Notes on Musical Notation: the Scratch Orchestra at 50

In connection with its current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, The British Library organized a modest commemoratory event called The Scratch Orchestra at 50.  The Orchestra was a group at its most active briefly around 1969-1972, largely under the direction of Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981).  It performed experimental music.  In historical accounts, it is usually grouped with Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Morton Feldman.  The evening began with an orientational presentation – names and dates and ideas and quite a bit about scores, which were in some sense at the heart of the matter, the link with the exhibition (the Library has a number of the Scratch Orchestra’s scores in its collection). Cardew was resisting many aspects of traditional classical music, not least of which was the adherence to the conventional system of musical notation, with staves and clefs and measures.  

After the opening talk, three former members of the Orchestra chatted on stage, two of them “founding” members and one an art student with no direct connection to music who liked to sing and joined out of curiosity.  Max Reinhardt (Radio 3, Late Junction) acted as moderator and host.  There was a curious tension in the group – a little between the two founding members, and a little with people in the audience, some of whom had also been participants.  The matter of Cardew’s death – in a hit-and-run car accident – came up: the driver has never been identified, and rumour has it that he may have been murdered for his political activism – he was a committed Communist.  There was a difference voices with respect to whether Cardew’s musical innovation had been motivated by disappointment with his own reception comparatively convention contexts; there was absolute unity regarding his talent and skill as a musician.  

A number of people emphasized that the “scores” of the Scratch Orchestra represented records of, rather than instructions for a performance – that the performance came first, and the score later.  As if  to stay in keeping with the general determination to leave many things indeterminate, at least one other person argued that any score/record could also be understood as a stimulus to perform the piece again. 

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