Treatise (music)

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Treatise is a musical composition by British composer Cornelius Cardew (1936–81). Written between 1963 and 1967, Treatise is a graphic musical score comprising 193 pages of lines, symbols, and various geometric or abstract shapes that largely eschew conventional musical notation. Implicit in the title is a reference to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which was of particular inspiration to Cardew in composing the work. The score is not accompanied by any explicit instructions to the performers in how to perform the work, or what sound-producing means are to be used. Although the bottom of each page has two five-line musical staves, this is not apparently meant to suggest piano or other keyboard instrument(s). It is apparently only meant to indicate that the graphic elements are musical, not purely artistic, in character. Cardew worked on the composition from 1963 to 1967.

Although the score allows for absolute interpretive freedom (no one interpretation will sound like another), the work is not normally played spontaneously, as Cardew had previously suggested that performers devise in advance their own rules and methods for interpreting and performing the work. There are, however, almost infinite possibilities for the interpretation of Treatise that fall within the implications of the piece and general principles of experimental music performance in the late 1960s, including presentation as visual art and map-reading (Anderson 2006).

Subsequently Cardew embraced Maoism and wholeheartedly repudiated this and other works of his avant-garde period. A savage indictment of Treatise may be seen in a speech delivered by Cardew at the ‘International Symposium on the Problematic of Today’s Musical Notation’ held in Rome in October 1972, as transcribed in his highly polemical book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (1974), available in PDF format at UBUweb. Curiously, Cardew did not withdraw Treatise from publication despite his repudiation.


  • Virginia Anderson, "Well, It's a Vertebrate" Performer Choice in Cardew's Treatise', Journal of Musicological Research, 25/3–4 (2006): pp. 291–317.
  • Cornelius Cardew, "Wiggly Lines and Wobbly Music," Breaking the Sound Barrier: a Critical Anthology of the New Music, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: 1981)
  • Brian Dennis, "Cardew's Treatise: Mainly the Visual Aspects," Tempo 177 (1991): pp. 10-16
  • Sonic Youth play a 3:29 minute excerpt of page 183 of Treatise on their CD SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (1999)

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