Friday, 30 October 2009

Schooltime Compositions (1967)

'Ultra-red is leading a performative enquiry into Cardew’s work which mirrors the ten-hour performance of Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions that occurred at the ICA forty years ago, in 1969'.

It would seem useful to stepback from Cardew's path to Maoism and look again at the movements and dynamism of what he was up to in the period around 1967/68 especially with regard to the 40 years anniversary of presenting Schooltime Compositions at the ICA.

From The Cornelius Cardew Reader:

At the suggestion of Michael Sargent of Focus Opera Group Cornelius Cardew has been working on a small opera book called Schooltime Compositions, which will be performed at the International Students House on March 11 and 12th (one half hour session each evening) under the titles 'Dayschool' and 'Nightschool'.

Cardew wrote -
'Each of the Schooltime Compositions in the opera book is a matrix to draw out an interpreters feelings about certain topics or materials. These pieces plus their interpreters are the characters in the opera. They undergo no dramatic developments in the book; in performance they may. The pieces plus their interpreters will be the same in both Dayshcool and Nightschool. The different matrices grew around such things as words, melody, vocal sounds, triangles, pleasure, noise, working-to-rule, will and desire, keyboard. My plan is based on the translation of the word 'opera' into 'many people working'

John Tilbury writes on this time -
Throughout the period he was becoming less and less concerned with beautiful artefacts and more and more involved with people and their ability to make their own music. He began to assume a more educative role - to which he was perfectly suited through his strong democratic sentiments, his ability to teach by example, and not least his genius for improvising. Musical education is what Schooltime Compositions (1967) is about. The work is a notebook of observations, ideas, notations, hints, diagrams, concepts, scientific experiments, geometric analogies - some direct, some oblique, but mostly presented as 'facts' with no covering instructions. For Cardew each composition was a matrix to draw out the interpreters' feelings about certain topics or materials. Here the different matrices grew around such things as words, melody, vocal sounds, triangles, pleasure, noise, working to rule, will/desire, keyboard. Some of the matrices serve as a measure of virtuosity, others of courage, tenacity, alertness, and so on. They point to the heart of some real matter, mental or material. The score tells the interpreter the general area of his potential action - he may wish or have the talent to play, or sing, or construct, or illumine, or take exercise of one sort or another, and can draw out his interpretation in that direction.

Thirty years later there's still no escaping the bourgeois critics desire for proper and 'dignified' music - here an amusing review of A tribute to Cardew, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2001

But Cardew's "Schooltime Compositions", described by its composer as an "opera book", was an experiment too far. Near the beginning, pianist Sarah Walker clapped her hands as if to say, "That's enough, children." A bewildering tapestry of events slowly unfolded, in which Cardew's music took a back seat. A be-wigged woman dressed in an abbreviated latex costume pranced around, uttering desultory monosyllables before she was blindfolded and bound to a chair with masking tape. Later, a piteous figure with a sheet over his head began mournfully flogging the floor with his belt. Among the other contributors, one sang into a pillar and another, having carried around two tape recorders, lay down for a nap. Courtesy of a TV screen, the composer himself cast a wry eye on such random proceedings as a pizza delivery and the ceremonious wrapping of a cello in aluminium foil. David Ryan had the best idea, spending most of his time on stage reading a newspaper. More enervating than innovative, it was worth experiencing – once.

Howard Skempton, who quietly played his accordion throughout "Schooltime Compositions", was heard to far greater advantage later at the Cellar Theatre. His delightfully artless short pieces for solo accordion ranged in mood from wistful waltzes and quirky dances to the contemplative mindscapes of his "Axis" pieces. Skempton's dignified performance of these poignant miniatures was the perfect antidote to the previous event's pretentious pageant and made a calmly satisfying ending to an unforgettable evening.

Paul Conway
The Independent
8th December 2001

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