English composer-pianist, teacher and political activist Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was in the vanguard of the thriving 1960s UK experimental music scene. He co-founded the Scratch Orchestra which performed his monumental The Great Learning (1969) on the influential 1971 Deutsche Grammophon LP.
Cardew’s text score consists of seven Paragraphs (large sections) for a large number of both trained and untrained musicians, the libretto drawn from Confucian texts. The Great Learning’s musical idiom and democratic social message was in tune with the times and as such deeply challenged many musicians’ views on the possibilities of ensemble music-making.
To perform The Great Learning in Montreal in 1996 was also American composer Dean Rosenthal’s motivation to organize the Montréal Scratch Orchestra with 14 student experimental music enthusiasts at McGill University. Their 1996 live concert performance of two Paragraphs was recorded, and has now been released on Tone Glow Records.
The all-vocal Paragraph 7 features a constantly shifting sound cloud of male and female voices humming or singing the text. Each chorus member initially chooses their own note and proceeds according to the written instructions. Individual voices emerge, join others in unison, then recede, in a process which sounds organic: waves cresting and falling perhaps. Paragraph 1, on the other hand, is anchored by skilled organist Philip Clarke’s slowly shifting single tones which build into massive chord clusters. It’s joined by massed whistles interrupted by spoken choral recitations of the Confucian script. The track ends elegantly, a mirror of the way it began, with the acoustic organ’s voice gradually dying, literally running out of air.