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Hard-working audience treated to Treatise

"A Composer who hears sounds will try to find a notation for sounds. One who has ideas will find one that expresses his ideas, leaving their interpretation free, in confidence that his ideas have been accurately and concisely notated."

    Treatise Handbook: Working Notes — Cornelius Cardew

Ottawa music listeners who took a chance were treated to a unique performance on Sunday March 28, when members of the Carleton University Contemporary Music Ensemble performed Cornelius Cardew`s mammoth graphic score Treatise at Carleton University.

Carleton University Contemporary Music Ensemble director Professor Jesse Stewart stands in front of the projection of page 130 of the Treatise  graphic score. Photo ©2010 Brett Delmage

Carleton University Contemporary Music Ensemble director Professor Jesse Stewart stands in front of the projection of page 130 of the Treatise graphic score.  photo ©2010 Brett Delmage

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was a hugely influential, if controversial, British composer. Between 1963 and 1967, while working as a graphic designer, Cardew composed Treatise, one of his most ambitious works. Described as “the Mount Everest of graphic scores,” Treatise consists of 193 pages of hand-drawn lines, shapes, and symbols, without any indication as to how they are to be interpreted musically.

Playing from behind the audience, the musicians followed Cardew's score as it was projected at the front of the room. With director Jesse Stewart physically in the middle of the ensemble, the musicians to his right played above A440 (A above middle C), those to his left played below that. A440 was represented as a horizontal line in the middle of the score.

A purple vertical line, or cursor, moved across each page of the score at a varying tempo to provide a common time reference for musicians. Listeners watched attentively as they tried to decipher the ensemble's interpretation of the graphic score. The ensemble had been working on Treatise for three months, but it was the audience's first exposure to this unique piece and improvised performance. It was the first time that the piece was performed "in its entirety in order" that ensemble director, professor Jesse Stewart knew of. Cardew stated that the work could be peformed in whole or part and in any order the performers wished.

Two-thirds of the way through the performance, the score page changed to one showing many large dark circles. This generated a restrained and anticipatory laughter throughout the room. It was clear that the audience was decoding the score as the performers were; we were soon rewarded with a dense wall of sound from the fifteen musicians.

Carleton University music student and ensemble vibraphonist Aydin Suatac talked about his perspective of their work on the piece and interpretation of the score.

"If you're of a musical nature, everything was common sense: a black circle is a very dense thing. A straight line was a single note, and a wavering line was a small range of a chromatic note.Two lines far apart represented two notes far apart. An ascending line, a curved line... we just tried our best to represent all that musically.

It was a structure for improvisation. There was no key, no scale that everyone had to use. It just became, not so much about key and melody and harmony but rather density, texture… the repetition of ideas as the geometric shapes themselves repeated."

The performance was not the cacophony that some associate with some contemporary, improvised music. At times it was completely silent for an extended period, punctuated only by the briefest percussive element. Different instruments: bass, guitars, piano, vibrophone, voice, trumpet and more, weaved in and out of the texture, sometimes standing alone and somtimes combining in groups from two to all instruments.

According to Aydin, "There are 17 musicians playing at once. The main thing you have to do is listen. The hardest part was separating everything so it didn't sound like just a jumble of noise but sounded like people were trading ideas and developing things."


"There is a great difference between: a) doing anything you like
and at the same time reading the notations, and
b) reading the notations and trying to translate them into action.
"

     Treatise Handbook: Working Notes — Cornelius Cardew


"I may want to play this line but that guy is interpreting it another way. So there's no sense in imposing my idea over his because it will just sound bad so I will just accompany him or do nothing at all and just let him do it."

Before the performance started, some listeners, including me, were uncertain about the aural stamina required for an almost two-hour improvised piece . But the opinions expressed around refreshments after the performance indicated that the concert was engaging and that the time went by quickly. For those willing to take a chance experiencing something completely different, it was a rewarding experience that will not likely be repeated again anytime soon in Ottawa.

    – Brett Delmage

The Carleton University Contemporary Music Ensemble and audience. photo ©2010 Brett Delmage

The Carleton University Contemporary Music Ensemble

  • Olivier Beauliere - organ
  • Ian Crawford - trumpet
  • Dan DaSilva - voice
  • Dave Dandeno - guitar
  • Justin Duhaime - guitar
  • Laura Greenberg - bass
  • Phil Kapune - guitar
  • Timo Miller - bass
  • Andre St. Denis - marimba
  • Priya Shah - percussion
  • Aydin Suatac - vibraphone
  • Amanda Thomas - sax
  • Alex Tompkins - guitar
  • Christyane Wall - piano
  • Professor Jesse Stewart - drums, ensemble director