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. 

The Rhythm of Writing

His [Flusser’s] writing method evolved in the era of the portable manual typewriter, and he never changed it thereafter, despite the explosion of information technology through which he was to live and about which he was to philosophize…He rejected electric and electronic-typewriters because he objected to the noises they made…Flusser defended his preference for manual over automatic machines by claiming that the silence between keystrokes coupled with the physical act of returning the carriage left to right, left to right, punctuated his thoughts at the correct intervals for composition.  

Pawley, Martin (1999) “Introduction,” 7-16 in Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things, London: Reaktion 1999, 13-14. 

It seems he “played” on the typewriter as, say, a jazz musician might, someone for whom the technology makes such a slight demand on consciousness that the player’s own changing awareness can actually register in the medium (Such things are said of, for example, Louis Armstrong — that you could hear him thinking). Quite possibly he understood the gesture as a move in a game, the game of a particular language in which he could act himself out (?), knowing he could, and probably would, abandon that particular game [read: language] at some point and move [translate] to another. The spaces in between, he often said, were spaces of freedom. 

The Gesture of Listening to Music

Donenico Ghirlandaio, The Annunciation

A gesture, as Flusser defines it, is “a movement of the body or of a tool attached with the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.”  It seems a quiet, unassuming definition.  But it becomes the foundation of a comprehensive theory of human communication, with specific gestures for speaking, writing, photographing, and many more.  Listening to music differs from the others in not being active, but rather passive.  He argues that this is exactly what distinguishes it from other – expressive – gestures.

In Renaissance painting, Mary holds herself, leaning toward the sound of the Word, suggests what he wants to say about music. Music, he says – and he speculates that the Word in this case may have been a song — doesn’t demand a specific, identifiable gesture, but rather asks any listener to adapt his body to take in the sound.  The gesture will look different, that is, depending on who is listening and what kind of music is being heard.  The absence of any other expressive movement is what singles this specific gesture out, in other words.  It implies that people who “use” music as the background to other things they are doing, e.g. driving or cleaning or – impossible for me, but many do – writing and record-keeping —  are not actually listening at all.   

It implies that real listening quite a difficult thing to do. I feel fairly sure it’s quite a rarity, for that reason. Flusser’s description underscores the intentional dimension of the gesture, as well as its submissive posture. Listening becomes a kind of intentional submission — not a bad definition of prayer.

Krapp’s Last Tape

Philip Robinson played Krapp in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape, last night in Ashburton, Devon, in a friend’s living room.  It was”right”.  Everyone — 20 of us — could really see and hear, notice the ticking clock at otherwise silent moments, empathise with the technological frustrations, and the technological authority.   As Philip later put it, we were “complicit”.  

The tape recorder pins the script to a particular moment in the 1950s — 1958 was the date of the first performance.  But it’s set in the future, probably the 1970s. The record a person may keep of her past is, by tradition, written; to hear one’s own voice is something completely different.  Does the voice have stronger presence, more authority, more presence?  It lets us, the audience in…