In the aftermath of the "Me" Decade's market crash in the late '80s, collaboration and community seemed to be on everybody's mind as the art world scrambled to stay on its feet. Participation, site-specificity and institutional critique were the definitive terminology for art in the '90s. But if these concerns have fallen off the map in recent years, the Guggenheim's recent show "theanyspacewhatever," a retrospective of '90s artists theorized under the umbrella of Relational Aesthetics, seems to suggest a renewed interest in participation, or at least begs the question, "Where did the utopian impulse go?"
Is the art world tracing its steps back to a socially active, free love-wielding state? The Guggenheim's nod isn't the only sign. This winter, the first published book on English composer Cornelius Cardew appeared: Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, by John Tilbury (Copula Press). Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, founded in 1969, was a proto-fluxus happening, a proto-relational aesthetics social experiment. A Marxist orchestra made up of musicians, non-musicians and performance artists, the group is a definite precursor to the programmed discursive situations canonized by "theanyspacewhatever." Cardew was at the center of the experimental music scene in England throughout the '60s and '70s, but is perhaps better known for his extreme politics (he was the founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain) and polemical texts than his musical compositions. Just as artists in the '90s fought to bring the public sphere onto the floor of the "white cube," Cardew's experimental music and work with the Scratch Orchestra sought to open access to an even more obscure ivory tower: the classical symphony orchestra.
Since his mysterious death in a hit-and-run accident in 1981 (a rumored assassination), Cardew has basically dropped off the map. But if the new book by Tilbury, a pianist who may be to Cardew what David Tudor was to John Cage, and a smattering of upcoming concerts and lectures in New York are any sign, it looks like he's poised for a comeback.
Son of the well-known potter Michael Cardew, Cornelius left his bohemian childhood home for the Royal Academy of Music in London in the '50s, remaining there as a professor until his untimely death. The '50s were an idyllic time in the musical avant-garde, and giants like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez were still cheerfully convening at the Darmstadt festival school in Germany (they would later splinter off, Cage's American school distancing itself from the Serialist Europeans). Cardew immediately immersed himself in experimental music, which was notably absent in his native England. In 1958 he became Stockhausen's assistant, penning the score to the composer's mammoth Carr√©, an early experiment in graphic notation and precursor to Cardew's own notational experiments.
After an introduction to Cage, Cardew dropped his interests in Serialist music and embraced indeterminacy, investing himself in developing new systems of musical notation. Cardew's best-known work, Treatise, first appeared in 1963 while he was doubling as a graphic designer. Perhaps still the most ambitious example of graphic notation, the Treatise is made up of 193 pages of beautifully drafted abstract drawings. Each page is footed by two empty staves, with geometric renderings of intersecting circles, lines and familiar musical symbols floating over them. Reminiscent of Russian Constructivism, the pages can be played in any number or combination by any ensemble of instruments. No instructions are included, though in 1971, Cardew published the Treatise Handbook, which included notes on past performances as well as diary excerpts that evidence his thought process during the years-long composition of the work.
At the end of the '60s, the political motives that would epitomize the rest of Cardew's output became apparent. In 1968 the Scratch Orchestra was jointly conceived by Cardew and fellow composers Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons during a class on experimental music at London's Morely College. Founded on paper rather than in practice, the Orchestra began with the publication of the "Draft Constitution" in The Musical Times journal.
The Constitution laid out the Orchestra's motives and method: "Definition: A Scratch Orchestra is a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music-making, performance, edification)." Announcing the date of their prospective first concert, the Constitution served as an open call for new members--in the end the group was constituted by a combination of professional musicians, trained and untrained amateurs and artists, some with no musical experience at all.
The Constitution lays out five distinct practices, designating the operative structure of the group. The first of these is the ambiguously defined "Scratch Music," which requires each member to keep a "Scratchbook" wherein they pen a new indeterminate composition for the ensemble each week. Cardew writes, "The notation may be accomplished using any means--verbal, graphic, musical, collage, etc--and should be regarded as a period of training." Among other practices were "Popular Classics," whereby the orchestra attempts to play canonical works from memory; John Cage's Piano Concerto was included among the list of popular classics as a tongue-in-cheek assertion of their radicality.
The orchestra achieved notoriety in its time and remained in existence until 1974. They performed regularly in England, received government funding, aired broadcasts on the BBC and published a book of "Scratchbook" excerpts with MIT Press. But dissent between the "serious" musicians and Fluxus-inspired performance artists brought about irresolvable tensions. A controversial performance resulted in a smear campaign, with the press attempting to strip Cardew of his tenure and government grant money. Members started disrupting the group's own concerts, through interruptions and protests, arguing the orchestra's strict constitution was as oppressive as traditional orchestral hegemony. Discontent was addressed by the founding of the Scratch Ideological Group, a makeshift book club to study Marx, Lenin and Mao.
Though intended to unify the group's purpose, the Scratch Ideological Group may have been the final blow to the ensemble. Beginning as an experiment in improvisation techniques and the democratization of the symphony orchestra, the group's utopian spirit waned as Cardew's political commitments became more fervent, and he began to resemble a dictator more than the mouthpiece he began as.
SMASH THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
In its initial form, the Scratch Orchestra turned the classical ensemble into a think tank--a site to ask questions rather than deliver a distinct thesis (as in the traditional, closed musical work). But in the '70s, Cardew's position shifted and he attempted to use the Orchestra to advance a distinct political outlook--namely that of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
In 1974 Cardew published a small book titled Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, a sometimes nasty set of essays in which he renounces Stockhausen, Cage, his own past music and the whole of the avant-garde as complicit in bourgeois imperialism. Over the top, self-aggrandizing and often contradictory, the composer Geoffrey Barnard referred to the book as evidence of Cardew's "English middle-class guilt."
After his refusal of the avant-garde, Cardew's music took a turn away from the notational and ensemble experiments of his earlier career. Unlike his earlier political works like The Great Learning, which used Confucian texts to deliver political messages, Cardew strove for formal and aesthetic accessibility. His new works, like The Thallman Variations, were themes and variations for piano on worker's anthems and political songs. While he lampooned Cage and Stockhausen for being bourgeois, Cardew started producing music that sounded like something between a pastiche of Schumann and Boy Scout songs. Cage once commented, "I was always surprised that Cornelius didn't choose to make the sound of his music more popular than just 19th-century salon music." At the same time, Cardew founded a folk band called People's Liberation Music. Essentially the house band of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the group played anti-Nazi and pro-Irish pop songs at political rallies and protests.
The essay "John Cage: Ghost or Monster?" from Stockhausen Serves Imperialism cites the following quotation from Cage:
We lament what we call the gulf between artist and society, between artist and artist, and we praise the unanimity of opinion out of which arose a gothic cathedral, an opera by Mozart, a Balinese combination of music and dance...we say, [contemporary] music is interesting, but I don't understand it.
The statement belies the same nostalgia underpinning the recent public re-hashings of Cardew and Relational Aesthetics. In a landscape of Jeff Koons and Murakami--the Samsumg or Nike of art--and passive activism (Facebook causes, anyone?) it is no surprise if the hunt is out for the "new authenticity."
What is perhaps most compelling about Cardew is that his search for a progressive music never conflated newness with originality. His abstract musical notations put as much authorial control in the hands of the performers as his own, and the scratch orchestra depended on each member to write their own music and re-envision the ensemble in their own terms at every rehearsal. Emphasizing the individual as a site for action, Cardew attempted to structure the reading process of the artwork as an immediate generator of discourse. His insistence on being 'in the moment' was never a matter of being cutting edge, but of asking the public to just be there, as an active, thinking and playing participant.
Gon' ahead and shake ya tambourine and EVE ESSEX RISD'09.