Cornelius Cardew's Treatise is the most elaborate, extensive, and baffling graphic score in music history; it was the natural outgrowth of Cardew's experiences serving as an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen and, in a sense, might represent an attempt to beat Stockhausen at his own game. It consists of 183 pages of symbols, intersected by a line that runs through the center of every page; the material can be interpreted in any way, by any combination of instruments. Unlike as in John Cage's Concert for piano and orchestra, which is punctuated by letter codes that lead to a detailed legend of specific instructions found elsewhere in the box that contains the score, Cardew left no specs on how to perform Treatise -- prospective performers have to devise their own plan as to how to render Cardew's figures and shapes into music. At the request of a publisher, Cardew did ultimately provide the Treatise Handbook, which lacks precise instructions, but clarifies Cardew's philosophical and political thinking behind the work; however, this volume did not exist when the Czech QUaX Ensemble recorded the 1967 performance of Treatise in Prague here reproduced on Mode Records' Cornelius Cardew: Treatise. The performance is continuous, though split up over two discs and totaling two hours, six minutes, and 53 seconds; apart from occasional distortion, the sound is excellent, and those with high-end sound rigs would probably never guess that this comes from a tape that is 40 plus years old.
There are not a great many recordings of Treatise about; some are excerpted performances of a page or two. Unfortunately, it is not evident which pages of Treatise are performed here, and that information is likely lost to time; we are probably lucky to get an account of what instruments were in use, which included a Stroh Violin, a notorious type of violin fitted with a brass horn to facilitate acoustical recording technology. Cardew may not have completed the whole work by this performance of October 17, 1967, and in his liner note, QUaX Ensemble leader Petr Kotik stated that he didn't receive the complete score of Treatise until after 1970; by then he was leading the S.E.M. Ensemble out of SUNY Buffalo. This realization of Treatise does not emphasize sounds with a capital "S"; there are long stretches of silence, sometimes particular instruments are heard in isolation, at other points there are ensemble passages, some extensive, some not; one will even hear a snatch of vaudeville piano at one juncture. The music-making is often nonchalant, a quality that also typifies AMM, an improvisational ensemble of which Cardew was a member. However, QUaX Ensemble's realization also has some measure of a "behind the iron curtain" flavor owing to its general mood, the stylistic preferences of the players and choice of instrumentation, and this fits with Cardew's dictum to "give your own music, and to give it in response to my music." Even though there is not a single explicitly stated note in the whole score of Treatise, this Mode release still sounds like Cornelius Cardew, a composer whose short career was typified by violent stylistic contrasts and almost continuous change, and the power of his personality shines through this music even though he functions as a kind of a midwife to this performance, rather than in the usual sense of a composer creating a work so many measures long that is interpreted thus so. The QUaX Ensemble performed a version of Treatise many times throughout Europe, and one is thankful to have this archival recording as it is played by musicians completely familiar with Cardew's intentions and made during his own lifetime; indeed, while the ink was still wet on some parts of the score. This is not a general taste kind of album; one is tempted to borrow the phrase "for those who dare..." used on an old Time/Mainstream LP that once featured AMM in the 1960s. If you like challenge and are on board with the continuous process of learning and discovery that Cardew was trying to stimulate in Treatise, then you will find this Mode disc very satisfactory.