I’m sure it comes as no surprise to the readers of these pages to hear that there has been little music this year, especially improvised music, that has really captured my interest. Certainly there has been well received releases and all of that but with only a couple of exceptions I’ve found little of it to be of sustaining interest. This is why for these monthly music entries I’ve been primarily focusing on releases of mostly composed music which has been engaging my interest. While I’m still listening to plenty of music from my collection I don’t think I bought a single piece of music this month and since I don’t really want to delve into stuff from the collection for these posts, I thought I’d do something different this month: analyze a recording of a couple of pages from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise that I recorded myself but have not made available in any form.
In the autumn of 2005 I went to New York City for the ErstQuake 2 festival where Keith Rowe performed in several sets. Over the course of the festival I was able to meet and talk with Keith a bit in which I learned that he’d be playing a couple of shows in Seattle. One of his two dates in Seattle he played from Treatise and I ended up talking to him quite a bit about this as at the time as I was actively engaged in performing it with the Seattle Improv Meeting. While I had at that point researched Treatise extensively this first discussion with Keith was the beginning of a much deeper relationship with the score. Keith showed me his personal copy of the score and I noted how extensively marked up each page was with direct indications of the gestures performed for specific symbols and even an overall time range for some (perhaps all?) pages. This of course is a fundamental aspect of really treating the material as a score and not just as a springboard for improvisation. I took these ideas back to the Seattle Improv Meeting and had us work on a single page from the score for several months in a row. The idea was to build up a body of gestures to map to the symbols consistently. Over the weeks we’d refine our approaches and ideally, at least within the subset of the symbols on the page we were working on, develop our own personal but consistent language for the score. This worked out well and from that point on I would use this language as I played from the score, sometimes iterating on it, sometimes refining it and sometimes abandoning specific gestures as I altered my approach. I should of course note that we had more or less been developing our own language all along as we’d been working on Treatise all that year winnowing down the body of gestures we had experimented with, but this exercise I think was fundamental in our approach and understanding of the score. You can check out our results of working on page 72 on the meeting recording archive.
Several years later, I found that notated page and decided to record a solo version of it plus the following page. I’d been developing my prepared wire strung harp into a very particular setup combined with electronics and this seemed an ideal way to fully explore this setup. So late winter 2007 I set my harp upon the table and recorded these pages resulting in this recording. The downside of recording oneself is that one is playing as well as engineering and one can really only focus on one of these. Thus in this recording the levels were too high initially which I eventually noticed and turned down. This has led to the first part of the score seeming much more dramatic then the rest of the score as if its symbology in some way demands this, but of course on looking at the score you see this isn’t the case. For this reason I’ve always felt this recording was somewhat compromised and post processing on this was never able to satisfactorily resolve this (because it is I think clipping initially and that is obvious even if the volume is brought more in parity with the rest of the recording). So I just filed this one away for years now but in many ways it is the best document of a portion of my musical life that isn’t documented anywhere else. So I present this now for the first time as a vehicle for examining an approach to the score.
Cornelius Cardew Treatise page 72 & 73
Use the player above to listen along as you read, or you can download one of several archives (recommended) that contain the recording plus PDFs of the Treatise pages including my annotated page: Apple Lossless, FLAC, 320kbps mp3.
The first symbol, apart from the center line, on this page is the number 3. The numbers in Treatise are about the only concrete symbols, that is to say they aren’t an abstraction upon which an interpretation can be placed but actually have a meaning in and of themselves. Of course as Cardew offers no direct explanation of how to interpret any aspect of the score, much less the numbers, one could just treat them as just another symbol with which one is working with. However it is part of the oral record of performance of Treatise, which I first heard from Keith, but later also from John Tilbury both in person and in his essential Cardew biography, that the numbers are treated as outside of the system, that they are interpreted as the number of repetitions for an event. Since learning this I’ve always treated them this way and in this recording it is no different. As you can see in above scan there is an notated event associated with each number; part of the assignment from the SIM was to notate what we’d done after we played from the page. So from the session where these notes where taken I applied “3 Sets of Bowed strings” a here set meaning a full bow stroke. In this recording I instead strike a spring that is mounted on strings above a contact mic. This is repeated three times each time waiting for the spring to settle before striking it again.
The next symbol is an upwardly inclined line of moderate thickness which ends with a short vertical line, creating two sides of an scalene triangle. For this symbol I note “descend by 1/3rd” which I do, by playing down a series of strings with a bolt, repeating it a third lower for the gamut of the harp. For the sharp vertical drop I “ascend by 1/5” which is the same gesture only moving up by fifths for each repetition.
The next number, a 2, follows a short gap to which I respond with a pair forceps which are clipped to the strings in such a fashion that it can be lifted up, dropped on the strings whereupon it oscillates for a time. This is of course repeated twice. The resonance of the harp, from sympathetic vibrations as well as the long sustain of the wire strings can be heard well beyond the last of the forceps oscillations. In the original notes I again bow the strings, specifying that I use high strings.
A pure tone comes in at this point, in response to the thin curving line that comes in from above. I always use pure tone for curved lines, either from an eBow on the strings or live or sampled electronics. In this case it is the oscillator that you can see in the setup picture above, but it has been recorded and is being played off an iPod. I had created a sample library from that oscillator as I loved it’s sound but it is rather unwieldy to lug around. However unlike the oscillator you can hear the sample repeat, which I consider somewhat unfortunate. Momentarily after the tone comes in you can hear the excitation of multiple strings with a rather circular sound. That is in response to the thin parallel lines, which my standard gesture is to rub multiple strings with a stone. This is indicated by the “Rub Strings” note, to which, by this time, I would be fully prepared to apply the rock to the multiple strings – one of the earliest and most consistent gestures I developed. Along with the stone I am also observing the “descend by 1/4” instruction for the sharper angled heavy lined triangle, which is again done via a bolt. The abrupt dropout is again similar, but its greater length modifies the gesture to “ascend by octaves“. For the last few seconds the one thin horizontal line is the only thing you hear in this cluster now, the stone rubbing on a single string. Just about the end of the line is a circle above it, for circles I always use a percussive event here it sounds like I tap the body of the harp with an object.
There is a gap between that last cluster and the next event: the number 5. Five repeated events, in this case it is bringing up the volume on a radio that I have in a feedback loop. It is tuned to static and bringing its volume up in this way creates that abrupt whispery sound, with that hollow almost echo-y sound that feedback adds.
Another short gap and then another cluster of sounds. Again there are several parallel horizontal lines which I address via the stones on several strings. I chose to excite the strings around the spring/contact mic resulting in an over-driven metallic assault. The surrounding spring represents the surrounded larger circle with its percussive attack on the contact mic. Around 8’25” you can hear a percussive event necessitated by the smaller circle: the forceps vibrating against strings. But what of the square? In the notes, I indicate “gliss strings” (I think) but I had long since settled on using the square as a symbol to listen, based on a comment that Tilbury made in the Treatise workshop I took with him; that the symbols do not have to correspond solely to musical gestures. When playing a score the important thing is to respond to the symbols regardless of what the ensemble is doing; they may be playing whisper quiet but if the score says to play loud, that’s what you do. I treat Treatise the same way, but I use the square when it comes up as a direction from the score itself to listen to the surroundings and to bring them into the proceedings. Since I was playing this alone in my living room, I think you can hear this in the change in tone toward the end of this cluster, as the single line curves downward. The percussive event at 9’48”, muted strike on the strings by a mallet, is probably slightly off-time and should have been in response to the black circle just before the line begins to curve.
After about thirty seconds of silence the number 1 is responded to with an electronic tone turned on and off.
Another pause and then a pure tone, louder then the earlier one, for the thicker downward curving line. At 13’05” I begin to softly rub the strings as the horizontal lines require. The thinness, shortness and stagger nature demand the softer approach. The vertical segments are handled by brushing against the spring and contact mic at times. A very short pause and then a strike on a piece of metal lodged under the strings for the percussive dot right at the end of this cluster.
Another 1 this one handled with a single pluck on one of the lower strings.
A pure tone for the ascending curved line, this one lower and richer, most likely from an eBow on the strings, though again a sample of this as opposed to a live eBowing. The stone comes in and out for the horizontal strings and you can hear a rather squeaky bowing now and again for the vertical lines. The radio is brought in at 7’44” with gentle static for the thick line paralleling the center line and the tone shortly thereafter stops a bit after the percussive event at 8’08” for the circle (the pure tone actually goes on a bit too long after that, most). The soft radio static plays out to the end with a sharp, by soft percussive attack for the final three dots at 20’19”.
That concludes the first page and this in-depth study, though I describe the second page in brief below. What is interesting to consider here is the difference between the notated score above and what I actually played. Now I made at least two notated scores during the SIM project and I suspect that the above score was the first one of these. It has the hallmarks of notating what I did in a session before refinement and abandonment of rather unsuccessful gestures. Many of the techniques notated here are ones I have not kept in my repertoire and just rereading them know they aren’t things I’d regularly use especially as a constant response to a symbol in Treatise. The gestures that you use in this have to be consider, have to be adaptable, have to be amenable to the interpenetration that so often occurs amongst the symbols in the score. It is instructive to see this work in progress as I was learning both the instrument and the score. The pitfalls of poorly considered gestures was only just beginning to make itself understood. Playing the same page over and over again taught some of these lessons, but playing more of the score really brings them home. When you play the same symbols for page after page, the all their permutations, variations and interpenetration, you learn the weight of each single sound.
A bit over twenty minutes into the recording I leave page 72 and proceed onto page 73. As I’ve described above at the time of this recording I was several years past the page 72 exercise I did with the SIM and had quite extensively developed my personal language with it. When I’d play pages that I hadn’t played before, hadn’t explicitly worked out what I’d do for every symbol on the page I was still able to play it with a high degree of consistency and rigor. While still working with the same set of tools it would be a bit different when I’d “sight read” these pages: perhaps I’d not respond to every symbol(which is always an option and in fact preferable in many cases), perhaps some nuances w/r/t the variation in some symbols wouldn’t be as developed. In the case of continuing from page 72 to page 73 it was rather straightforward and I quite like how it developed. The symbology of page 73 directly continues on from page 72 with its lines and dots at first exactly how it was used in the previous page but then becoming scattered and more fragmentary. The center line also loses fidelity; always an important event to take notice of. My response to this page was to continue playing it as I had page 72 but to reflect its fragmented nature, to work with the gaps, the variations alter the techniques used for these symbols to try to capture this essence.
While I never was satisfied enough with this recording, this is probably my single favorite performance of Treatise that I’ve done, certainly as a solo. The rawness of it, its mix of the prepared wire strung harp and primitive electronics, the layering of disparate elements, all of these I think worked really well and I find completely engaging. It reminds me a bit of David Tudor’s epic performance of John Cage’s Variations II in its use of over-driven amplified acoustic sounds. While not in that league of course to me it is in the same general area which I find all the more striking as I really hadn’t listened to that piece until a month after this recording was made. Additionally there are a lot of my concerns with sound addressed here, things that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily like, don’t find beautiful: flatness, hums, lack of warmth – these are things that I’ve engaged with for years and are well applied here. I like how the more dramatic feel of page 72 persists into page 73 but as the lines fragment and become more scatter so to does the music.
• A Young persons Guide to Treatise – my Treatise resource page.
• Cornelius Cardew – A Life Unfinished by John Tilbury, Copula, 2008.
• My report on a Treatise workshop with John Tilbury.
• Seattle Improv Meeting recording archive containing many recordings of Treatise.
• Keith Rowe’s solo Treatise performance in Seattle.
• On performing Treatise. My analysis of several recordings of Treatise.