Thursday, October 21, 2010

Music in utopia

Settling back in after travelling involves finding various pieces of life and picking them up again. One of these pieces is John Tilbury's Cardew biography, which I've mentioned before. Needless to say, this wasn't a vacation book because of the FAA's continued enforcement of luggage weight restrictions. So this past week I've picked it up again, reading about the Scratch Orchestra, a semi-ragtag but seminal group which grew out of Cardew's irregular position teaching experimental music at the Morley College starting in 1968. Cardew was never an important figure for me in my early years, but the set of people who were involved in the Scratch Orchestra is truly astounding. Many of the composers who first came to my attention on Brian Eno's Obscure label, David Jackman (later of the drone group Organum), and of course AMM, were all there.

Besides the who's who aspects, I'm fascinated by the utopian nature of the Scratch Orchestra. Tilbury, who performed with the group, captures the essence of the freeform era, describing the travelling, the guerilla concerts, instrumentation made on the cheap (or even better, with 100% found objects), expressing a joie de vivre that made me feel that I was there. At the time, I was in high school, but even there I felt a loosening of the societal strings, a newfound freedom, that went beyond simply moving into young adulthood. Even at my school, in the four years that I went from grade 9 to 12, the dress code relaxed from a mandatory jacket and tie to nearly anything goes, which meant sandals and bell bottom jeans. Tilbury's prose brought all of this back.

But the late 1960s were also a time when revolution was in the air, even if its inevitability hasn't exactly turned out as foreseen. But I remember that too, even from my idyllic prep school enclave in upstate New York, followed by an Ivy League college elsewhere in New England (where I completely missed out on the opportunity to spend time with Christian Wolff, an encounter for which I clearly was not ready). Parallel to the Scratch Orchestra's freedom being eventually channeled (one might say curtailed) into a revolutionary rigidity of strict Maoism, their trajectory matches that of my own idols at the time, the French literary avant-garde group Tel Quel, whom I studied assiduously and who took the same route after a trip to China in the mid 1970s. I suppose that Maoism was eventually discredited as a solution. Even though the issues that Cardew and company faced haven't gone away, Tilbury's gift is that he makes the questions real all over again, almost forty years after the fact. Tilbury remains politically committed (he refused to concertize in the US after Bush's invasion of Iraq), and I look forward to reading how all this plays out.

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