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.

The One Prom of the Year: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldman

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Finally the British are starting to play Cornelius Cardew. First Autumn ’60 in May, and now Bun No. 1 has received its first performance in London, a mere 45 years after it was written. This was part of an excellent programme, tucked away at the Proms as part of a late-night Friday session.

The impression of Autumn ’60 sounding like Earle Brown’s music played in slow motion was repeated in Bun No. 1, although this later piece was more conventional, both in its fully-determined form and its harmonic material. The language of Darmstatdt, carefully picking its way from one unresolved dissonance to the next, was all too familiar to anyone who has heard a lot of the Fifties’ avant-garde. It’s something of a consolation that the programme notes discuss Cardew’s own reservations about the compromises he made in this piece to meet the expectations of an orchestra and his academic supervisors. Despite these shortcomings, Cardew’s proffered Bun to the institutions uses its ostensible material as a vehicle for contrasting instrumental groupings and timbres, which become particularly effective toward the end of the piece, with the use of long-held chords and silences.

The opening performance of John Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) was played as neatly as you could expect, by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear this piece once in a while and realise what a talented young composer Cage was and how he might have ended up like other American avant-gardists of his generation, regurgitating washed-out folk tunes for movies and orchestras. The First Construction has an ingratiatingly flamboyant character and regular muddles of percussion sounds getting in each other’s way. It wasn’t until the mid-Forties that Cage worked out how to focus his music by jettisoning sensation.

Before the Feldman piece the orchestra played Howard Skempton’s Lento, a piece in danger of becoming a modern chestnut, like a bite-sized morsel of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. This would be a shame, as Skempton is playing a much more subtle and complex emotional game on the listener than the “holy minimalists”. People frequently liken Feldman’s music to a Rothko; Lento is like a Morandi.

Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, with John Tilbury as the soloist, was the highlight. Whenever I hear this piece I come away thinking it must be his finest work, because it leaves such a vivid impression in my mind without being able to recall any specific part of it. So much of Feldman’s approach to composing seems to have been a process of negotiation between paradoxes, and in this piece he most successfully reconciles the opposing forces he sets in play. The instruments are everything, and yet they are always held in check. The soloist’s part seems negligible: a single, repeated note, two gently alternating chords. The writing seems so fragmentary, like a voice struggling to finish a sentence for an unformed thought; the piano and orchestral groups are so often separated, yet form a coherent whole. The overall effect is both sombre and luminous. I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve heard his orchestral music live.

Political music. No wait, come back!

Tuesday 23 May 2006

Percussionists have a rough time of it: they get lumped with all the musical odd jobs nobody else wants, or is allowed, to do. This can include appearing before a small audience wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and banging your head against a table. You can’t fake it: each thump on the table, or slap or scratch to your thighs and stomach, has to be sufficiently loud to carry through the hall at the loudness specified by the composer. It can’t help matters if you can hear someone in the third row nervously stifling giggles.

This was the task for percussionist Chris Brannick playing Frederic Rzewski’s Lost and Found at a concert in Rzewski’s honour at Blackheath Halls last Friday. Rzewski has often set spoken texts to music, but in Lost and Found the music has been stripped away, the performer stripped down, sitting alone at a table, tentatively recounting a story from military service in Vietnam. (The text is from a letter by Lieutenant Marion Kempner: I couldn’t find the letter online, but this one gives you a good idea of his scathing, cynical tone.)

The deliberate pacing, awkward pauses, his physical isolation at the far end the table, and his often violent movements created a sense of alienation matched by the bitter irony of the text. The music produced – voice, skin, table, chair – arose from the theatricality of the performance; and the theatre focused attention on the sounds produced by the performer.

This technique is analagous to Rzewski’s ability to unify the expression of his political beliefs with his musical talents, without one occluding the other. The term “political art” is usually applied as a derogatory term by all cultured people, and I avoided a performance of John Cage’s Song Books the following Monday precisely because the program promised the inclusion of “political compositions by students” (brrrrr!)

Cornelius Cardew is often held up as the example of the composer led astray by politics: radicalised in the 1960s, became a Maoist in the 1970s, renounced his bourgeois “avant-garde” compositions and dedicated himself to writing ersatz folk settings of Marxist-Leninist diatribes until his tragic death in 1981.

Cardew’s Mountains for bass clarinet was played before Lost and Found, a late work from 1977. It does have a poem by Mao appended to the score, but thankfully it is not read out for our edification. What politics may be found is worked into the music itself, the aspirational difficulties in the leaps and bounds of the melody, and its basis in Bach.

At the time, Cardew was working on studies of classical music with the People’s Cultural Association, and believed the best way to reach the working classes was through the more familiar forms of classicism, rather than “decadent” innovation and experiment. (On the other hand, Rzewski has said he unrepentantly aims much of his music at the concert-going middle and upper classes, who are in more need of radicalisation.) Mountains is an enjoyable and technically satisfying piece but, politically and musically, it falls far short of Cardew’s most ambitious work, The Great Learning, which involved large numbers of non-musicians performing in self-organising groups.

Cardew’s ideas about music in the 1960s grew to some extent out of Christian Wolff’s. Wolff understood that musicians playing together constitutes a form of social activity, and began writing pieces that took the social and political implications of this situation into account, allowing musicians a great deal of autonomy in deciding what to play and when to play it. Wolff’s music still tends to be discussed more than it is played, so it was good to hear one of his early works, Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin.

This is one of the pieces that first established Wolff’s reputation, before his more indeterminate works, being fully notated but restricting itself to just three notes*. The clever use of this restricted harmonic range showed how music can be beautiful and expressive by relying on the qualities of sounds for their own sakes, rather than in the context of grand melodies, dramatic key changes, etc. These days such ideas are taken for granted (except in music schools) and it sounds inoffensive enough, but it’s still a good effort considering he wrote it when he was 16. Smartarse.

On the up side for percussionists, they also get to do some of the most fun things in music, like hitting stuff (other than themselves). Black n’ Blues by Stephen Montague – who was in the audience along with Rzewski – was a shameless show-stealer, being that rarest of concert pieces, a “fun” piece that actually was fun. A pianist and Brannick alternated playing a fast, spasmodic blues riff with rhythmic assaults on several percussion instruments, various parts of the piano itself, and a large pillow filled with chalk dust. When it was all over Rzewski leaned over to Montague and stage-whispered, “You should run for Congress, at least.”

Theatrical highlights: Chris Bannick braining himself, duh! Also, the members of the Continuum Ensemble playing Rzewski’s Pocket Symphony (a jolly nice piece of what Frank Zappa called “music music”) peering at each other through a thick cloud of dust created during the prior performance of Black ‘n Blues.

Overheard gossip in the foyer: Apparently Rzewski had never encountered a bass recorder before, and needed an explanation from the recorder player talking to him. Don’t get recorder players started on the lesser-known aspects of their noble but underappreciated profession!

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: £2.80 for a plastic pint of Becks – yes, you could take it into the auditorium. Watch out for the bar staff, who sometimes had trouble keeping a grip on those cups when serving.

A writeup of the whole Rzewskifest is here.

* E, B, and F# if you’re curious.