Written over several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning was performed over two evenings by the Austin New Music Coop in the spring of 2011. Terabytes of high definition audio and video were recorded during those performances, excerpts of which appear throughout this podcast. (They have been made available as individual listening samples below, as well.) Also included here are extremely detailed and comprehensive program notes and examples of reductions of the score created by the ANMC which were used by the section leaders and conductors to communicate Cardew’s performance concepts to the performers.
I was joined by Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke in a conversation with ANMC members Brent Baldwin, Nick Hennies, Brandon Young, and Travis Weller about their experiences putting together this massive work. My thanks to all the participants for their time and contributions to this podcast, and in particular to Travis Weller for compiling the additional material.
(Musical excerpts in the podcast appear in the following order: Paragraph 3, Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2, Paragraph 7, paragraph 5, Paragraph 6, Paragraph 4.)
About Cornelius Cardew and The Great Learning
(from the ANMC website)
Cornelius Cardew was born May 7, 1936, in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, England, and killed in a hit and run automobile accident in London, December 13, 1981. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London as well as other schools. With Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton he formed an improvisational ensemble, The Scratch Orchestra, which premiered the entire cycle of The Great Learning. He was active in the seminal chamber ensemble AMM with Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, John Tilbury and Christopher Hobbs. Cardew’s concern for human rights and economic justice led him into Marxist politics and renunciation of his experimental music during the 1970s. Instead, he pursued popular styles of music-making. At the very end of his life (and after Mao Tse-Tung’s death), he appeared to be open to reclaiming aspects of his earlier broad approach to sonic art.
Cornelius Cardew’s 1970 masterpiece The Great Learning is a work in seven parts or “Paragraphs” based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound and is composed for trained and untrained musicians. The piece instigated the formation of the experimental musical ensemble The Scratch Orchestra, who also gave The Great Learning its premiere. Now, four decades after its completion, Cardew’s obsessively constructed 5+ hour composition has become an often recalled and imitated masterpiece of counter-culture avant-garde. The influential piece, one of the earliest pieces to be called “minimalist” by composer/critic Michael Nyman, conjures at once Ligeti’s clouds of sound, Webern’s pointillism, Reich’s phasing cycles, and Cage’s conceptual provocations. This feast of varied sound-theater events includes a pipe organ with whistling chorus, cascading waves of percussive sound, loud and soft laughter music, an orchestra of droning contra-basses and large brass instruments, and swirling clouds of a cappella voices. Sadly, a complete presentation of The Great Learning is exceedingly rare, due largely to its demands of 50+ performers, several unconventional instruments, a pipe organ, and necessarily open-minded interpreters.