In 1967 — before he internalized Mao Tse-tung, embraced Marxism, condemned the avant-garde (Cage and Stockhausen, the latter being his former boss, were recipients of much of his venom), purposely wrote "unoriginal music" because art attracts the bourgeois and music is meant to support the revolution of oppressed masses — Cornelius Cardew produced the inimitable graphic score Treatise. Admittedly influenced by Abandoned Theory and "picture theory of language / meaning" as outlined in Wittgenstein's book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Treatise is a collection of 50+ shapes spread across 193 pages, sans written instructions. With each performance and iteration of the work, Cardew flip-flopped on his stance regarding his vision. Initially, he wrote:
"The notation is more important than the sound. Not the exactitude and success with which a notation notates a sound; but the musicalness of the notation in its notating."
Gradually, he acceded to less conductor-centric offerings to the players:
"Any number of musicians using any media are free to participate in a 'reading' of this score...and each is free to interpret it in his own way."
And make of this what you will:
"In the case of Treatise a line or dot is certainly an immediate orientation as much as the thread in the fog. "
So... Having an expansive set of implied parameters around supposed abstraction can cause performances of Treatise to come off anywhere from mind-blowing and earth-shaking (i.e. the 1999 Art Lange and Jim O'Rourke duo, and Noël Akchoté on solo guitar in 2016) to schizophrenic and meandering; this entity that appears to lend itself to interpretation can end up governed to the point of the oxymoron "process-driven experiment." Being scolded about "mistakes" in an indeterminate piece reminds one of a disheartened George Harrison toward dictator Paul McCartney on the Let It Be documentary: "I'll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play. Whatever it is that'll please you, I'll do it."
Concerning the realization at hand, the size of the ensemble (thirteen members) causes an inflation of space and time. That is, there is rarely a pause or break, and the two hours and eight minutes (over two discs) first engage and then turn from intriguing and mystical to "is this going to change?" like having too much of your favorite food in one sitting.
The endurance of the London Experimental Ensemble version is certainly admirable, as holding together this long of an "improvisation" requires strength. Maybe following the abundance of continuous lines on the score inspired the players to adhere to a mission of unbreakable sustain (Cardew called this "the 6-day cycle race when you sling your partner into the next lap with a forcible handclasp). There isn't a metered or formal repetition as the performance lumbers along, but the ingredients here simmer without global evolution. The peculiar nature of part one is mired in overwhelming string webs (contrabass x2 + electric guitar x2 + slide guitar + violin) until near 35 minutes when the group peels back to percussive knocks, tears, shutters, and shadowy, warbling synthesized murmurs. There are other curious moments in spots where sampled ghostly voices in conversation ooze under the surface; grand explosions from pummeled piano sound boards rise above the din; swooping UFO's stop by on occasion; thick bass strings snap and rattle as if detuned. Other interesting gestures try to surface, but the rest of the ambling juggernaut masks these in favor of stirring up dust and sticks and otherwise debris while moving (last analogy) like a dune buggy stuck in quicksand.
Just as Schoenberg's purported reason behind serialism was to extend — not destroy — the work of Bach's more radical cantatas, Cardew tried a newish trope on notation to reign in, say, Fluxus wanking (not my words), to bring method back to madness. However, whereas the adventure of Cage's 4'33" affords a freedom to let sound do what it wants to do (unless the indeterminate ensemble don't follow the instructions on three empty tacets), Cardew (here I go again — as if I have the right) literally painted the performer into a corner. One could argue anticipation of a successful recorded version of Treatise was purposely sabotaged from the beginning. Cardew:
"...this music does not occur in a home environment, it occurs in a public environment, and its force depends to some extent on public response. For this reason, too, it cannot happen fully in a recording studio; if there is hope for a recording it must be a recording of a public performance."
Yes, I'm bagging on one of the world's most impressive pieces of musical history, a physical monument that I highly admire and feel belongs on museum walls — I was very close to getting a tattoo of page 46 on my forearm. But the overshadowing printed extra-musical mammoth is almost more authoritative than the audible results. I'm thoroughly addressing the former, not to understand the output here, but to...reflect on the why of the output? Cheers to the London Experimental Ensemble for its attempt to take on this beast.
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