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….


Fare for the fans

We’ve been trawling through old recordings of late. Christopher Hobbs found us this from a recording of a concert at the British Music Information Centre, 4 April 1988. This may be the premiere of his piece, Fanfares (1987), for two E flat clarinets, played by Jane Aldred and myself. I remember these concerts as a heck of a lot of fun, the playing very challenging.

To hear these little pieces for little clarinets, go to the Experimental Music Catalogue Archival Recordings page, where you’ll find this and a host of other goodies:, where there is a short explanation. Or just have a little listen here. The Fanfares themselves are a joy to listen to — and to dance to — after all these years. And for those of you E flat clari-nuts, well, the score is available through the EMC. Just saying.

Doing the Hartzell Hilton

We’ve been looking through some archival recordings and thought you’d like to hear some Hartzell Hilton Band music. The Hartzell Hilton Band originated when Virginia Anderson and Jane Aldred agreed that there was far too little music for that fantastic little instrument, the Eb clarinet. And what made a fantastic ensemble was to add two violists, Michael Newman and Karen Demmel, a pianist, Christopher Hobbs, and a marimba/vibraphone player, Simon Allen. The Hartzell Hilton Band was named after a house in Redlands, California, owned by the composer Barney Childs. Childs hosted so many composers and performers at this house, on Hartzell Avenue, that he called it ‘the Hartzell Hilton’. Newman, Demmel, and Hobbs had stayed at the Hartzell Hilton; Anderson often lived there, so Newman gave the band its name.

The track that we’re sharing is from one of two classic Hartzell Hilton Band concerts: a concert at Lauderdale House, Hampstead, London, on 4 July 1988 (the other was in the Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham). The concert programme included two pieces by Hobbs, two by John White, one by Newman, one by Michael Parsons, one by Childs, an arrangement of Lol Coxhill tunes by Hobbs, and a piece by Hugh Shrapnel. The date of Fourth of July was accidental, but it was used in their advertising for the concert. We haven’t found that advertising in our files yet, but it stated that as it was American Independence Day, the Hartzell Hilton Band would play no American music…ah, yes, one, Barney Childs, but as an alumnus of Oxford, he was an honorary Brit. The programme ended, ‘Happy American Independence Day’.


New York Downtown in the 1980s

It’s amazing how sometimes two things come along that go together — maybe not a match, but one follows along from another, comments on it, contradicts it maybe. In the last 24 hours, we found two such things. We’ll deal with the most recent first, because it may be a scene you know: Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra performing ‘Siberia’ live at CBGBs. For all the balance and intonation problems, this is a great evocation of the New York scene in the early 1980s.

The other New York connection is less well known: John Kuhlman was a fascinating West Coast composer, associated in the early years with what would eventually be Cold Blue Recordings. He studied composition with Barney Childs at the University of Redlands and played in the Redlands Improvisers’ Orchestra with Jim Fox, Rick Cox, Read Miller, Anne Noble, and Marty Walker in the mid-1970s. Kuhlamn’s early composition had a lovely West Coast jazz-based ‘pretty music’ sound. In 1979, Kuhlman moved to New York, where he and his bands played in clubs like CBGBs, Roulette, the Mud Club, and elsewhere. He also became ‘handyman to the stars’, fixing up lofts and apartments for Yoko Ono and other leading lights of the New York arts scene.

John Kuhlman is not well known because he died young (in 1996). The trombonist, and his former flatmate, Fred Parcells, has put up a web page dedicated to John Kuhlman’s memory, including some recordings of his performances in New York.

This is a fascinating ‘what if’ history of a very talented composer, and a great portrait of a good friend of those who knew him at the University of Redlands and those who knew him in New York.

John Cage in Italy, 1977

An interesting account of John Cage’s Empty Words performance at the Teatro Lirico in Milan in December 1977, sponsored by Cramps Records. The performance was billed as if Cage were a band or a rock star. Members of the audience who didn’t know him protested with loud spoken interruptions and slow hand claps. The documentary on this page (and on YouTube) follows the lead-up (tech rehearsal, vox pop interviews, press conference) to the show, which, if your Italian is very good, is absolutely fascinating. The English-language article, and translations of reviews, on this web page, are very useful. The last four minutes of the film, showing rare footage of Cage’s performance, is stunning.

Also see:

Throw-back to festivals

Thinking of the New Music Box article by Caitlin Schmid (, who asks for information about festivals, we came up with this. Facebook has a custom called ‘Throw-Back Thursdays’, or TBT. This is one that has just been digitized. We’re having some problem with images on the EMC Blog at the moment, so for details, see our Facebook Page: It’s on full public access, so you should be able to see it, but here’s the text, for those who can’t.

This is from Classic Masterworks of Experimental Music Festival, University of Redlands, October 1982, that I curated. The theme of the festival was ‘Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear’ (tag line to The Lone Ranger), as all the music played came from the 1950s and 1960s. The afternoon (in the chapel) was a Musicircus, including New York School, Fluxus, and Scratch Orchestra pieces; the evening, in Watchorn Recital Hall, was more formal, including Terry Riley, In C, Frederic Rzewski, Les Moutons de Panurge, and Cage, 4’33”, among others. These two pictures are from the afternoon. On the first one, Robert Clarida, wearing a flashy stage band uniform jacket with a large glittery red treble clef motif, performs Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker on a ladder, in honour of its performance at Black Mountain College in 1952 (where Cage stood on a ladder). Bob was scared of heights and the position of the ladder, on the edge of a stage, made it seem even higher. It was a very brave act. The second picture depicts the performance of George Brecht’s Piano Piece 1962 (the vase of flowers) and Incidental Music. In the link, you can see the first of Incidental Music’s five pieces in the picture (the seat is tilted and rested against the piano; wooden blocks are stacked until at least one block falls). The third piece from Incidental Music is the picture — or rather, the picture is the outcome of the third piece, which reads, ‘Photographing the piano situation’.

The Cox who Rowes in the West

I have been working on a project about Southern Californian music; specifically the composers who were associated with Cold Blue Recordings. Cold Blue was founded by Jim Fox. On of the first Cold Blue artists is the composer/guitarist/saxophonist Rick Cox, whose recent album with the film composer Thomas Newman (35 Whirlpools below sound) was one of our favourite new albums of the last fall.

Casting about for sources, I found this interview with Rick on the blog Guitar moderne, in which he explained much about his background and ways of working. Rick Cox is known for his guitar preparations: bulldog clips, and other objects that are attached to, or applied to the guitar strings and pickups. Those of you who are AMM fans will know Keith Rowe’s pioneering work in this area — putting his guitar down on a table and essentially ‘deconstructing’ it as a kind of string electronic instrument. Rick does something similar, only he applies it to the luxurious, languorous Los Angeles musical style. You can see his interview here: .

The Cold Blue site, where you can get the Newman/Cox recording and a host of other fantastic music, is here: . Upcoming albums include music by Peter Garland, Michael Byron, Daniel Lentz, and Jim Fox himself; recent releases include an album by John Luther Adams. If you like British experimental and minimal music, this LA stuff is definitely worth a look.

Fizzle archive and new show

Andy Woodhead sends the following:


Thanks to all who came down last week, it was lovely to see so many people out!

The recording is now up in the archive here:

(I’ve done excerpts of both sets and put them together in a little mash up because of various really boring reasons to do with Mixcloud’s upload policy)

Coming up on the 10th at the Lamp we have another absolute belter of a gig for you:

Bruce Coates – Saxes
John Edwards – Bass
Mark Sanders – Drums

Plus early set from

Richard Scott – Violin
Tapiwa Svosve – Shruti Box

Doors at 7, Early Set 7.15, Main Band 8pm.

£5 OTD

See you all there!

The Lamp Tavern, 157 Barford Street, Birmingham, West Midlands B5


Sound Out programme on Nature Study Notes

Perhaps, like the EMC, you were not able to get to the concert by the New Scratch Orchestra of excerpts from the Scratch Orchestra document, Nature Study Notes on Sunday, 22 February 2015. Well, here’s something to make up for it: the Resonance FM programme, Sound Out, from 20 February 2015, hosted by Carole Finer, which talks about the ways that the New Scratch Orchestra (or ‘Scratch Orchestra’, as it is called by some of the participants) approaches Improvisations Rites, the type of musical activity collected in Nature Study Notes. Hear it here: . It’s a rather revealing glimpse into what the new generation thinks of Improvisation Rites and ‘improvisation and a musical life’, as Cornelius Cardew called it. Bryn Harris and Carole Finer represent the original Scratch Orchestra. Worth listening.