South Leicestershire’s finest

There will be another meeting of Slie, the South Leicestershire Improvisors Orchestra) onn Thursday night, 4 February, at Quad Studios, Downtown Leicester, 78  Friday Street, from 8.30 pm.

This is what Slie says:

We’re having January off (well, we did run right up into December!) but return in February for the first blast of 2016: our regular core of players featuring Virginia Anderson (reeds), Lee Allatson (drums), Bruce Coates (saxes), Christopher Hobbs (piano and percussion) and Trevor Lines (bass), but this year we plan to augment the line up with different guest players each month… Spicy! Hope to see you there.

The guest player this month is Rick Nance.

The s.l.i.e are delighted to announce that our guest player for February’s event is Rick Nance (guitar). Rick Nance is a performer and musical researcher who plays trumpet and classical/electric guitar and is a composer of electro-acoustic music, primarily acousmatic. He has a PhD from DeMontfort University in Leicester, UK and is presently featured as a guest composer in the studios of Birmingham-Southern College. He has participated in free improvisation ensembles with surrealists TransMuseq, free music trio PhantomLimb, and the noise/improv collective Liquid Brick. His compositions have been performed in Paris, Pisa, New York, Liverpool, Mexico City, New Orleans, San Francisco, Birmingham, Alabama and other locales. His compositions and research focus on sound as plastic, and music as plastic art, akin to sculpture, painting or film. As listening is his main focus, over the years, deeper listening led from his interest in improvisation to acousmatic composition.

So, a whole lot of improv goodness. Hope to see you there. For more info, see their Facebook page.

Fizzle for a fiver

News from Birmingham: Free improv— well, not actually free, it’s £5 at the door. But good improv, with our favourite sax guru, Bruce Coates, and always, always, good real ale.

Tuesday 26th January,

The Lamp Tavern, Barford St, B5 6AH

Bruce Coates – Saxophone
Chris Mapp – Double Bass
Mark Sanders – Drums
David Sugden – Drums
Olly Chalk – Piano
Lee Griffiths – Saxophone

£5 OTD

Differently drumming

For some months now I’ve been playing with the South Leicestershire Improvisors Ensemble, a great local British free improvisation group, and the brainchild of the drummer Lee Allatson. Lee Allatson is a true original, as can be said of most ‘frimp’ drummers (for example, AMM’s Eddie Prévost, or Derby-based Walt Shaw). But most other frimp drummers I’ve worked with either separate their activity into ‘experimental’ and more traditional work. In the 1980s, especially, Eddie Prévost used various kinds of percussion, including the AMM barrel drum, for his experimental performances, moving to his kit drum for the Eddie Prévost Quartet. Walt Shaw, a visual artist who also drums, applied visual-arts sensibilities to his work, creating an assemblage of sound sources on and around a table, much like Keith Rowe has made an assemblage of his deconstructed guitar, which created for many, the sight and sound of AMM over the years.

Instead, Lee Allatson works mostly with his leopard-skin drum kit, augmented by a host of almost steam-punk beaters and sound sources. Lee has created a series of video etudes, in which he explores many of these sound sources on his kit. The result is, like the best etudes, a combination of the educational and the artistic. You can see them here: .

Here’s the most recent one, an improvisation moving into a king of “punky” beat.

And if you’re passing the East Midlands next month, come and see the South Leicestershire Improvisors Ensemble, which we lovingly know as S.L.I.E., on 4 February at Quad Studios, Leicester, from 8.30 pm. Those of you on Facebook may wish to follow S.L.I.E’s adventures here: The current lineup includes Lee on drums; Trevor Lines on bass; Chris Hobbs on keyboards and other stuff (resonating sound sources and perhaps bassoon); Bruce Coates on saxes. I’m listed as playing reeds, but will always be found on the clarinet end of things, and we may have a guest sitting in.

Boppin’ to the Great Learning

This morning I received the first rough mix of the recordings of the entirety of the full performance of Cornelius Cardew’s big work, The Great Learning, which we performed at the Union Chapel last July. Rich Duckworth, the recording engineer, has sone some marvellous work on what has to be one of the hardest works to record. The Great Learning uses many different performers playing all sorts of instruments in all areas of a very resonant hall. I have only heard bits of Paragraphs 3, 4, and 7 before this, and got to work immediately on checking out Paragraph 1, so it’s very early. But what I’ve heard so far is really, really good.

Since it is a rough mix and not an EMC recording, I can’t share what I’ve heard, unfortunately. There should be a CD in the works, though, so you will be able to hear what I’ve heard sometime up the road. And if we’re able to do so, the EMC will certainly make a link available when it is ready. But in the meantime, just to whet your appetite, here are a couple pictures from the first day….

Rehearsal for Paragraph 2 of Cornelius Cardew, The Great Learning
Rehearsal for Paragraph 2 of Cornelius Cardew, The Great Learning
Rehearsal for Paragraph 3 of Cornelius Cardew, The Great Learning (Richard Ascough in foreground)
Rehearsal for Paragraph 3 of Cornelius Cardew, The Great Learning (Former Scratch Orchestra member Richard Ascough in foreground)



News from Ghent….

Here are some pictures and impressions from the Christian Wolff at Orpheus Study Days, 28 and 29 September at the Orpheus Research Centre, in Ghent, Belgium, as promised (before our host upgrade slowed things down…). The show started off a bit late — Eurostar from London was delayed because thieves had stolen track cables in France — but it was jolly and productive, in the way that Orpheus study days are. Our host for the proceedings was the composer and historian William Brooks, and the guest for the proceedings was Christian Wolff, himself. Although there were papers and discussion, there was a lot of time given to the performance of Wolff’s music by several very talented young professionals and students. This reflects the Orpheus goal of Artistic Research, using performance as part of the research whenever possible.

orpheus programme
Study Days programme, page 1


orpheus programme2
Study Day programme, p. 2

The first session contained the formal papers. Ann Warde, a Fulbright recipient from the US, resident in York University, took structural elements, especially durations, to examine the similarities in sound organisation between two very different Wolff pieces (Dark as a Dungeon and Edges). My paper, as can be seen in the abstract, dealt with a 1972 interview with Wolff by the composer Barney Childs, focusing on Wolff’s then most recent project, his large-scale experimental work Burdocks. Luc Vaes’ paper was not on Wolff, per se, but was a welcome look into performance practice of indeterminate music, focusing on the music of Mauricio Kagel.

After lunch, and the keynote address by Philip Thomas, TWO (the pianist Joseph Houston and the violinist Aisha Orazbayeva) put themselves up for scrutiny from the assembled delegates and the composer, in their performance of his work. Orazbayeva was particularly interesting as a performer, having ‘given up’ vibrato some time ago. Her tone is thus ethereal, almost folklike.

two at play
TWO (Joseph Houston and Aisha Orazbayeva) in open rehearsal.

The afternoon was followed by a lovely wine reception and dinner at a local establishment.

l-r: Christian Wolff, Philip Thomas, Ann Warde, William Brooks, Aisha Orazbayeva, Joseph Houston, Hannah Reardon-Smith

The morning session contained more performances, including a rather stunning performance by the flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith of 13 Changes by Pauline Oliverosand an exercise in directed improvisation by Jerry Wigens.

hannah plays oliveros
Hannah Reardon-Smith performing 13 Changes by Pauline Oliveros.
Jerry Wigens and group improvisation.

The afternoon saw a kind of wrap-up of ideas regarding performance and the social factor in Wolff’s music.

The final session.

I have purposefully omitted to apply any critical judgement on the event because I think it should stand alone here. Almost all of the two-day event was eminently useful and highly enjoyable. Meeting Christian Wolff again was a personal highlight for me and, in many ways, personally moving. The event elided into a larger Orpheus festival which by all accounts was lovely (I was unable, sadly, to attend). But these two days provided a small-group setting in which we all had the leisure to interact with the performers, the scholars, and with Wolff himself.


Transatlantic Encounters, 26 September 2015

The end of September brought a couple interesting events, and some new additions to the Experimental Music Catalogue. The EMC additions include our new Bandcamp page, where you can download new and archival music; another addition is yet to be announced. But the events were coming thick and fast — so thick and fast that we were unable to attend the Fifth International Conference on Musical Minimalism, called ‘Minimalism Unbounded’, in Turku and Helsinki, Finland. I was unable to attend this conference because it overlapped with two other events that week. For the Finnish conference, the best reporter is always Kyle Gann, who has written. ‘Postminimalism Takes Finland’, in his Postclassic  blog, here: . And I will get to the second event I attended, a two-day study conference at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent on Christian Wolff, with Wolff himself in attendance. But I want to talk here about a grand day out in London.

The first event in this very busy period was a study day, ‘Transatlantic Encounters’, as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped concert series at Kings Place, London. Howard Skempton was the very delightful host of the proceedings, which included a kind of additive panel of delegates: Christopher Hobbs, Sarah Walker, and finally Colin Matthews. The title, ‘Transatlantic Encounters’ may have been made up by the organisers of this event, but it reminds me of a night in London in 1970, in which Gavin Bryars invited Steve Reich to visit the English experimentalists. It was held in a large house in north-west London, in a room that Chris Hobbs had sublet because it was the biggest. Reich played a recording of Four Organs (1970); Bryars played the overture to William Tell, played by the ‘world’s worst orchestra’, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a group of arts students and others who played instruments with which they were unfamiliar. For me, this 1970 transatlantic encounter says a lot about British experimental and minimalist composers and their American ‘cousins’. It was an encounter that showed off their differences as much as their common interests. And this difference kept wafting about throughout the day’s discussion.

skempton session

Howard Skempton, welcoming everyone to the study day

Howard Skempton began with an introduction to the movement and his own style, which of course included the work of Morton Feldman and Anton Webern (the former for the feeling and thinking behind this kind of ‘slow, sparse’ minimalism). Chris Hobbs played Terry Jennings’ Piano Piece 1: Winter Trees (1965). Jennings, a friend of Young who died in 1981, is less well known than Young, but his use of stacked harmonies offer a close tie between the American minimalists and the British ones. (For those with access to the journal American Music, I highly recommend Brett Boutwell’s article, ‘Terry Jennings, the Lost Minimalist’, in the Spring 2014 issue. And Winter Trees, transcribed from Jennings’ manuscript by Chris Hobbs, appeared in the EMC’s Keyboard Anthology in 1972). And although Riley, Reich, Glass, Young, Feldman, Adams, and other American minimalists were mentioned, the Brits were, for once, the main act in this day’s discussions.

Howard set the tone for the day’s proceedings: friendly and slightly meandering, flowing from one topic to another as he, and the audience took them. Referring to La Monte Young’s famous Composition #10 (to Bob Morris), which reads, ‘Draw a straight line and follow it’, Howard said, ‘I’m trying to draw a straight line [of argument] and follow it, but it’s an English straight line, which wiggles about a bit’.  The audience was free to take part, to ask questions and to contribute. In fact, Howard asked all members to introduce themselves, so that they could chat during the coffee break and lunch. This was both endearing and useful: participants included former Scratch Orchestra members (such as the composer Richard Ascough), members of the nationwide arts organisation Coma (Contemporary Music for All), visual artists, university professors — even a man who had sung in the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem.

hobbs skempton

Christopher Hobbs and Howard Skempton in the second session

The second half before lunch brought Chris Hobbs to the podium. Chris talked about his work with the Promenade Theatre Orchestra and the Hobbs-White Duo — two groups that brought a specifically English type of minimalism, variously called Machines and systems, to the table. He also talked about minimalism’s honoured ancestor, Erik Satie. Satie’s Vexations, a short piece that can be played 840 times, is a classic minimalist forebear, but Chris played instead a short excerpt from Le fils des étoiles, Satie’s longest written-out work, written for a Rosicrucian play of the same name in 1891. The Preludes to each act are in publication and are performed regularly, but Chris edited the whole piece from the manuscript. He played for us the opening of Act I, which had remained unheard since its premiere until Chris performed it in 1989. Le fils des étoiles is, by every definition except for its age, a minimalist piece, presenting and repeating thematic material without climax, without drama.

walker hobbs skempton

Sarah Walker, on the English experimental tradition

After lunch, Sarah Walker gave what was the nearest we had to a formal presentation, providing further information on British contemporaries in the English Keyboard School, including Dave Smith and Hugh Shrapnel. In 1995, Sarah’s excellent PhD thesis was on the English Experimental Tradition, particularly keyboard music. But she did not begin with piano music, rather, the antics of the early Live Batts!!!, which began as a duo of John White and Chris Hobbs in about 1990, using battery-operated portable synthesizers and amps. This continued Chris’s discussion of PTO and Hobbs-White, particularly the use of what were essentially toy instruments (for the PTO, toy pianos and reed organs) or the preference for piano four-hands, a cheap, often domestic alternative to piano duos. Sarah and Chris played one of these pieces by John White, a lovely performance. It would be nice to hear the two of them perform at greater length. However, what struck me about Sarah’s talk was her emphasis on the English Keyboard School, and all of British experimentalism as a community, or even closer, as family. This metaphor strikes me as particularly apt and may go some way to explain the association of people in Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond better than a normal linear heritage could do. Families (or communities) have shared values and experiences that lie at the heart of what they do, no matter how different they may be in daily life. Similarly, Skempton, Hobbs, White, Michael Parsons, Hugh Shrapnel, Gavin Bryars, Dave Smith, Michael Nyman, Brian Dennis, and other composers may compose differently, form different ensembles, work with different artists outside of the core group, and yet there is that familial tie of experience that acts as a shortcut in their own interactions. There is less to be said because they know each other so well….

matthews walker hobbs skempton

Colin Matthews’ session (this is beginning to be a visual additive system…)

Finally, Colin Matthews offered a counterbalance from the world of composition outside of minimalism, in terms of his own pieces that may have been informed by minimalism. Howard had intimated that Colin would act as a kind of devil’s advocate, but when I asked him if he was going to argue against the others, he delightedly denied that he would do so. He was, as the others were, jolly and generous. The only general negative he had was for some of the music of Glass, Reich and Adams, and counterposed two of his pieces against American minimalism. But these two pieces actually seemed to me to have more musical links to the Americans than to the Brits: one had a gamelan-like quality; the other seemed to progress and process in a similar way to John Adams’ music of the same time.

chris and sarah during elevenses

Chris Hobbs and Sarah Walker enjoy the canalside autumnal sunshine during the first break

The day seemed to be over before it began. Although the actual meeting was situated in a basement meeting room, the breaks were generous and the fine weather allowed us to enjoy sitting canalside, where the discussions took on an almost holiday atmosphere. The only disappointment was that Howard Skempton, wiggling his straight line about a bit, did not leave time for an examination and discussion of his own music, particularly his Waltz (1970). Michael Nyman saw this piece as something new and important, in Experimental Music: it was ‘the first tonal piece to be conceived in terms of a connected melodic and harmonic sequence — a new tonal “language”…. This is a tonality even more devoid of drama and surprise than Satie’s’ (Nyman, 1974, p. 145). Chris Hobbs, who had performed its premiere, was promised to perform it here. It would have been wonderful to see, after all this time has passed, whether Waltz could still wow the audience with its sheer white not simplicity. But the time, alas, ran out. And the next day, I left for Kent, to catch the Eurostar for Brussels, then Ghent….

ascough skempton matthews at lunch

Richard Ascough (composer, former stalwart of the Scratch Orchestra), Howard Skempton, and Colin Matthews at the canalside lunch

Great Learning diary, pt. 2

On this post, I continue documenting my experiences preparing for the complete performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, at the Union Chapel, Islington, in July. This might be of interest for people studying notation, performance practice of indeterminate music, or for fans of the music of Cornelius Cardew. It ended suddenly, due to my inability to stand up to the sheer physical stress this amazing piece inflicts on performers. Many other performers were, however, able to work through the whole two days — many of them original Scratch Orchestra members. Well done to all of them.

Virginia Anderson

7 July:

Another day, another Great Learning. This afternoon I’m down to London — Shoreditch, actually — for a rehearsal of Paragraph 4. This is the paragraph that uses a kind of alternative organology to describe the instrumentation (as in the photo yesterday). But I started with Paragraph 3, for chorus and large instruments playing a deep drone. There is something lovely and meditative about playing this drone, and something incredibly physical. My bass clarinet needs a tube to lengthen the fundamental from the normal concert B flat to A flat. The tube is much longer than one would expect; in fact, it is longer than my Selmer case. That requires a huge puff, so I’ve been lengthening my long tones from 7 to 8 to 9 to 10 seconds. This seems very short for a drone, but I’m blowing as hard as I can to get a decent dynamic. I’ve switched over to a rather light, noisy 2 1/2 Rico — not the nicest sound I can get, but it blows loud with less puff. The notes should double in length for the concert — they always do — as I get my whole-body OM in gear…. But the physicality of this paragraph and the movement of the Paragraph 5 Dumbshow are taking their toll. I may have to ask about performing a seated Dumbshow. Ah, well, on to practice the whistle solo…

7 July:

Yesterday Michael Byron mentioned performing in the New York City memorial concert for Cardew in 1982. I said that I had the programme and would look for it. Here’s just a few pages: the cover, first half and second half listing. I’ll scan these properly when I can, along with all the other pages. A star-studded line-up!

cardew ny memorial coverCover.

cardew ny memorial 1

Programme, p. 1

cardew ny memorial 2Programme, p. 2

7 July:

Just came back from a whirlwind trip to London to rehearse Paragraph 4 of The Great Learning at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. The group was primarily members of Coma — Contemporary Music for All. Nice people! Good singers! Dave Smith was the director. He introduced me as author of an article on Chinese characters in The Great Learning. This was my first direct experience of P4, as I laid out for it on the 1984 performance to hear it from ‘outside’, but there’s nothing like involvement. Great fun! Saw Benjamin Court [who is writing a PhD thesis on the Scratch Orchestra], who is auditing the rehearsals. My fastest London trip ever! 5 pm train, into St Pancras at 6.15, for 7 pm rehearsal, then 9.15 train to Leicester at 10.30.the cat toys are almost destroyed, but they looked and sounded good…

8 July:

Great Learning prep going apace, though at different rates. Tried one of the new bass clarinet reeds I ordered through Reeds Direct (thanks, Bruce [Coates]!) and installed the new rubber anti-vibration mat onto the mouthpiece. Wow, for the first time the Vandoren traditional bass reed worked wonderfully without breaking in! Just shows how really old and knackered my former reeds were. And the rubber thing works great. Much longer drones today 12 seconds or more with the A flat tube in. (Answered the door to a delivery guy without thinking about the tube being in — that caused a conversation!). The whistle solo moves on — I’m hearing phrasing now in my interpretation that is far better than my former efforts. The ocarina is feeling more like an instrument that I can play. The last time I played this (from the BBC recording of a performance in 1997 with the London Sinfonietta Voices), it was a bit frantic:

But the Dumbshow gestures — I can’t keep them in my head. I have a cheat sheet, but after repeated practice I can’t remember whether I’m scraping my beard, flicking dough, or trying not to make my arm look like a Nazi salute when I stick it out as required. Maybe tomorrow.

9 July:

More learning, greater learning: mostly spent today on the Dumbshow. I am beginning to remember key moves as triggers for subsequent ones. But I only have five out of six and am still consulting my cheat sheet far too often. There’s a move in Sentence 5 that, as described, will look like a Nazi salute. I’ve noticed that most performers try to avoid this through a half-raised arm. The whistle solo has taken a step back, hopefully to fly ahead (Zen and the Art of Archery has affected my practice thinking since I was assigned it to help my stage fright as a student). Whatever: hearing my old performance reminded me that the double-headed brush strokes on the whistle solo notation can be accomplished by singing and playing. Adding that, of course, had ruined the flow of the phrasing I had yesterday. In spending more time on these features, I had no time for the bass clarinet drone practice. I should do it this evening, but somehow a glass of cider found its way into my hand, to be followed by a black pepper chicken curry. Tomorrow….

10 July:

How nice that Rory Walsh sent the programme to the near-complete version of Cardew’s The Great Learning (missing out the bass-heavy P 3 and the massively long and big P 5), curated by Michael Nyman and Brian Eno. Frankly I don’t remember a whole lot about this concert — I remember Michael being there, exhorting the troops, but not Eno. I also for some reason didn’t get the programme, nor do I remember that there was a programme (Barney Childs had died the previous January and I was pretty much out of it for months). But it was in 2000 (I’d made it 1999 in another post). I do remember that P 6 was sensitively played, and that we got fed! In the 1980s we got expenses (generous ones!), in 2000 we got fed, tomorrow and Sunday we pay well over the odds for travel and anything we eat. (Hey ho). [Update: we got free drinks at the 2015 concert! well done, them!] And I remember seeing Michael Nyman with Damon Albarn of Blur, and he may have introduced us. He played in the concert, which meant that I was able to tell my pop music students that I played a gig with Damon Albarn. And looking at my (Frenchified, ‘Virginie’) name next to his, I wish I could have shown them the proof! Anyway, it’s so nice to see these. Thanks, Rory!

almeida gl 2000 coverCover

almeida gl 2000 1

page 36 of weekend brochure

almeida gl 2000 2

Programme p. 1

almeida gl 2000 3

Programme, p. 2

almeida gl 2000 4

Rehearsal call.

10 July:

More on the ‘Greta Larnung’: I can now get through all seven sentences of the P 5 Dumbshow with only a few glances at my cheat sheet. Of course that doesn’t mean that I’ll be that accurate on Sunday when we rehearse and perform it.

dumb show cheat sheet012
Learning the final two sentences took most of the day, along with another practice on the P1 whistle solo, which is approaching a tolerable state. I keep reminding myself that I didn’t think I could play the solo well at all when I did it for the London Sinfonietta concert in 1997. But at least I know that it’s tricky. One of the Sinfonietta Voices members decided to play a solo on a recorder head. He came up to it at the first rehearsal, giggling, like ooh, here’s some experimental music — you just do what you want, EASY! Then, realising that he actually didn’t know what he was doing, he kind of flagged, then sat down, visibly embarrassed. He did learn his part in time for the concert — that’s professionalism for you. The Sinfonietta Voices treated Paragraph 1 (on a concert with Stockhausen’s Stimmung) as a traditional dramatic reading. Christopher Hobbs has noted that each of the readings of the text (between the whistle solos) become more important, and great weight is given to the final reading, as if ‘It is rooted in coming to rest, being at ease, in perfect equity’ has transformed through adversity in the repetitions to emerge triumphant.

I’ve always thought of this paragraph as being static, repetitive, ritualistic. But maybe they are holding to a tradition of performance that has always been with the early P1. Cardew wrote P1 before the Scratch Orchestra had been conceived. It was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival by the Louis Halsey Singers — all very serious modern-music concert venue and group. So perhaps the dramatic P1 is historically informed performance. However, this is not anything to do with me at the moment. As a whistler, I won’t have to do it tomorrow. Nor will Chris Hobbs, who has dredged up a pennywhistle for the drones.

A last memory about P1 in 1997. The BBC broadcast P1 and Stimmung. But they cut out two whistle solos from P1, for time. One was Chris’s, which I remember as being a cracker. This was a time when the Beeb was fighting Classic FM with the tag-line, ‘No bleeding chunks, no edits’, referring to the latter’s tendency to play only the good bits for their background-music loving Philistines. And they didn’t cut Stimmung, which, from the posh introduction, seems to have been the real great music on the bill. Typical BBC, loving the German greats, whilst ignoring their homegrown talent. And — wait for it — they didn’t announce that it was cut, thinking that no one would notice in all this modern racket. Howard Skempton was there in the audience and he listened to the radio broadcast, and he noticed. And he got angry. He wrote a stiff letter to the Beeb. Did they care? Did they, heck as like…. Now, for a quiet evening without practicing, and then two days solid of rehearsals and performance. Life should always be just like this!

10 July:

Right. Got my instruments for this weekend:

P1: pair of stones, blue ocarina
P3: bass clarinet, long cardboard tube
P4: garish pillow, deconstructed cat toy, cheese grater
P5: Dumbshow cheat sheet.

I’m wondering about whether to add at least a string instrument for the P5 compositions.
P2 and 7 only need my lovely voice (now, where did I put that?). P6 is being done by another group, so we can all sit and tut about how it wasn’t like that in our day. The saddest thing is that we’re leaving Eri-the-cat alone with food visits from Barbara the Cat Sitter. I hope he’ll be all right. It will be the longest we’ve ever left this guy….

11 July:

[regarding the concert announcement for The Great Learning in The Guardian (London) newspaper, which was here: ]. This announcement, by Jennifer Lucy Allen, read as follows:

‘The Great Learning, London
‘Named after Confucius’s text, radical English composer Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning is an epic work, both in terms of its subject matter and its scale. It consists of a seven-“paragraph” score, which clocks in at nine hours, and contains text performed by a large ensemble of both trained and untrained performers, who play stones and whistles, and are directed to make various movements and gestures alongside organ playing, singing and drumming. Classically trained, Cardew worked closely as a student with Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s, and later became a committed and involved communist, following Mao Tse-tung and later Enver Hoxha. He was killed in 1981 after being knocked down by a car in east London. Starting tonight, the entire piece will be performed across two days by some of his close collaborators, including biographer and pianist John Tilbury’.

My comment: Uh, scroll down to ‘The Great Learning, London’. There is pretty much nothing informed about this blurb. The Great Learning ‘clocks’ in at various times, including nine hours. If they only play stones and whistles, why am I filling our car with everything from bass clarinet, mbira, cat toys, bagpipe chanter….? That’s only the first paragraph. And Cardew didn’t move from being a disciple of Stockhausen to Enver Hoxha. If I saw this blurb and didn’t know the composer, I’d think it was Darmstadt bleep-bloop music combined with rousing folk songs and marches. I wouldn’t go.

11 July:

Just got done playing P1 and P2 from the Great Learning at the Union Chapel. Slight break, then P3 to follow. Great experience!

union chapel p1 2015

John Tilbury discussing performance strategy on P1.

union chapel p2 2015


Our group rehearsing P2, The Great Learning.

11 July:

P3 done. Exhausted playing those low notes, but the whole sounded good. Lots of nice feedback. Got the programme and free glass of wine. P4 starts very soon.

11 July:

Well, that’s it for the first day of The Great Learning. A long, productive day. P4 was rather good, particularly for the instruments Bryn Harris brought in: a despicable me cushion, a toy tiger wand (looking like a very long Pez dispenser, which made a noise when waved), and a fake Lego toy train as guero. Wonderful — all from the pound shop.

union chapel p4 2015P4, on the night.

July 12:

I’m really sorry that Chris Hobbs and I will not be able to perform at the second day of the complete performance of Cardew’s The Great Learning at the Union Chapel, Islington. I personally found performing on four paragraphs yesterday to be so overwhelming physically that I couldn’t do the two of the remaining three and still drive home. I wish everybody my very best and hope that they have a great time, because I’m sure that P 5 and P 7 will be magnificent (as I presume P6, bagged by a group from Goldsmiths).

I’m taking away a lot from this experience. Always things that are new, and always things that are solidly old as well. Here’s one: The first picture, of Christopher Hobbs performing in a Scratch Orchestra concert at Euston Station in 1970; the second, Chris rehearsing Paragraph 2 at the Union Chapel yesterday. Same as it ever was…

hobbs scratch euston 1970hobbs union chapel 2015

Great Learning diary, Pt. 1

In the weeks leading up to the performance of the complete version of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, I wrote of my experiences of preparation on my Facebook timeline. I had considered this just a report of my daily life for my friends’ amusement, but since then I have been asked to provide these notes for a wider audience. There are several performances of the complete cycle in the works, worldwide. And I’ve noticed over the years that people who have never played indeterminate music don’t know how much responsibility is placed on the performer, and how much work it can entail. So, without extra comment, here are a few things I thought about before playing The Great Learning.

June 9 2015:

Two days of fun and games at the Union Chapel, which has become the modern era home of the GL. I played in the first complete performance at the UC for the Almeida Festival, July 1984; filmed parts of the GL at the UC for Phillppe Regniez’s Cornelius Cardew biography in 1985, and Chris and I played P. 6 for the Almeida there in the late 1990s. Here we go again— hope to see Brit friends there!

union chapel gl ad
June 17:

Can’t find the low Ab extension for the bass clarinet…. It’s a cardboard tube, about three feet long. Sits in the bell. But aside from a pencil mark saying something like ‘Ab for P3’, it looks like trash. Hope I didn’t throw it away.


I’ve been practicing the Dumbshow, the first part of Paragraph 5 of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, using Michael Parsons’ filmed performance to help me learn it (link to this film on our blog entry). It’s like doing slow and pretty aerobics.

and on the EMC Blog:

What are we doing today? Well, in part we’re practicing the gestures for the Dumbshow for Paragraph 5 of Cardew’s The Great Learning, which will be performed Sunday, 12 July, at the Union Chapel, Islington ( The Dumbshow opens Paragraph 5, the longest, most multipart, and busiest Paragraph of The Great Learning. This opening consists of mimed gestures inspired by Native American sign language. The idea is for the slowest performer to start the first sentence, ‘teaching’ it to the next slowest, who then teaches it to the next and so on. One they have demonstrated the first sentence, each performer moves on through all seven sentences themselves.

Is anyone taking part in this paragraph, and if you are, do you have any questions about the score, which describes but does not depict the gestures. If so, in 2003 Christopher Hobbs and Martin Shiel filmed Michael Parsons, one of the founders of the Scratch Orchestra, performing the Dumbshow, and then all alternative gestures that Cardew provided. We’ve put this film up on the EMC site: (it takes a while to load — please wait).

You don’t have to do exactly the same gestures that Michael does; reading and following Cardew’s description is enough. But When I was writing about the notation in The Great Learning I found that some of the descriptions are confusing. That is why I asked Michael to film his performance, and for Chris and Martin to film him. Use this as a guide — or just look at the beauty and dignity of Michael’s performance. I hope to see you at the concert!

21 June:

My never-fail low A-flat tube is lost, presumed missing. This cardboard tube, which wedges into the bell of the instrument, lowers the fundamental B-flat to Ab, the drone note for Paragraph 3 of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. I therefore auditioned another tube today on my bass clarinet. Soon after, Eri-the-cat was sick in the hall next to the music room. Related occurrence, or sheer coincidence? Discuss.

(in a further discussion): There was that CIA experiment with extreme subharmonics, the so-called ‘brown noise’ because it elicited the loosening of bowels. Perhaps the Ab is the cat barf noise.

25 June:

TBT: Well, I know what I’m doing for the Union Chapel performance of The Great Learning on 11 and 12 July, and so what instruments I need.

Paragraph 1: speaking and whistle solo
Paragraph 2: singing
Paragraph 3: bass clarinet with low A-flat extension (drone group)
Paragraph 4: cushion, wand, and guero. (This is going to be fun. I have never played P 4, so I muscled in on Dave Smith’s CoMA (Contemporary Music-Making for All) ensemble. Should be a blast.
Paragraph 5: Dumb Show and whatever else they want me to do. I’m up for it!
Paragraph 7: singing

That leaves out P. 6, which is being done by a student group from Goldsmiths. As many times as I’ve said that this needs a small, bespoke group, with NO show-offs, I’m going to miss doing this sweet, fragile piece for the first time ever. So here’s a clip of P. 6 from Philippe Regniez’s film, Cornelius Cardew, filmed in 1985 in the Union Chapel. At about 43 seconds in, you can see a girl with unfashionable flares, a hippie quilted jacket, and dark glasses. Me.

Cardew, P.6, The Great Learning, 1985

June 30:

Possible whistle for The Great Learning.


6 July

People who think that you just go in and do what you want with The Great Learning will come to grief. A confident performance takes preparation and planning. Thus far today: score for The Great Learning has been organised. P1 whistle solo practiced; stones from 1997 South Bank performance found. Practiced low A flats on the bass clarinet (with the new Ab extension tube) for P3. I also ordered back-up and replacement reeds, as the present reeds will be exhausted by all those drones. Next: practice Dumb Show performance and warm up voice for various paragraphs. Pictured: Possible instrumentation (wand, sonorous substance, guero, and rattles) for P4.

cat toy instruments

[loads of discussion of what a momentous piece it is]

Part 2 will follow….


Some performance pictures

The EMC Blog pages have been a bit bland for the last few months, as we’ve had some trouble with media uploads in WordPress. We have just found a workaround that allows us to show you pictures again. Here’s what you may have missed, unless you have been following our Facebook page ( ). First, a throw-back picture from the 1982 Classic Masterworks of Experimental Music Festival, which I curated at the University of Redlands, California. This is George Brecht’s Incidental Music (the result of the third of these five piano pieces, ‘Photographing the situation’).

brecht classic001Then, another pair of pictures that amused me. The first is Christopher Hobbs, performing at Euston Station with the Scratch Orchestra in 1970; the second is Hobbs, performing Paragraph 2 of Cornelius Cardew’s piece The Great Learning at the Union Chapel, London, on 11 July 2015. We hope to provide more pictures as they come.

hobbs scratch euston 1970IMG_1615

Preparing The Great Learning

What are we doing today? Well, in part we’re practicing the gestures for the Dumbshow for Paragraph 5 of Cardew’s The Great Learning, which will be performed Sunday, 12 July, at the Union Chapel, Islington ( The Dumbshow opens Paragraph 5, the longest, most multipart, and busiest Paragraph of The Great Learning. This opening consists of mimed gestures inspired by Native American sign language. The idea is for the slowest performer to start the first sentence, ‘teaching’ it to the next slowest, who then teaches it to the next and so on. One they have demonstrated the first sentence, each performer moves on through all seven sentences themselves.

Is anyone taking part in this paragraph, and if you are, do you have any questions about the score, which describes but does not depict the gestures. If so, in 2003 Christopher Hobbs and Martin Shiel filmed Michael Parsons, one of the founders of the Scratch Orchestra, performing the Dumbshow, and then all alternative gestures that Cardew provided. We’ve put this film up on the EMC site:

Michael Parsons, performing the Dumb Show, Paragraph 5, The Great Learning

You don’t have to do exactly the same gestures that Michael does; reading and following Cardew’s description is enough. But When I was writing about the notation in The Great Learning I found that some of the descriptions are confusing. That is why I asked Michael to film his performance, and for Chris and Martin to film him. Use this as a guide — or just look at the beauty and dignity of Michael’s performance. I hope to see you at the concert!