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CD Review

Cornelius Cardew


The QUaX Ensemble/Petr Kotik
Mode 205 2CDs
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Cardew died – in mysterious circumstances – in 1981, the victim if a hit-and-run car accident. His musical credo evolved significantly over the years. He held unusually progressive political views. He was a leading light in contemporary performance (the AAM, the Scratch Orchestra). These aspects of his life and career contribute to the danger that his "following" will overshadow appreciation of his music. That would be a pity. for Cardew's is truly music of depth and significance. And, given his importance in the British (in particular) and European music world of the late twentieth century, there are remarkably few recordings from the time before he effectively abandoned atonal music as inaccessible to the average listener in favor of a more populist, melodic style.

This live recording from an "unedited" performance in 1967 in Prague is all the more welcome, then. And not only as a historical "document" – although it certainly has immense value as such, for (almost needless to say) there is no other recording of the piece. For these reasons alone, this is an important and desirable CD for anyone interested in the most avant of the last century's avant garde. Also because the playing, not to mention the sense of occasion, captured in exemplary fashion by the team at Mode, are themselves sources of pleasure and stimulation.

Stimulation of, perhaps, a chiefly cerebral kind: Treatise is a long work (at just over two hours) for any number of musicians with any instruments, which may be performed in whole or extract. To musical conservatives that probably sounds like a recipe for chaos. In fact it's very much in keeping with the way composers and performers were working in Europe in those post Second World War years… think of how IRCAM was conceived and developed, for example; and the Darmstadt circle. It's maybe gilding the lily to suggest that anyone who had a demonstrable musical talent or idea to contribute was welcome to the world of Cardew, Tilbury and Feldman. But not by much. It's certainly how Petr Kotik, the Czech founder of QUaX, became involved with Cardew. After first meeting the composer a couple of times in London in the early 1960s, he determined that Treatise was a good place to start to become familiar with the values, style and musical faith which Cardew then represented.

The performance of Treatise became something of a speciality by QUaX; though only once in the two hour version which we hear on these two CDs: in Prague, on October 15 1967. Fortunately, the session was also recorded. And here it is, skillfully and very effectively remastered in the last couple of years – a unique and important musical event, whose value (provided you listen attentively) extends far beyond its historical context.

Treatise is best approached with as few preconceptions as possible: Cardew originally wished for it to be heard without "instructions", but was persuaded to commit some commentary to a Treatise Handbook. At bottom, this describes the work as "a continuous weaving and combining of a host of graphic elements (of which only a few are recognizably related to musical symbols) into a long visual composition, the meaning of which in terms of sound is not specified in any way. … Any number of musicians using any media are free to participate in a "reading" of this score … and each is free to interpret it in his [sic] own way."

And there really are many such "threads": disjointed vocalizations; progressions, clusters and harmonizations of instrumental notes; long pauses; variations in both tempo and volume; unexpected as well as "conventional" combinations of instruments and sounds; snatches of what we take to be familiar melody (the solo flute midway through Part 3 [CD.1 tr.2], for example); and a variety of sonic effects. Above all, perhaps, the great strength of Treatise lies in the world it creates, modifies, and invites us to enter thanks to the music's structure and apparently quite deliberate development. For chaotic it is not: one waits for the next sound, the next variation, the next surprise.

Despite the graphical "lifeline" running throughout Treatise (its almost 200 pages of unconventional notation are but a starting point), rigidity is avoided by the impetus which its performers are exhorted to feel to celebrate the way their personalities and (musical) preoccupations flow together. This contributes the spontaneity, the lack of inhibition, the unfocused and the apparently accidental which characterize the performance and the work. And there is one of the most important points about Treatise: at what point does the work become the performance? And vice-versa.

Like much of Feldman's music, Treatise is largely slow and uncluttered. But also like Feldman's music, it's bursting with energy. It's an energy which the QUaX ensemble both creates and conveys (that relationship between work and performance again) with great force and conviction. It would be a happy state of affairs if we could count on multiple, different "interpretations" of Treatise by other minds. But we can't.

This music isn't for everyone. But if you're keen to explore some of the last 50 years more defining and courageous moments, it's well worth recognizing the contribution made by Mode in issuing this almost monumental testament. Cardew wrote, "Every honest utterance makes sense". If you agree, this recording will only expand your musical horizons.

Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.