“Every Noise Has A Note”: New Music and Leftist Radicalism

Photo: AMM, Langtry Road, 1968. Photo by Frazer Pearce (Wire).
Translated by Anthony Fernandez

I.

In the 1960s and 1970s, New Music underwent a political radicalization analogous to its process of musical radicalization. It was a leftist radicalization, owing much to the times, without being completely absorbed in them. The concern of composers in that moment was serious.

Young composers, colleagues or students of Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage in the 1950s, developed—partially in open dissociation from one another—models of music, or, more exactly, music making, which broached social themes, and which conceptualized sound as an expression of the social. It was a matter of Totality: they abandoned the concept of the composer in favor of collective, folk, improvisational, and non-musical methods of working. Which means nothing less than that they attempted their own self-negation and abolition.

Groups like the Scratch Orchestra and AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva, Gruppo die Improvisazzione Nuova Consonanza, and composers and meta-musicians such as Frederic Rzewski, Eddie Prévost, Keith Rowe, Cornelius Cardew, Franco Evangelisti, Christian Wolff, and Takehisa Kosugi reflected in their musical praxis the point of interaction between composition as an aesthetic expression of critique and utopia and the social, the direct societal field of class struggle. The precariousness of this interaction consisted of the fact that, in its ultimate ramifications, the musical should be absorbed by the social, which was no longer seen as something separate.

Compositional praxis, musical praxis period, should abolish and transcend [aufheben] itself. The premises that determined what one understood as composition or performance should be thwarted to the point where it would be possible to understand a musical praxis as genuinely social.

“Every noise has a note,” the statement of AMM-percussionist Eddie Prévost, something between a demand and an observation, expresses this: that noise, which in the sense of the educated, polite bourgeoisie is non-musical, has a regularity underlying it and thus like music can be traced back to a creative ordering principle, which implies a mediation between “noise” and “music,” between noise and note. The activation/generation and derivation of a noise are determined by social praxis. Environmental noises are not to be considered as separate from the social actors moving within this environment.

A consequence of this is the transcendence of the separation between performer (composer/musician) and listener. Looking back in retrospect at this period in the 1960s, when AMM first surfaced with this demand, Prévost writes: “It is a tribute to our early supportive audiences that they could respond to our work and reinforce the validity of our activity; these were immensely valuable responses given the newness and uncertainties which accompanied the music.”[1]

However, in the moment where the social and the conceptions of the composer are shown to be disinterested and the working class is not inspired to undertake the final conflict by the deconstruction of the classical concert situation, in the moment where the jump into reality remains absent and the separation between avant-garde and audience is confirmed and reproduced ad infinitum, the concept of the “composer,” which should have been transcended, becomes reified.

The very thing that this generation of composers opposed—for example, that Stockhausen’s once revolutionary technique had fossilized into an invocation of god and proved to be well-suited for a domination-affirming de-subjectivization in music and the cult of the genius in the culture industry—repeated itself in the instant when the grounding of a postulated unification of musical theory and social praxis failed.

As the aforementioned composers returned to a classical form of composing and the larger groups dissolved themselves or, like AMM, hibernated in an almost mythically idealized method of production, the movement disappeared, and with it, the overall idea of the collective. Herein lays the reason why this part of the history of the New Left—particularly in the New Left’s own consciousness itself—is completely lost.

Concomitant with this, the protagonists of this movement, who in the meantime became established composers, have engaged in a critical settling of accounts with their past (without making the “long march through the institutions” with the rest of the 1968 generation) without, however, broaching the issue in such a way as to make it communicable with regard to current debates.

II.

“Does group direction, or authority, depend on the strength of a leading personality, whose rise or fall is reflected in the projected image, or does the collation of a set of minds mean the development of another authority independent of all members but consisting of all of them?”

AMMMusic liner notes

As familiar as the implied egalitarian attitude might seem today, having been established through Free Jazz or politicized pop groups—collective methods of working were not originally on the agenda for the New Music of the 1950s.

In Europe, the highest priority was the composition of music organized on a sufficiently rational basis. This praxis took up the tradition of Schönberg, whose twelve-tone music ordered tonal pitches in rows, that is, rationally. Schönberg’s post-war followers, the Serialists, went one step further: all tonal dimensions, such as duration, volume, and timbre, were to be ordered in rows, with the intent of creating an “integral work of art.”

One early critic who recognized the streak of delusional fetishism and barely concealed affirmation of dominance in this pretense was Adorno: “With curiously infantile faith, the material is invested with the potential to create musical meaning of its own accord. Astrological trickery asserts itself as the relations of intervals according to which the twelve tones are ordered are cheerlessly worshiped as cosmic formulas. The self-constructed law of rows thus becomes a veritable fetish.”[2]

As if to confirm this, Stockhausen blustered about “tuning in to the cosmic whole.” The publishing organ of the Stockhausen circle, Die Reihe (sic!), celebrated the dehumanization and de-subjectification of music in favor of a cosmic order: “In fact, such music has a cosmic character. Lost in reverie, galactic distances removed from the subjective sphere of emotion; in the alienating, new, in many ways terrifying forms of this music, forms arise which are not merely superhuman, but extra-terrestrial.”[3]

In principle, the role of the composer is thus devalued. The composer merely executes the logic of an external principle. However, at the same time, the composer can still celebrate his own genius, which has been endowed by the cosmic order, to which Adorno responds: “An order which proclaims itself is nothing but a cover-up for chaos.”[4]

Thus, the attempt that began with Schönberg as a planned, rational structuring of musical material and an order no longer subject to the whims of nature, and which in the ideal situation represented a method of working not based upon the repressive, mediating logic of valorization consummated the dialectic of enlightenment. Order degenerated into a second nature. “Having thus barely escaped “total” domination (National Socialism [F.K.[5]]), the younger generation submitted to the total imperative of the ‘integral work of art.’”[6]

On the other hand, the libertarian variants of the American avant-garde, the works of the New York School centered around John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff, also did not aim for the liberation of the interpreter, nor for improvisation. However, instead of embarking as God’s prophet on a Serialist ascension to heaven, in these compositions the composer bid farewell in a more sublime and ironic manner.

The New Yorkers developed models of indeterminacy whose guiding principle, for all intents and purposes, was the question of how controlling fanaticism and the intention to domination over musical material could be transcended. They attempted aleatoric procedures based upon principles of chance, which limited the influence of the composer to the setting of a framework and initial conditions. Cage’s most famous piece, “4:33’,” which specifies the non-playing of instruments for this period of time, means nothing other than this: that in the moment, when no musical activity emanates from the musicians, noises, coughs in the audiences, noise from the street, and the creaking of chairs attain a level of meaning that was previously repressed or ignored.

Another compositional principle consisted of the working out of graphic notation, which suspended the intended tonal control parameters of classical notation in order to leave a greater freedom of space for interpretation. Alexander Calder’s mobiles were an important source of inspiration in this context.

This withdrawal of the concept of the composer nonetheless raised a question which was not originally considered by Cage or Feldman: that of the freedom of the interpreter. The disappearance of the composer in no way meant the exaltation of the performer—improvisation was strictly prohibited. The music itself was not to be understood as a social experiment.[7]

Nonetheless, the New York School had “created” a vacuum. Whereas this vacuum would remain unoccupied in Cage’s further activity, in the sense of a winking Zen Buddhism, the occupation of this vacuum seemed obvious from the perspective of the other side, that of the actors (interpreters, musicians, audience). That is, an understanding of environmental sound not only as an immanent broadening of the concept of music but predominantly as something created by humans.

It was already evident in the overcoming of Serialism through Indeterminacy, whose activist component was the early Fluxus movement at the beginning of the 1960s, that this was not an exclusively musical process.

The concerts and actions that took place from 1960-1962 in the atelier of Cologne artist Mary Bauermeister, and which also established the Fluxus movement in Germany, were Happenings, which were loaded with a subversive intent: “There was a clear trend which predominantly determined the selection of repertoire and hardly admitted the works of the Cologne school (the circle around Stockhausen [F.K.]) although the atelier series was closely connected with its composers. It was pieces such as Cage’s ‘Cartridge Music’ and ‘Water Music,’ Busotti’s ‘Pearson Piece,’ and Paik’s action pieces, which stood at the spiritual center of the series—pure live works, which were to be experienced with all of one’s senses, and of an inescapable presence. The specifically un-American aspect of the atelier concerts was the integration of the Cage circle’s ideas with massively socially critical, dialectically, and ideologically flanked European thought, specifically that of the Cologne avant-garde (meaning the authors and critics Hans G. Helms and Klaus-Heinz Metzger [F.K.]). Cage’s Zen-influenced, Confuscianist works were misinterpreted as socially critical, or laden with a new framework of ideas.”[8]

Be that as it may, the enthusiasm for Indeterminacy was met with an increasing ideology-critical sense of discontent with one’s own musical socialization by former Stockhausen adepts such as Cornelius Cardew and Franco Evangelisti.

III.

Decisive triggers for the final breakthrough of collectivism were the developments taking place in Jazz, which by the mid-1960s at the latest had aggregated into Free Jazz.

Up to that point, Jazz and New Music had existed in mutual exclusivity. It is true that there were efforts made within “Third Stream Jazz” to connect to the formal language of twelve-tone music, but this fusion proved to be hardly productive—despite all the elegant music that came out of it. The mediation seemed too superficial, the alternation between the music of Schönberg and Thelonious Monk too indecisive. From the side of the composers, one spoke only disparagingly of Jazz, if at all. Cage and Feldman rejected improvisational attitudes. When the Fluxus movement protested against Stockhausen’s 1964 New York visit—“The first cultural task is to publicly expose and FIGHT the domination of white, European-US ruling class art! (…) Stockhausen, patrician ‘Theorist’ of white supremacy: go to hell!”—the actions had also been motivated by Stockhausen’s discriminatory comments about Jazz (the authenticity of which however, has not yet been sufficiently proven).

With Free Jazz, improvised music entered a phase that left behind the classical Blues and song schemas as foundations for improvisation. No longer bound by fixed harmonic-melodic material, and dissolving 4/4 time into a multi-directional pulse, the Free Jazzers won their own entry into noise as an integrated part of playing. This act of production was practiced and thought of as a decisively group process—music-making as a social act was already realized. Free Jazz (re-)introduced collective improvisation into Jazz.

In 1965, Cardew, 29 years old and, after a few years as an assistant to Stockhausen, now a teacher himself, looked for a young, open-minded Jazz combo that was ready and willing to realize his masterpiece, “Treatise,” an extensive, openly-structured graphic composition which emphasized the role of the performer. One could no longer speak of mere “interpretation.” More important for Cardew than the question of what the performers would play was that of how they communicated with each other and how they could collectively realize the graphically set element. As opposed to his teacher, Cardew was not concerned with the sacredness of sound but rather with the difficult construction of an egalitarian form of social cooperation. In the 1960s, he could only imagine this within the medium of advanced sonic research.[9]

Cardew found his Jazz performers in the group AMM, in which, for example, the Pop-Art painter and guitarist Keith Rowe had decided to stop tuning his guitar and began to conceive of it as an entirely new instrument, laid out on a table and mauled by steel springs, files, rubber balls, or contact microphones. Among the curiosities of this period was that AMM had the same management as and played concerts with Pink Floyd and was able to release their first record on a major label.

Cardew was so swept away by his encounters with the group, for whom reflections about the meaning of music were just as important as playing it, that he became a member and an adherent of improvisational praxis. At the end of the 1960s he wrote an ethics of improvisation. Counted among the seven virtues that a musician could develop were simplicity, integrity, selflessness, tolerance, preparedness, identification with nature, and acceptance of death (Cardew was a Buddhist and would later become a Maoist).[10]

AMM’s improvisations during this period were a harsh, inexorable racket: the intent was to prohibit the ability to determine which instrument was the source of a particular sound. The group performed as a group—even if they emphasized the importance of individual voices in the process of sound generation, they played no role in the larger picture. The group performed in darkened spaces, the concerts lasted a number of hours and incorporated long periods of silence.

Cardew was not an individual case: Frederick Rzewski, like Cardew, a virtuoso pianist and one-time prodigy, founded Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) with dissident colleagues Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. Here, as well, the broadening of the concept of music to include noise crossed-over with improvisation.

Franco Evangelisti stopped composing altogether and called into life the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Ennio Morricone was present, along with Rzewski. The group Ongaku and later the Taj Mahal Travelers operated in Japan, with the violinist Takehisa Kosugi, an important Cage interpreter and Fluxus activist, playing in both groups.

The differences between the various groups consisted in their way of dealing with the concept of the “work.” Whereas AMM took a principally anti-institutional attitude and accused the other groups of belonging to the establishment, Nuova Consonanza rejected this as out-of-bounds: the music remained a composition, even if it was developed in an impromptu manner in which all musicians participated with equality. MEV, on the other hand, mutated into a nomadic commune and integrated their everyday identity into the group and its performances, in which the audience was a participant.

Frederick Rzewski would soon detach himself from the practice of direct improvisation and begin to write political works. The pieces “Coming Together” and “Attica” (both from 1971) had as their thematic material the massacre committed by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and New York State Police against the inmate uprising at the Attica prison complex. Along with recited letters from the prisoners, Rzewski develops a dense but nonetheless catchy tonal sound surface. The compositions have agitation as their intent, without completely dispensing with the experience of improvisation: the works are realized by Jazz performers and contain extensive improvisational passages. Rzewski’s most well-known composition is his thirty-six variations on the revolutionary Chilean song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1978). This is a work that demands a high level of virtuosity from the performer because Rzewski designed the variations as more and more complicated and elevated permutations of the original folk music material in homage to the creativity of the masses.

IV.

On July 1st, 1969, the Scratch Orchestra was founded. It was initiated at the suggestion of Cornelius Cardew and a number of other composers and students of Cardew’s. The list of composers, who count today among England’s most prominent, is still impressive: Michael Nyman, John White, Gavin Bryars, Michael Parsons, Howard Skempton or Brian Eno. What was decisive, however, was that the group was oriented explicitly toward non-musicians.[11] In the Orchestra’s constitution—it was actually called that—among other things the following is written:

A Scratch Orchestra is a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music-making, performance, edification).

Note: The word music and its derivatives are here not understood to refer exclusively to sound and related phenomena (hearing, etc.). What they do refer to is flexible and depends entirely on the members of the Scratch Orchestra.

[…]

Popular Classics

Only such works as are familiar to several members are eligible for this category. Particles of the selected works will be gathered in Appendix 1. A particle could be: a page of score, a page or more of the part for one instrument or voice, a page of an arrangement, a thematic analysis, a gramophone record, etc. The technique of performance is as follows: a qualified member plays the given particle, while the remaining players join in as best they can, playing along, contributing whatever thev can recall of the work in question, filling the gaps of memory with improvised variational material.[12]

At the inaugural meeting in Autumn of 1968, seventy musicians and activists met. Cardew solved the problem of a democratic organization of such a large heterogeneous group by giving everyone present a date on which he or she could perform a concert according to their own criteria. In its first year of existence, the orchestra played over fifty concerts. No other group dealt so seriously in a consistent manner with all of the implications that the young composers had deduced from their experiences with Fluxus, Free Jazz, and Hippie-Marxism.

Roger Sutherland, who came into the group as a non-musician and is active today in the noise-improvisation group Morphogenesis, describes the performance of one of many scores:

The score was called “Anima Two” and simply instructed: “Carry out every action as slowly as possible.” Everyone in the Orchestra could realize that however they liked. One sat at the organ and played a single chord from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor. He held the chord for the entire duration of the performance, as if it would last forever. I interpreted the score by going from one end of the stage to another, in unbelievably slow motion. I had practiced that for weeks. One could hardly see that I was moving. (…) Cornelius Cardew sat there like a statue with his cello case, and he began to open the case very slowly. He took two hours to do that. Those were all very quiet activities. The only thing one could hear continuously was the static organ chord. There were also a few other sounds, but the main effect was that fifty people carried out unbelievably slow actions, so that the impression arose that time had somehow been abolished.[13]

These days, one is touched by the energy and enthusiasm with which such a large group was together able to realize concepts that were just as obvious as they were completely unworldly. How did they find the time and money?

The members probably did not waste a single thought on the notion that such concepts at some point would congeal into methods. The group broke up a few years later, but not because the composers wanted to impose their educated bourgeois claims against the non-musicians. Looking back, Roger Sutherland comments upon the creeping disintegration:

What happened was rather unexpected. Around 1971, Cornelius Cardew and a few others, particularly Keith Rowe and (the pianist [F.K.]) John Tilbury began bringing ideological and political texts and reading them aloud for hours on end. We all didn’t like that. That alienated the people who weren’t interested in politics. Cardew was about to convert to a sort of Chinese socialism. He thought that the most important tasks were political revolution and socialism. If musicians wouldn’t subordinate themselves to that, then they were counter-revolutionaries. That was rather primitive logic. Music, regardless by whom, whether by Cage, Stockhausen, or Cardew himself, that didn’t express a socialist ideology, and very emphatically, and which furthermore was capable of convincing people about socialism, he considered reactionary, negative, and so on and had to be rejected. And Cardew did the unbelievable thing of rejecting all of his previous work. He began writing songs and piano pieces that were transcriptions of Irish or Chinese revolutionary songs. With regard to harmony and rhythm, they were very simply constructed. The discussions about the function of music, whether music was political or not, split the orchestra. What happened, for example, was that we were now supposed to suddenly learn how to play instruments conventionally. There were even classes where one received instruction in rhythm or playing violin. I didn’t join the Scratch Orchestra for that. I wanted to experiment with sound, not play conventional music. I could have done that somewhere else.[14]

In 1974, the activity of the Scratch Orchestra petered out for good.

AMM also split. The quartet actually managed to disintegrate into an anarchist wing with Eddie Prévost and the saxophonist Lou Gare, and a Maoist one consisting of Rowe and Cardew. They still went on a tour of Europe together in 1973 but performed separately. Rowe and Cardew played noisy improvisations to songs and news broadcasts from Radio Tirana (!), which were supposed to reflect the alienation of the proletariat in everyday factory life. This was a bittersweet example of the decline of both the protest movement and the at one time so advanced musical praxis. Only in the late 1970s did AMM form as a united group once again.

Back to the Scratch Orchestra: the process of democratization was supposed to lead to the construction of a musical cadre party. That failed. Cardew, who in a dramatic essay accused his teacher Stockhausen of imperialism and was not above castigating himself for his earlier enthusiasm for Cage, also drew practical consequences. As a member of a British New Communist group, he provided musical accompaniment at demonstrations, agitated on picket lines, etc. When he became composer in residence of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin in 1973, he distributed leaflets against the Künstlerhaus and advocated instead for establishing a children’s polyclinic in its place.

In 1981, Cardew was fatally wounded in a traffic accident that was never solved. From the middle of the 1970s on, he played individual “secret concerts” with AMM, unannounced concerts under fake names. Cardew had, according to Keith Rowe, never given up his passion for the avant-garde

No recordings of the Scratch Orchestra are available today.[15]

V.

The politicization of new music failed due to its own radical standards. The social question took such a central place within the musical activity that the absence of the supposed logical consequence (revolution) robbed the music of its foundation. It became obsolete, entangled in ludicrous battles (Scratch Orchestra, AMM), or became kitschy (not dissimilar to current, silly Stockhausen performances).

What remains is the high level of engagement with the material. Precisely in the ruthless thematization and incorporation of the social field, which did not occur at the expense of the music,[16] there could be a path that leads beyond the dichotomy of music as social effect vs. music as technique. There’s a difference between understanding music in a truncated way as derived from concrete social circumstances or, as those composers did (of course failing to recognize their own privileged backgrounds) as a genuine social praxis.

It’s just as interesting to observe how the composers and musicians have engaged with their own survival. As a consequence of failure, AMM (namely Eddie Prévost) has conceived a “meta-music” intended to make getting through the winter possible.[17]

Every utterance, rustle and nuance is pregnant with meaning. To make a meta-music is to hypothesize, to test every sound. To let a sound escape unnoticed before coming to know what it represents or can do is carelessness. Each aural emission can be unlocked to show its origins and intentions. […] If humanization is our ultimate goal, “art for art’s sake” can only be justified as a tactical withdrawal. No sound is innocent—musicians are therefore guilty if they collude with any degeneration or demoralization of music.[18]

Just as before, the point is to decode sounds as social events and thus integrate them consciously into a social nexus. This consists, however, in the music-making collective itself—for lack of a real correspondence. “Meta-music” is music that reflects upon its own concrete conditions of emergence, through itself as a medium. A perpetuum mobile. “The reason for playing is to find out what I want to play.”[19] Any form of fixed pre-determination is forbidden: “Organizing sound limits it potential.” The music can only be realized as a spontaneous, common effort.

The concept of the social is only expressed through music—regardless of how emphatically AMM stresses this linkage, it no longer manages to become an expression that constitutes community, which is just the logical conclusion of the 1960s. Back then, improvisation, as an idea and as praxis, was taken as surface for the projection of universal utopias. The egalitarian collective of players anticipates an egalitarian society. Eddie Prévost probably wouldn’t assert anything else, ultimately; however, his own praxis is wiser, because it is the constant critical interrogation of one’s own activity, and thus it works out a set of rules that can only be applied to one’s own music.

As a listener, one can deduce what one wishes from that. These days, AMM, who no longer play as loud as they used to, but are just as breathtakingly lost in reverie, are celebrated as pioneers of industrial and ambient music, and there’s no trace of their former Maoism.

All deductions are one thing; the music is another. As improvised music, it remains fleeting, in principle unpredictable, without giving up its obligation to the movement in which it’s played and—beyond this—to the collective.

Thus, the subversive potential in the music has withdrawn into a theory that, because it is identical with its praxis, is hard to decode, utterly ensnared in its own decades-spanning history. As I said, very little remains for practical application.

But in contrast to thirty years ago, AMM would welcome this state of affairs.


[1] From the liner notes to the first AMM LP, AMMMusic, issued in 1966 and still available as a CD (Recommended Recordings). Prévost continues: “An AMM performance has no beginning or ending. Sounds outside the performance are distinguished from it only by individual sensibility.” AMMMusic is such a statement: the group does not play improvised music, or New Music (thus fulfilling no genre criteria), but rather music that develops the criteria for its own verifiability and transparency from within itself.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der Neuen Musik, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, 1958 (107).

[3] Quoted in Gottfried Eberle, “Neue Musik in Westdeutschland nach 1945” in Heister, Hanns-Werner and Dietrich Stern: Musik der 50er Jahren, Argument-Sonderband AS 42, Hamburg 1980 (47). Hanns Eisler also formulated a trenchant critique, writing, with regard to Stockhausen’s composition “Gesang der Jünglinge” (1953): “Stockhausen for example has created an electronic—or whatever you call it—piece of music over many years, after the section of the Bible, “Three Men in a Furnace.” In Luther’s translation, this Bible passage is a delightful piece linguistically, a report of prehistoric resistance. What does Stockhausen turn it into? The text is made intentionally inscrutable through manipulation of the tape, and thus the actual social meaning of this Bible passage is swept away. What remains is: ‘Great God, we praise you.’ It’s as if the musical squad of the ‘Königin Luise’ club were brought into the next village church by means of rocket aircraft” (quoted in Heister and Stern 78)

[4] Adorno, Philosophie der Neuen Musik 6

[5] [In various quotes used in the original German version of this text, Klopotek inserted brief parenthetical comments. These are denoted in the present translation by his initials in square brackets: [F.K.]—Tr.]

[6] Eberle, “Neue Musik in Westdeutschland nach 1945.”

[7] However, in this tradition there are also unmistakable, but very intricately rendered political statements. “King of Denmark,” a composition by Feldman from 1964 for solo percussion, demands extreme sensitivity towards the instrument on the part of the performer. The performer is not allowed to use mallets and can only work with his or her hands, arms, etc. This very quiet piece of music (standing in demonstrative contrast to rather loud percussion music) is an homage to the Danish king Christian X., under whose rule the Jewish population of Denmark was saved from the Wehrmacht by being evacuated to Sweden, and who publicly wore a yellow star as a sign of solidarity.

[8] Robert von Zahn, “Refüsierte Klänge. Musik im Atelier Bauermeister,” in Das Atelier Mary Bauermeister in Köln 1960-1962 (117). This volume provides a rather complete picture of the primordial soup of the cultural Left, which includes everyone from Adorno to Cardew, Bauermeister herself, Stockhausen, Jam June Paik, LaMonte Young, Klaus-Heinz Metzger, and Hans G. Helms.

[9] A performance claiming to be complete can be found on Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise album.

[10] Peter Niklas Wilson Hear and Now: Gedanken zur improvisierten Musik, Wolke Verlag: Hofheim, 1999 (11).

[11] The American composer Christian Wolff—son of the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff, who emigrated with his family to the USA in the 1930s, where Christian, having just turned 16, met John Cage and joined his “school”—began to compose for non-musicians. The score of Stones (1968) consists exclusively of a poem, which in a few lines provides instructions on how sounds can be created with stones: “Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, / using a number of sizes (and colours); / for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid / sequences. For the most part striking stones with / stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside / the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than / struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not / break anything.” (From Prose Collection 1968-74). Interestingly enough, at the same time Cardew was also working on a piece, The Great Learning, that also contained (improvisational) passages played exclusively with stones. Concerning Wolff’s series of compositions Excercises, the performer Eberhard Blum writes: “For the performers, the point of orientation is the act of playing in unison, but they are free to decide about tempo, dynamics, articulation, the manner of playing, and the length of pauses, as well as, at any time, whether or not they want to play, i.e., about instrumentation. All of that is decided in the course of the performance, meaning that all of these aspects of the performance are improvised, other than the fact that playing in unison, regardless of how far it might be, is always a point of orientation to which a player must return when straying too far. In other words: every performer is free to the extent that he or she succeeds in time in acquiring the agreement of others for his or her own special manner of performance.” (liner notes to: Excercises 1973-1975, hat ART CD) In his work, Wolff contrasts “parliamentary participation,” which allows interpreters to be free in shaping the reduced compositional instructions, to the “monarchical authority” of the composer, which he wants to see abolished.

[12] Cornelius Cardew, “A Scratch Orchestra: Draft Constitution,” The Musical Times 110:1516, 125th Anniversary Issue (Jun. 1969): 617-619

[13] Quoted in Hanno Ehrler: Radikale Demokratie: Das Londoner Scratch-Orchestra in Musiktexte 75 (August 1998): 52.

[14]Quoted in Ehrler, p. 57

[15]At least, no authorized ones. An unwritten Scratch law states that issuing a record requires the approval of all living members of the group. That will never be the case—that’s at least one point on which the still-divided Scratchers agree (even disregarding the aesthetic implications of issuing a record—what does it mean to choose one concert, and not another, from the mass of recorded material—there are also legal issues: who gets the royalties? Ultimately, the works of the Scratch Orchestra and its composers are regarded by the (copyright) collecting societies as classical music, and the respective royalty payments to individuals—group and collective compositions hardly count at all—might be correspondingly high. Nonetheless, in the year 2000 the California label Organ of Corti issued the CD Cornelius Cardew/The Scratch Orchestra: The Great Learning. It was a reissue of an album that was released in 1971 on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon. The Great Learning, a reference to the classical Confucian canon, is a vocal work consisting of seven paragraphs. In each paragraph, a section of the Confucian canon is declared. The composition, which Cardew worked on between 1968 and 1970—three paragraphs were finished before the group was founded, so they cannot be identified with the praxis of the Scratch Orchestra, even if he dedicated them to the group—is regarded, along with Treatise, as Cardew’s masterpiece. However, The Great Learning is not exemplary of the work of the Scratch Orchestra. In that sense, the reissue, supplemented by a performance of the first paragraph from the year 1982, is more of a Cardew CD than a Scratch one.

[16] Even in cases where the music retreated into the background, as with Cardew, it was a radical step. He did not water down his avant-garde compositions with tonal elements but rather devoted himself completely to simple workers’ songs.

[17] Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention, Meta-musical narratives, Essays. Essex: Copula, 1995. If one is not further disturbed by its pathos, this book can be recommended as an introduction full of rich material

[18] Ibid., 33f. Prévost has adopted this moralism from Cardew.

[19] From the liner notes to AMMMusic

Felix Klopotek Written by:

Felix Klopotek (1974) lives and works in Cologne. Since 1999 he’s been the editor of the Kölner Stadtrevue, recorded numerous radio features for WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), and written for Spex, Jungle World, and Konkret. This essay is taken from the book "How They Do It: Free Jazz, Improvisation, und Niemandsmusik". His book "Rätekommunismus" (Council Communism) is forthcoming in 2017 as part of Schmetterling Verlag’s theorie.org series