Forty Years From Scratch
Broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM

May 2nd & 3rd, 2009

In June 1969 the draft constitution for the Scratch Orchestra was published in The Musical Times.  A month later the first meeting of the orchestra took place.  The concept for the orchestra was Cornelius Cardew’s and it arose as an extension of the improvisatory work that he’d been doing in AMM.  He had for some time been teaching an experimental music class at Morley College for which he’d written The Great Learning.  Needing a larger amount of people for this piece’s choirs of trained and untrained musicians he, along with Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons, put together the draft constitution and put out an open call for members.

In celebration of the forty year anniversary of the Scratch Orchestra, Carole Finer put together an entire weekend, thirty-six hours worth of interviews and music. The last major Scratch event was fifteen years ago for the twenty-fifth anniversary (pdf of the 25 Years from Scratch programme) which involved a whole day long concert but like so much of the Scratch was London centric. The impact of the Scratch extends far beyond the UK and this radio program, available worldwide on the Resonance internet stream brought this celebration to all.

36 hours of material is really too much to remember much less go over, so I’m just going to summarize each segment with extended details on some of the really striking material. If the post gets too long I’ll probably break it up into a couple of parts.  Basically you can summarize this program in three major categories: music, reminiscences, and legacy.  There currently is only about two hours of recorded material available from the Scratch which makes the vast amount of musical material broadcast in this program the most valuable aspect in my opinion. The individual experiences and anecdotes of the members is fascinating, though with the publication of John Tilbury’s exhaustive Cardew biography many of the best of the anecdotes are familiar.  Getting these direct from the sources without any editing or filtering certainly adds a lot though in both content and perspective.  Finally the aspects of the program that dealt with the the impact of the Scratch on the world beyond itself for musicians and beyond are fascinating.  Whether it is the current activities of the original members, members of the British musical community that were influenced by the Scratch or new students just beginning to learn about them the legacy of the Scratch is vast and underrated.

The program began Saturday 4am Seattle time and ran to 6 pm Sunday. I listened from 4am to midnight, slept for 8 hours or so and returned to it before 9am Sunday listening until its conclusion.  I recorded the entire stream using the excellent Audio Hijack program and have since the initial broadcast listened to the 8 hours I missed and re-listened to many of the various chunks. Overall I found the whole thing very charming, the members would be talking to each other and cutting off anecdotes as everyone knew about that, as if they weren’t on radio at all. The music displayed the whole range of the orchestra from inspired cacophony to clumsy political anthems.  Their setup, being that most of them were inexperienced radio presenters was quite well done; they had a collection of files that they referred to as the Scratch Jukebox that they would dip into when they finished interviews early, needed to set up for live performance and any sort of potential “dead air” situation.  Of course this lead to a number of tracks being played a multiple times and many (too many) of them weren’t ID-ed.  So scatted among 36 hours of recordings is tons of music, of varying interest and mystery.  Without listening again to every hour I can’t talk about all of them but I would like to try to catalog them at some point, perhaps in a latter post.

Saturday, May 2

12:00pm (GMT)

1) Forty Years from Scratch: Introduction

The program began with Carole Finer, giving a brief introduction to the Scratch, how the 36 hours was going to run and then played an excerpt of the first Scratch Concert, from Hamstead Town Hall the summer of 1969. This portion at least of the concert had an a similar feel as parts of The Crypt with an almost undifferentiated background roar overlaid with barking,  blasts from various brass instruments and innumerable percussive sounds. Pretty interesting in a way, lacking the focus of AMM but capturing a pretty overwhelming though fascinating soundworld.

The Scratch Orchestra Hampstead Town Hall concert (two excerpts, 1969)

This was followed by Virgina Anderson (who wrote a thesis on Cardew and the Scratch) gives an introduction to the Scratch. This seems to be from a  podcast that she is doing on British Experimental Music but I’m not sure if it is actually available.  Carole is then joined by Hugh Shrapnel who plays 4 piano pieces he wrote between 1970-1973 during the Scratch: a) Lullaby b) Le Shell for the Promenade Theatre Orchestra c) Aria from Sweet FA, b) Ursa Fling

There is more chatting and piano from Hugh and then Frank Abbot, who discovered the Scratch thanks to a friend into avant Jazz. After seeing them perform he joined the group. They played an 8 min piece of his that he spliced together from cell phone recordings he made with the visual artist Duncan Higgen. The segment concludes with  Carole playing the banjo: two pieces by Howard Skempton Banjo Piece for Carole from 1970 and another short one from 1972. and a recorded piece by Micheal Parson for Carole’s 70th Birthday (from a recording) and a reading from Tilbury’s Cardew bio.

2) Forty Years from Scratch: Keith Rowe

When the schedule for this was first announced I was rather surprised that what with all the key members they were talking with Keith Rowe wasn’t among them. So when the program was finalized I was pleased to see they had added Ed Baxter talking to Keith Rowe on the phone

He begins by asking Keith what he’d been doing when the Scratch was formed which was of course AMM which Keith described as the most important musical thing he’s done in his life. He described Scratch as an extension of the way that Cardew was dealing with notation. The orchestra as notation.  Did the Scratch Orchestra impact AMM Ed inquired: ” Not really.”  Cor was kind of moving on from AMM having “figured” them out and needed more challenges. Keith felt his role in the Scratch was as an orchestral member, he never wrote any pieces for it.

I found the section of the interview about the political transformation to be the most surprising.  How the Scratch and Cardew in particular became so politicized is a big part of Tilbury’s Cardew biography but Cardew’s transformation from being rather apolitical to a complete radical is still somewhat mysterious. But he does imply that Keith became totally transformed (though no explanation of how that happened) and that he was a major influence on Cardew and this was a big part of it.  I can’t help but wonder if the way this was presented in the bio influenced Keith’s thinking on this. In this interview he says:

“.. At the time it was uncomfortable but [we felt] necessary.  We were  ‘politically clumsy’,  not to say that  the content of what we were trying to do was wrong but the way we did it was really, really clumsy. … I guess it would have all been avoidable and I feel a great responsibility for its ultimate demise but maybe it would have demised anyway in one or two years but in a less spectacular fashion. Who knows?”…” Humanly clumsy; the way we dealt with people.” [emphasis mine]

They return to the music with Ed asking was was the best aspect of the SO for Keith to which he replied, the all-over nature of the Scratch ala abstract expressionism. The interview concludes with some discussion of Keith’s current activities which have been playing in the pit for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with Christian Wolff and Takahashi Kosugi. These sound as interesting as ever for the Merce Cunningham dance company – wish I could have seen some of these.

3) Forty Years from Scratch: Parsons in the Afternoon

This segment with Scratch Orchestra co-founder Michael Parsons begins with a section from the Scratch’s Pilgrimage to Scattered Points of the Body to the Brain, Inner Ear, Heart and Stomach from Queen Elizabeth Hall 1970.  This piece was a typical Scratch concert in that it involved a lot of disparate material being played simultaneously. A number of sections from this concert was played throughout the 36 hours and it seems to be one of the better recorded concerts they have.  A CD (or even better a DVD with some of the filmed material as well) release of this would be I think a valuable addition to the Scratch Body of work.

The Scratch Orchestra Pilgrimage to Scattered Points.. (excerpt, 1970)

After the above chunk of Scratch music Parsons then has a discussion with Seymour Wright,  Sebastian Lexar and John Lely, emphasizing the legacy of Scratch on later generations of British improvisers. John Lely is a British composer who studied with John Tilbury and Micheal Parsons and has played with Scratch stalwart John White.   Lely first encountered the Scratch in Micheal Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond and he said it was the Scratch scores in the book that immediately appealed to him. The accessibility and informality of the musical approach, that anyone could do it with any objects.   Wright and Lexar are both members of Eddie Prévost’s long running improvisation workshops and clearly have transmitted some of the ethics and methods of the Scratch to the younger generation.  Wright cites a direct oral tradition from form members citing Tilbury, Prévost, Rowe and Jackman in specific.  Lexar who took piano lessons from Tilbury said that Scratch stuff would occasionally crop up but that it was a lengthy process the transmission of the approach. Cardew’s notion that music is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality was stressed by Wright and Lexar.  Wright states that walking through London to the studio is no different then the performing that they’d be doing later on.

Parsons described how a number of the Scratch composers, including himself, Skempton, Hobbs etc went on to the LMC where their influence passed on to some degree. Then in the 90s he wrote a number of open pieces for Apartment House who are a group that certainly worked in the spirit of the experimental music of the 60s.  He played several of his piece’s as interpreted by Apartment House, first  Rythmic Canons which he wrote in 1998 for Apartment House followed by Sustained Sounds with Percussion. The first piece has a dynamic rhythmic feel rather like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and the second more or less sounded as the title indicated with a fairly spare feel. Later Parsons played a third piece of his performed by Apartment House that was of an indeterminate nature called Glissandi and Woodblocks.

“Inexperienced Improvisers tend to be playing for themselves. With experience one learns to listen and to respond and to leave space for other people.” – John Lely

There was a lot more in this segment, really one of the most interesting dealing with the ongoing legacy of the Scratch.  The importance of Eddie Prévosts workshop was stressed and there was a bit of discussion on how those ran.  The role of listening and responsibility of the player to work with the others was stressed. Also the moral element of the workshops. Lely: “Its a very serious occupation…Its partly to do with restraint and allowing other people to have space around them”.  At one point Wright asks Parsons about the ideas behind the genesis of the Scratch Parsons cites Cages Black Mountain College happening with Cunningham, Rauschenberg, Tudor et al.  The influence of Cage is cited over and over again among the 36 hours, from a live concert in London of the Cunningham Dance company with the Rauschenberg sets and Cage and Tudor performing that many of the members say, to Cardew’s closeness to the New York School and so on.  He traces the notions even further back to Man Ray and Duchamp, once again connecting the visual arts to experimental music.  Wright tries to insist on some sort of British experimental tradition but they had nothing to back this up.  After this there was some interesting discussion on notation and Wright pointed out how useful the material in the Scratch Book has been for him, filled with ideas and notations that he can put to use.

Quite a bit of music was played throughout this block, new recordings from this younger generation. An excerpt from Wright and Lexars excellent duo blasen, and several pieces from John Lely’s including aduo with Scratch stalwart John White, amusing entitled LelyWhite and his Parsons Code for Melodic Contours. The final piece in this block was an extract from Lely’s Mechanical Rite which was a kind of an sample based take on the Scratch’s improvisational rites. There was a lot in  this two hour block and I really only touched on it in this overly lengthy writeup but the primary notion is that the influences from the Scratch are legion amongst the current crop of British Improvisers and clearly the transmission continues. i found a lot in this segment highly interesting as of course I am quite involved in current trends in improvisation and it was really current improv that lead me back to Cardew and the Scratch in the first place.

4) Forty Years from Scratch: Independent Pulses
5) Forty Years from Scratch: Some M-Chanted Evening

While there were completely set programs for every hour of the 36 things got progressively looser and some things ended up not happening.  This block of programs covering four hours all kind of merged together.  There was more chat with Michael Parsons followed by a  live performance of his Independent Pulses.  There was a bit from the Scratch jukebox after this, Howard Skempton playing a couple of pieces on the accordion.  This was followed by Haydn Dickenson playing two Cardew piano pieces, Croppy Boy and Father Murphy, followed by short extract from an Eddie Prévost improvisation.

Cornelius Cardew Song of Pleasure from Schooltime Compositions
performed live in studio by Harry Gilonis, Psi Ellison, Derek Barker, Hugh Shrapnel and Frank Abbot

Next up was another in studio performance this time Cardew’s Song of Pleasure performed live in studio. There was some filler as then transitioned into Michal Chant including Pilgrimage 1 & 2 from Pilgrimage to Scattered Points of the Body to the Brain, Inner Ear. Heart and Stomach. and Laurie Bakers Circle Piece from 1970.

Laurie Baker Circle Piece (1970, performed by Scratch members)

It evolved into Micheal Chant first talking but mostly playing One Day in the Life of John Tilbury, a 24 hour piano piece that he wrote for John TIlbury’s 60th birthday.  This gets played on and off throughout this marathon broadcast. Its a nice rather minimalist type of piece with slow repeated phrases.  The first performance of the piece was actually over 24 hours by multiple performers for Carole Finer’s 70th birthday. This is a nice relaxing piece, that I could definitely see having on for hours in the background.

6) Forty Years From Scratch: Mao destroyed my Band

The Scratch Orchestra’s agent, Victor Schonfield, is interviewed by Ed Baxter.  Schonfield set up concerts as Music Now for many British musicians including AMM, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury, Christopher Hobbs, John White and the Scratch itself. As an agent Schonfield didn’t get rich didn’t even really make money at all.  He mainly worked to get gigs for those he represented but his main interest was to put on shows he wanted to see.  “It was a way to enable me to listen to as much music as possible”.  He was interestingly frank about the things he didn’t like; he wasn’t a fan of The Great Learning which he felt was the exact opposite of everything the Scratch Orchestra stood for. The best performance ever in his opinion was the Schooltime Compositions performance at the ICA pre-Scratch. What he loved about the Scratch it was the “One and only John Cage Big Band (or Orchestra)”.  He disliked how legalistic it was and he disliked the sub-groups that played straight music. He felt this was too choir boyish.

“I got driven out of supporting music by the Scratch Orchestra as much as anything”

On the politicization he was unimpressed as he had done actual political work for the Labour Party for years and felt that the Scratch’s sudden politicization was naive and ineffectual.  He once lectured the members of AMM in the mid sixties about their total indifference toward politics and the world outside of music.  He also describes Keith Rowe as being early and particularly politicized and stressed his closeness to Cardew. Most of the music though he felt wasn’t any help promoting the political ideas behind it. He described the political music of the Scratch as as “Fascist Sunday school hymns.  Sunday school hymns talking about the musicological aspect,  fascist in the sense of revealed authority, giving no scope for interpretation or ambivalence, ‘this is the message you’ve got to like it or lump it.’ ”  He thought almost all of the political material was rubbish though he gave the PLA some props.  He also quite liked Cardew’s piece ‘10,000 nails in the Coffin of Imperialism” which I have to say is a great score which would be great to hear live.  His final analysis was that you can do better work directly in politics and that political music never really does much good and thus he moved on to directly trying to move the Labour Party to the left in the mid 70s.

“They did lots of activities that you had to watch or there was nothing there.”

Schonfield’s analysis of the Scratch is actually some of the most astute in this whole program.  He connects much of the activities to Cage’s notion of combing music with other activities. Up to half of the actions going on in a Scratch performance maybe no sound Schoenfeld. Activities that don’t make any sound but are timed or scored. He gives the example of Cage’s Waterwalk but with forty or fifty people doing it all at once over wide area. The surprising things that would crop up in performance were Schoenfelds most treasured moments, inserting folk music into the piece,  or a short tenor sax obbligatos and short melodic phrases from Lou Gare or a small group spontaneously singing a fragment of a pop song.

Stay tuned for part two of my examination of this epic broadcast.