ number of times, resulting in the repetition, ‘x’ times, of a random chord. The numbers enjoy a degree of separateness, normally occurring in breaks in the score:

The numbers are included at the pauses for the reason that: any act or facet of the conception or composition of the score may have relevance for an interpretation. […] It is the fact that there were 34 blank spaces before the first sign put in an appearance. (50)

This is an interesting, if perplexing, note because it is one of the few references, in the Handbook or elsewhere, to the compositional method which Cardew employed in Treatise and suggests that his statistics for the appearances of individual signs were subject to a random procedure. Whatever ‘method’ was employed here Cardew treated it on at least one occasion in cavalier fashion; in the Buffalo performance in December 1966, according to the Handbook, ‘the number 34 at the beginning was reduced to 17 and the performance began with 17 pianissimo chords each lasting 17 seconds’.(51) No explanation is given. Perhaps 34 pianissimo chords was considered excessive by the musicians; perhaps there was a revolt; to save the concert Cardew had to compromise and the relation of 17 to 34 was close enough for him not to lose face.

Keith Rowe is not the only interpreter who regards the first 5 millimetres of Treatise – in which the number 34 appears – as possibly the most important detail in the wholework: a hurdle which has to be negotiated right at the outset before access to the workis obtained, and it is tempting to see this conundrum as a deliberate ploy on Cardew’spart to discourage the faint-hearted. For Rowe it reflects Cardew’s attitude to performance,or rather to pre-performance (as he recalls it in those early AMM days): the thoughtscalm and focused, the mind relaxed, alert, open. 34 – a significantly large number (thelargest) in the context of Treatise – it creates a sense of gravitas right from the beginning,reminding Rowe of the poem which was used in a poster advertising a Tiger’s Mind performance on the last day of 1967:

I lay my harp on the curved table,
Sitting there idly, filled only with emotions.
Why should I trouble to play?
A breeze will come and sweep the strings. (52)

And which is echoed both in Lou Gare’s ‘poem’, an example of notated Scratch Music which is printed in Cardew’s anthology, Scratch Music:

I lay down my saxophone on the curved table,
Why should I trouble to play,
It is such hard work, and there
aren’t any breezes about today.

And by Hermann Hesse:

[…] the whole world might be no more than a breath of wind playing over the surface, a ripple of waves over unknown depths. (53)

For musicians involved in both reading and improvising, it is instructive to contrast playing Treatise with improvising; in improvisation the stimulus to play and continue playing is generated from within, in response to the music as it unfolds, and the music develops organically; in Treatise the listener is intensely aware of a third force, an authority which impinges upon the music-making, obliging the performer to stop playing where he might prefer to continue, or to go off on a new tack where he might prefer to remain where he is, or suddenly to introduce a contrasting instrumental technique at a juncture where it feels inappropriate. Eddie Prévost illustrates this ‘third force’ in more personal terms; for that reason, perhaps, his words produce a stronger, more lasting resonance. Whereas the investigative mode and dialogue are the dominant features of improvised music (at least, we should add, in Prévost’s preferred practice), with Treatise

tracking the score, allowing its presence, history and associations to permeate the music, inevitably means that in an intellectual and an emotional way I am still engaging with Cornelius. It is a tangible way in which I can continue to invite him to enter my musical Life. (54)

With Treatise the characteristic flow of much improvised music is rarely allowed to establish itself, or rather, when the score flows, as Treatise often does, then the music is encouraged to flow, but only as long as the score allows. And even in those pages where the feeling of movement and flow is strong, small disruptive signs will occur to throw the music temporarily off balance – which was most likely the composer’s intention. Thus for the listener there can be a disorientating feeling of arbitrariness, of insecurity or, more positively, of unexpectedness; the influence of the score appears now benign, now malevolent.

By offering accessibility as well as extreme complexity Cardew’s magnum opus demonstrates its inherently democratic nature. No performer is turned away; through Treatise everyone can make music – from the tentative beginner to the awe-inspiringDavid Tudor – bringing a musical utopia tantalisingly within reach. (55) For whatever itsillustrious status in the field of composition, Treatise does not belong to that category ofarcane ‘modern’ scores. One does not pore over the score in order to intuit Cardew’s‘meaning’; it means what the performer, or would-be performer ‘sees’. As Eddie Prévostremarked, ‘an interpreter of Treatise is drawn to the work because there is somethingwithin its weft and warp which fascinates’. (56)

Treatise is a long, complex story which needs to be sifted. Some of its pages might appear excessively challenging and the interpreter may feel intimidated, overwhelmed – as if Cardew had created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. Worse, a feeling of frustration and failure can accompany a post-mortem of a performance. My own long relationship with Treatise evokes a feeling of inadequacy: a failure to do the work justice. Others share this feeling: the composer/performer Richard Barrett writes of ‘exquisite frustration’ accompanying his efforts to interpret Treatise, while composer Brian Dennis confessed to being ‘thoroughly inhibited’ from attempting any realization at all. And in Buffalo too, even the performing elite, whose expertise was hired on a regular basis by individual composers, could no longer understand, let alone contribute to the kind of music-making that works such as Treatise demanded. The musicians were bemused; they were being asked to do things, to make decisions, which had never been within their remit; for even with Cage’s scores they were told what to do. Indeed, as we have seen, after Treatise, perhaps disillusioned by the results of his collaborations with professional musicians, Cardew distanced himself even further. But if Treatise was the culmination of his career as an avant-garde composer, it also carried within it the seeds of destruction of his relationship to the avant-garde.


48 Treatise Handbook, p.iii. (Cornelius Cardew Reader)
49 Ibid, p.xvii. (CCR)
50 Ibid, p.iv. (CCR)
51 Ibid, p.xii (CCR)
52 Attributed to Po Chü-i (772-846). Included in A Treasury of Asian Literature, ed. by John
D. Yohannan (Meridan, Penguin Books, 1994).
53 Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin Books, 1972),
54 Letter from Eddie Prévostto John Tilbury, 2 June 1994.
55 Without a utopian core perhaps no meaningful artistic endeavour can advance?
56 See note 54.


Cornelius Cardew - A Life Unfinished (Copula/Matchless)

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