Spinal Chord

An inspiring and (by its very definition) unique performance of Cardew’s Treatise in Christ Church, Oxford  26 MAY 2011

Bastardgeist, Braindead Collective.  It could have been a tongue-in-cheek affair, but last night’s performance of ten pages of Cardew’s Treatise was an inspiring concert that stimulated the mind and challenged the ear.  Was it music?  Without doubt.  The varied group of experimental musicians and mainstream professional players, produced sonorities that were aurally powerful and musically involving, without resorting to the kind of knowing, side-winking humour that such concerts sometimes provoke (a recent disappointing performance of Fluxus in Merton springs to mind).

The concert was introduced by Marcus Roberts, who curated the event as well as performing with musicians from the Oxford Improvisers on viola and piano.  His pre-concert talk was engaging and ranged over Cardew’s musical influences, his politics and the composer’s late repudiation of his work, through to a discussion of how the artists engaged with the score during the rehearsal process.

The “life line”, a horizontal line bisecting every page and the only visual constant in the score was, in these interpretations, largely disregarded as a sonority of itself, but nonetheless guided the shape of each group’s progress through the score.  As Marcus Roberts pointed out, Cardew, who likened the piece to a ‘vertebrate’, was much given to whimsical pronouncements, and the performers therefore allowed themselves to overlook the tyranny of the line as spine.  Indeed, Cardew himself proclaimed that ‘every honest [musical] utterance makes sense’, so he couldn’t really have argued with this approach.

The first performance, by members of the Oxford Improvisers (amongst them the well-known Oxford violin-maker Bruno Gaustalla, experimental singer Anne Ryan, and professor of music, Eric Clarke), provided three different readings of the same page: one short, one extended and a miniature version, thereby providing an intriguing insight into their interpretive process.  This traditional (or perhaps more aptly, conventional) acoustic/orchestral performance – albeit supplemented by a pair of mechanical squirrels – was followed by innovative electronica-based performances by Braindead Collective and, later, Bastardgeist. The front man for both ensembles, Sebastian Reynolds,  raised a smile when he deadpanned to the audience: “we’ve learnt the notes off by heart”.

Although Cardew’s intention was for the performance to be ‘a picture of the score’, rather than the other way around, it would have been fascinating to have a copy of the pages of the graphic notation to interact with during the musical experience.  But this performance of Treatise must be applauded for its seriousness and integrity.

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