Friday 17 July 2015


Union Chapel, London, Sat 11th July

'The Great Learning' was composed at the end of the Sixties by Cornelius Cardew, then the enfant terrible of contemporary music. Inevitably, an infamous performance of an early version in 1968 (in, of all places, Cheltenham) led to audience uproar. In violation of the sanctity of the concert hall there were those who yelled their disaffection at the stage, only for Cardew to happily defend their right to protest.

He was on something of a mission at the time, and it wasn't – at least not entirely – about causing upset. Stephen Miles has said he “viewed contemporary music increasingly as the occupation of a highly trained elite, completely removed from the experience of the general public. Dissatisfied with this situation for both musical and political reasons... [he] became interested in music that could bridge the gap between amateurs and professionals…. sought to create music that not only was accessible to amateurs, but that could be performed by large groups of people.”

It was created, as described in the programme “for a large number of trained and untrained musicians which includes singing, speaking, drumming, playing stones and whistles, performing actions and gestures, improvising, using conventional and unconventional instruments and other sound sources.” It was less written for the legendary experimental ensemble the Scratch Orchestra than the outcome of his work with them – the teacher was himself learning as he wrote. And indeed, Scratch Orchestra veterans Dave Smith and Michael Parsons are among the ranks in this performance.

Its division into seven “paragraphs” ostensibly comes from its basis in a Confucian text, but as the above might suggest was also a clear attempt at deromanticisation, a rejection of poetic 'verses' or musical 'movements'. Let's take those paragraphs non-chronoligally here, as they seem to fall into two broad groups.

Cardew had already fallen under the sway of American minimalism, and Paragraphs Two and Three are clearly influenced by Terry Riley – indeterminate scores whose aletaory rules grant the performers a great deal of freedom in interpretation. Three is even based around a single note, though A flat rather than Riley's C. In P2 the singers are based in four groups around a single drummer, all passing through the same notation but at their own pace. Echoes, unintended harmonies and resonances thereby pass across the space. The four groups were (as throughout the night) unamplified, using the natural acoustics of the venue rather than the wizardry of the mixing desk. The group nearest me thereby seemed to 'lead', while the effect on others would have been different. (Other performances have encouraged the audience to move about the space as a way of varying the sounds. Alas not practical for a Chapel bedecked with heavy pews.)

I once mentioned how, when I first saw Riley's 'In C' performed, “it seemed not just musically but even politically liberating. People don't have to get with the programme, they're given space to do their own thing - but within loose structures which allow them to play in accordance... The theme tune to a free world, sounding different each and every time it's played.” And that idea, implicit in Riley, is much more out in the open here. The processes which produce the piece are far more foregrounded, far more in your face – its a musical and social manifesto. Plus, P2 in particular is quite savage in tone, quite different to Riley's quiet transcendentalism. John Tilbury comments in the programme on “Cardew's commitment to social music-making”.

It suggests the way collective human activity can mimic the intricate chaotic patterns of nature. Watch the passage of people across a crowded station concourse from a high balcony, or the pattern of dancers at a free party, and its as mesmerising as watching the babbling of a brook.

Paragraph One, the source of the outrage at Cheltenham described earlier, is probably best seen as a cleanser of the palette before the Great Learning proper can begin. Truth to tell it is overlong and repetitive, and I could understand someone finding it muesli for the ears. (Plus, its hard to hear swanee whistles without thinking of 'The Clangers'.) The evening had an early start, and the multiple latecomers may have had the best of it.

Paragraph Four, however, was a game of compare and contrast against One. It was the most Sixties of all the pieces, with its ensemble sat on cushions under mood lighting. (Though some less limber veterans had to be supplied with chairs. The Sixties were a long time ago, after all.) But the particular form of Sixties it took was anti-Sixties. It was the most ritualised Paragraph of all, starting with a single player whacking a cushion, a second joining in on the second beat and so on, passing down the line then repeatedly returning to that origin point. And with its repeated iterations of the word “discipline”, the musical strokes became almost a sonic underlining of this word. With it's keep-to-the-beat rigidity, almost echoing the work songs which spawned blues, it didn't just venerate discipline but seemed an exercise in instilling it.

This insistency felt almost like the antithesis of the Sixties fixation with freedom, perhaps indicative of that point where many attempted to transcend bohemian lifestylism by trading it in for sloganistic militancy. Such a thing was to become as common as sideburns. Cardew himself adopted self-criticising Maoism, disowning the piece and instead taking up self-parodic Socialist Realist music for the masses. (It sounded like this. No, really. It really did.) Of course in retrospect its obvious enough not just that both the blissed-out hippie and the order-spewing cadre fail us, but that they're two sides of one coin that needs throwing out.

However, things are not so simple. For one, that would leave out the sheer sense of delight the piece exudes, the keen awareness of its own absurdity. At the same time as a devotion to discipline is insisted upon, the text is bent and twisted with each iteration, to an almost Dadaistic degree.

And perhaps more importantly, Cardew's later exception to the piece mainly lay in the Confucian text. True enough, in many ways he was doing something classically Sixties, assuming a foreign culture merely reflected his own needs and desires as a Western malcontent. The text could certainly be called reactionary, for reasons which needn't concern us here. (And it probably didn't help the translation came from notorious fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound.) But at the time the key line for Cardew was “they disciplined themselves”. As he said “I see such self-discipline as the essential pre-requisite of improvisation. Discipline is not to be seen as the ability to conform to a rigid rule structure, but the ability to work collectively with other people in a harmonious and fruitful way.” The piece (and 'The Great Learning' in general) transmits a collectivising energy, which creatively counters the let-it-all-hang-out individualism which plagued so much of the Sixties counter-culture. The truth is, Cardew was simply a better communist before formally deciding he was a Communist.

Not entirely by coincidence, the performers throughout adopted a particular stance – somewhere between the demonstrative impassiveness of a Brechtian drama and the trance-state of ritual initiates. It was a long way both from the performative emoting of rock musicians and the professionalised sweatless prowess of classical players.

The programme talks of Cardew's emerging “belief in the power of music not as an abstract and specialised pursuit but as a vital and essential social activity”. And if that's what's coming out of 'The Great Learning', then P4 may well be the most learned paragraphs of all. Certainly the ritualistic element was strongest, perhaps ultimately winning out over the music. With all the Paragraphs a recording wouldn't give you half the picture, they're something you really need to take in live. With P4 I'm not sure it would capture any of it at all.

And yet all this democratising music, all this foregrounding the ritual element, can it really be happening when the audience stands apart? With a ritual, shouldn't everyone present become involved? Wouldn't the swiftest way for us in the aisles to discipline ourselves be to abandon our pews and surrender to the discipline of the performance? Stephen Miles raises the question that it might seem “intended entirely for the performers’ enjoyment, that an audience is superfluous”, only to dismiss it. I'm not quite so aligned. It reminded me of something contemporary but from the more popular music realm – the Soft Machine track

”I still can’t see why people listen instead of doing it themselves
But I'm grateful all the same
You're very kind and I don't blame you
I don't mind if you just watch

When describing this sort of music, people seem to automatically take to the term ‘avant garde’. But really, I couldn’t imagine something less accurate. There's a reliance on drones and held tones, but little of the dissonance so commonly associated with contemporary music. P2 and 3 are really quite harmonious. True the indeterminate nature of the scores make for long durations, which some find challenging. But that's a matter of finding the right way of listening to it, which is less to do with listening – in the sense of mentally minute-taking - than surrendering. It's not like running a marathon, its like basking in the sun.

Above all, it’s not like gazing up at a lofty peak, which you imagine one day you might be able to ascend. It's quite the opposite, as Michael Nyman commented “it seems to recreate music from its very roots”. 'The Great Learning' is really a programme of unlearning, a deconditioning process through which we declog ourselves of all the constraining notions a proprietary society has instilled in us about music-making. Muesli for the ears? No, its tasty and its good for you!

The programme was spread over two evenings. Understandably so, for it runs to nine hours in all. But alas as I had only the time and means to attend one, Paragraphs Five to Seven remain unread for me and so I remain only half-deconditioned. Maybe next time...

P2, though not from the Union Chapel...

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