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Seeing Voices: Will Ashon On The Influence Of Cornelius Cardew On His New Book
The Quietus , August 27th, 2022 08:43

Stuck for a way to structure the panoply of voices in his new book The Passengers, author Will Ashon turned to a half-century old graphic score by one of Britain’s most radical mid-century composers

The realisation crept up on me very slowly, as I began to approach what I thought was the end. Over the space of two or three years, I had interviewed almost two hundred people for the book I was working on, which I had envisaged as a collage of these people speaking. They would appear, one after the other, and ‘talk to’ the reader before disappearing again. There would be no explanation of who they were or where they came from, no clever linkages drawn between them that weren’t drawn by the readers themselves. Which just left one question: what order should they appear in? This, it turned out, was the biggest question of all.

I made the mistake of trying to calculate how many ways there might be to arrange 180 separate sections, as if knowing this would ever help me make a decision. For the opener, I would have a choice of 180, for the next 179, and so on. The number of possibilities multiplied these numbers together, 180 x 179 x 178, all the way down to 1. The resulting figure would have 330 digits and 44 trailing zeros (if you consider that the equivalent numbers for one million are seven and 6 respectively, you get some idea of the scale). It’s such a huge number that the calculator on my phone can’t even show it and just returns an error message. To put it another way, if you made a film which ran at 24 frames per second, and each frame showed a unique combination of those 180 elements, it would take 265, 432, 181, 341, 871, 590, 744, 111, 672, 504, 527, 681, 218, 211, 383, 813, 826, 232, 903, 712, 338, 227, 270, 501, 640, 183, 680, 213, 592, 056, 316, 719, 132, 810, 692, 005, 566, 439, 148, 393, 464, 390, 078, 252, 277, 153, 192, 131, 741, 676, 135, 647, 848, 154, 560, 870, 671, 357, 701, 072, 258, 499, 358, 084, 735, 224, 306, 096, 683, 629, 375, 052, 380, 169, 873, 470, 341, 342, 721, 841, 892, 066, 149, 028, 349, 001, 461, 692, 844, 854, 318, 255, 308, 800, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 years for the movie to run to its end. And to put that in perspective, it’s less than 14,000,000,000 years since the Big Bang. What was I thinking of? What the hell was I thinking of? How would it even be possible to get this ‘right’? What would ‘right’ even mean?

My mood spiralled from there. I felt so close and suddenly so far away, as if I were the arrow from Zeno’s paradox, destined always to keep halving the space between me and my target but never to reach it. I had no idea what I was doing, or how I’d find my way out of the particular labyrinth I seemed to have built around me. I was stressed and edgy and more than a little lost. Over dinner one night I was discussing the matter with my wife and son. He told me I always went through this phase with every book and it would sort itself out. At the time, I didn’t believe him.

I’d begun reading Kay Larson’s biography of the composer, John Cage, and his engagement with Buddhism and I began to wonder if the only way to go was through randomness. After all, many of the book’s interviews had relied on serendipity or chance in some way, so perhaps this was most fitting? One of those zillions of possible combinations snatched from the air—and just as valid as any other. But you had to be committed to make this work, it seemed to me. You couldn’t choose a random order and then change it or reject it. Once you started pulling sections from a hat you had to stick with whatever the method decided. What made it ‘work’ was exactly the choice to be governed by chance. You couldn’t decide to be governed by it until you didn’t like its rules. I never dared try it.

I was saved by Cornelius Cardew. That’s how it felt, anyway. The editor of a new magazine got in touch and asked if I had any ideas for an essay or piece for the first issue. I suddenly remembered Cardew’s Treatise, a 186 page score for a piece of ‘graphic music,’ composed in the 1960s. Cardew was probably the brightest light of British avant garde or contemporary classical music at that time, though in the following decade he largely turned his back on that world and devoted his energies to radical politics, before being killed in a hit and run incident in the early 1980s. I’d looked at some of the images from his score online but never really engaged with it fully. I sent some links to the editor and he commissioned the piece, which meant I could justify buying the complete work.

Treatise is magnificent, a masterpiece. Cardew hand-drew every page over the course of three years, black lines on white paper. It’s intensely beautiful, philosophically complex, utterly quixotic. And it exercised a strange, calming effect upon me. I would start each day by looking at a single page for ten or twenty minutes, writing down some notes, and then turn back to the problem of how to piece my book together. Perhaps the sheer wildness of the score, the jut-jawed commitment involved in its composition, made my own preoccupations seem a little less crazy, even quite domestic and manageable by comparison. Perhaps just staring at something wordless stilled all the voices in my head. It’s just possible that Treatise has a built-in therapeutic effect. After all, Cardew was obsessed by Wittgenstein (Treatise was named after the philosopher’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and the German came to see his later work as a kind of philosophical therapy, designed to massage away the tangled knots of philosophical ‘problems.’ Were my problems of my own making, as Wittgenstein believed of philosophy, a series of misunderstandings to be dissolved by Cardew’s score?

And here’s the other link. Cardew began Treatise as a score for musicians to interpret, but by the time he finished it he came to believe that it was, in fact, music—graphic music. Both Treatise and what would become The Passengers were designed to be ‘heard’ just by looking at and interpreting marks on a page. Treatise – which is perfectly, classically structured into three movements – was the model for what I was trying to do.

John Cage did help out in the end, though not in the way I’d originally thought he might. In Larson’s book there was an extended discussion of his durational pieces and this set me to thinking. In the end I set myself a rule by which to order the number chapters of the book – each section would be longer than the one before until the longest section was reached, after which each section would be shorter than the one before. Although the result is completely artificial it feels natural, somehow, cyclical, like the tide coming in and then going out again. I don’t attribute this result to Cage at all, though, but to Cardew. He was the one singing in my eye every day as I sat, 180 different sized pieces of paper spread across my wall, seeing voices wherever I looked.

The Passengers by Will Ashon is published by Faber