Performing Cardew’s “Great Learning” – Paragraph 5

This weekend I had the opportunity of playing Paragraph 5 of Cornelius Cardew’s “Great Learning” at the Bath International Music Festival with Syzygy/MASH ensemble (the New Music group based at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford) and members from The Oxford Improvisers, among others. This is a mad piece – but a great piece – in that it asks for real commitment from the players to their sounds and actions. (And, after 3 hours of this focus, going back to the real world somehow seemed a little strange). The score was a little daunting at first, being 14 large pages of material including notated music, instructions for gestures, philosophical texts, and more; but this was discussed within the group, as well as condensed down into a helpful performance score by one of MASH’s principle organisers/players. This Paragraph was performed simultaneously alongside the six others in different venues across Bath – with the audience passing between them

The work opens with ‘The Dumb Show’, a section consisting of a set of instructions around mimed gestures “taught” from performer to performer, and then explored individually. Next comes seven ‘Sentences’. Each starts with a wolf howl, then a reading of a philosophical passage, and a chant based on this passage. This is followed by seven structured improvised movements of music/performance based on written instructions. These are seven Sentences are entitled:

  1. Crash Bang Clank Music
  2. Loud and Soft Laughter Music
  3. Mountain Top Music
  4. Silent Music
  5. Beautiful Sound Music
  6. Bowed Sound
  7. Plink & Tube Train Stopped Between Stations [two movements which happen at the same time]

Whilst this is happening, dancers explore other material, as well as a small group of instrumentalists and singers who play ‘Machine Odes’ consisting of notated music. All the music until this point section normally takes an hour – we took around 1 hour and 35 minutes. (We decided to really give the music space to breath – and, anyway, we had the space for three hours.)

Instructions for the music of the “Mountain Top Music” sentence

The second half of the piece starts with a “temporal point of rest” – of quiet reflection and mental preparation for the “Improvisation Rite” which follows it. Before beginning of the improvisation, the “Firelighting Component” was considered by the players – an inspirational passage taken ‘from the book of Kwang-Sze, XIV. 3’. Both parts of the Paragraph and the rest altogether totalled about 2 hours 55 minutes in our performance.

This music was great to play, as the point of it was not only its sonic outcome but the process of getting performers listen and support one-another (something of great importance in all improvised music, but here this was something really brought to the fore). Instead of focusing in on your own ‘task’ – getting your part right – the job of the player (in my opinion) was to play only in their supplementing something already there, or in facilitating changes through articulating a reaction to something already present in the material being explored by the other players; a completely different relationship with the other players (and with the audience) than in the performance of much other music. This meant that it was entirely appropriate to sit back and consider the music, to think, “Does this need adding to or is it self-sufficient already? (so that I will just let it be)”.

We were playing at Burdall’s Yard. This venue – with its various spaces, stage, bar, and corridors – gave to us the chance to investigate these improvising/improvised relationships spatially as well as sonically. We could move from room to room, interacting with other players, dancers, and audiences. This worked well for the first part of the composition too; the Machine Odes could be performed in a room adjacent to the Sentences, remaining audible but of transforming significance to shifting audience members, depending on how they had chosen to situate themselves within the venue. These things, along with all those intangibles around the performance of exploratory music like this, I thought really helped to communicate the performance, as well as making it a gratifying experience for all the music’s players.


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