press release

This exhibition pays tribute to the work of the experimental British composer Cornelius Cardew [1936–1981] and to the activities of the Scratch Orchestra. Cardew brought music and visual art closely together in his work. His scores such as ‘Treatise’ [1963–1967] and ‘The Great Learning’ [1968–1970] owe their visual eloquence to his practice as a graphic artist, and his improvisational and group work was made with an awareness and connection to Flux art. The Scratch Orchestra was formed in 1969 and reflected the breaking down of boundaries between the different disciplines which took place during that decade with the development of sound.

The exhibition includes an archive of rare material from that period, much of which has never been previously exhibited, including original manuscripts, scores, Scratch Books, photographs and recordings of Cardew’s music, and provides an insight into the work of Cardew and his significance for today’s audience.

Cardew was one of the first Europeans to grasp not just the musical but also the social implications of the new American aesthetic, which included musicians and artists such as John Cage, Morten Feldman, John Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Like them, he embraced the ideas of Wittgenstein whose later philosophical theories were concerned with the activity of interpretation rather than with the notion of a literal, fixed meaning for each sign – with how language ‘meshes with life’. During his short working life Cardew attempted to reconcile his considerable artistic skills with the current political climate: “then, perhaps, the simple and stark division between the avant-garde and the revolutionary artist seemed like a habitable space, one well furnished with historical disappointments and unfinished conflicts”(Adrian Rifkin, 2008).

Cardew’s annotated musical score for ‘Treatise’ (1963-7) will be central to the exhibition. This 193-page graphic score uses lines, symbols and various geometric or abstract shapes rather than traditional musical notation. Produced at a time when Cardew was working as a graphic designer, this work demonstrates the artists’ ability to produce a visually stunning work of art. ‘Treatise’ was published with no explanatory notes since Cardew did not want to dictate how the score should be played – he was interested in the performers’ individual interpretation of it. Although started immediately upon completion of ‘Treatise’, ‘The Great Learning’ (1968-72) demonstrates a considerable change in Cardew’s ideas. The score consists of a combination of written instructions and musical and graphic notation in what some saw as “a unique equanimity of means between a musical poetry and political beliefs” (Morten Feldman, 1982). ‘The Great Learning’, is a work in seven parts or "Paragraphs," based on Ezra Pound’s translations of the Chinese poet Kung Confucius. ‘The Great Learning’ instigated the formation of the Scratch Orchestra in 1969, many of whose members had no musical training or expertise. Its membership included artists associated with Fluxus, musicians and other interested parties.

In 1971-2 Cardew became engaged in a radical reconsideration of all his work up to this time and came to adopt a Marxist-Leninist position. He thoroughly revoked the ethos of the Scratch Orchestra and many of his earlier endeavours in his book ‘Stockhausen serves imperialism’ which was published in 1974. He turned his back on the acknowledged principle of chance in both composition and performance. He embraced the potential of the new chance offered by political militancy and wrote traditional Irish rebel songs in a bid to extend freedoms to the poor and down-trodden.

The exhibition is a collaboration with MuHKA, Antwerp. An exhibition at MuHKA (6 June – 31 August 2008) is co-curated by Grant Watson, (curator, MuHKA) and Adrian Rifkin (Professor of Visual Culture & Media at Middlesex University. He is the author of Street Noises – Parisian Pleasure 1900-1940 (1993) and Ingres Then, and Now (2000). He has researched and written widely on cultural and art history and on topics ranging from popular music and opera to Kantian aesthetics and gay subjectivities).

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Cornelius Cardew