Cardew’s Treatise: The greatest musical score ever designed
Described as the ‘Mount Everest’ of graphical musical scores, Treatise still manages to surprise with its invention and beauty of graphic notation.
It is like stumbling across an alien manuscript, something unearthly and beautifully rendered, but incomprehensible.
Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise has been described as the ‘Mount Everest’ of visual musical scores and graphic notation.
Whether you like his music or not, you can’t deny the madness, originality and beauty of this visual score. Even after Cardew’s untimely and some say ‘suspicious’ death in 1981, the score and work still manage to surprise.
Cardew was one of the revolutionary British avant-garde composers that came to prominence in the 60s. I have already written about some of his peers in the art of visualising music. His music can be spare and abstract, but also childish and melodic.
What is not entirely surprising was that he started out as a graphic designer. He trained as a typographer in London College of Printing and then went on to work at Aldus Books as a design assistant This is where he created Treatise.
Cardew spent four years, between 1963 to 1967, working on the score. Treatise is a masterpiece of visual communication and a major achievement in any musical system. It contains 193 pages of beautifully rendered lines, symbols and shapes. Cardew sought to expand the way in which performers could interpret the work and be divorced from the whims of the composer. It was a very 60s cocktail of Marxism, semiotics and a dash of groovy Structuralism.
While at Aldus, Cardew says that he became “occupied more and more with designing diagrams and charts” and became “aware of the potential eloquence of simple black lines in a diagram”.
It lacks the traditional format of a score, yet occasionally includes symbols like crotchets, quavers and even duration, although in skewed form. The lines are intricately drawn. On the footer of each page contains what looks like traditional music staff lines, but they are empty. It gives each page a solid base, maybe acknowledging some historical through-line.
There is a beautiful openness in the score. Expressive lines and circles, give a great sense of forward movement. There is a lot of white space, space that seems to invite the performers to mentally scribble their thoughts in the margins.
There are no instructions on how to play the piece for the performers. On first reading, it looks insanely difficult to comprehend, yet on further study, patterns emerge. It was open to interpretation. “I wrote Treatise with the definite intention that it should stand entirely on its own, without any form of introduction or instruction to mislead prospective performers into the slavish practice of ‘doing what they are told’.” The Block Museum of Art has a wonderful animated analysis of how to interpret the score.
Performers can come to it, play it how they feel it should be played, and use any instruments they wish. Every performance is unique. Treatise stands as a uniquely beautiful work of art, one that hopefully doesn’t get forgotten in the age of Sibelius.
Watch and listen to the full score unfold
Download the Full ‘Treatise’ Score Manuscript.
Tony Harris, The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew
Virginia Anderson, “Well, It’s a Vertebrate …”: Performer Choice in Cardew’s Treatise
Block Museum of Art, Treatise: An Animated Analysis