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Scratch Orchestra activation: Nature Study Notes group
May 3, 2015 @ 4:00 pm - 7:00 pm BST
As an initial activation of the Scratch Orchestra materials donated by Stefan Szczelkun, MayDay Rooms hosted the Nature Study Notes group. This group, comprised of ex-members of the Scratch Orchestra and interested first time participants convened to reflect upon a four year project that saw them performing together many of the ‘scratch rites’ that were collected together in the early 1970s as ‘Nature Study Notes’. The day was a celebration of the open creative ethos and relational praxis that was the Scratch Orchestra and included post-performance reflections, documentary screenings and a perusal of archive material.
2.45pm Intro to MDR and archive materials as presented including Scratch Orchestra material donated by Stefan Szczelkun. Howard Slater is part of the MDR collective a Scratch Orchestra enthusiast and will be our host. Rolling tour as people arrive?
3.15pm – Watch video documentary by Hanne Boenisch made in 1971 ‘ Journey to the North Pole: Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra’ 45’ 47” DVD.
4pm – Listen to Carol Finer’s Resonance radio show in which she compares excerpts of then and now.
5pm – Play free ‘AMM style’ improvisation to contrast with improvisation directed by the rites. c40 Mins. i.e. “the exploration and projection of sounds and their interaction, including with the environment, as against exploration and projection of ‘self’”.
6pm – Listen to a draft mix of the audio recordings done on 22nd Feb at the ‘Nature Study Notes’ concert at Cafe Oto mixed in Dublin by Richard Duckworth. Listen whilst eating food and drinking? Please bring food and nice things – to share if you can afford it.
c7pm – A recorded discussion of the recent process and two neo-Scratch performances by the participants only. For the record please say your full name before speaking and sign a simple release form. The recording will become part of the MDR archive and may possibly be transcribed and published in whole or part. People can bring prepared statements, memories or questions. Anyone who attended either of the two performances are classed as participants and welcome to contribute.
8.30pm finish. Pub?
Documentation of activation
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Nature Study Notes Group
Reflection On Process and Performances
MayDay Rooms, 3rd May 2015
“I must say, in hindsight, that the improvisation rites have an overall uniqueness – almost a new art form with elements of theatre, music, visuals – but amounting to something else. They have great variety (reflecting the individual character and preoccupations of the author) but an overall character (if this makes sense!)” – Hugh Shrapnel
The Nature Study Notes Group, a loose collection of former members of the Scratch Orchestra and current enthusiasts, came together, in 2013, to discuss and eventually present two performances based on the Nature Study Notes Rites (1969). The first of these performances was at Chisenhale Dance space in June 2014. This was followed by a further performance at Cafe Oto in February 2015.
The Notes, written by many people who were attending the composition classes at Morley College in 1969, comprise 152 written scores. These scores were collated and assembled by Cornelius Cardew. A copy was given to each person who joined the Scratch Orchestra. Some of the scores are instructions for performance and others simply set the tone for an ensuing improvisation.
The following transcript was taken from a day-long gathering of the Nature Study Notes performers at MayDay Rooms. The day included a screening of Hanne Boenisch’s documentary film ‘Journey To The North Pole’ (1971); a group listening to Carole Finer’s Resonance Radio broadcast; a rooftop improvisation session and a forum for reflection.
In the following transcript, square brackets enclose extra words or material suggested by the audio. They also provide a little extra information to assist the reader.
Well, starting with the most recent, that performance on the roof was wonderful. Very inspiring. And I felt, my immediate response was I’d rather do it that way completely without discussion than to have an improvisation rite. Which always seemed to me to be slightly awkward and artificial to have a rite to begin with. I think that if it’s going to be improvisation I’d rather it was completely free; that people were responding to each other and the environment and the situation – and they don’t have any allegiance to a previous text of any kind. But on the other hand looking back further I did very much enjoy the Chisenhale performance as a listener and I thought that was wonderfully lucid, transparent and inspiring. I wasn’t able to get to Cafe Oto [for the second performance] certainly the Chisenhale one took me by surprise – I was expecting it to be more of a nostalgia trip, but it did actually turn out to be something really new for me.
Part of the function of the Rites for me, given that not all of us have had equal experience of completely free improv, is that the Rites gave us the chance to get to know each other which is partly why what we just did on the roof was successful ‘cos we do actually know each other now… it was sort of liberating to not be beholden to the Rites but the process of having used the Rites enabled that to be more productive… to do our own thing without them. I also found the Chisenhale performance very special that had something in common with that experience we just had on the roof just now, in Chisenhale we really engaged with the environment much more and our concert took place just as the light was slowly fading. There was something really magical about the birdsong being part of the performance. And I thought that was also true on the roof. And its not that… Cafe Oto is a very special venue and it was wonderful to be there but I don’t feel we engaged with the environment quite as much. The way we engaged with the environment was… like a winter version of Nature Study Notes. It was an internal version, not like this evening and last June that were reaching out to the broader environment.
Everything we’ve done has been special in its own way. I loved what we did at Chisenhale… I thought it was a space that responded very subtly; it had its own resonance and a special light that’s been talked about, and I felt I could be delicate as well as being ‘Pow!’ when I felt like it. The space was receptive to that and to all of us and there was a harmony that the space generated. With Cafe Oto, it was completely different, it was just like ‘get on with it!’, but it was great [Laughs]
The thing that I really love about Nature Study Notes it’s all that… getting on with our own little things on our own little islands, we have these invitations to go with each other, and some of us pop in and pop out of it. We’ve got the freedom to do it, we are not constrained to do it. I think having taken the Rites out of their original context so that they are less of … improvisation and are something in their own right. It felt free in a lot of ways; we had these constraints but in the same way we had the freedom to use one rite here or join in with someone else’s… I thought that we engaged with that in two different ways in the two different performances. That’s been the very, very special … of the whole thing.
I like the Oto performance more but that could be my own experience of it – I moved around a lot more and felt freer I guess, but it could have been [that I’d had] a bit more experience of the whole group. I’ve done that kind of improvisation were you just show up and shake hands with people you’ve never met before and get on with it. I think that’s great and I like doing that. I think the Rites are a different experience than that. I didn’t know them in their original context but in this new de-contextualised form… they are like improvisation but not improvisation… I think that for people who haven’t done a lot of improv maybe they lead improvisation, but they don’t need to do that and playing with them outside of that context has been very interesting.
I wasn’t part of the first performance in Chisenhale. For me it was pretty much about the whole journey from the very first meeting in November 2014 to the performance in Cafe Oto and everything what happened between. The whole Scratch Orchestra idea was opening me a bit by bit. It was a very pleasant change for me although I was getting a bit nervous at one point, the more I read the scorebook and the more we discussed about the Rites the more possibilities opened and I wasn’t sure what to do… and then feeling totally lost before performing – I really wasn’t sure what am I going to do. But during the performance everything started to make sense. Something clicked. It was really quite a few months journey for me… leading up to an extremely powerful moment/ experience.
For me it was rather the two of them and, a bit like Petri, what was really very interesting and inspiring was the whole process before the performance. Where the performance was just a release, in a way, of all these intensities generated during the discussions that happened before, between this group of very different people, with different interests and different identities, different skills, different tastes. Learning to handle all these changing energies, understandings, confusion and misunderstandings that built up throughout these meetings allowed you as an individual to find your place within the group and between yourself, the group and your own practice as well. That is what I think the Rites are for…. I use writing a lot and written scores in my own work so I relate to the Rites quite naturally but here their purpose in a way is to give us meat/matter to discuss or not and a focus for all these meetings. Whether we end up using them or not on the day of the performance doesn’t really matter. Some people need them, if they haven’t had much experience of improvisation for example; others don’t, some need something to fight/rebel against and they can be used for that… In each performance we did, suddenly you could just be in the here and now and forget everything that happened or had been decided during the meetings. Because in the process of working out what we were going to do we had developed together as individuals and as part of the collective, and got to know each other, then comes this great release/letting go of all that to just be in the moment.… I enjoyed the Oto performance more because it I felt maybe more comfortable, it was my second performance. I knew more of the group and I didn’t feel as responsible… or self-conscious, not infringing [on others] not doing something awful… even more so being aware of the presence of some original members [of the Scratch Orchestra] in the audience and as part of the group. I felt much freer in Oto, less pressure to fit in or conform so I enjoyed it much more. For me the big discovery is that all that work we did before in these meetings, was not about rehearsing or playing, as usually the case. It [preparation] consisted of social and verbal exchanges, absence and presence, speaking and listening, being heard and being understood, the things you agree with, and those you don’t, the things you can say and the things you can’t and finding ways of saying them.
I was involved in the Chisenhale one and I got involved because I was curious about the idea… the famous Scratch Orchestra and what was this all about? I thought a nice way to learn about it would be to actually do some music ‘cos I was invited by another member of the groups to join it. And what I suspected – and I think hasn’t changed – that the Rites were best meant as an invitation to make music, and a way of enabling a group of people… to guide them through, to liberate them to make music, rather than as an inhibition. From what I gathered, that’s what the Rites function as. Rather than as dictatorial…. telling me what to play – which a normal score is – these were meant to be some kind of liberating way to get people to make music together. That depended a lot on the people involved… What amazed me was how the group respected each other’s space and allowed each other’s music to come out and not stamp on it, not interfere with it but… it was very mutually supportive and somehow that magic happened, and I think the Rites were part of that, but also it took a big part from the group.
The two performances, Chisenhale and Oto performances – I wasn’t involved in the John Cage Song Books [which the group did in 2012] – the two performances I was involved with were very different. Partly because of the environment and sound of the spaces. They were different sounding spaces, but also the fact that the audience in Chisenhale was in a line at the front of the room, with a long room going back, so we were actually more playing for ourselves, to each other, interacting with each other, which was nice because it was the first time I’d worked with all this group. The second Cafe Oto performance the audience were almost sitting on the ‘stage’ with us. We were kind of interspersed. I did wander off into the audience and had a little chat with Stefan, an improvised chat at one point which I enjoyed very much, or a nonsense chat with him doing one of the Rites at the back by the bar. But it was all part of the … the environment, the actual space had a big influence, so the people and the space were at least a third each of the actual outcome of the experience of the concert for me.
But the Rites really effectively worked as a sparking… as a ‘kindling score’ to make things happen. Especially for some people who weren’t free improvisors I think… because I’ve improvised freely quite a lot. And the difference between doing that, like we did upstairs [on the roof] today and playing with a score… How is it different with a score? I’m very interested in the difference it makes, whether it inhibits you, or whether it produces something magical that wouldn’t happen otherwise; which I feel it did in both the performances that I was part of. So I enjoyed that.
I’m not really a performer so much but I did end up getting shanghaied into the Cafe Oto performance which was great actually – I really really enjoyed the small part I played. And then later on I [worked on] the virtual delivery of large tracks and they had to be all synced up like a fly’s eye view of the performance with a lot of different angles and perspectives, and I had to make sense of all this and reduce it to a stereo mix which I think is not the way forward. I think it should be a multi-channel mix I think it should be funked-up into a specialised surround-sound mix of some description. What came across both on the night in Cafe Oto and whilst listening to the tapes and mixing them was the fact that all the participants were excellent listeners who understood how to listen to each other and play in an ensemble. There were definitely points of divergence with people going off and doing individual parts, but then there were these wonderful points of convergence were clearly everyone is listening intently to the other people and joining towards some kind of… there was some kind of common goal there, a musical goal… or musical affect if you want to put it that way. And what was really beautiful at those points was that there was no grandstanding, nobody was showboating, there was just a lot of mutual respect and control.
For me in the Oto performance I felt more confident in what I did and enjoyed my own performance more than previously when I felt like…. in Chisenhale I did some things where I felt “aww I wish I hadn’t done that” or felt ‘what was that about’ whereas I felt confident and sometimes quite loudly confident about what I did in Oto. I don’t know why… but I suddenly felt very into it and part of it as a whole. I suppose what I think about the whole thing is ….. How does culture work and how does a structure like that seem to …. rather than performing a score ‘from the past’ as it were…. what seemed exciting about it was that it seemed very contemporary. It didn’t feel like we were remaking the Scratch…. Although, after Chisenhale Hugh [Shrapnel] said “Oh I love Scratch Music!” as if that really was Scratch Music. At the same time it didn’t feel retro. I take a slightly contrary view that …. I have a really bad memory and a big experience was listening to Richard’s mix and one of the things that comes out of listening to the ‘recording’ which is a very objective thing – you sit there passively not involved in … all the things you are involved in when you are performing… is how much some of the Rites as compositions [stand] out. Particularly Carol’s Rites came out very strongly and especially that last rite [using that day’s] newspapers. It was like some kind of Brechtian theatre or something like that; it was very powerful. It is very powerful to listen to as a recording. At first it’s quite disturbing! You think why is everyone shouting, you know, but something about it… and the way it tails off into individual voices was very good. And also the engagement with the literary world through the reading and arguing that happened.
Carol Finer: Bron told me to be quiet! [Laughs]
Stefan: There were great moments of theatre that broke down [the cultural frames we use]. Was it music, theatre, art? It doesn’t really matter because somehow it’s life extruded into expression or something like that. It seemed really exciting. I’m not saying that what the people here have been saying about improvisation are not also true. I thought there were times when I was listening to the recording and I’d be really interested to hear what other people think when you do listen to the recording. There were times when… in between these group Rites when there was free improvisation, when it felt a bit like ‘this sounds like any new music improvisation’, you know you find a space and fill it with a bit of sound and see if people respond, but in terms of listening later its not that interesting, is it? That might be just me. The suddenly out of that atmosphere of trepidatious exchanges there comes this very powerful moment that suddenly surges out of it, from the recording, and you think ‘my god that’s amazing’, kind of ‘where’s that come from?’ It seems very new. I’m not that into ‘newness’ but the recording feels like it’s part of today, of what’s happening. That seems like the way to change the world. The way culture changes the world. When we can reinterpret the things we are experiencing today in [fresh] new ways, especially in relation to each other.
Chisenhale was like a Scratch concert because the space with the audience and the fact you really weren’t aware there was an audience, because they were stuck at one end so you could get on with it by yourself with your people doing what you had to do. I think there was a certain amount of anarchy, that we would have had in the Scratch… but there was also mixing with others finding another group when you knew you had to play together. You got both. I thought it was quite wonderful. And then Oto was just a bit crowded. We didn’t have the [same] space to do stuff in. You were very very aware of the audience – audiences were a worry. When we had the Scratch Orchestra we used to have more people in the Scratch than in the audience – you might have [as few as] five or six and end up with only two and they should join in so really you didn’t worry. You have an audience at Oto and it’s… you don’t know if you should. I don’t know audiences are a problem. I’ve sometimes been at Eddie Prevost’s improv workshops and you’d just get on with it. The he’d have a Monday night at Cafe Oto and you would perform to people and so you couldn’t just be yourself and improvise. It’s a bit like if you have a rite that helps you to improvise. When you’ve got an audience …. it doesn’t help you but it certainly makes you do it very differently. I’m not sure if that is good or bad. I don’t know. Something for another time… Up on the roof [today] we weren’t really worried if anyone was listening except the birds… I’m not sure what the audience gets out of it. I’m not an audience so I don’t know. I sometimes think its a big fraud [Laughs]. I don’t know. [‘Fraud Rite?]
Stefan: I’ve got an email from John Eden who couldn’t come today. He was in the audience at Oto.
[My thought is] somewhere between Stefan and Carol because Chisenhale was surprisingly beautiful in its lightness and the spaciousness of the place. I was quite worried that it wouldn’t have the performative element that I’m used to going to as a spectator and I love Oto as a space to watch music in and listen. So I was worried it would take the edge off that, but I didn’t feel that was the case – it was really beautiful like something quite like playing in the park about it. Which seemed really fitting. But then the Oto performance I felt actually complemented it in a way and for me it was quite nice to have a stark, night-lit performance where personally I could listen to everything a bit more. At Chisenhale I thought I was watching a lot more and at Oto I thought I was listening more. It felt like the two complemented each other.
I’m a bit regretful I didn’t join in for Chisenhale or hear it because I’ve got no comparison. I came to Oto as a spectator, became a photographer via Emmanuelle and then joined in… crossing across different things… taping stuff… taking photographs… making sounds, and I was very excited in Oto to be inside the music in a more relaxed and less pressurised way than how I’ve improvised before. It felt like an honour to be moving about …. so there was this freedom of participation that people have talked about that must have been in the open relation of the group and this encouraged me to roll a bottle or make some ‘moves’. I suppose what you’re [looks towards Charles] talking about is the standardised moves in improvisation like chair pulling like I saw today. Sometimes I think within a social context the standardised moves take on a different hue, because they are in a different context rather than ‘this is classic free improvisation – moving a chair’. So yes I felt very free and very privileged… excited when I played back the four little sound-snippets that I recorded. Like it’s been said there were Rites between Rites or improvisations between Rites; but all these little things just all going off… so it was really dynamic that. As a listener inside the music I was very… Yeh, stimulated, very much so, yeh.
Stefan leaves the room to get John Eden’s emailed statement feeding back from an audience point-of-view.
Jane: While Stefan is out of the room and so as he won’t be embarrassed, I’ll say that I felt his emails were a huge part of bringing us all together; the way he summarised what happened in the meetings that not everybody could get to. This was a wonderful cohesive force. So that’s actually a way in which the Rites were modernised because of the use of email and that thread that brought us all together.
Stefan: [Introduces John Eden’s comments]
John Eden is somebody who is very knowledgeable about noise based music… the noise scene, but also generally about other musical genres as well… British Reggae, Grime… you name it. He really gets into things. He’s a respected commentator.
Carol: [Reads John’s email missing his apologies for not being here]
John Eden writes: “I really enjoyed the performance at OTO. I wish I’d made some notes but essentially I was expecting something quite serious and was very pleased to find it was a lot more varied than that. I liked the combination of both a lot going on and not much going on (often at the same time) and it was clear that the performers knew each other well enough to work together but still allow for surprises. (This is one of the main criticisms of seeing free jazz trios at Café OTO – it’s great but you do wonder exactly
how surprising someone can be with sax, bass, drums in 2015). It also felt like a space that was both gloriously and depressingly out of step with neoliberalism, if that isn’t being too pretentious. “No Stars Here” as they used to say about the ‘Dead by Dawn’ parties.”
Matt: “No Star!?” Is that his rating!? [Laughter]
Michael: I took that as a complement. [Others chip in] “No egos… yeh, yeh”
Michael: Not only that but no star rating is also non-judgemental.
Discussion is opened to the floor:
Emmanuelle: At Oto talking about the audience, Martin Pover a friend who was in the audience who goes to a lot of improv concerts, asked that question: He said ‘How was it? I said ‘Great, I enjoyed it’. He said: ‘How do you know such a performance was a success or not? How do you judge it?’
Carol: Interjects: They did clap a lot!?
Emmanuelle: Yes, but I thought that was a good question because … the audience don’t know NSN or the structure behind what happened. He said ‘Not that that was necessary to appreciate it’, but knowing what it is about kind of helps. ‘How do you judge the quality, the value of it?’ My only answer was that well I enjoyed it and nobody walked out. [To Carol] You said that you had 5 or 6 people with 2 left…
Carol: People walked out, but they would also be insulting as they walked out! e.g. That was at Beethoven’s day concert at the South Bank
Michael: They demanded their money back didn’t they. They thought it was going to be a proper Beethoven concert. [Laughter and chat]
Stefan: For new people what was it like today to see the documentary, which is quite a rare documentary not very often seen in terms of what we’ve done. Was it just like ‘oh yeh that’s what we’ve been doing… no surprises’. Or was it like ‘eh?’
Jane: I learned a lot from seeing that footage. Particularly the recognition by the original [members] that they weren’t engaging with working people on a daily basis and therefore there was this discussion or need for discussion about how to reach working people. That was really revealing to me.
Emmanuelle: I had seen footage before in an exhibition but not this footage. That was before taking part when I did the Great Learning I’ve done before. But now in retrospect looking… and comparing with us I thought they were, or you were (addressing the original Scratch Orchestra members present) much more tactile and much more physical in a way… I felt that all of us were…. Interacting, yes with sound and things, but there was a much more tactile quality to the extracts we saw. I’m not sure if ‘tactile’ is the right word but physical…
Linn D:[ Affirms] ‘Physical’. Because there’s race to perform you are using your whole being and not just your voice or banging but with expression and movement and theatre so I don’t ever think of Scratch Music, of Nature Study Notes, as music. It was interesting to hear what you said Matt because I never think of it as music I think of it as doing things, or, performance and interaction with any bit of creativity that happens to fit in at the time just happens. If you thought ‘I might use this prop in this bit’ or something… there is a gorgeous freedom to … play. For me it’s ‘play’. Like children play.
Petri: I’ve done just one performance with Scratch Orchestra but comparing to the documentary we saw earlier as Emmanuelle says it was much more physical. I’m thinking if we do perform again, say five performances, then each performance is going to be different and probably will evolve in different directions and various things could happen.… comparing what we’ve done now on the roof to the previous one [Oto] in which there was more going on, it was more active. Things will happen and change when we play it again.
Stefan: One very similar thing about the Village Concerts [in the documentary] was that they were self-organised and very cheaply done because we were camping and nobody was paid, but there were no big costs involved. So everyone just paid for themselves to camp, and then we went into these village halls which had somehow been set up but were proper music venues. Our limitation now is that if we wanted to perform in Dublin or the Huddersfield New Music Festival, even if we got invited to something like that, would suddenly cost £10,000 plus to put the thing on. All the people we’ve had working for nothing, including photographers, reviewers etc. I mean we had 17 people… each getting a standard £500 artist’s fee plus travel and accommodation, its a lot of costs. So we did achieve in those village concerts [in the early 70s] kind of…. unlike the Queen Elisabeth Hall or the Beethoven Today or some of the other London venues… we were outside of the Music scene, we were doing something de/un contextualised… [Recently] we were playing Cafe Oto which is a very recognised place [for experimental music] but we were unfunded and, even here we are completely outside of the establishments invitations, validation or opprobrium? I don’t even know what that word means? [Laughter]
Stefan: John you’ve written a whole piece about the Chisenhale thing. Did what you experience at Oto or saw today change you thinking?
John: No not really it was just another example of these little communities bubbling up and then evaporating. I’d agree with people saying there was more freedom in the second performance because I’d had the experience of seeing it once [?] My experience of the whole thing has been a little bit different because I’ve not been able to come to many meetings being up in Edinburgh and so for the first performance I deliberately selected Rites were I could just parachute in and perform. And then found myself regretting that I wasn’t sufficiently prepared in the other Rites so I couldn’t just step in and take part in someone else’s Rite. So for the second performance I’d done a lot more preparation in terms of making myself more flexible in terms of what I could do and what I couldn’t do which built on that. So much the same as what I said. Interesting watching that documentary – it was showing that similar kind of activity but in a completely different historical setting can result in something completely different. Although the process is… we can relate the processes to each other. It was seeing a very different political backdrop and I don’t think… it wouldn’t have been authentic for us to perform like those late 60s early 70s Scratch Orchestra performances now because things have changed. We are different, media is different, it’s a very, very different set up and we’ve responded in what I think – if we can use such a term – an authentic way to us. I think that is really valuable.
Howard: I think something along the lines that a relationship can have a sound. Or a social relation can have a sound. While I think there was this certain historical context when I watched that footage again I saw punk on its way – people just bashing instruments and things like that. I don’t think you could claim that Scratch Orchestra was a harbinger of punk music, but there is a similar sort of… Roger Sutherland uses the word – ‘amorphousness’ to describe the Scratch sound and that chimed with what I was hearing at Oto. So that sort of sense of just a freedom-to-be. And all punk groups were a form of relationship – I was in punk groups. You couldn’t just get together one-off, you had to be friends… there was a sort of social relationship it was based on. If anything, to link transhistorically, it’s that sense of a relationship that allows people to just sit there and click their fingers. Or in some of the footage where three people are sat in a row. And I always dreamed that this scratch approach to music could become like punk began… The Fall said “lets get this thing together and make it bad” on one of their tracks from the ‘Dragnet’ LP. Good/bad, but, you know what I mean. That kind of ethos was in punk. What people don’t expect from music or professional musicians – shitness, you know the wonderful sound of shit!
John: Arte Povera? A Poor Art…
Les: What struck me about you guys back in the day was how boundlessly optimistic it was [laughter]. I really dislike the word ‘authenticity’ so I’m not going into that. I don’t think you could be boundlessly optimistic like that these days, because it doesn’t seem like the world is changing in a direction that is necessarily going to benefit everyone involved these days but then I have the sense that what you guys felt like you were doing was making the world better and more meaningful if not for a larger society at least for you personally. The total disrespect for stupid questions from the interviewer [in the documentary] was like ‘I don’t care about that I’m gonna pull out grass from the ground [rather than answer] That guy (was he from the Daily Mirror?) seeing the responses to him [from Cornelius Cardew’s slowed down language and Stefan’s swinging silver disc] there was no reporting? The important people’s opinions it was [showed] just such confidence. And the other thing that struck me how completely ‘out’ it was. The string rite I recognised people doing and I know someone did that at Oto and they tied yarn around themselves and stuff – it was true to the words [or the rite] – but what you guys did with it back then whiny were tied together and practically unable to move – everything was pushed as far as it could go. In our next performance I’m gonna be looking at how far things can be pushed rather than what is specifically true to what’s written, but what can we do with what’s written that takes it all the way or as far as it can go. I think that was really interesting.
Loud vocal responses
Howard: I think that what Stef got into about the Village concerts and that footage [we saw] is that some of the people in the original Scratch Orchestra were ‘out there’, like in the Richmond Park Journey. Actually doing it outside, I think that would be good thing to do next. Like in a park or something… I like that idea of troubadours.
Carol: Yeh, that brings to mind Michael Parsons did an outdoors performance which you [turns to Michael] did around Canary Wharf. Only a couple of years ago. I followed them with a microphone. It was wind instruments having to play to constructions, to do with the buildings.
Michael: [Interjects] It was all brass instruments in fact and it was to do with evoking echoes from the glass surfaces.” That was like being outdoors – you had to get permission but – then you were just let loose; there was a lovely freedom in doing that. Passers-by stopping and not really understanding but stopping and listening. I think they enjoyed it. Nice to do an outdoor one, yeh.
Emmanuelle: What I’m going back to when I say I want to find the right words when I said physical before – the difference between then and now – so it’s not physical it’s more radical and more raw. When I saw that [in the documentary] I was questioning ‘so how come we were not?’ There’s all reasons… and we are quite radical people in our way and have done things which are pretty out there with our works individually. Is that because there is less a need? I would have never thought to go and perform naked like that blond woman [Bergit Burkhadt] in that long transparent dress. Because I felt it wouldn’t be relevant now or needed. Perhaps it’s about something else? But I was really impressed. What triggered that was seeing the tied up rite as well. I thought ‘Yes!’, seriously tied up! Really, really. It becomes close to bondage. So the question is … is it a different way of radicalism? Or is it because we know, we are so aware of what has been done and there is this kind of revisiting and making it contemporary again?
Les: I think a lot of improvisation has become kind of codified. Part of the reason I’m able to go up in groups who’ve never met before and free-improvise with them is because we all know what is expected. When you were inventing… [those codes?] you didn’t know what was expected. I think that rediscovering the unexpected would be a great way forward.
Robbie: For me a lot of this touches on it… I find it hard to speak after that. Something about touch is very present there. There is a world that I’ve grown up in that is corporate London which means you don’t personally – this is my experience of it – there is the feeling of always being followed by CCTV. There is a feeling that while you may not feel you are doing something wrong but still you better check yourself. Even if you’re not sure. So there is something about Scratch that is I think crucial, I think it’s tentative, and I think it’s about saying, ‘we dare to step outside’. We dare to go to places we haven’t previously determined. There is something there about the collective and the sensible. There is something about the sensible and empathy which is in trouble today. And it comes with that kind of paranoiac attitude we’ve got in the City of London. I think it needs to be challenged from every single angle. Scratch is one small attempt to prick that bubble. And I felt that. And personally to say something of my experience I made a sound on my guitar that I’d never made before. That is something new to me. I was excited by that. It was the kind of thing that I would have been a bit too inhibited to do in other kinds of performances. So it’s something about the relation and the sensible there. It wasn’t really obvious to anyone else, I didn’t go and hug anyone or anything like that. But it made a little imprint in my own world that gave me some confidence, that gave me a playing and listening experience which was significant.
Jane: Linn talked about play and whether or not this was music. And firstly I would like to say that I think that it absolutely is all music, and music includes play but it seemed watching the footage that …. I was surprised when Cornelius Cardew said it was apolitical. It seemed that that was more about play in a sense than what we’ve been doing recently. There’s a political agenda just in the very fact of doing this now. There is more of an awareness (as Robbie was saying) of our relationship to this cultural moment in time than just the fact we are wanting to revisit some of these ideas or see what it means to bring these people together. I had exactly the same experience that Robbie just described of feeling liberated that I wouldn’t do in other artistic contexts –that I wouldn’t have felt enabled to do and that is something that is very politically empowering at a kind of local level that can be empowering in a larger sphere as well. So, in that sense it’s not so much about play it’s actually about something that is very real.
Linn D: I also think that not knowing what to do, not knowing how to respond, was a very important part of doing things in the old days as well as now… ‘Cos I haven’t a clue; I could do anything or nothing’. Or something very, very, very small. And bewilderment for me was part of it and in a sense it still is even though I might have a few more tools these days I can use and a better idea. I quite like the not knowing as much as the knowing and the feeling of ‘Oh my god. I don’t know how to tackle this’ and then stay with that and use it and empty my mind and then… something will come. I don’t like to use my mind I want to use the un-mind.
John: I want to pick up on the idea of play as not to do with the real world. One of the lessons I think I get from this is that we need more play in the real world. That we discover things we didn’t know and the idea that we don’t have or feel we have the permission or whatever to actually try things out means that we take the safe option. We go down the route that we know will not land us on the street or… I think does encourage you to take risks because beautiful things happen when you take risks.
Jane: It’s hard what you said about these village halls that allowed you to perform. I mean that is unbelievable and could not happen now. I mean they took a risk those village halls – they had no idea what you were going to do and they were willing to just open their doors and just see what happened.
Stefan: [Interjects] I’m not sure it was like that actually… I think they might of been hired…
Carol: [Adds] I went and got them and they didn’t really ask what we wanted them for [laughter] and we didn’t have to pay very much money. They didn’t seem to mind.
Matt: It seems like there were only two people there anyway! [Laughter].
Carol: When we performed at the Purcell Room or somewhere where…. Catherine went through the audience. It was Beethoven Today. She forgot he was deaf and thought he was blind and so she went around the audience with a blindfold on! Blundering her way up the aisles through the audience. The ushers would have made her sit down now. Things – in proper halls – you could never do now.
Jane: I mean the work that Stefan had to do to get us Cafe Oto. That was a tremendous amount of work.
Carol: You didn’t have to say exactly what we were going to do did you?
Stefan: That is complex because first I got it for Songbooks in the year of Cage’s anniversary; there was a strong connection with Resonance which Carol and I are close to. It took a long time but that was just getting busy people to respond to emails.
Carol: I do think we all like what we’re doing. We’ve all enjoyed what we did. The freedom that people have talked about. Freedom of expression. Being free individually and collaborating I think that is all very positive. I think maybe I should not be worried about the audience either because really when the audience come they seem delighted don’t they… I know someone who comes to improvisation things – he didn’t come to our performance – and he has his eyes shut the whole time. Well if you were playing you would think ‘Oh he’s fallen asleep’, but actually that is how he listens so even if you had your eyes shut in Cafe Oto you were probably listening.
Stefan announces the imminent end of recording but asks for final comments.
John: We talked about not forcing things, not making them happen. One thing that was very valuable about the whole process while we’re looking at Nature Study Notes was how although… we talked about the whole thing being led by Stefan I think that the way that you’ve [turns to Stefan] avoided leading it. The way that you’ve avoided making it easy for us. It’s actually been an effective way of dealing with the whole thing. There were various moments were it looked like some people wanted something a bit more strict, they wanted to be able to slot in. And those were somehow evaded and that it all happened because it was self-organising in a lot of ways. The hard work you put in that Jane’s already talked about to establish the infrastructure of the performance and things like that. But actually there was lots of hard work as well not leading it. [Laughter]
Stefan: Thank you for any complimentary aspects of that but its part of the ethos of the whole thing you know. It would have been weird to do it another way. In fact one of the things that drove me originally with the Songbooks particularly was the fact that the performances I was seeing e.g. by Exaudi was so uptight and I just thought that they’d completely lost the original anarchic visual unpredictable quality of those performances and I wanted to bring that back. Being a visual artist [active at the time] I knew what had been lost from some of those things that had been revived. And I thought we brought that back successfully. Just to finish I would like to make an admission. Projects like this, in my older age, I look at as an operation on culture. They are a kinda’ surgical – well be horrible to do this to a real person because it would be totally messy and they’d loose bits of their body, you know. It’s surgical in the sense that I’m strategically trying to think of ways to operate on culture. This thing of being inter-generational and playing around with scratch knowledge and bringing all those things together. In the longer term influenced by Howard’s thinking and writing as well actually, and the relationships that have come into it. Robbie and Ali [not here today] have been a very important part of the younger group members. So, for me today has been a wonderful and unbelievable thing that we can have this non/anti-institution to host this place to reflect on what we’ve been doing. That is something I’ve never experienced before in my life. I was never able to benefit from the counter culture of the 60s on that level [thinking of the Arts Lab, Drury Lane.] To me its all come together in a very extraordinary way and I’d like to thank you all here for the contributions you’ve made to this. You have made [an exploration of the past] that could have been dry or academic extremely rich and going beyond anything I could have imagined at the beginning of it. To me it’s been a wonderful process. I don’t know what the effect of this ’surgery’ really is! But it seems that there is a lot of good will or ‘vibes’ from the 60s and 70s that are being channelled into the current time in some kind of weird way that culture works. Yah!! But what happens next is open. For me the project has ended [although the relations continue of course].
Carol: You can’t just leave us alone! [Laughter]
Stefan: You’ve all grown up now you’ve gotta leave home!
Transcription by Stefan Szczelkun & Howard Slater