Cornelius Cardew was a fascinating figure. Both in his life, and through his music, he posed questions with which I find myself in equal sympathy and conflict. He is undeniably one of the most important figures in the Post-War British avant-garde. Cardew, by all accounts, was a prodigy. During his early twenties he worked at the highest levels of performance. In 1958 (age 22) he won a scholarship to study at the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, and was promptly asked by Karlheinz Stockhausen to serve as his assistant. Stockhausen’s recollections of Cardew are drenched in respect. He was one of the few people whom he allowed to work on his scores unsupervised. During the late 50’s, influenced by John Cage and other members of his generation, Cardew abandoned Serialism and began to compose scores utilizing indeterminacy and experiment. It was this period of his work for which he is most remembered, and from which Treatise (our subject) comes. In 1967 he joined the iconic free-improvisation collective AMM with Lou Gare, Eddie Prévost, Keith Rowe and Christopher Hobbs, which advanced his sense of compositional possibility. The following year with Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons he formed the equally important Scratch Orchestra, which grew into a large ensemble, preforming over the following four years.
Cardew’s most iconic work was written during a period stretching just over a decade – after which he made a severe turn, dedicating himself to radical Left-Wing politics, and composing “people’s music”- largely based on folk traditions. Under the influence of Marxism he came to believe that the world to which he had belonged (avant-garde classical, and free-improvisation) was elitist. He subsequently denounced both his former work and his relationships, particularly the one with Stockhausen, who he used as a focus for his venom. Though my politics are further Left than Marxism, and free of its dogmas, I can respect his conviction. That said, I can’t agree with him. His position lacks respect for “the people”, and smothers creativity and progress. I love avant-garde music too much to let politics get in the way. Like so many of the legacies of Marxism, the consequence of Cardew’s beliefs were foreshadowed by Mikhail Bakunin during the International at the Hague Congress in 1872. We all know it didn’t end well.
Treatise, which was composed between 1963 and 1967, is considered to be Cardew’s greatest achievement. It’s also a total head-fuck for anyone who attempts to approach it. It’s a 193 page graphic score with no instruction – completely in the hands of the conductor and musicians who interpret it. Whatever you make of the music that grows from it, Treatise is an undeniable thing of aesthetic beauty. The work is rarely realized in its totality. Performers tend to focus on distinct passages. It can be performed by a single player, or by as large an ensemble as possible. There is no indication of preferred instrumentation or duration. Because the work bears no description beyond itself, there is little to say about it. Wanting to share it, I’ve included three realizations focused on pages 1-14, 57-58, and 140-165, by separate ensembles respectively. I’ve also included a series of images which depict the score in its totality, an image of the original bound score made by Cadrew, and scans of the each of its entire 193 pages. I hope you enjoy.
Cornelius Cardew Treatise Pages 1-14 Realized by The Cardew Trio
Cornelius Cardew Treatise Pages 57-58 Realized by Leo Rathier / Meryle Marchetti
Cornelius Cardew Treatise Pages 140-165 Realized by SYNTAX Ensemble
Cornelius Cardew Treatise Full 193 Page Score
Cornelius Cardew Treatise Original Bound Score