Seattle Improvisation Meeting


Treatise Workshop Report

Day 1: January 25th, 2006

I really had no idea how this workshop was going to work but it turns out that it was going to be focused on the performance. John began our first session with a brief overview of Cardew's life (for which see here) and then moved on to more specific Treatise information. He said that in an analysis he had done of the entire score that he had counted all the symbols and that there are 50+ different symbols and many more if you consider variants, and interactions between symbols. The score can be seen as being in roughly 7 sections in parallel to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, though he admitted that this division is perhaps a bit forced. There clearly are symbols that predominate for many pages and then shift into other ones, so this seems reasonable and was something that I had noted myself (though not the specific number of sections). So the burden on the player is to assign sounds to symbols. This task requires the player to decide how to do this, specifically what kind of sounds and how to differentiate these sounds. Some strategies that he mentioned are assigning a meaning to a symbols location relative to the center line, assigning specific symbols to a specific player, how to play (as opposed to what to play), associating a symbol with silence or with listening or playing with another player. On the issue of time scale he said one "...may spend 5 to 10 minutes on a single page, the next is done in a flash". On Cardew's intentions of playing the score he apparently demanded the authority of the score in the early days and then became more relaxed regarding this, acknowledging the improvisational element. This element has taken over completely in later performances, especially post his death. Cardew latter gave the interpreters equal standing w/r/t the musical results: "My score, their music".

So apart from anecdotes here and there and similar statements to those paraphrased above, regarding interpretation John did not really say a lot more. He was very encouraging, always telling us the music was sounding good. Anyway, at this point we went into the practical aspects of how we were going to perform this in just a few days. John broke us up into a sextet, a quintet, a quartet, two trios and a duo. He then assigned large chunks of pages to each group, 30-45 pages for most with the final trio (which I was in) being assigned 10 pages. The first 70 pages of the score were not assigned to anyone and it turned out that these were going to be played by the whole group. John did stress that we did not have to attempt to play all of the assigned pages, but a selection from within that range. So we then went into different corners of the room to work on how to interpret the score and to perhaps play a bit. John's theory on making these groups was he just went around the group breaking people up into his arbitrary groups sizes. This did lead to several groups of people that had played together and were familiar with each other. This had both good and bad aspects to it, which I'll go into later.

My group was a trio consisting of Ellen, from LA on flutes and piccolo, Rachel from Victoria on Saw, melodica and toy pianos and myself on (purely acoustic) prepared wire strung harp. So we talked about the score for a bit, with Ellen tending toward dividing things into foreground and background and more rigid interpretations of the score. I mentioned that I'd been playing it for a while and went over some of the things I had learned from both process and from talking with Keith Rowe. Basically my approach is consistency in interpretation on at least a per page basis, individual interpretation of symbols and no attempts to synchronize performance. Also I stressed that for most pages one should take time over the page and to not be afraid of silence. One specific (that I had gotten from Keith) was that when a number appears in the score you are to repeat a gesture the number of times indicated. This is considered outside your current interpretation and schema. So working with Ellen's ideas and my basic understanding we played through a few pages. While they tended to whip through the pages, overall the sound wasn't bad and each page we played they slowed down and savored the page more. One thing that was clear during this was that my harp was getting lost in the room noise, especially when I played with the eBow. So we took a break after an hour or so and after this John had each group play their pages.

The first group to play was a trio of vibes, double bass and piano/synthesizer. They had a very formal interpretation with assigned solos, tempi, volumes etc all associated. They came across as a rather out jazz trio and they played all of their pages (30-45 pages) in 15-20 minutes. It was an interesting take, if rather seeming removed from the scored. However at this point they hadn't heard anyone play it, so they had no expectations or models. Over the next few days they changed pretty drastically, though they always tended to play all of their pages in this time frame. The quartet was next, which was trumpet, trombone, electric bass and electric guitar. The results from this group was almost the same as the initial trio, but with a rather EFI flavor then the more straighter jazz of the trio. Once again the pages were whipped through in 15-20 minutes. This groups also slowed down over time and became more sparse and textured. The sextet was up next and they revealed that they had spent a lot of time in discussion and had only played a page or two. So they played those pages plus a couple more. This group was a laptopper, a turntablist, two electric guitars and two bass clarinetists. This group was more interesting, in that their pace was more reasonable, and their sound more textural, varied and eclectic. Next up was the quintet, which was French horn, two acoustic guitars, clarinet and our boards own Joda on minidisks and short-wave radio. They also only played through a few pages and once again this was more successful - more textural with more interesting sounds. Afterwards John pointed out that there was incompatibilities in the sounds of this group and that that was a positive aspect. The duo played next, which was clarinet and flute. These two were very clearly music school and they rigidly applied their training to the pages. Sometimes making a single sound for a page and usually working in concert they played from a shared copy of the score and once again whipped through it. They more or less stuck with this approach over the next few days, though they did begin to add some space to their interpretation. Last was my trio and as we had really only played a couple of pages, we focused on a single page for this performance (page 189 for you trainspotters out there). The group continued with the combined approach we had developed and did a fairly measured take on that page. My compatriots ended when I was about halfway through the page so I played solo for another minute or so then wrapped it up. John's comment after we had played was that it seemed very formal almost ritualistic. John's comments after each performance was almost always very positive and encouraging. After this we broke until the next day.

Day 2: January 26th, 2006

The workshop didn't reconvene until 5 pm so I had most of the day to kill in Vancouver. Considering my low volumes from the day before I was thinking of looking for a small amp. This was something I'd been meaning to get for a long time so I took this as an opportunity to finally act on this. There turned out to be a huge music store, Tom Lee Music, just up the road from my hotel. So I went there and poked around and finally found one very small, very red amp that had no price or info on it. It was exactly the size I wanted (a lot of practice amps, seem to range from super tiny, 1 watt things, and then not so small 10-15 watt things.) So I enquired about this amp and it turned out to be a discontinued floor model that they were ditching for CN$39! So a great deal, made even better with a bit of the exchange rate. So I grabbed this and a cable. Noting that it had a CD input for playing along with prerecorded music I decided to pick up a small radio to play through this. I have never played the radio, but I was thinking that this was the easiest and cheapest way that I could add some "incompatibilities" to my sound. Thinking about Tilbury's comment on the formality of our trio, I had to agree that it was a little staid. Normally I've been playing pure acoustic, surrounded by electronics and I had figured that this situation would reoccur here. Considering that my compatriots were even more relentlessly acoustic I felt I need to dirty things up. So I hit up an electronics store and picked up a small short-wave and assorted wires. Once again I struck gold and got a nice floor model of the radio at a discount.

The Workshop

John opened the second day of the workshop by revealing his plan for the performance. The entire ensemble would play through the first 35 pages of the score (or how much they could get through) for the first hour. Then all the wind instruments would leave the stage leaving only electronic and string instruments to play the next 30 pages over half an hour. The whole group would then return to the stage and for the next hour and a half the small groups would play with each group leaving the stage when done. It ended up that John liked my eBowed harp and decided that I would end the performance playing the final pages solo. John then made a few more comments about the score, beginning by pointing out that Cardew felt that you should repeat a gesture when the numbers came up, the number of times indicated - just as I had gotten from Rowe. He also stressed that one should not always play all the time, perhaps assign some symbols as a sign to listen. "We always play too much." Ultimately he said it's about how you play, your relationship to the players, the room and the audience. Before we moved to the score, John had us perform the following exercise: each play was to play 11 musical events over the next 20 minutes. This I think resulted in the best music of the whole ensemble; spare, attentive, contextual.

After this we then played the first group of pages as an ensemble and then the "electric" ensemble ala our performance schedule. There were definitely some good minutes in this, the group having learned somewhat and of course there being a lot more players. I used the radio sparingly, assigning a very specific symbol to it's use. Joda had gotten an amplifier as well so there was two radio's going at times. The electronic ensemble was much better, much more sparse and textured and without the wild volumes that wind instruments can bring. I think a lot of the group made it through most if not all of the pages in the allotted times - as if they felt they had to. Speaking for myself I made it through about 12 pages in the hour and half.

After this we broke and upon our return ran through all of the small groups with a slightly truncated timeframe. Again signs of improvement were visible, things settling down and more attention paid to the score. Still though all of the groups apart from mine still tried to play all of the material. We had decided to just play pages 189-192 and take our allotted time to work through that. John stressed multiple times that we could just play a subset of our pages, but I think most groups had too hard a time with that. When my group played, I did lag behind the others, but as they got to the last page I skipped ahead so that I could do the ebow solo. Even though we were playing truncated it was still pretty nerve-wracking to play for the group. Much hard to play for your fellow musicians then an audience in my opinion.

Day 3: January 27th, 2006

The final day of the workshop was mostly setup and rehearsal before that evenings performance. Most of us arrived at 10:30am for the tech rehearsal, which was mainly the placing of microphones and the checking of levels. I was relaying on my small amp for my sound reinforcement needs so I was not miked up. I setup my gear and laid out all of my tools and participated in the sound checks. We broke for lunch then returned at 2:30pm for the dress rehearsal.

John was a bit late in arriving (and he didn't even have to come to the tech rehearsal!) so we took it upon ourselves to play the opening page. John arrived shortly into this and had us stop. Once again he gave us words of encouragement and some more ideas on thinking about the score and what had gone into its development. As an example he told an anecdote (that may have been told yesterday, but...) about Cardew and page 190 of Treatise. Apparently at some point Cardew and his wife were having a terrific spate and in a fit of rage she ran to his basement workshop and scribbled all over the in progress pages. Cardew liking the scribbling and incorporated it into those pages. So this sort of knowledge can be brought out as you play these pages - page 190 with the scribbling is certainly angry and violent. John also asked us that if a pause, a silence came up to nuture it, to let it grow and not to be afraid of it. "Nurture the Silence" he repeated. Then he had us do an exercise where we looked at a member of the ensemble and played for up to 30 seconds for that person. I played a single low bass note for the double bass player. After we had done this, John said that he felt we could have opened ourselves up even more, made definitive eye contact and really tried deeply to communicate with the chosen individual. This rehearsal was open and even through we didn't play much there were a couple people watching. As we discussed leaving the stage at various points a women in the audience commented that we should be without shoes for the performance. And so we were.

I arrived about thirty minutes early and made sure everything was prepared. People filtered in and did the same over the 15 minutes or so with the techies giving us time warnings. Finally the time approached and they let the audience filter in. John gave us a few words of encouragement and then stressed this point: "You need to be fully engaged in every sound and yet distant from them at the same time." Then he left the stage and the lights dimmed. Giorgio came out and introduced the ensemble, Tilbury and the workshop process we had been involved in. He also pointed out that the entire score would scroll by the video screen behind us but that we are not playing in sync with it. Then it went dark and a few moments later the lights came back up and we began.

The score begins with '34', so 34 repeated gestures. Good for settling down and get over initial nervousness, it is meditative to play the same sound over and over again. As people departed from this, some residual nervous energy brought things louder and a bit more chaotic. I felt this myself and try to channel it into space and silence. I played 34 bows strikes across a top string for the beginning and the next symbol was one I used for the radio. I had pre-tuned a broadcast in French and I let it play for a good while before fading it out. Things seemed to settle down and we moved through the score. I played the first 3 or 4 pages over about 35 minutes and then the score comes to a long series of pages of thin parallel lines. I was playing these as mallet strokes on the wire strings and that is more or less what I did for the rest of this time. These are faster pages in my view so I did make it through more of them before we switched to pages 35 and the electric ensemble. This was really the first time I've played live and the first time with this amp. I was worried about volumes quite a bit and overall things seemed much louder. Perhaps it was the sound reinforcement, or just group nervousness, but I had to turn up to be heard. At other times I felt too loud, especially when playing in my trio. For the most part in the large group I was probably okay, but things were generally louder.

Anyway the wind players left the stage and things immediately settled down. Once again the "electronic" group was more subtle more spacious and overall I think more interesting. Perhaps it was because everyone had been playing for an hour and was calmer and it for the long haul. These pages had more sections with the symbol I was using for the radio then the initial series of pages so that got more play. Mostly I used static but at one point some pumping techno got inserted into the proceedings. As people finished this group of pages they left the stage. Coming to a stopping point at the end of the third page I also left the stage. A chance to stretch a bit before the long small groups segment and I would have had to stop in the middle of the next page as there was only a couple of minutes left.

The remaining musicians wrapped it up and then the whole group returned to the stage. The small groups ran through in the same order as before (following their assigned pages of course) and you could say that stylistically they remained in similar spaces. Generally the groups had slowed down a bit, added more space and used more extended techniques. The initial trio had I think varied the most from their initial jazzier sound but still retained the bulk of their interpretive strategy. Likewise the quartet was a bit less EFI and a bit more consistent, but still rather rapidly played through the material. The Sextet and Quintet, remained the most interesting of the groups with their more nuanced sounds and less frenetic pace. The duo added a lot more space in their performance but in essence stuck with their interpretation. Finally only the three of us remained on stage and we were on to the concluding pages of the score.

I fired up the radio which I intended to have running static at a low volume throughout the first page. However the station it was on was broadcasting this frank discussion of female sexuality which I felt was just too good not to use. I had my volumes lower and I don’t know how this transmitted to the audience, but it had that extreme contrast that I wanted. I faded it in and out and began cutting it with static as it got increasingly graphic. At the end of the page I dropped it out and then we were onto p.190 with it’s extreme violence and anger. I turned on the amp’s overdrive and always at the edge of feedback scrapped my bow on the metal strings. Ellen blew increasingly sharp attacks on the flute while Rachel pounded her toy piano. Eventually they settled down and moved on to the next page. Lingering on the end of page 190, I coaxed a last few wails from the harp. I chose to play very sparse on the next page, interpreting many of the symbols as listening to my fellow musicians. They played gentler as well and not too long after Ellen left the stage as Rachel gently bowed her saw for the last page. Wrapping up on the previous page I switched to the eBow and our overlapping tones played for a while until Rachel also left the stage. At this point I turned my amp up and played a very high string, generating a pure piercing tone. The contact mics in the harp would pick up any movement and rubbing which to me represented the wavering of the last lines. I played just this tone for 3 minutes and then faded it out over a minute. Then I left the stage as well. The audience sat in silence for a good 10 minutes or so as the final 20 pages or so of the score scrolled by on the video monitor.


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