Unsettling the Score: Experiments in Notation, Part II

Unsettling the Score: Experiments in Notation, Part II

Example 8: Page 134 from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise, 1963–67.

Editor’s Note: The following text aligns with the Center’s interest in and investigation of the concept of “restaging”—applied here to mean the variable re-performances encouraged by certain forms of musical notation. Click here for part I of Gutkin’s piece.

At The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, in fall 2012, in front of a roomful of Philadelphia musicians, Eve Essex and I ran through the discussion of notation I described in part I. Afterwards, Eve led a workshop in which we performed Cornelius Cardew’s mammoth graphic score, Treatise (1963–67).

As a kind of warm-up, we chose Robert Ashley’s 1967 score She Was a Visitor to perform with the participants. Ashley (b. 1930), onetime member of the ONCE Group and the Sonic Arts Union, is, in my mind, the greatest innovator in the field of avant-garde opera working in the United States. For decades he has worked on inventive ways to notate language at the border of speech and song, especially evident in this piece. She Was a Visitor is a text score in two senses: except for a small pictorial diagram and an excerpt of rhythmic notation, the directions are entirely given as text; the music itself is the result of overlapping phonemic transformations of the titular phrase. As with most of Ashley’s scores, She Was a Visitor gives the performers a great deal of responsibility in determining the sound of the eventual performance. Perhaps it would be more expedient and instructive to quote a bit of the score rather than summarize it:

A speaker: Repeat the phrase, “she was a visitor,” periodically and without variation for the duration of the performance. Use a normal tone of voice. This is not the main event.

Leaders (any number): Choose a phoneme of the speaker’s phrase and speak that phoneme as quietly as possible simultaneously with its occurrence in the speaker’s phrase, letting the speaker’s sound mask the beginning of this event. Sustain the sound for one breath. (All of the phonemes can be sustained, except for the t sound in visitor: this sound remains short, and simply occurs with the speaker’s sound.) Do this at your own voice-pitch level. Continue to choose and sustain sounds as long as the speaker keeps repeating the phrase.

Chorus groups (the chorus divided equally among the leaders): Sustain the phonemes that are sounded by the group leader. In this, though the group reflects the phoneme choices of the leader, members of the group act as individuals; that is, as each person perceives the leader’s choice, he sounds that phoneme at his own voice-pitch level, as quietly as possible, for one breath. (The t sound, of visitor, may follow at any time soon after it is spoken by the leader.)

Ashley provides some additional directions on how the performance should run, as well as a chart depicting the phonemes in the repeated phrase and some possibilities for audience participation. Our group performance (with one participant volunteering as the principal reciter, and others as group leaders) struck me as generally successful in that it seemed to progress and conclude in a natural way. Maybe we failed to produce the varied sonic texture I’ve heard on other occasions—the many subtle combinations of “shhh,” “eeee,” “aaaah,” “ts-ts-ts,” etc.—but I think this was simply because we didn’t have quite enough performers for the full effect.

After working on She Was a Visitor, we moved to the main event: a group performance of two pages from Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score, Treatise (1963–67). All in all, Treatise consists of 193 pages of finely drawn lines, bulbous shapes, and other pictorially elegant geometric figurations with only the occasional vestige of conventional notational symbols and no accompanying directions. [See example 8 at the top of this page.] Although the graphics in Treatise stand in no clear relation to any specific sonic content, Cardew did not intend his score to function as a vague stimulus for improvisation. He writes: “The score must govern the music. It must have authority, and not merely be an arbitrary jumping-off point for improvisation, with no internal consistency.” Cardew also criticized the purely pictorial “aesthetic notations” of composers like Bussotti.

In this score, Cardew takes up concerns from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (as the title Treatise indicates), especially the idea that any properly logical notation bears a certain necessity and self-evidence in terms of its meaning. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein writes, “In our [logical] notations there is indeed something arbitrary, but this is not arbitrary, namely that if we have determined anything arbitrarily, then something else must be the case. (This results from the essence of notation.)” Thus, for Wittgenstein, any method of logical notation may certainly have an element of arbitrariness (e.g., the specific marks it uses) but, if it is a true (“possible”) method, these notations necessarily constitute, and imply, an internally consistent system. Moreover, one of the essential ideas of the Tractatus, and one that would have particular significance for Cardew, is that a logical notation needs no external explanation or verification to be perceived as true. He writes: “It is the characteristic mark of logical propositions that one can perceive in the symbol alone that they are true; and this fact contains in itself the whole philosophy of logic.” In constructing his own system of musical notation, Cardew apparently took this hard-to-imagine conception of logical notation as a genuine ideal. Thus, Cardew’s notation was to be a self-referential symbolic system without need of any meta-text (i.e., additional directions). That it does not describe any particular sound structures is the point, since, according to the Tractatus, logical propositions reflect (and are reflected within) the world not as specific empirical things or events but as formal (logical) possibilities. (Wittgenstein: Logical propositions “describe the scaffolding of the world, or rather…present it” but “‘treat’ of nothing.” Cardew: “Reference. ‘What is the reference of the network?’ This is meaningless. Something—things—should be referable to the network.”)

Eve and I talked about some of these ideas, but as a group, this didn’t give us any concrete approach to interpreting these pages from Treatise. (For his part, Cardew later gave up on the idea of a rigorous coherency in Treatise and regarded it instead as a pivot into his “present concerns—improvisation and a musical life.” A few years after that, in his Marxist period, he would renounce Treatise altogether as “a disease of notation, namely the tendency for musical notations to become aesthetic objects in their own right.”) One of the participants, musician and 2013 Pew Fellow Bhob Rainey, had recently made an ensemble recording of Treatise for Mode Records. He shared some experiences from that session. It was great to get Rainey’s input, but we still weren’t sure how to go about making interpretive decisions. Indeed, a large portion of Cardew’s work can be seen as a contribution to shifting musical discourse from aesthetics and form to the social and political process of group decision-making. Performance Senior Specialist Jeff Arnal suggested that we break up into a few groups of four or five people to allow for a better conversation and to come up with a few different approaches. I can’t vouch for the other groups, but the group I joined had a good time devising a system. As I recall, we were rather strict about timing (the duration ascribed to distance on the page) and the nature of event that we understood different marks to signify (speaking, singing, high-density of sound, etc.), but we also left a lot to each person’s discretion.

After rehearsing in these smaller groups, we all came together to perform the score, but without any one group explaining its approach to any other group. It was a simultaneous execution of non-coordinated sound events, and in that sense may have had a slightly Cage-ian flavor. Writing some couple months after the event, it is hard for me to recall quite how our performance sounded, but I remember it felt good. It was an abbreviated taste of both the dilemmas and the pleasures that come with working through musical processes in group situations.

Click for part I of Gutkin’s piece >

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