The Great Learning at Union Chapel, 2015

Monday 20 July 2015

One of my formative experiences as a youth was hearing a few minutes’ excerpt from that old LP of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning on AM radio. It has haunted me ever since. Reading around in old journals and books to find out more about it dragged me into the world of The Scratch Orchestra, the British Avant-Garde of a preceding generation and their affiliations (“all true education is unconscious seduction”).

Initially, the most wonderful discovery was that Paragraph 7 wasn’t a fortuitous accident but a sublimely elegant act of composition, ingeniously combining skilled and unskilled musicians, subjective freedom and objective process. Learning more about the other six paragraphs just made me more intrigued to hear the rest.

The chance to see and hear it performed live eluded me until last weekend, when the entire work was played over two nights at Union Chapel. The players were from several generations and backgrounds, including original members of the Scratch Orchestra – many of whom had performed the work in the same venue in 1984. This was not a re-enactment.

The most striking aspect of The Great Learning when heard in total is the sense of space, of unfilled openness. The slow pace and scale of each section (Paragraph 5 takes two hours, the others range from 30 to 60 minutes) bear little relation to anything else composed at the end of the 1960s, with perhaps the exception of La Monte Young’s drones. (“Slowness is beauty,” Lauren Binyon said, as recalled by Ezra Pound, whose translation of Confucius’ Great Learning forms the text and structure of Cardew’s work. “Only sequoias are slow enough,” Pound added, several decades later.)

This wish for slowness appears throughout Cardew’s earlier pieces – Autumn ’60, Material, even the avowedly conservative Bun No. 1 – but never at such relentless extremes as presented here. It’s dispiriting to consider how Cardew ruthlessly purged this element from his later music, crowding out any room for reflection or contemplation, any individual thought, for sake of hammering home a political message on an audience reduced to passive recipient.

I think I’m taking things from The Great Learning that Cardew never intended – that’s what happens when you allow listeners to think for themselves. The Pound connection, in the translated text, in Binyon’s reflection on slowness, and Pound’s own peculiar interest in Confucius: “You read a sentence and it seems nothing. Twenty years later you come back to it to meditate on its significance.” Cardew’s composition is his own meditation on the significance of the words, and what insight he may have is shared through transmitting that meditative process to the performers and the audience.

Then there’s the muddling of the good with the bad, as there is in life. The second half of Paragraph 5 is given over to free expression, a long improvisation that provides license for excess, error and indulgence. Like life, it is as much to be tolerated as enjoyed, which seems to be the point.

Freedom is permitted in varying degrees. At the start of the performance, Paragraphs 1 and 2 display clear formal elements and a ritualistic feel – but this is a superficial description. Paragraph 3 brings a much greater emphasis on sonority, the beauty of harmonies and mixing sound colours between voices and low instruments dispersed throughout the chapel. Paragraph 4 swings other way into ritual, but its simplicity and repetition reasserts the focus on the subtleties of the sounds being produced by various found objects. It’s all music, but with the attributes of theatre incorporated and emphasised as part of music-making.

After Paragraph 5’s compendium of discrete compositions, elegant odes, repeated texts and improvisations, Paragraph 6 removes audible words altogether, subsuming the text into a code of performance gestures. The music shares associations with Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening exercises, and some of John Cage’s later compositions. Paragraph 6 is in some respects another improvisation, but within the same constraints later adopted by Cage, where choice is tempered by self-discipline.

For a piece known by reputation more than direct experience, there was something oddly familiar in watching the entire work unfold over the two nights. So much of what it presents has been absorbed into musical and theatrical practice over four decades. Paragraph 7 is still capable of astonishing and delighting: a mass of voices (over 40 in this instance) in a dense, microtonal cloud that drifts in pitch and in space through the chapel, coalescing into rich harmonies. You hope it will last forever, and at times it seems as though it will.

Each paragraph and their clear, contrasting styles inevitably invite comparison. Pure aesthetic and affective considerations are augmented by the theoretical, compositional ideas put into practice. Scale allows each to be given due consideration, a system of organisation given time to grow and be understood in its ramifications; “rooted in watching with affection the way people grow” as Paragraph 1 states. The scale of the piece would appear to be an important compositional element. On one level it would seem that The Great Learning is about time itself: how things may be organised so that a group of people may freely work together to create something beautiful.

Michael Parsons, Dave Smith, John Lely and many others all worked together to make this a very special event. Special mention should go to Robert Coleridge’s playing of the Union Chapel organ, making the most of Cardew’s requirement that the organist should show a sensitive understanding of the instrument’s idiosyncrasies. “It was better than 1984,” one of the older performers remarked. It was all I could have imagined this strange work could be.