Monday, February 28, 2011

Further Reflections on the 1970 Time Frame

Writing yesterday about the 1970 concerts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York reminded me just how exciting that time was.  I suppose I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time as a corollary to a series of writing and composing activities that began in the summer of 1968, a pivotal time in my life about which I have written in other contexts.  This morning I found myself thinking about the various ways that I came to know about Cornelius Cardew.

I first became aware of Cardew when the MIT Music Library purchased a copy Treatise.  I was not sure what to make it at the time, and I am not sure I know any better today.  Cardew’s Wikipedia page describes it as “a 193-page graphic score which allows for considerable freedom of interpretation;”  and I doubt that I can come up with a better description.  (John Cage included a preliminary sketch of a page in his Notations anthology.)  The thing is that the phrase “considerable freedom of interpretation” may be the height of understatement.  The American edition was published by Gallery Upstairs Press in Buffalo.  So, from my point of view, it is highly reasonable that one reader (such as the Wikipedia author) would “interpret” this document as the score for a piece of music, another might take it as an innovative approach to graphic art, and yet another might take it as a semiotic exercise of a text represented by a non-standard repertoire of signs.  (I was actually surprised that this breadth of “interpreting interpretation” has not yet come up on the Wikipedia Talk:Cornelius Cardew page.  There is a Mode recording of a “performance of the score” by Petr Kotik’s QUaX Ensemble (Petr Kotik, flute; Pavel Kondelik, tenor sax; Jan Hyncica, trombone; Josef Vejvoda, percussion; Vaclav Zahradnik, piano).  It is from a live performance in  Prague on October 15, 1967 lasting about two hours.  Having spent a fair amount of time with this score, I agree with reviewer Michael A. Duvernois that the performance itself is rather a “short take” for the number of pages;  but I am still impressed that someone decided to follow up on this approach so soon after the “score” was published.

As a result of my own fascination with Treatise, I later leapt at the opportunity to hear Cardew speak when Christian Wolff invited him to the Goethe Institute in Manhattan.  His topic was the Scratch Orchestra, an improvisatory ensemble that Cardew formed for the performance of another one of his major projects, The Great Learning, a work in seven parts or "Paragraphs," based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound.  To the best of my knowledge, The Great Learning has yet to be performed in its entirety;  and, according to its Wikipedia page, the Scratch Orchestra was “effectively inoperative” by 1974.  However, the Deutsche Grammophon recording of their performance of Paragraph 2 and Paragraph 7 is still available from;  and there may still be copies of the organ of Corti CD that includes these two performances, recorded in 1971, as well as one of Paragraph 1 made in 1982 (after the date Wikipedia gives as that of the ensemble’s “demise”).

Those familiar with Cardew will probably notice that I have judiciously avoided saying anything about his politics.  This is because politics never came up during the talk I heard him give and because I never saw anything to be gained from a “political reading” of Treatise.  According to his Wikipedia page, Cardew did not turn to his extreme left-wing politics until after he lost hope of The Great Learning ever receiving a complete performance.  His beliefs were sufficiently extreme and vociferous that, when he died of a hit-and-run accident on December 13, 1981, his friend John Maharg told his biographer, John Tilbury, that MI6 had probably been involved.

I could care less about his politics.  Musically he was an anarchist, but I have never been afraid of anarchy.  After all, the Internet is also anarchic;  and I figure that I can approach Cardew’s anything-goes attitudes about making music with the same cautious awareness I now bring to the Internet.  I would like to believe that, if Cardew were alive today, he would be more interested in the Internet as a new medium for performance, rather than for the promotion of his extremist political positions;  but this is a moot point based on my having him speak only once, and then in better times for all of us.  The bottom line is that I continue to enjoy listening to recordings of his music and would welcome an opportunity to encounter that music in concert performance.

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