Several groups have
been started in the 60s for the presentation of avant-garde works
- - - the ultimate so far in this direction (though who can say
what the future holds in store?) is Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Scratch
Orchestra’? which he founded in 1969.
Cardew, who was born
in 1936, is the John Cage of British music. Indeed, after studying
electronic music in Cologne (1957/8), Cardew was associated with
Cage and David Tudor, and also made his acquaintance with the music
of Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman. His compositions bear deceptively
traditional titles, but there any resemblance to traditional procedures
ends; more often than not the scores contain lengthy instructions
on how to decipher the otherwise unintelligible symbols. Every work
is for him a fresh experiment, and every performance too. The only
thing, for instance, that is determinate about Treatise is that
no performance will bear audible relationship to any other performance.
The score consists of 193 pages of free graphics, without a single
symbol whose meaning has been agreed in advance. You can sing it,
play it on any instrument, in any order, backwards or forwards,
in part or in whole; you can contemplate it in silence, or act it;
but for the final result Cardew disclaims all responsibility. ‘My
intention’ he says, ‘is that the player should respond to the situation.’
But what of the audience?
An artistic response on the part of the listener has always been
the sine qua non of any music which lays claim to the stahls of
art. If the nihilistic avant-garde composer dissociates himself
from the performer, does he also disclaim any concern for the audience?
Suppose that a listener were to trespass on a meeting of the Scratch
Orchestra in the fond and innocent expectation that he was going
to hear a concert:
Place: St. Pancras
Date: 2nd April 1970.
Thursday evening, 7.50 p.m.
Heavily Victorian hall.
About one hundred seats occupy one half of the floor; the other
half is taken up by seven or eight young people seated on the floor,
with assorted items of musical and other apparatus.
Audience, ten minutes
before the concert, consists of eleven people, and one somewhat
to his programme-a postcard informing him that this is the 12th
presentation of the Scratch Orchestra, and that the date is 2nd
April 1970. The reverse side is entirely blank. Perhaps his nearest
neighbours might know what was to be played? They say that the participants
in the orchestra are not musicians at all; they just enjoy playing.
Their instruments appear to consist of a frying pan, blocks of wood,
assorted tins. Is that a military drum over there? Someone is busily
unpacking a shopping-bag, which evidently contains more utensils,
needed no doubt for the performance; a paint tin, what looks like
a bag of nails, some iron bars.
Another possible audience-member
ventures round the door, only to retreat in haste at the sight that
meets his eyes. Those sitting on the floor now number twenty; the
audience, so far, twelve.
Various tappings, squeaks,
noises. Can this be the concert? Surely not; but it is almost 8
o’clock. The audience is now eighteen. Everyone waits expectantly.
More uncoordinated tapping and isolated sounds. Is this all that
is meant by avant-garde?
Someone with a mallet
intently and very deliberately strikes a piece of wood: whereupon
four children come in (five-eight age group), who make the loudest
noise so far heard, with their golliwog father. The audience is
A saxophone somewhat
surprisingly emits a note; someone claps; someone else utters a
vocal sound. Perhaps this is some secret means of communication,
like morse code? Or a meditation? Or more likely a leg-pull. Yes,
a practical joke. But the date is 2nd April, not 1st April. Several
teenagers come in, dishevelled, bored and disconsolate. Evidently
avant-garde people are unhappy?
More very quiet sounds.
Surely this is very tentative for an improvisation? Some of the
participants seem to be reading something; a score, maybe?
A rustling of paper;
a squeak of a whistle, all unconnected. Someone arrives late with
a cornet. Someone else sits with his arm embracing a cello, apparently
incapable of playing it. Ah, no! After much deliberation he manages
to produce one pizzicato note. Another noise, like the whistle in
a Christmas cracker. Over there is a horn player; but he, too, is
transfixed, quite unable to play.
The time is now 8.15
p.m. Another violinist comes in, bejeaned, shoeless. He solemnly
selects a chair, sits down, and lays his violin on the floor. Evidently
dissatisfied, he then moves to the other side of the room, sits
this time on the floor, and meditates. About what, one wonders.
Twenty-four human beings
are now reduced to silence; only the occasional peep or plonk disturbs
the placid scene.
Concertgoer is now
in a questioning mood. For want of anything resembling music, his
thoughts take a dissatisfied turn. Is this all the avant-garde has
to say about the Western musical tradition? Is this all that is
left of the musical art?
(Suddenly a tune is
heard-on a musical box.)
Is it meant to be a
joke? If so, each concertgoer must supply his own punch-line; nobody
(Two more elderly people
arrive - surely not The Times critic?)
The participants are
obviously indulging their private rite of this particular spring;
a private meeting of meditation for their own edification. An audience
is an affront in such a gathering-an unwarrantable intrusion; neither
valued nor necessary.
that there is a saloon just opposite, where his custom would be,
on the contrary, highly valued.