Scratch Orchestra | U.K (1969-1974)

The Great Learning (1971)

  1. Paragraph 2 (22:05)

  2. Paragraph 7 (20:29)

The Scratch Orchestra, Cornelius Cardew

The concept of Cardew's work, The Great Learning has fascinated me since I first saw the score in Source magazine back in the early 70s. The textually based piece was elegant, but left my 12 year old mind with no way to imagine what the actual sound would be. In the time since, Cardew abandoned his avant-garde roots for music based in his Maoist ideology and my interest in the composer waned, as it did in many music circles. But with the rediscovery of European improv in the 90s, Cardew has become more in vogue again. This rerelease of the original Scratch Orchestra realizing two paragraphs of the Great Learning has done much to reanimate the reputation of this fascinating composer, performer, conceptualist and political activist.

The complete text score of The Great Learning is seven pages long and yet, in performance, it lasts over nine hours. Each paragraph of the work takes a portion from one of the seminal texts of Confucism and sets it in a conceptual framework. Paragraph Two is an elegant conception. The "orchestra" (drummers and singers) are divided into small groups of one drummer and several singers, dispersed throughout the performance hall. The drummers are given a list of rhythms from which they may choose. Once the rhythm is established, the singers sing words on any of 25 "sentences", scale fragments, singing a word on each note and holding each note for the length of a breath. When each "sentence" is finished the drummer moves on to another rhythm and the process is repeated. In concert, the audience is invited to move around from group to group, or to stand in one place and experience the overall sound. In the recording of course, the latter is all we can do, but the overall sound is oddly affecting. Through the cacophony of drumming droned notes seem to appear and disappear, and the rhythms coelecse and then pull apart again. The work feels less like a musical performance and more like a shamanic ceremony, doubtless exactly what Cardew was going for.

While paragraph 2 is all energy and wild abandon, paragraph 7 is light and peace. The conception for this paragraph is even more simple than for Paragraph 2. The score consists of 25 events (sing 9 (F2)swept away - this means sing the words "swept away" nine times with two of the times loud and the rest soft) and a set of directions. Each performer is to pick an individual note for the first event and us it for the duration of the event. During each subsequent event, each performer picks a note that they hear another singer singing. The result is a very complex chord that, over the time of the work, gradually becomes more simple, until it morphs into an open fifth. (Reports claim that this always happens even though it is never specified in the score.) Cardew displays a deep knowledge of human musical behavior and psychology in this piece, but the results are much deeper and more effecting than the concept. Paragraph 7 is a half an hour meditation on tone and the spirituality of tone.

-- Christopher Forbes

London 1969

  1. Side A

  2. Side B

    Edition of 500 on black vinyl (in picture sleeve) and 100 on clear vinyl (in clear plastic sleeve), Vinyl, 10", Limited Edition

    Two recordings made during the first public performance by the Scratch Orchestra. The concert took place on the 1st of November 1969, at Hampstead Town Hall, London

The Scratch Orchestra

The Scratch Orchestra was an experimental musical ensemble founded in the spring of 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. The Orchestra reflected Cardew's musical philosophy at that time. This meant that anyone could join, graphic scores were used (rather than traditional sheet music), and there was an emphasis on improvisation. The Scratch Orchestra arose from Cardew's 'Experimental Music' class at Morley College, London, which served as a venue for extra rehearsals for Scratch Orchestra concerts, but Scratch Orchestra rehearsals were also held separately.

The first meeting of the Scratch Orchestra was at St. Katharine's Dock, 1 July 1969. It was announced by means of a 'Draft Constitution', published in "The Musical Times" in June 1969. The Draft Constitution set out categories of musical activity: Improvisation Rites, Popular Classics, Compositions, and Research Projects. Cardew also proposed that the responsibility of programming of concerts be assigned in reverse seniority, so that the first concert, on 1 November 1969 at Hampstead Town Hall, was designed by Christopher Hobbs, an eighteen-year-old student of Cardew's at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite the emphasis on free improvisation, the varying experience of the members, and the 'do your own thing' free aesthetic of the time, the Scratch Orchestra was a disciplined ensemble. Eventually the strains of Cardew's "reverse seniority", tensions between musically-trained and non-musically-trained members, and an increasing interest in political aesthetics led to a gradual change in the activities, and then the outlook of the ensemble. It was effectively inoperative by 1974.

Cornelius Cardew in UbuWeb Sound
Cornelius Cardew in UbuWeb Historical
Cornelius Cardew's "Towards an Ethic of Improvisation" (1971) in UbuWeb Papers
Itchy and Scratchy Orchestra in UbuWeb Sound