Rutgers Percussion Ensemble fuses music and visual art by working from a graphic score

Greg Riss admits it: He was nervous.

And why not? The percussionist had been trained his entire life to take direction from an agreed-upon language of notes and markings running horizontally from left to right across a five-line staff. 

But now, the Rutgers Percussion Ensemble was upending all of that.

As a member of the group, Riss was faced with a score by Cornelius Cardew. The late British composer’s Treatise is devoid of performance instructions; the music is left up to the performer.

“My first impression was fascination and a little bit of fear not knowing how to interpret it,” says Riss, a master’s student in music performance at the Mason Gross School. “I didn’t know what to do to bring it to life. . . I was feeling like a beginner, with no context for what’s going on.”

The Rutgers Percussion Ensemble worked for two months to organize sounds and build their version of Treatise, imposing order on what others may perceive as chaos. Each member of the six-person ensemble assumed the role of composer and arranger of a single page. Professor Mike Truesdell arranged a seventh page, and an eighth page features vocal music. Corresponding pages were projected on a screen behind the ensemble.

Cardew’s 193-page experimental work, composed in the 1960s, melds music and visual art in an exuberant graphic score. The Rutgers Percussion Ensemble performed an excerpt from Treatise on November 20, 2014, at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis and here on campus at Nicholas Music Center two days later.

Treatise seems to allow for total creative freedom. But sometimes total creative freedom doesn’t feel all that liberating. Upon first inspection, translating Treatise can be daunting, even for--or perhaps especially for--the seasoned musician.

“I’m used to reading what’s written and [then] interpreting,” undergrad Tom O’Hara says. “With this, there are no instructions, nothing telling you exactly what to do.”

Treatise features a potentially bewildering variety of shapes and patterns, including a series of braided lines, as well as dashes and fat black orbs. The familiar staff and the occasional musical note as we understand them are tucked into portions of the score, along with a single unifying visual element: a dark horizontal line slicing through the middle of each page.

Truesdell says that where Treatise is concerned, everything is up for grabs.

“The score doesn’t have to be seen left to right. You can see it down the middle,” he says, alluding to the few notes that Cardew did leave behind.

He says he believes that Treatise is an invaluable creative tool because it nudges performers to “spend time on the other side of the pen” as composers.

As a performer, Truesdell says, “You sit down and often say: ‘What are we playing?’ and someone else chooses it. This is an opportunity for students to take ownership over the process and work the whole brain.”

For the sake of consistency, the group agreed to impose certain strictures: interpreting the score from left to right, and performing each page for approximately one minute. Their excerpt featured a host of percussive instruments, including marimba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tom-toms, snare and bass drums, and tambourine.

One student saw her page of five thick circles as five drums lined up across the stage; O’Hara interpreted his page of circles physically, as well, saying he envisioned someone walking and triggering a series of musical events. At the peak of the first circle (above left), the music is the loudest; in the middle of the circle, O’Hara whips up the music into what he calls “a black hole of sound”--bass drum, tam-tams (large gongs), and vibraphones that increase in volume and peter out as the circle ends.

“Doing this, we’ve come up with things I’d never thought of--placing a snare drum upside down, scraping it with our fingernails and [producing] a high-pitched squeak,” O’Hara says. “We’re being creative with instruments we’ve learned to play one way.”

Riss agrees.

Ultimately, he says, foregoing the rules he has worked so hard to master has allowed him to “feel free to try things, to let go a little bit.” At the same time, he says, attuning the ear and the eye to a graphic score “makes you more alert because you’re inexperienced . . . It makes me [be] more on my toes, adjusting to other people’s interpretation of music.”

Truesdell says the experience has nudged students to be bold.

“This is a great adventure,” he says.

Posted November 2014