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Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning Broke All the Rules, Only to Create New Ones

on March 10, 2020, 8:00am

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In the inaugural episode of Ghost Echoes, a suffragette reinvents a bawdy theatre, a professor locks his students in a classroom to see what happens, and a piece of avant-garde music with clearly delineated rules inspires a music history podcast with secret rules.

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Music and Sound Notes

— The music that starts this episode and recurs later is “Paragraph 7” of Cornelius Cardew & The Scratch Orchestra’s The Great Learning. The full piece is a huge work in many parts (“paragraphs”), but this record contains only paragraphs two and seven.

— The Emma Cons section features the first movement from Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 54, No. 1 performed by Marlburo Music (in the section about the Old Vic) and the March from Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band performed by the USAF Heritage of America Band (in the section about Morley College). Also, there’s a quick snippet of “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets, plus cameos from Graham Chapman and John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fawlty Towers, respectively.

— The strident bit of noise that repeats for comedic effect is not straightforwardly by Cardew—it is an extract from AMMMusic, the debut record by the free improvisation group AMM, of which Cardew was a member.

— The section about Cardew’s classes at Morley College contains cameo appearances by John Cage’s Variations I as recorded by the Motion Ensemble, and Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel from the Houston Chamber Choir’s 2016 recording. (Cardew’s students probably didn’t actually perform Rothko Chapel, but they did study music by Feldman and this is a representative example.)

— Later, there’s a brief incursion of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen, performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln with three conductors: Bruno Maderna, Michael Gielen and Stockhausen himself (it’s a very complicated piece).

Further Reading

The main source for biographical information on Cardew was John Tilbury’s enormous biography: Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished. Also consulted: Richard Gott’s review of Tilbury’s biography in the London Review of Books, Brad Duncan’s socialist-perspective primer on Cardew, and Robert Barry’s feature on the Scratch Orchestra.

Information on Emma Cons, the Old Vic, and the origins of Morley College came mostly from Terry Coleman’s The Old Vic: The Story of a Great Theatre from Kean to Olivier to Spacey. A few anecdotes and details were drawn from a slim volume called The Old Vic: The Most Famous Theatre in the World by John C. Lindsay, which if you turn it upside down becomes a book about the Royal Alexandria. Neat.