Sunday, December 15, 2013

Poetry Scores will translate Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" into other media

Ludwig Wittgenstein, roughly as he appeared
in his mid-20s while conceiving of and writing the Tractatus.

Poetry Scores is excited to announce a new, open-ended, international translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) into other media, starting immediately with music.

We will score the original English translation commissioned and edited by and credited to C. K. Ogden and largely performed by F. P. Ramsey, who met privately with Wittgenstein concerning his translation and benefitted from the author's own corrections.

This translation was published by Ogden in 1922 in his International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method (an imprint of Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London), with an introduction by Wittgenstein's mentor and friend, Bertrand Russell. The 1922 English publication was transcribed for Project Guttenberg's online archive, which is the source we will provide to mediators who participate in our Tractatus project.

We have permission from the literary trustees of the Wittgenstein Estate at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. We thank them and Routledge, which inherited the Kegan Paul titles and keeps the Tractatus in print, in the later translation by David Pears and Brian McGuinness. The publisher confirmed that Ogden and Ramsey's Tractatus has entered the public domain in the U.S. and U.K.

It is especially gratifying that our composers will be writing songs with Ogden and Ramsey as well as Wittgenstein. C. K. Ogden was, among many other things, an ancestor of Poetry Scores. In 1929 Ogden made a studio recording of James Joyce reading a passage of Finnegan's Wake, making Ogden a pioneer in the translation of poetry into sound -- and a pioneer who entered the game at the highest level it has ever been played, documenting one of world literature's immortals in his own voice.

We will start by translating Ogden and Ramsey's translation of the Tractatus into music. The Tractatus is a philosophical treatise (that's what its title means in Latin, treatise) written with the style and daring of a prose poem. Because of its length and what Ogden calls "the peculiar literary character of the whole," we don't think it's advisable to assign the entire Tractatus to composers in advance. Instead, we will start with one pair of co-composers and some simple rules that we will all follow as a gradually growing group.


Mike Burgett of The Lettuce Heads, first commissioned co-composer
of the poetry score to Wittgenstein's Tractatus

Carl Pandolfi of The Lettuce Heads, first commissioned co-composer of the poetry score to Wittgenstein's Tractatus

We have asked St. Louis songwriters Mike Burgett and Carl Pandolfi of The Lettuce Heads to start us off. They have been given the Project Guttenberg transcription of Ogden and Ramsey's translation of the Tractatus.

The Lettuce Heads on Confluence City (mp3s)
* Love Lead (Mike Burgett)
When I Plant My Garden (Carl Pandolfi)
* "Nice As" (Mike Burgett)
* "
Wake Up Call" (Carl Pandolfi)
* "
Imagiverbaration" (Mike Burgett)
* "Open air" (Carl Pandolfi)

We have asked Mike and Carl to start scoring the Tractatus musically at the beginning, with the evocative title.


G. E. Moore supplied the title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which means "Logical-Philosophical Treatise" in Latin. (Wittgenstein's own title, Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, means the same thing in German, the language in which the book is written.) The Latin title by which this great work is known has powerful name magic, and we expect Mike and Carl to score just the title as the first song of the score, somewhat in the spirit of an opening credits song in the silent film this poetry score will soon become.


After the title, we have asked Mike and Carl to keep going with the dedication and score it as the second song:
It's poignant to think about this dedication to a dead, dear friend in light of what Wittgenstein says about the Tractatus in the preface that immediately follows: "Its object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure." It's impossible not to hear some heartache at the loss of one beloved person who would have read this book with understanding and taken pleasure in it.

David H. Pinsent

David Hume Pinsent and Wittgenstein, who was two years older, were intense friends at Trinity College, Cambridge and long-distance traveling companions, at the considerable expense of Wittgenstein's very wealthy father. Pinsent heard many of the foundational ideas in the Tractatus when they were first coming out of Wittgenstein's head. Pinsent heard many of these ideas before anyone else in private lectures at Cambridge and on long sea journeys to Iceland and Norway.

After the second of their overseas vacations, Wittgenstein abruptly left Cambridge to live in Norway, where he thought the seclusion would help him think through his problems in logic. The two friends were further separated by the World War. Pinsent then died and in fact disintegrated in the air over Frimley in Surrey at the age of 26 while co-piloting a test flight at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. The plane he was co-piloting broke into five parts in mid-air, and no trace of his body was ever recovered.

Meanwhile, Wittgenstein finished the Tractatus while serving the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the War. Mysteriously, he found the clarity he needed to complete his life work in the danger of firefights, rather than a village solitude. His work also took on new ethical and even metaphysical dimensions after Wittgenstein experienced combat on the Eastern Front (and a form of salvation through wartime re-readings of Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief).

"I had always hoped to be able to show it to him some time, and it will always be connected with him in my mind," Wittgenstein wrote of the Tractatus and Pinsent. He was addressing Pinsent's mother, Fanny, after hearing of David's death. "I will dedicate it to David's memory. For he always took a great interest in it, and it is to him I owe far the most part of the happy moods which made it possible for me to work."

The memory of David H. Pinsent that Wittgenstein puts at the beginning of the Tractatus presents a musical opportunity. For Pinsent and Wittgenstein were a musical duet, with Pinsent on piano and Wittgenstein whistling. They played together in this way so often that Pinsent referred to it in his diary as their "customary" or "usual" way of playing music. (Pinsent's diaries were published as A Portrait of Wittgenstein as a Young Man.)

Wittgenstein and Pinsent were musical junkies -- Bertrand Russell said Wittgenstein's obsession with music was so intense it diminished his accomplishments in philosophy. Their favorite composers were Beethoven and Mozart ("the actual sons of God," Wittgenstein called them), but the Pinsent/Wittgenstein repertoire for their piano/whistling duet was Schubert.

So we are encouraging our composers to use piano and whistling, at some point and in some way, in their compositions -- starting with Mike Burgett and Carl Pandolfi. "Mike is one mean whistler," piano-playing Carl said when he heard of this project.


We have asked Mike and Carl to keep moving and score the motto Wittgenstein chose as the third song in the score. Wittgenstein's motto for the Tractatus is a quote from the Austrian writer Ferdinand Kurnberger. In his edition, Ogden left the Kurnberger quote untranslated in German:
MOTTO: ... und alles, was man weiss, nicht bloss rauschen und brausen gehort hat, lasst sich in drei Worten sagen.
In their translation of the Tractatus, D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness translate this scrap of Kurnberger as:
MOTTO: …and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words
The fact that Ogden leaves the Kurnberger quote untranslated gives us an opportunity to sing some of Wittgenstein's native German near the beginning of our score of the Tractatus. We have asked Mike and Carl to score both the Kurnberger and the English translation as one song.


We were advised to score Wittgenstein's Preface (Vorwort) to the Tractatus by the independent Wittgenstein scholar Jaap van der Does, based in Soest (central Netherlands), who is consulting for us (as a volunteer, like everyone else working on the project).

"From a philosophical point of view, it's crucial in coming to grips with the text," Jaap wrote to us regarding the Preface. While Poetry Scores is approaching the Tractatus as a prose poem, we certainly don't want to hide or obscure the philosophy. So we will score the Preface.

Independent Tractatus scholar Jaap van der Does,
who is consulting for Poetry Scores on our project.

The Preface (Vortwort) is written in eight taut paragraphs of prose, beginning with the most startling opener for a book of philosophy ever written: "This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it -- or similar thoughts."

It seems that these eight paragraphs should yield one song each for a total of eight songs, but this starts to become more controlling than we wish to be. We only ask that the composer(s) always stop at the end of one of Wittgenstein's complete thoughts and not fragment any sentence or proposition.

It also remains to be seen whether Mike and Carl will want to keep going and score the Preface after the three short pops of title, dedication and motto. They have our invitation to do so, but we shall see.

After the prose Preface, it is on to the numbered propositions of the Tractatus proper.

Wittgenstein used an exact numbering system for his propositions that encoded how his propositions were dependent upon other, previously stated propositions. Proposition 1 stands alone, for example, but Proposition 1.1 is dependent upon Proposition 1, Proposition 1.11 is dependent upon Proposition 1.1, and so on.

Wittgenstein took pains to number his work exactly and to explain his numbering system in a footnote. So perhaps we should score and sing the numbers? However, in stretches of the Tractatus where there is a flurry of brief numbered propositions, we'd be singing nearly as many numbers as words. That could start to sound silly and distracting from the poetry (philosophy).

So, we asked our independent Wittgenstein scholar, Jaap van der Does, who is also a musician and poet. His response:
I have always liked to compare the Tractatus with Anton Webern's music (formal, condensed, intense, spiritual) ... Even if this is too far removed from your music, you might want to toy with this analogy. So, instead of singing the thesis-numbers I would try to find musical analogues, such as rhythmical patterns, chords with certain intervals, etc. 
Another way to exploit the analogy, independent of the numbering, would be to alternate a blues-scale (six note series) with the co-blues scale, the remaining six notes (without being too strict about it, of course). It seems this might give a nice alternation of blues and pop-like music
That is good advice we are passing along to our composers. As Jaap later added, "Erik Stenius, an early commentator, once observed that the numbering gives the Tractatus a musical structure."


Wherever our first composer(s), Mike Burgett and Carl Pandolfi of The Lettuce Heads, stop in scoring the Tractatus, they will share a demo of their work with us. Then they will work with us on deciding which composer to commission next.

It will be up to each composer where they stop. We expect them to move forward and take as much of the Tractatus as they need to score one song, but if they feel compelled to keep moving and score a multi-song suite, that would be an option. We only ask that each composer stop at the end of one of Wittgenstein's complete thoughts and not fragment any sentence or proposition.

Each composer added to the project will help Poetry Scores pick the next composer who comes after them, mindful of the text that comes next and what kinds of songs it might inspire or demand. In this way, we expect the Tractatus to travel all over the world, picking up composers as it goes.

We will post the demos in sequence as we get them, and then go back later and add (in the spirit of dependent propositions) evolving drafts of all the demos. Then, eventually, we will post the final recording of each song. We propose to make all of these recordings freely available from the Poetry Scores blog. We propose to declare publishing credit for the songs as shared equally between Wittgenstein, Ogden, Ramsey and each of the musical composers.

When we have enough final recordings, in sequence, to release a Volume 1 of the Tractatus poetry score in some physical medium (vinyl, cassette, CD), we will go back to the literary trustees of the Wittgenstein estate at Trinity College and come up with an equitable publishing plan.

In the meantime, we will be initiating parallel scores of the Tractatus in visual art, selfies, cinema, happenings, and anything else that comes to mind. We encourage anyone, anywhere who wants to translate the Tractatus into any medium to contact Poetry Scores creative director Chris King at Please include links to examples of your work (and a selfie).

Poetry Scores is an all-volunteer international arts organization based in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A., that translates poetry into other media. We believe poetry is an alternative, sustainable form of positive energy that can unite people and nations. We borrow a motto from our mentors at Curbstone Press, taken from the revolutionary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton: "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone."

Keep track of Poetry Scores and the Tractatus mediations on the Poetry Scores blog, Facebook and Twitter.

Ogden and Ramsey's translation of the Tractatus is available for download at Project Guttenberg.


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