Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Cornelius Cardew - The Great Learning (Bôłt)
So we have, at last, a full recording of the Cardew piece, something that had previously only been available in fragments going back to an early issuance on Deutsche Grammophone. This one was performed during July 2010 by about 60 people, musicians and non-musicians alike (in adherence to the composer's instructions), most of them Polish and, fwiw, no names that I recognized.
A question immediately surfaces, however: Aside from documentation, of what value is a recording of a work like "The Great Learning" which, as near as I can determine, is a resolutely participatory piece? Even in live situations (and I know a performance organized by Nick Hennies is upcoming in Austin), I would think that the obvious thing to do would be to allow for extra seats, instruments and scores, encouraging audience members not to merely sit and listen but to actively engage with the work. Being at such an occasion and simply listening would strike me as missing the point. [Nick, in a facebook back and forth on Cliff Allen's page, gave reasons why inviting anyone who attends to sit in might not be such a good idea; the score is more complicated than I realized] Yet here are these four discs, some 270 minutes of sound, sitting in my room--what else to do with them?
So, with some reluctance, I sit here and try both to imagine myself amongst the crowd and at the same time, evaluate the music. Now, I fully admit, that I'd be uncomfortable participating in a performance of "The Great Learning", particularly the intoned, vocal sections. Chairman Mao, who was directly responsible for the deaths (largely by starvation but directly as well) for untold millions of people (between 40 and 70 million by most estimates) isn't someone I hold in very high esteem, whatever other worthwhile qualities he may have had. [As Nick points out below, I was greatly mistaken about this--for some reason, I always associated this text with Mao, not Confucius---my mistake] This may well color my appreciation of the sounds heard here as, almost inevitably, I vastly prefer the instrumental passages to the vocal ones. Not that these are "great" or terribly fascinating to listen to, but at their best (ok, yes, the percussion sections) one picks up on the communal excitement and sense of interpersonal unity that one assumes was one of Cardew's goals. Sometimes, as in Paragraph 2, with the drums and long-held voices, both combine quite effectively and one gets the sense of the kind of potential that's here. The more drawn out and indecipherable the words the better, as far as I'm concerned, so Paragraph 3 (which reminds me very much of parts of Centipede's "Septober Energy"; curious if Tippett drew inspiration from this work), all putty-like and elastic, functions well. All sections have their merits; I found Paragraphs 1 & 7 the most rewarding musically, 4, the least, fwiw.
Personally, I'm glad to have this document and I imagine anyone with a serious interest in Cardew will feel the same. But it's best considered as a part of his oeuvre, perhaps not so much as a recoding one intends to listen to as often, say, as the piano pieces or the better readings of "Treatise".