Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Great Learning

My ears are hopelessly hooked on "Paragraph 2" of The Great Learning by Cornelius Cardew. In particular, the 1968 Scratch Orchestra performance conducted by Cardew as found on the digitally remastered Deutsche Grammophon CD. What a great, prolonged sonic texture! The initial impact of sounds like these has often been the initial attraction to the music of Cornelius Cardew for me. The radical ideas behind them soon follow and I find myself riveted by this elusive figure of the 1960s European avant garde.

The Scratch Orchestra was an important creative outlet for Cornelius Cardew and it was assembled specifically for The Great Learning. He sought to establish a large, democratic ensemble made up of musicians from a wide spectrum ranging from professional musicians to amateurs. He then applied non-traditional, non-specific notation and written instructions that treats all performers as equals toward achieving a focused sonic ideal. The resulting sound is energetic, rough around the edges and beautiful. "Paragraph 2" uses a combination of drums and choir to build a soundscape of ragged pulse and wordless vocals. There's a fantastic immediacy to this sound that grows from the improvisatory nature of this work.

After peeling myself away from repeated listenings to "Paragraph 2" I finally turn my ears to "Paragraph 7" for an a capella atmosphere of sustained voice with the words "swept away" woven in at various layers. The low volumes of this choir adds an intensity from having such a large ensemble working within such a quiet space. The result feels like a communal meditation. A church choir without the trappings and social order of a church.

The Great Learning is a 7 hour work in total. Only "Paragraph 2" and "Paragraph 7" are found on this recording. It is exactly the kind of large scale work that begs to be lived within for the full duration. If a complete recording were available it would be tempting to take long vacations immersed in such a soundscape. Aesthetically (and socially), Cornelius Cardew was onto something that feels lost to this era.

2 comments:

Veronica said...

I am not quite sure this was the one work that Cardew wanted to live on.

Devin Hurd said...

This isn't the "only" work of Cardew's that will live on. There will be a Cornelius Cardew Symposium this year on May 7, 2006 at the Cecile Sharp House in London. Which is a good sign that his life, career and creative output will continue to be evaluated. One of the tragedies with losing him in 1981 is that he cannot state what piece(s) he would want to live on.

That said, "The Great Learning" is enormously appealing and he could do much worse than be represented by it.