About the Piece
The Great Learning is a piece of music written by Cornelius Cardew between 1969-1970. It features performers who have little or no musical training, in an attempt to free the music from the preconceptions and habits of conventionally trained players. The Great Learning draws on text from the Confucian book of the same name, which is recited and sung at regular intervals throughout the piece. When performed in its entirety the piece is very long (6½ hours in total), broken down into 7 separate sections or Paragraphs.
Paragraph One was originally commissioned for performance at the Cheltenham Festival by the Louis Halsey Singers, but if the performers were expecting a composition in a conventional style, they would have had a shock! The piece is scored for a chorus of performers reciting words of the Confucian text from which the piece takes its name and playing stones and whistles. This is accompanied by an organ part that pushes the boundaries of the instrument; the organist uses weights to hold down keys (creating drones) and is compelled to work with the idiosyncrasies of the particular instrument available.
Paragraph Two is an endurance marathon for singers accompanied by drummers. Several groups of singers, each with a drummer at its centre, struggle in vain to be heard over the pounding rhythms. They remain unsynchronised with the other groups around them, but unified in their struggle to be heard as their pitch shifts gradually upwards towards the conclusion of the piece.
Paragraph Three is a complete contrast to the raucousness of the previous section. It calls for singers of all different backgrounds, from highly trained classical singers to completely untrained voices, which combine with an assembled group of large instruments. The sound that they create is sustained, underpinned by a low bass note, out of which scales gradually emanate. The singers then enter together with a chord, and proceed to pick notes out of the instrumental scales on which to sing their text. The voices gradually diverge from their starting point and the different notes and voices, whilst disparate at first and jarring to those used to the high degree of control demonstrated in more traditional choral music, combine into a collective sound of great beauty.
Paragraph Four has many close links to the first paragraph. In some ways, it takes the ideas in the first paragraph and develops them in light of the Scratch Orchestra’s own growth. In this way it reflects more of the ritualistic quality that was an important element in Scratch Orchestra performances at the group’s peak. A chorus sits in a crocodile on the floor, striking cushions with wooden wands in time with the recitation of the text. This is interspersed with improvisations on notched sticks or Guero and is accompanied by a virtuoso organ part which places great strains on the performer through its complex demands whilst still expecting spontaneity in its realisation.
Paragraph Five is where the piece’s coexistence with the Scratch Orchestra is most apparent. At two hours long it is the longest of the paragraphs, incorporating performed actions, speaking, chanting and improvisation on many different instruments. As Cardew writes in the score it is above all an ‘improvisation rite’ and this is the point in the piece where the element of ritual improvisation reaches its most elevated position. The last of the paragraphs to be completed, this is where Cardew attempts to come to terms with the group’s differences through incorporating as many of its features as possible.
Paragraph Six presents a narrower, more defined structure to the performers in contrast to the inclusive nature of the previous paragraph. Written just after the formation of the Scratch Orchestra, it consists of short written instructions, which seem to incite exploration and attention to the sounds created by the performer, the sounds of others, and environmental sounds. It is strict in its instruction, yet very loose in its interpretation, with any materials being available to the performer as possible sound sources, including the voice. This results in a sparse texture of events, which allows a highly concentrated attention to sounds and the way they interact.
Paragraph Seven brings the piece to its tranquil finale. Voices are allowed to come to the fore for the first time; no instrumental parts are present. Written around the same time as paragraphs one and two, its demands upon the performer are less than those of the later paragraphs. Individual vocal characters are once again allowed to coexist resulting in a collective combination of voices, rather than the more traditional homogenous choral sound. This paragraph returns to the root of all things with both the mood and text evocative of the structured yet self-reflective nature of Confucian teaching.