UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
Towards an Ethic of Improvisation Cornelius Cardew
from "Treatise Handbook," 1971, Edition Peters
Cornelius Cardew in UbuWeb Sound
Cardew's "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism" in UbuWeb Historical
I am trying to think of the various different
kinds of virtue or strength that can be developed by the musician.
My chief difficulty in preparing this
article lies in the fact that vice makes fascinating conversation, whereas
virtue is viewed to best advantage in action. I therefore decide on
an illustrative procedure.
Who can remain unmoved by the biography
of Florence Nightingale in Encyclopaedia Britannica?
The career of Ludwig Wittgenstein the
philosopher (brother of the famous lefthand pianist who emigrated to
America) -whose writings incidentally are full of musical insights-
provides an equally stirring example:
He used a large inheritance to endow
a literary prize. Studies in logic brought him to the publication of
his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1918) at the end of which he writes:
"My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands
me finally recognizes them as senseless,. . ." and in the introduction:
". . . the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me
unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the
problems have in essentials been finally solved." Then, in the
introduction to his second book 'Philosophical Investigations' (1945)
he writes: "Since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again,
sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in
what I wrote in that first book. . .
"For more than one reason what I
will publish here will have points of contact with what other people
are writing today. -If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them
as mine,- l do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property.
"I make them public with doubtful
feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this
work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light
into one brain or another -but, of course, it is not likely."
In his later writing Wittgenstein has
abandoned theory, and all the glory that theory can bring on a philosopher
(or musician), in favour of an illustrative technique. The following
is one of his analogies:
"Do not be troubled by the fact
that languages a. and b. consist only of orders. If you want to say
that this shews [sic] them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our
language is complete;-whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry
and the notations of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in
it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many
houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our
language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and
squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various
periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight
regular streets and uniform houses.
"It is easy to imagine a language
consisting only of orders and reports in battle.-Or a language consisting
only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And imnumerable
[sic] others.-And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life."
A city analogy can also be used to illustrate
the interpreter's relationship to the music he is playing. I once wrote:
"Entering a city for the first time you view it at a particular
time of day and year, under particular weather and light conditions.
You see its surface and can form only theoretical ideas of how this
surface was moulded. As you stay there over the years you see the light
change in a million ways, you see the insides of houses-and having seen
the inside of a house the outside will never look the same again. You
get to know the inhabitants, maybe you marry one of them, eventually
you are inhabitant- a native yourself. You have become part of the city.
If the city is attacked, you go to defend it; if it is under
siege, you feel hunger - you are the city. When you play music,
you are the music."
I can see clearly the incoherence of
this analogy. Mechanically -comparing the real situation to one cogwheel
and the analogy to another- it does not work. Nonetheless, in full conscience
I soil my mouth with these incoherent words for the sake of what they
bring about. At the words 'You are the music' something unexpected and
mechanically real happens (purely by coincidence two teeth in the cogwheels
meet up and mesh) the light changes and a new area of speculation opens
based on the identity of the player and his music.
This kind of thing happens in improvisation.
Two things running concurrently in haphazard fashion suddenly synchronise
autonomously and sling you forcibly into a new phase. Rather
like in the 6-day cycle race when you sling your partner into the next
lap with a forcible handclasp. Yes, improvisation is a sport too,
and a spectator sport, where the subtlest interplay on the physical
level can throw into high relief some of the mystery of being alive.
Connected with this is the proposition
that improvisation cannot be rehearsed. Training is substituted for
rehearsal, and a certain moral discipline is an essential part of this
Written compositions are fired off into
the future; even if never performed, the writing remains as a point
of reference. Improvisation is in the present, its effect may live on
in the souls of the participants, both active and passive (ie audience),
but in its concrete form it is gone forever from the moment that it
occurs, nor did it have any previous existence before the moment that
it occurred, so neither is there any historical reference available.
Documents such as tape recordings of
improvisation are essentially empty, as they preserve chiefly the form
that something took and give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling
and cannot convey any sense of time and place.
At this point I had better define the
kind of improvisation I wish to speak of. Obviously a recording of a
jazz improvisation has some validity since its formal reference -the
melody and harmony of a basic structure- is never far below the surface.
This kind of validity vanishes when the improvisation has no formal
limits. In 1965 I joined a group of four musicians in London who were
giving weekly performances of what they called 'AMM Music', a very pure
form of improvisation operating without any formal system or limitation.
The four original members of AMM came from a jazz background; when I
joined in I had no jazz experience whatever, yet there was no language
problem. Sessions generally lasted about two hours with no formal breaks
or interruptions, although there would sometimes occur extended periods
of close to silence. AMM music is supposed to admit all sounds but the
members of AMM have marked preferences. An open-ness to the totality
of sounds implies a tendency away from traditional musical structures
towards informality. Governing this tendency -reining it in- are various
thoroughly traditional musical structures such as saxophone, piano,
violin, guitar, etc., in each of which reposes a portion of the history
of music. Further echoes of the history of music enter through the medium
of the transistor radio (the use of which as a musical instrument was
pioneered by John Cage). However, it is not the exclusive privilege
of music to have a history -sound has history too. Industry and modern
technology have added machine sounds and electronic sounds to the primeval
sounds of thunderstorm, volcanic eruption, avalanche and tidal wave.
Informal 'sound' has a power over our
emotional responses that formal 'music' does not, in that it acts subliminally
rather than on a cultural level. This is a possible definition of the
area in which AMM is experimental. We are searching for sounds
and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them
up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the
medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.
In 1966, I and another member of the
group invested the proceeds of a recording in a second amplifier system
to balance the volume of sound produced by the electric guitar. At that
period we were playing every week in the music room of the London School
of Economics -a very small room barely able to accomodate [sic] our
equipment. With the new equipment we began to explore the range of small
sounds made available by using contact microphones on all kinds of materials
-glass, metal, wood, etc. -and a variety of gadgets from drumsticks
to battery-operated cocktail mixers. At the same time the percussionist
was expanding in the direction of pitched instruments such as xylophone
and concertina, and the saxophonist began to double on violin and flute
as well as a stringed instrument of his own design. In addition, two
cellos were wired to the new equipment and the guitarist was developing
a predilection for coffee tins and cans of all kinds. This proliferation
of sound sources in such a confined space produced a situation where
it was often impossible to tell who was producing which sounds -or rather
which portions of the single roomfilling deluge of sound. In this phase
the playing changed: as individuals we were absorbed into a composite
activity in which solo-playing and any kind of virtuosity were relatively
insignificant. It also struck me at that time that it is impossible
to record with any fidelity a kind of music that is actually derived
in some sense from the room in which it is taking place -its shape,
acoustical properties, even the view from the windows. What a recording
produces is a separate phenomenon, something really much stranger than
the playing itself, since what you hear on tape or disc is indeed the
same playing, but divorced from its natural context. What is the importance
of this natural context? The natural context provides a score which
the players are unconsciously interpreting in their playing. Not a score
that is explicitly articulated in the music and hence of no further
interest to the listener as is generally the case in traditional music,
but one that coexists inseparably with the music, standing side by side
with it and sustaining it.
Once in conversation I mentioned that
scores like those of LaMonte Young (for example "Draw a straight
line and follow it") could in their inflexibility take you outside
yourself, stretch you to an extent that could not occur spontaneously.
To this the guitarist replied that 'you get legs dangling down there
and arms floating around, so many fingers and one head' and that that
was a very strict composition. And that is true: not only can the natural
environment carry you beyond your own limitations, but the realization
of your own body as part of that environment is an even stronger dissociative
factor. Thus is it that the natural environment is itself giving birth
to something, which you then carry as a burden; you are the medium of
the music. At this point your moral responsibility becomes hard to define.
"You choose the sound you hear. But listening for effects is only first steps in AMM listening. After a while you stop skimming, start tracking, and go where it takes you."
"Trusting that it's all worth while."
"Funnily enough I dont [sic] worry about that aspect".
"That means you do trust it?"
"Yes, I suppose I do." *Music is Erotic
Postulate that the true appreciation
of music consists in emotional surrender, and the expression music-lover
becomes graphically clear and literally true. Anyone familiar with the
basis of much near-eastern music will require no further justification
for the assertion that music is erotic. Nevertheless, decorum demands
that the erotic aspect of music be approached with circumspection and
indirectly. That technical mastery is of no intrinsic value in music
(or love) should be clear to anyone with a knowledge of musical history:
Brahms was a greater composer than Mendelssohn, though it can be truly
asserted that Mendelssohn displayed more brilliance in technical matters.
Elaborate forms and a brilliant technique conceal a basic inhibition,
a reluctance to directly express love, a fear of self-exposure.
Esoteric books of love (the Kama Sutra
for example) and esoteric musical theories such as Stockhausen's and
Goeyvaerts' early serial manipulations lose a lot of their attraction
when they are readily available to all.
Love is a dimension like time, not some
small thing that has to be made more interesting by elaborate preamble.
The basic dream -of both love and music- is of a continuity, something
that will live forever. The simplest practical attempt at realising
this dream is the family. In music we try to eliminate time psycholgically
[sic] to work in time in such a way that it loses its hold on us, relaxes
its pressure. Quoting Wittgenstein again: "If by eternity is understood
not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally
who lives in the present".
On the repertoire of musical memories
and the disadvantages of a musical education.
The great merit of a traditional musical
notation, like the traditional speech notation ie writing, is that it
enables people to say things that are beyond their own understanding.
A 12yearold can read Kant aloud; a gifted child can play late Beethoven.
Obviously one can understand a notation without understanding everything
that the notation is able to notate. To abandon notation is therefore
a sacrifice; it deprives one of any system of formal guidelines leading
you on into uncharted regions. On the other hand, the disadvantage of
a traditional notation lies in its formality. Current experiments in
mixed-media notations are an attempt to evade this empty formality.
Over the past 15 years many special-purpose notation-systems have been
devised with blurred areas in them that demand an improvised interpretation.
An extreme example of this tendency is
my own TREATISE which consists of 193 pages of graphic score with no
systematic instructions as to the interpretation and only the barest
hints (such as an empty pair of 5line systems below every page) to indicate
that the interpretation is to be musical.
The danger in this kind of work is that
many readers of the score will simply relate the musical memories they
have already acquired to the notation in front of them, and the result
will be merely a gulash made up of the various musical backgrounds of
the people involved. For such players there will be no intelligible
incentive to music or extend themselves beyond the limitations of their
education and experience.
Ideally such music should be played by
a collection of musical innocents; but in a culture where musical education
is so widespread (at least among musicians) and getting more and more
so, such innocents are extremely hard to find. Treatise attempts to
locate such musical innocents wherever they survive, by posing a notation
that does not specifically demand an ability to read music. On
the other hand, the score suffers from the fact that it does
demand a certain facility in reading graphics, ie a visual education.
Now 90% of musicians are visual innocents and ignoramuses, and ironically
this exacerbates the situation, since their expression or interpretation
of the score is to be audible rather than visible. Mathematicians and
graphic artists find the score easier to read than musicians; they get
more from it. But of course mathematicians and graphic artists do not
generally have sufficient control of sound-media to produce "sublime"
musical performances. My most rewarding experiences with Treatise have
come through people who by some fluke have (a) acquired a visual education,
(b) escaped a musical education and (c) have nevertheless become musicians,
ie play music to the full capacity of their beings. Occasionally in
jazz one finds a musician who meets all these stringent requirements;
but even there it is extremely rare.
Depressing considerations of this kind
led me to my next experiment in the direction of guided improvisation.
This was 'The Tigers Mind', composed in 1967 while working in Buffalo.
I wrote the piece with AMM musicians in mind. It consists solely of
words. The ability to talk is almost universal, and the faculties of
reading and writing are much more widespread than draughtsmanship or
musicianship. The merit of 'The Tiger's Mind' is that it demands no
musical education and no visual education; all it requires is a willingness
to understand English and a desire to play (in the widest sense
of the word, including the most childish).
Despite this merit, I am sorry to say that 'The Tiger's Mind' still leaves the musically educated at a tremendous disadvantage. I see no possibility of turning to account the tremendous musical potential that musically educated people evidently represent, except by providing them with what they want: traditionally notated scores of maximum complexity. The most hopeful fields are those of choral and orchestral writing, since there the individual personality (which a musical education seems so often to thwart) is absorbed into a larger organism, which speaks through its individual members as if from some higher sphere.The problems of recording
I have touched on this problem twice
already. I said that documents such as tape-recordings of improvisation
are essentially empty, as they preserve chiefly the form that something
took and give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot
of course convey any sense of time and place. And later, that it is
impossible to record with any fidelity a kind of music that is actually
derived from the room in which it is taking place -its size, shape,
acoustical properties, even the view from the window, and that what
a recording produces is a separate phenomenon, something really much
stranger than the playing itself, since what we hear on tape or disc
is indeed the same playing but divorced from its natural context.
A remark of Wittgenstein's gives us a
clue as to the real root of the problem. In the Tractatus he writes;
"The gramophone record, the musical thought, the score, the waves
of sound, all stand to one another in that pictorial international relation,
which holds between language and the world. To all of them the logical
structure is common". (4.014) This logical structure is just what
an improvisation lacks, hence it cannot be scored nor can it be recorded.
All the general technical problems of
recording are exacerbated in the recording of improvisation, but they
remain technical, and with customary optimism we may suppose that one
day they will be solved. However, even when these problems are solved,
together with all those that may arise in the meantime, it will still
be impossible to record this music, for several reasons.
Simply that very often the strongest
things are not commercially viable on the domestic market. Pure alcohol
is too strong for most people's palates. Atomic energy is acceptable
in peacetime for supplying the electricity grid, but housewives would
rebel against the idea of atomic converters in their own kitchens. Similarly,
this music is not ideal for home listening. It is not a suitable background
for social intercourse. Besides, this music does not occur in
a home environment, it occurs in a public environment, and its force
depends to some extent on public response. For this reason too it cannot
happen fully in a recording studio; if there is hope for a recording
it must be a recording of a public performance.
Who can be interested purely in sound,
however high its 'fidelity'? Improvisation is a language spontaneously
developed amongst the players and between players and listeners. Who
can say in what consists the mode of operation of this language? Is
it likely that it is reducible to electrical impulses on tape
and the oscillation of a loudspeaker membrane? On this reactionary note,
I abandon the topic.
News has to travel somehow and tape is probably in the last analysis just as adequate a vehicle as hearsay, and certainly just as inaccurate.Virtues that a musician can develop
1. Simplicity Where everything
becomes simple is the most desirable place to be. But, like Wittgenstein
and his 'harmless contradiction', you have to remember how you got there.
The simplicity must contain the memory of how hard it was to achieve.
(The relevant Wittgenstein quotation is from the posthumously published
'Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics': "The pernicious thing
is not, to produce a contradiction in the region where neither the consistent
nor the contradictory proposition has any kind of work to do; no, what
is pernicious is: not to know how one reached the place where contradiction
no longer does any harm".)
In 1957 when I left The Royal Academy
of Music in London complex compositional techniques were considered
indispensable. I acquired some -and still carry them around like an
infection that I am perpetually desirous of curing. Sometimes the temptation
occurs to me that if I were to infect my students with it I would at
last be free of it myself.
2. Integrity What we do
in the actual event is important -not only what we have in mind. Often
what we do is what tells us what we have in mind.
The difference between making the sound
and being the sound. The professional musician makes the sounds
(in full knowledge of them as they are external to him); AMM is
their sounds (as ignorant of them as one is about one's own nature).
3. Selflessness To do something constructive you have to look beyond yourself. The entire world is your sphere if your vision can encompass it. Self-expression lapses
too easily into mere documentation -'I
record that this is how I feel'. You should not be concerned with yourself
beyond arranging a mode of life that makes it possible to remain on
the line, balanced. Then you can work, look out beyond yourself. Firm
foundations make it possible to leave the ground.
4. Forbearance Improvising in
a group you have to accept not only the frailties of your fellow musicians,
but also your own. Overcoming your instinctual revulsion against whatever
is out of tune (in the broadest sense).
5. Preparedness for no matter
what eventuality (Cage's phrase) or simply Awakeness. I can best
illustrate this with a special case of clairvoyant prediction. The trouble
with clairvoyant prediction is that you can be absolutely convinced
that one of two alternatives is going to happen, and then suddenly
you are equally convinced of the other. In time this oscillation accelerates
until the two states merge in a blur. Then all you can say is: I am
convinced that either p or not-p, that either she will come or she won't,
or whatever the case is about. Of course there is an immense difference
between simply being aware that something might or might not occur,
and a clairvoyant conviction that it will or won't occur. No
practical difference but a great difference in feeling. A great intensity
in your anticipation of this or that outcome. So it is with improvisation.
"He who is ever looking for the breaking of a light he knows not
whence about him, notes with a strange headfulness the faintest paleness
of the sky" (Walter Pater). This constitutes awakeness.
6. Identification with nature
Drifting through life: being driven through life; neither constitutes
a true identification with nature. The best is to lead your life,
and the same applies in improvising: like a yachtsman to utilise the
interplay of natural forces and currents to steer a course.
My attitude is that the musical and the
real worlds are one. Musicality is a dimension of perfectly ordinary
reality. The musician's pursuit is to recognize the musical composition
of the world (rather as Shelley does in Prometheus Unbound). All playing
can be seen as an extension of singing; the voice and its extensions
represent the musical dimension of men, women, children and animals.
According to some authorities smoking is an extension of thumbsucking;
perhaps the fear of cancer will eventually drive us back to thumbsucking.
Possibly in an ideal future us animals will revert to singing, and leave
wood, glass, metal, stone etc. to find their own voices, free
of our torturings. (I have heard tell of devices that amplify to the
point of audibility the sounds spontaneously occurring in natural materials).
7. Acceptance of Death From a
certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity,
for it is based on the acceptance of music's fatal weakness and essential
and most beautiful characteristic -its transcience.
The desire always to be right is an ignoble
taskmaster, as is the desire for immortality. The performance of any
vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn't it would lack vitality.
Life is a force to be used and if necessary used up. "Death is
the virtue in us going to its destination" (Lieh Tzu).
*Except [sic] from a dialogue on AMM by David Sladen.Responses to Virtues, for Theorizing
(This critique of the foregoing was written
by Michael Chant on 29th April 1968)
"Simple", if it is to be used
to denote any aspect of what is true, must be taken to mean 'without
parts'. However, we also want to use the word to convey a state of mind,
or, further, an attitude of mind to what is the case. We want to be
happy. 'Simplicity' cannot be a virtue, except in reference to a state
of pure happiness. The world is then essentially without parts in that
firstly, we discern no problems, and secondly, we sense no dichotomy
between the internal and external worlds. We may say that we feel no
discontinuities. In no sense can "simple" be used to signify
"the opposite of complex", where by "complex" I
mean 'multiform'. We cannot speak of a 'contradictory fact'. And I think
we cannot tolerate a 'felt contradiction'. Logic -meaning 'system of
reasoning'- must not be taken as standing for something absolute. A
contradiction has reality only when it can be felt. If we discern a
contradiction, we must resolve it by rejecting the mode of reasoning
which generates it. Can we be happy while yet being aware of contradictions?
To imagine oneself as exclusively concentrating
on a one self is to ignore the relationship that exists between self
and other. To imagine that one can alter one factor in this relationship
without altering the other is to delude oneself. The relationship is
a formal one -a continuity between altering the environment and altering
oneself. Art is a statement of the further continuity of this relationship,
it is an education. The ground lines are not static.
To imagine one can improve the external
world by attempting to bring about its conformance to one's present
ideal is thus seen to be an illusion. If something environmental is
found grating, one must seek to adjust the relationship, not the external
or internal world.
All that is needed is recognition that
a relationship exists.
It is a distinctive feature of life that
this sort of relationship exists, is called forth whenever we can speak
of life. It calls forth time as a form. What is distinctive of consciousness
is the control of this form. Art is the way of controlling this form
internally. Music, as conventionall [sic] understood, is a record of
the composer's experiences in this direction. We can go beyond this
conception of music (and perhaps it may be as well therefore to drop
the term) by letting a composition be a statement of how to control
In pure happiness the relationship is null.