Cornelius Cardew’s move from notes to performance notes

I just came across the music piece Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns by Cornelius Cardew online.

It contains some of the early electronic noises I’ve loved in sound recordings from Stockhausen performances in the 60’s. There’s a purity of tone and a warm analogue sound in them.

I was curious to see how the music was written down, and a little look around led me to the performance notes for it by the composer himself, quoted on this page.

screenshot from

As I suspected, there is an element of the graphic score here, meaning a performance score which doesn’t use conventional musical notation and which requires input from the performers to interpret/create more of the content than is averagely the case.

I was interested, though, that in this score – an early one from the young composer – the notation is very close, actually, to conventional notation.  The form of it is just about readable by musicians who are able to read music. In his performance note, Cardew states an intriguing idea of the graphic score almost as a sort of Sudoku puzzle:

‘The signs should be allowed to suggest something concrete: a sound, a technique. The traditional connotations of signs or parts of signs should provide sufficient context for a concrete interpretation of at least one sign by almost any musician. This done, his utterance of the one sign should provide sufficient context for the comprehension of neighbouring signs. And so on…’

So the idea seems that if at least one of the players is able to interpret from their previous training and understanding ONE of the signs out of the 61 he creates for this score, then that one interpretative act should be sufficient to set the context for interpretation of the other signs by the initial player and the seven other players.

I like that in this piece, there’s an easing out of conventional notation practices rather than a sudden break. This is of course makes sense, that a new idea doesn’t arrive fully formed with no reference to the past. I was aware that the later graphic score work used very beautiful  and controlled drawing which used the graphical language of musical scores, however visually abstracted. This fills in the gap for me a bit. The attempted precision of a traditional music score is allowed to unfocus.

I enjoy tracing an artist’s route to his or her iconic ideas/practices through their earlier work. Hindsight is fun to engage, given that the creative figure at the point of making the work could have less idea than us where their ideas would take them. Fun for us to know and spot the signposts retrospectively.

Playfully, Cardew says of the Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns,  ‘My reputation is free to suffer.’! And I think this is doubly playful because he acknowledges that even though he is decentring the importance of the composer as authority for the content of the work, and wants to do so, he accepts that it is his name that is linked, auteur, to the results. Is he having his cake and eating it?!

As well as the idea of  shifting some of the responsibility for creating the content from the composer to the performer ‘interpreter’, there’s a connected idea here of translation between art forms, between languages. The Octet was a musical response to Cardew’s experience of seeing Jasper John’s ‘0 – 9’ drawings, which superimposed all the number digits in the decimal system.


In fact, I think Cardew appropriates numerology, the belief in mysterious significances of numbers, to underpin and justify the process he is using here. It creates an insoluble structure underneath the form the expression takes, deeper in structure even than the level of a musical score. This numerological reading is I think reinforced by his title ‘Octet ’61’ where the date of composition becomes part of the data defining the structure of the expression. The composer lays out 61 symbols, musical pictograms, to be interpreted by the players live in their historical and cultural moment. The actual visual form of the numbers from Johns’ drawings is encoded visually into the symbols on the graphic score – another element which the human interpreter of the score finds interpretation for if they can.


To put the introduction at the end, Cornelius Cardew is a musical composer in whom I’ve had an interest since my undergraduate study at Cambridge University, where I was introduced to his most famous work Treatise by the composers John Woolrich and Peter Wiegold. A scratch group of students performed 20 pages of the work in the Old Music Room at St John’s College. I think of the moment where someone in the audience’s phone started ringing and I decided on the spur of the moment to vocally imitate it as being a eureka in developing my understanding of creativity and connection: how it can happen truly in a moment  if you’re brave, and create a richer and more generous experience for people. Which is another way of saying, I got a laugh.