Monday, June 20, 2011

Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise”

Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise”
by Brian Olewnick

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (1963-1968) has become, in some circles, the pre-eminent graphic score of 20th century avant-garde music. Particularly among those musicians and listeners who value improvisation, it seems to have nudged aside works like Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis or Brown’s Four Systems as the go-to score, in part or whole. Spanning 193 pages, with absolutely no written instructions (though the double line of octaves running along the bottom of each page at least suggests that the interpretation flow along musical lines, it has indeed been danced to), it consists of an enormous wealth of calligraphic richness: numbers, isolated musical signs, arcs, circles, squares, squiggles, quasi-representational figures and, most of all, lines, all rendered with a dazzling degree of elegance. A central spine (Cardew referred to the work as “a vertebrate”) runs through the work at mid-page, with occasional interruptions, anchoring it.

Cardew brought together musicians to perform the work, in whole or part, numerous times while it was gestating but after his conversion to a particularly orthodox version of Maoism around 1971, he renounced it along with all of his other prior compositions as bourgeois artifacts, effete pieces that did nothing to elevate the worker. For quite a while, it seemed to have gone into hibernation apart from often being included in performances by AMM after Cardew’s death in 1981. Keith Rowe had participated in many a realization of the piece, developing his own translation of image groups therein, and it served as a touchstone for him, perfectly melding the worlds of free improvisation and post- Cagean music. AMM would only play a handful of the pages at a time, Rowe believing that a proper, considered reading would devote six to ten minutes per page.

Ironically, it was an exceedingly rapid version of “Treatise,” led by Art Lange in 1999 (hat [now] ART 2-122) that brought the work back into the public forum. Lasting a mere 140 minutes (or about 44 seconds per page), it was necessarily a rush job and hardly scratched the surface of the piece. Rowe continued to champion it, however, playing excerpts in concert and talking about it with some constancy. Soon, Treatise became something of a staple among the burgeoning eai group of musicians and listeners, discussed and analyzed frequently and seemingly performed, in one manner or another, every other week.

Two recent renditions have surfaced, one a reading of four pages, one in its entirety, that approach the piece from distinctly different vantages, the first “traditional”, the second, not so…

Choi Joonyong, Hong Chulki, Jin Sangtae and Ryu Hankil are four of the leading improvisers in South Korea, having released a slew of impressive recordings over the last five or six years, ranging from ultra-quiet to extremely harsh sound ranges, generally incorporating low-fi devices including turntables, CD players, film projectors and assorted “broken” electronics. For this performance, they chose four pages, 20-23, and imposed a 40-minute time limit on themselves, by design or intuition coming close to that Roweian standard. I think it’s fair to say that the sounds generated bear no obvious correlation to the score (there’s a projection on the rear wall, but the musicians don’t look that way, instead occasionally—not always—peering down at their tables at individual sheets of the score there), something that’s likely quite common in realizations of Treatise. One doesn’t know how the graphics were read only that the resultant music was somehow molded into something different than it would have been otherwise. While they don’t seem to be terribly conscious of each other, certainly not reacting directly to what one another is playing, they do manage to come to mutual halts on a few occasions and cohesive ensemble formations on others. But, in the AMM tradition, they seem to respond to the totality of the room, the performance of four pages of Treatise inside it being just one element occurring at the time. Some twelve minutes in, a sustained drone is developed, possibly reflecting the omnipresent spine of Treatise that bisects almost every page, but these musicians have short patience with any kind of stasis and that drone is summarily interrupted by the clatter of tin cans and shards of static and abruptly brought to a halt, Hong and Choi standing up and entering a rear room, the latter banging something twice, clearly, the former possibly setting into motion some small toys. The set continues in this staggered, irregular, harsh fashion, the sounds of metallic clatter or a table being pushed across the floor or Hong leaving the space entirely to sound the horn on a car parked outside as likely as the more “routine” sounds of cracked electronics or screeching (recordless) turntable. It seems at a far remove from the elegant calligraphics of Cardew, the graceful arches on p. 22 or the ascending cascade of “f” shapes on p. 24. But that, of course is to look at things visually, not necessarily ascribing another kind of meaning to the shapes, lines and numbers. There’s a brief shot of p. 24 on Choi’s table and one can glimpse a dense concentration of markings he’s made thereon, so you realize that something is afoot. But that’s one of the essential beauties of Treatise: its utter openness to interpretation. Here, this listener ultimately became absorbed in the goings-on, rapt in the appreciation of the unique sound-world created via this singular model. But are there “wrong” readings?

Shawn Feeney (in a work realized in 2002, though uploaded only recently) took an entirely other approach, treating Cardew’s work as an explicitly graphic piece, devoid of intuitive meaning, removing (apart from the initial idea) any human interpretation at all. He first arranged the 193 pages to scroll across the screen from right to left, a beautiful enough image and, really, how Treatise should be viewed if at all possible, making more apparent the thoroughgoing structure of the composition. He then programmed a sine wave generator to activate upon encountering any morsel of black ink as that portion passed an invisible y-axis midway on the screen. Tones grew higher above the central spine, lower beneath it. There might be more to it with regard to specific pitches, quavers, etc., but that’s it in a nutshell. Feeney essentially sets it in motion, then stands back and watches/listens to what unfurls. It’s necessarily lacking in many of the prime elements that have been part and parcel of, I imagine, virtually every prior performance of the work: the consideration of the musician(s) involved, what they bring to the shapes and symbols they encounter, how they process them. This could easily, it seems, lead to a sterile, “science experiment” kind of enterprise but somehow that doesn’t happen, at least to these ears. Instead, several aspects emerge. One is a rather surprising sense of narrative and even drama. If you’re at all familiar with the score, you can’t help but anticipate what’s going to happen when certain standout pages enter the arena—the baroque apparatus on p. 183, for instance, or the series of large, black circular shapes on pp. 130-135. You have a couple of inches of “lead time” as the score enters the screen on the right, constantly refreshing your expectations. Another, more salient result is that, by virtue of the laser-like precision of the sine tones, you gain a greater appreciation of the microstructures within Treatise and how they relate to medium-level and larger superstructures: the risings and fallings, the contrast between smooth and rough shapes, solid and open, intensely intricate and expansively sparse. It’s one thing to view this enormous array of figures, another to have their orientation and relationships explicated, even to this fairly minimal degree, by sound. The central spine becomes quite prominent and all but unwavering (though when Cardew chooses to draw it by hand instead of rule on pp. 169-170, it’s wonderful to hear the bumpiness), causing distress in some listeners but, for myself…well, it is a vertebrate, after all. Indeed it is and that nerve column does hold things together and, I think deserves its recognition.

By consciously putting aside the entire area where, arguably, the deepest and most absorbing investigations of “Treatise” are likely to be found, Feeney has succeeded in shedding substantial light on aspects of it that are too often overlooked. In my limited discussion with other musicians and listeners, this has caused large divisions with most, I think it’s fair to say, coming down against it, finding it too formulaic and literal-minded. I can’t help but disagree while acknowledging its severe limitations. I think of it more like a scanning electron microscope photo of an object. That same object, limned by an artist able to bring the wealth of his and others’ experience to it, to imbue it with ideas, may well provide the greatest “value”. But the microscope, inhuman as it is, provides a kind of information inaccessible to one’s eyes. To these ears, Feeney’s thus made a significant contribution to the anatomy and history of this almost 50-year old work, a piece—a creature-- that, one suspects, has only begun to reveal its richness.

No comments:

Post a Comment