Politics at play: the daunting task of performing Treatise

Melissa Lesnie, Limelight Magazine
1st May 2011

Ensemble Offspring discusses the challenges of interpreting Cardew’s revolutionary score.

Clarinetist Diana Springford is squinting at a score and attempting to describe her favourite bits over the phone – if it’s even possible to have favourite bits.

“I personally love page 183, but I like it as something I’d want to put on my wall rather than something I’d play! It’s one of those really complicated pages. It looks like one of those Duchampian drawings, lots and lots of interconnected lines.

“But funnily enough, some of the simpler-looking pages prove to be the most sonically interesting. Do you know page 44?” she asks, as if I would. Luckily, she specifies for my benefit: “It’s got these parallel lines that get more and more wobbly like they’re hand-drawn then they come together. It looks like the tail of a jellyfish.” And now it makes perfect sense.

Ensemble Offspring isn’t working on your average notes-on-a-page kind of music; rather they are tackling the intricate, exquisitely drawn work of English composer Cornelius Cardew, whose 1967 graphic score Treatise revolutionised notational language, performer relationships and even the definition of a composer in 20th-century classical music. Having studied with Stockhausen and later trained as a graphic designer, Cardew created a 193-page visual masterpiece intended to be played by an unspecified grouping of instruments for an unspecified amount of time on unspecified pitches. The imagery ranges from recognisable clefs and music insignia to all manner of blobs, blots, shapes and lines. Almost as an afterthought or a joke, a blank stave runs the length of the bottom of every single page.

Ensemble Offspring will perform just two pages of this mighty tome in a forty-minute set on Thursday May 5, marking 2011 as the 30th anniversary of the composer’s death (he was killed in a hit-and-run and would have been 75 this week). But even in two pages there is a teeming microcosm of musical possibility.

“Choosing which pages we were going to look at was difficult because everyone favoured a different part”, says percussionist Claire Edwardes. “The more you look at the score the more incredible detail emerges. We’re hoping to project it on the wall – it’s such a beautiful work of art in itself, and it would be nice for people to see what we’re playing from.”

It is the ideal canonical 1960s work for the experimental troupe, who have enlisted four players from Sydney-based improvisation collective the NOW now to form an octet in their first joint collaboration together. “We thought this would be a good meeting ground in terms of being a score, but being far from a traditional score”, says Edwardes. “What they’ve brought to the project is a very strong direction based on their experience as improvisers, and in that sense it’s been great for us because they’ve taken the work under their wings. We might come back to it again because the realisation is one-off – it would be different if Ensemble Offspring did it by ourselves.”

Cardew’s openness and lack of any kind of sonic specificity was designed to liberate performers in a variety of ways. Firstly, since there is no actual music content given, players of any technical skill level can have a crack at it, even if they cannot read traditional notation. He also strove to remove what he saw as the “tyranny” of the composer’s imposed note-for-note demands, which had become hyper-complex in the music of his contemporaries.

“The score makes you think about what freedom is and what orthodoxy is”, Springford explains, “because it’s not entirely free – it has to be interpreted”. Ironically, this sense of freedom can be difficult for classically trained performers to come to terms with, as they have the burden of composing their own responses to every single gesture in the score. Most provocatively, the work is also a treatise on the ethics of improvisation; Cardew’s social experiment on how these decisions are made with an ensemble – in this case two – working together towards a common goal.

“You have to decide at every point how improvisatory you’re going to make it, how much you’re going to listen to each other when you do it, whether you’re even going to read from left to right!” says Springford.

“Ensemble Offspring and the NOW now have shared interests but also different modes of working and a different ethos of music-making. A work like this brings out the political elements of any group, but here there’s not just one person stamping all over it or leading it. It depends on the people involved and how their personalities interact.”

Edwardes assures me theirs was an egalitarian approach. “We decided we’d do the democratic thing and go around and each talk about what we thought after each rehearsal session. We’ve all chosen our sound palettes based on rehearsals and hearing what other people are doing.”

The main question that arises, then, is how does it all sound? Springford is playing clarinet and bass clarinet. “The NOW now guys contribute a lot of textural interpretation whereas Ensemble Offspring are quite melodic.”

For Edwardes, part of the challenge was choosing which percussion instruments to feature. “I decided to limit my sound world to just vibraphone and bass drum but what I bring to those instruments is specialisation in extended techniques and lots of different effects, so I’m delving deep into those sounds. One of the pages is based on circular forms, and as a percussionist there are so many different ways you can read those shapes. Some of my instruments are circular, and then there’s creating circular sounds or movements.

“You can hear in this performance each and every person’s different take on music and their favourite sounds. Mike Majkowski has these amazing techniques he does on the double bass. Rishin Singh is extremely creative so it’s inspiring to hear what he does on his trombone.”

One of the paradoxes of Treatise is that it considered by performers to be one of the seminal examples of postwar avant-garde composition, but it hasn’t attained the same status in audience estimation, perhaps because there is no definitive “version” to be heard and appraised. “If you expect music to be recognisable, repeatable, and to produce certain kinds of affects, going to hear Treatise would be like being a vegetarian at a barbecue”, Springford laughs.

Of course, patrons of the NOW now and Ensemble Offspring will be no strangers to graphic scores and intrepid music-making – I’ve seen the latter read from watercolour paintings and mycological diagrams. “There are certain types of ensembles that would give Treatise a go, and they’re peculiar ensembles, aren’t they? There aren’t many groups where people would think, ‘they should do this’, but that’s definitely the case with us”.

So is Treatise as radical today as it was in 1967? Edwardes certainly thinks so. “It’s so extreme and no one else has created such a major piece of work that could be interpreted in so many different ways – people could keep asking questions about this work forever and ever and ever!”

Springford agrees that “it’s an amazingly well thought-through graphic score that raises the bar for that style of work because it’s so detailed. Cardew really does stand for all these different ways of interpreting the politics of music. All the different sorts of music Ensemble Offspring plays – he provides a lens through which to look at them.”

“The most interesting thing for our audience”, asserts Edwardes, “will be that it is so rarely performed and it’s never going to be the same twice, ever”.