“Is this worth looking up?” Says Nina.
I’m sat at the computer in the sorting area of the bookshop surrounded by precarious piles of old books. We are sifting through the donations and trying to pick out valuable books to check the prices of online.
Nina hands me an odd looking spiral bound paperback. It’s from 1967 and is all black and white. There are no words. Instead the pages are filled with what looks like sheet music crossed with an insane mathematician going to town with a Spirograph.
It’s pretty wierd and published by a New York art gallery.
Definitely worth looking up.
The book turns out to be ‘Treatise’, a famous experimental score by a British composer called Cornelius Cardew.
It abandons normal musical notation and instead is constructed of symbols and shapes on a set of ledger lines and provides no real clues as to how the music is ‘supposed’ to sound. Indeed there does not seem to be a ‘supposed to’ in this case. No two performances are likely to be the same although on publishing, Cardew suggested that the performers work out their own rules with which to play so it’s not exactly a free for all!
The music was composed between 1963 and 1967 in Cardew’s avant-garde phase. It was inspired and in fact named after the work of the Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was not a very prolific writer. He published just one book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Latin for “Logico-Philosophical Treatise”) which sought to define the relationship between language and reality. Looking at Cardew’s score, you can see that this can be difficult!
Cardew was born in Gloucestershire in 1936. He began his musical life as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral School and then studied Cello, piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1953. He rose to prominence as the assistant of Karlheinz Stockhausen after winning a scholarship to study at the studio for electronic Music in Cologne in 1958 age 22. He then moved towards experimental music and published several scores through the 1960s, of which ‘Treatise’ is perhaps the best known.
In 1966 Cardew joined the AMM free improvisation group and his improvisations moved away from scores. In 1968 he and a few others assembled the Scratch Orchestra. An experimental orchestra that performed some of Cardew’s own Experimental scores.
The Scratch Orchestra ceased playing in 1972 Cardew moved away from the Avant Garde and turned to left wing politics. He became a Maoist activist and denounced his earlier work, including Treatise. He was killed in 1981 in a hit-and–run which some have suggested was a MI5 assassination due to his communist activities.
Treatise still inspires and baffles performers. The music gives no clue to appropriate instruments, rhythm or duration but it is undeniably interesting and a thing of great beauty.
To cut back to the start, we looked up our copy of Treatise and as you’ve probably guess it is valuable. Original copies like the one we were kindly donated don’t come up for sale very often and sell for around £500. We’ve sent ours off to auction. Maybe whoever buys it will send us a recording of what they come up with! In the meantime, here are several sections from you tube, as a well as an animated analysis from Block Museum if you want a hint at how to start your own interpretation.
If this has inspired you can also find some details of other graphic music scores in this Guardian article.