Yesterday, Friday 21 June 2013, I had the honor of participating in the first ever New York City complete performance of Cornelius Cardew’s the Great Learning.
I was in awe as it turned out to be seriously one of the most intense musical experiences I’ve every had as I sat with a circle of musicians at Trinity Church downtown playing the forth paragraph of the piece.
The performance was organized by Make Music New York as part of their annual One Day, a Thousand Concerts to Celebrate Summer festival. It falls as part of the larger River to River festival that celebrates life in Lower Manhattan with 30 days of art indoors and out. With the organization of Mantra Percussion in collaboration with percussionist Nick Hennies of Austin New Music Co-Op and choreographer Deborah Lohse with the Shakedown Dance Collective the piece was performed spread across seven venues over ten and a half-hours.
Cardew conceived the minimalist, avant-garde masterpiece in 1970 based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound for his recently created ensemble The Scratch Orchestra. It is composed for trained and untrained musicians alike with audience participation expected within the context of the paragraphs (movements) which much of the composition is not scored in the traditional stave sense but more in amorphic instructions for performers to interpret. The prospect of such an endeavor drew the response of local papers as noble as the NYTimes to cover it three hour rehearsal the Wednesday before.
The beauty of the performance for me lie in two components:
First, that the group of participants came together so quickly to produce a seamless product. Volunteers were requested to attend either of the two days of identical three hour rehearsals. Each rehearsal covered the entire seven paragraph piece, so relatively little time was spent on each paragraph. So, what I was experiencing as a participant was the culmination of only one 20-minute rehearsal with only about one-third of the musicians currently banging and chanting away with me in attendance at (most people were at the Thursday rehearsal, although I met at least two who attended neither).
The difference between something as interpretative as Cardew’s work and that of traditional Western composition is that it allows for this kind of spontaneity. The key to success is not in strict adherence to the score as much as it is in the conviction of the performers in their interpretation thereof. Divorcing one’s self from the prototypical mindset of mistakes are bad it allows extraneous and ambient sound to participate harmoniously with the instructed score suggestions themselves. This allows unrehearsed, or even amateur and untrained musicians to actively participate by using their instincts to guide them through following patterns and repetitive execution and not relying on hard-and-fast notation as the primary guide.
Because there are no wrong notes there’s no two performances that are alike and that leads me to my second thought:
Experiencing the sonic development of the piece as it went along was haunting and invigorating. The sequential layering of sound moves from atonal to tonal, from dysrhytmic to in-meter and then back again generating responses from somewhat cringing to deeply gratifying. It is a stunning experience when you hear how fluidly this occurs so that what appears to feel as if an unnatural passage unexpectedly drifts into a sonically familiar realm. It moves the spirit when this happens building and releasing tension in intervals unlike those we normally associate with music.
This drew in quite a crowd. More than I would have expected to see at such a performance and even those passer-bys that for no more than curiosity wandered into the performance didn’t leave. They seemed mesmerized by the progression of sound as it took shape in front of them (and most probably didn’t realize this was essentially unrehearsed). This speaks volumes to some of the piece’s strongest paragraphs because the normal reaction to something as disjunct and avante in nature is to leave in confusion or disgust. It also speaks volumes to us as performance to maintain a level of our own interest and a conviction in our performance that drew in those who did attend.
I’ve never participated in something like this before and I happen to find it quite by chance when doing research for my weekly metal punk and hardcore radio show on party934.com (appropriately called MPH). I’m glad I broke out of my daily comfort zone to take myself back to my roots as a percussionist and challenge myself as a music dork to experience such a once-in-a-lifetime performance. More than a great memory it was a great moment as I experienced it. Apart from my foot falling asleep as I struck the box in front of me and chanted in my horrible singing voice and tapped out guirro passages with my fellow performers I felt a gratification that transcended my physical being’s love of the act of playing percussion or my intellectual love of music in general or my social desire to do more with my fellow human beings or the boost to my psychological self’s confidence and so on. It was different than performing in a rock band, or with an orchestra, etc. because of the uniqueness it represented for me.
The swelling of voices layered upon one another where even my cat-call whine seemed to fit in harmoniously was intense and invigorating as the volume rose louder resonating within me. The droning thumping beating of the boxes echoing throughout the hall guiding the voices along their undulating sonic journey moved with my heartbeat. And, as the final scratches and taps faded into the nothingness between sentences in the paragraph I was left each time until the last with a feeling of accomplishment as if I’d run a marathon or finished War & Peace that’s how much I enjoyed it. Sometimes, this is exactly what performing should feel like and what experiencing a performance should be.