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Cardew’s Treatise: the greatest musical score ever designed


The ‘Mount Everest’ of graphical musical scores, Treatise still surprises with its invention and beauty. It is also one of the finest f*ck yous to the musical establishment.

Seeing the pages of Treatise for the first time is akin to stumbling across an alien manuscript, something unearthly and beautiful, but incomprehensible. Cornelius Cardew created Treatise, the ‘Mount Everest’ of visual musical scores and graphic notation, to break away from the straitjacket of traditional musical notation. There are many notable examples of graphic notation from Cowell to Cage, yet what sets Treatise apart is in its ambition and skill in conception. Cardew had the balls to do it.

Comparison between Schubert’s Piano Trio (Top) and Cardew’s Treatise (Bottom)

Regardless of how you feel about Cardew’s music, you can’t deny the utter madness and originality when you first look at the score. Even after Cardew’s untimely and some say suspicious death in 1981, the score and the performances of it still surprise.

Cardew was one of the revolutionary British avant-garde composers that came to prominence in the 60s. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Cardew started an apprenticeship at the Studio for Electronic Music (WDR) in Cologne, where he became the protégé of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an intimidating giant of 20th-century modernist music. This certainly had an influence on Cardew’s musical language, being modernist and spare in one phase and then childishly lyrical in the next with his later songs sounding more like anthems for small banana republics, but that’s for another article.

When looking at Treatise, it is not surprising to find that he was a graphic designer after his time with wizard Stockhausen. He trained as a typographer in London College of Printing and then worked as an assistant art editor at Aldus Books. Many important creatives worked here, including Germano Facetti, who would direct the celebrated redesign of Penguin books during the decade. This is where, during lunch breaks in the drawing office, (I like to imagine an uninspiring cheese sandwich and weak cup of tea in the scene’s foreground), he began Treatise. He spent the next four years, between 1963 to 1967, working on the score, recognising that he could use primitive shapes as a basis for musical notation. 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’.

During this time Cardew joined many organisations, including becoming, if you can believe, a radical Maoist and revolutionary Communist. Treatise feels like an attempt to add a soundtrack to these radical philosophies. Pianist and friend John Tilbury says that Cardew frightened the musical establishment as they saw him to be ‘sweeping away their plush carpet from beneath their feet’.

Animated Treatise score

A new way of communicating

Treatise is a masterpiece of visual communication and Cardew sought to expand how performers could interpret the work, divorcing themselves from the whims of the composer. He tapped into the late 60s cocktail of Marxism, semiotics, and groovy post-structuralism with its rejection of the ‘claims of totality and universality’. It was a very heady time.

On first reading, it looks incredibly difficult to comprehend, yet on further study, patterns emerge. There are no instructions on how to play the piece for performers. They can come to it, play it in any way they feel, and with any instruments they wish. They can use a cheese grater if they wish. It is open to interpretation, with every performance being unique.

‘I wrote Treatise with the definite intention that it should stand entirely on its own, with no form of introduction or instruction to mislead prospective performers into the slavish practice of doing what they are told.’

A mix of not quite traditional looking notation and symbols.

Treatise contains 193 pages of beautifully rendered black lines, symbols and shapes. It lacks the traditional format of any traditional score, yet here and there, symbols like crotchets, quavers and duration marks appear, although as distressed simulacrums hanging around like musical ghosts. It resembles architectural blueprints, every line intricately drawn. Circles are the dominant shapes with squares and rectangles being next in frequency, all shapes being rendered as flat objects with no attempt to create depth.

There is a beautiful openness in the score. His training as a typographer shows with his expressive treatment of lines and circles, giving a great sense of forward movement. Ample white space frames the notation, inviting performers to scribble their thoughts in the margins.

On the footer of each page contains what looks like traditional staves lines, but are empty of any notation. It gives each page a solid base, acknowledging some historical through-line. According to Brian Dennis, the staves ‘are not only the convenience of the reader/performer, … but symbolise the unknown to whom the composer is trying to communicate the uncommunicable.’

The staves that feature on the footer throughout most of the score.

Various methods were used to create the score, from pen and ink, to Letraset, which was popular with graphic designers in the mid-60s, used to stick on the numbers that appear liberally sprinkled throughout the score.

Page 138 is is one of the most beautifully executed pages of the score. Taking the traditional dynamic marking and twisting them into alternative graphic symbols, Cardew intertwines and emphasises ‘p’ (piano) meaning quiet and ‘f’ (forte) meaning loud and forceful, into an intricate lattice.

‘p’ and ‘f’ dynamic markings are used to great effect.

A fine f*ck you

Cardew was not the first composer to break free from traditional notation, but he went further. Breaking away from tradition can hurt, and he was vilified and criticised heavily until his death. Researching Treatise made me think of my career within the design world (a world that has many parallels to the musical world), the ‘we know best’ attitude and suffocating homogeneity of it; from Stanford d.school design thinking to Silicon Valley lean methodologies, which have been the official design doctrine over the last ten years, handed down from on high. It’s certainly made me look more critically at the methods handed down from on high which I have been blindly using for some years now.

To Cardew, the traditional score had become a coercive force, a de-humanising act, with any creative instincts being repressed. His fight extended to free music from notation, away from the micro-power of the musical establishment, and handing the score to anyone, specifically those without musical training. Graphic notation hasn’t replaced traditional notation, but has gained acceptance, no longer the reserve of militant radicals thanks to composers like Cardew. There are hundreds of performances of Treatise now, ranging from amateurs hammering out sounds on home-made instruments, rock bands such as Sonic Youth displaying their reverence for avant-garde forebears, to established orchestras stretching their boundaries. The diversity of sounds still being produced is breathtaking.

John Tilbury says that , ‘Cardew was trying to restore human agency back to the centre of human activity. For that, we should be eternally grateful to him’. Treatise stands as a uniquely beautiful work of art, and one of the finest f*ck yous to the musical establishment ever created.

Many thanks to the Cardew family and Emma Richeldis North for reviewing an earlier version of this article that was published in Emergent Magazine, Issue 05.


Tony Harris, The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew

John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew: 1936–1981

Brian Dennis, Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (Mainly the Visual Aspects), Cambridge University Press, 1991

Virginia Anderson, Performer Choice in Cardew’s Treatise

Robert Young, Post-Structuralism: The End of Theory

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  1. Dec 19.2023 / 3:10 pm / Reply

    Thank you for this article and a very belated thank you to Cardew for his work. My entire almost 60 years of life (up until less than a year ago) was shaped by the forms of institutionalized society, but then I saw those forms and have been slowly coming to realize that there is so much more to life that what they permit. I understand the comfort that comes from uniformity, but my god I never realized the sacrifice that was required for that comfort!