25 years from Scratch.

ICA Sunday 20th November 1994.



"In music it was hopeless to think in terms of the old structure (tonality), to do things following old methods (counterpoint, harmony), to use the old materials (orchestral instruments). We started from scratch: sound, silence, time, activity. In society, no amount of doctoring up economics/politics will help. Begin again, assuming abundance, unemployment, a field situation, multiplicity, unpredictability, immediacy, the possibility of participation." John Cage, 1967, p.11.


INTENTION: To look at this event as a representation of the historical existence of The Scratch Orchestra between 1969 and 1971. The S.O. was a very prolific group of around 50 people which was defined as "a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music making, performance, edification)".(Musical Times, 1969).

I want to spend some time contextualising the group both from a wide historical view and from a somewhat narrower focus of music history and theory.

A conclusion will analyse the problems of representing such complex collective time-based cultural activity and try to assess what the ICA event achieved.



The quality of the S.O. experience was so alien to our normal cultural experiences I feel that it would be insufficient to simply describe its history in outline so I have illustrated my brief history with quotations from ex-members of the orchestra.


The S.O. came out of a series of music composition classes held by Cornelius Cardew at Morely College just south of Waterloo in South London in 1968. These classes drew some of the more interesting experimental classical musicians of the time, particularly Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. Morely College is an extracurricular independent arts college and this context along with a variety of contextual reasons, which will become clear, the classes were also attended by artists who were enthusiastic about music. A 'draft constitution' was drawn up and published in The Musical Times June 1969. The inaugural meeting was then held at St Katharines Dock next to Tower Bridge, then a complex of cheap studio spaces for upcoming artists, on the 1st July 1969. The first concert had already been arranged by Victor Schonfield for November in the same year. From then on the S.O. took off like a whirlwind. A high level of excitement, commitment and an extra-ordinary mixture of skills allowed the orchestra to grow quickly and be putting on almost weekly concerts with 40 to 60 participants within a short while.

"There were seven concerts from November to January, six during April - May and one in June plus a BBC studio recording of paragraph 2 of Cardew's 'Great Learning'. The culmination of this period was the two week tour, 27th July to7th August 1970 playing to country audiences in village halls etc." p.17 Rod Eley in (CARDEW 1974)

(For a full list of performances in 1970 see appendix 1.)

The list of venues was varied and due to the status of Cardew and some of the other musicians ranged from the Queen Elisabeth Hall to Village Halls, from Alley Palley to Richmond Park. Each member was invited to design a concert starting from the youngest. This concert programme was meant to be selected from elements which were listed in the constitution and had already been developed in the classes at Morely and elsewhere. These were;

Scratch music, a collection of accompaniments, which everyone was urged to compose. These were within the style which might later be seen to be that of the Fluxus movement.

Popular Classics. Arrangements of particles from the established concert classics arranged for playing by everyone whatever their level of skill. These included such as Beethovens Pastoral, Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire and even John Cages 'Piano Concert'.

"the 'classics' which pretend (at least on some levels) to be manifestations of perfect, absolute, universal form and truth." (McCLARY 1987-92 P.19.)

Improvisation rites (Nature Study Notes) Rituals which aimed to give a community of feeling or a communal starting point but which should not attempt to influence the music that will be played. eg 'Each player divides  himself into three equal parts' or; 'At some point in an improvisation let the absence of something strike you. Set to detecting its hidden presence and exposing it (drawing it out).'

Compositions. The constitution offered that anybodys composition would be tried. Cardews own massive 'The Great Learning', based on Confusian classics, stood head and shoulders above any other composition. Another important composition was 'Burdocks' by Christian Wolff which was a centre-piece of the ICA event.

Research Project. Defined in the draft constitution in the following manner "The universe is regarded from the viewpoint of travel. This means that an infinite number of research vectors are regarded as hypothetically travellable. Travels may be undertaken in many dimensions eg temporal spatial, intellectual, spiritual emotional." This very specific formulation of 'research' did indeed inspire some very concrete results such as George Brechts project to translocate England nearer to the equator by "freeing the landmass from its sub strata". "Translocation might be accomplished by undercutting the land mass to form a hollow beneath into which air is injected." (orig. Brecht 8-9-69 in LMC 1994)

Such projects occasionally formed the basis of whole concerts or sections of concerts.

The constitution was a montage of contemporary practices which were intuitively articulated into a formula by Cardew. Some people adhered to them more closely than others but it seems a precise and detailed 'constitution' gave a clear sense of where the orchestra stood in terms of cultural practice.

Within this there was space for more mainstream contemporary music sub groups and at the other extreme a band of mobile performance orientated artists who took on the name Slippery Merchants and did more interventionist public actions and life quality works.(for more on Slippery Merchants see CARDEW 1974).

At the time there was an antipathy to documentation of almost any sort but the level of family snaps and momentos. It was thought that the work should have an effect directly and not through myths generated by slick documentation. Documentation was seen as a prime cause of inauthenticity of the conceptual art world of the time, a sort of cop-out from facing the force and effectiveness of the work itself. The idea was that our environmental work should have a direct effect on the environment rather than a cultural effect via documentation presented in the art world. Any art directed towards establishment approbation would simply be absorbed, filtered and drained of power.

See Appendix 2 for a description of The Richmond Journey a concert co-ordinated by Stefan Szczelkun.

This gives some bare bones to the thing which I will now flesh out with a few description by the participants themselves selected from the ICA catalogue;

"I suppose my most intense recollections are the tours; the camp sites in particular: the slow grace and calm with which people went about their business, accompanied by the occasional musical sound emitting from within a tent, or beyond in a field - like a Merce Cunningham ballet." John Tilbury.

"This feeling (of a second childhood) is not merely due to such Scratch phenomena as a craze for snake whistles, but the emphasis on doing without bothering about the how or why. Everything - a sound, a sight, an action, no matter how 'ordinary' - was held with child like wonder, to be an amazing experience, tapping on floorboards, a fire burning, a popular melody. (Some things really were amazing such as actual snow pouring onto the stage from an opened stage door during a scratch orchestra performance in a London theatre)." Hugh Shrapnel

"My proposal was for a whole concert based on George Brecht's 'Gap Event', the instructions for which are; missing lettersign; between two sounds; coming together. This concert took place in a tent in Bedford Square during the 'Book Bang' Festival in May 1970." Tim Mitchell.

"Whether delicate, soft and languorous in its quiet moments or amorphous, impenetrable and violent in its (more frequent) loud ones, Scratch Music, once experienced, was never to be forgotten." Christopher Hobbs. (All LMC 1994)


After two years or so of extraordinary activity there was a gathering increase in political consciousness. In fact I had myself been agitating for more 'political' perspective on what we were doing which seemed to me to be lacking in the more revolutionary perspectives of cultural activity I had been engaged in. However the politicisation, when it came to a head in the summer of 1971, was more of a wedge of hard-line Maoism which gradually throttled any activity which did not have clear and explicit political objectives and content. This Marxist splinter was lead by Cardew and it is a measure of our dependence on him that we could not collectively split from this relatively small group and keep the orchestra going.

"What was beginning to be an authentic search for musical expression based on the industrial state and urban life, turned into the totalitarianism of political theories and the notion that music could serve those theories" Psi Ellison (LMC 1994)


The Event at the ICA November 1994.

For some time there had been yearly get togethers often at The Place, near Euston station, organised by Brigid Scott-Baker. As the twenty five year anniversary loomed there was a flurry of plans and ideas most of which came to nothing. The ICA event had a busy period of preparation and rehearsal at places like Community Music in Farringdon which, in all, involved over 100 participants of which about 30 were original Scratchers. There were 25 separate ensemble performances with well over 50 works. The admission price of 12 excluded some people who could have only attended for a couple of hours.

Most significantly there were no reviews of this unique occasion and if Ed Baxter and Michael Parsons had not put in many hours of free labour there would have been no catalogue. The ICA gave the event minimal support and no promotion.




The point at which the S.O. existed was not arbitrary. I doubt even that there could have been two such entities. The whole process, in retrospect seems determined by history.

The sixties had been a time when the whole Enlightenment Project had gone into a terminal crisis... Increasing expectations of democracy, expansion of knowledge beyond the compass of any genius individual, a prodigious technological productivity, the dislocations and mass trauma of the second world war, the institutionalisation of the avante guarde, the end of the British Empire, Black immigration, US Global Hegemony through film and video etc.

The trickle-down effect which had provided the stability for bourgeois hegemony collapsed and was replaced by a bubble-up effect. A temporary surplus of earnings by working class youth fuelled a font of expressivity and youth culture. The semiotic challenge of the Mods to the dominance of Haute Couture signalled a western world youth rebellion.

The high modernism of the early C20th, which had at first been associated with a critique of the establishment centered in Paris, was high-jacked by the CIA, institutionalised and re-centered in New York. The avante guarde had become part of the establishment. Modern abstract art was used as a cypher of the freedom of the West in contrast to the formulaic realism of the totalitarian East.

In the stifling atmosphere of the increasing institutionalisation and commodification of modern art, young rebels wriggled out of the new orthodoxy. John Cage and Merce Cunningham were teaching at Black Mountain College from the early '50s and it became a centre of a new radicalism. It was here that he met Christian Wolff who was later to be a central part of Fluxus.

Fluxus was a group of 'immaterial' artists who were organised into an ad hoc movement by George Maciunas. They existed both in the USA, Europe and Japan and communicated with mail art. Their fascination with performance, the ephemeral and the multiple and their contempt for the unique great artwork developed into what was a style in itself.

"It was concerned (amongst other things) with a kind of art which would merge almost imperceptibly with everyday life: with redefining perception of ordinary objects and events, and with reassessing the value of common materials, activities and situations. There was a prevailing interest in the use of chance, in games, puzzles and paradoxes, in inversions of conventional use and value which owed something to Dada and Surrealism, in particular to the work of Kurt Schwitters, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp." (PARSONS 1995)

In Britain the change towards a post industrial society had brought a need for intellectually trained workers. There was a massive expansion of tertiary education on the model of the old tradition of universities which was backed up a total state grant system to support those who could not afford to pay. This led to a massive influx of students from the lower echelons of society. Admitedly probably more from the 'respectable working class', which had internalised values of art and good taste, than the proletarian. The new expansion also included many Art Colleges even though there were no jobs for the graduates.

"Even today after two decades of pruning and rationalisation, there are still more art schools in Britain per head of population than anywhere else."(FRITH & HORNE 1987).

This was remarkable enough but was followed by a further wave of internal liberalisation (marked by the Coldstream Report in 1960) which put "an emphasis on process and content, environment and conceptual activity and time-based work in film, sound and performance." (Parsons 1995)

It may have been that society was moving rapidly towards a world suffused with images and that it was seen to be necessary to train 1000's to get a few genius's. The increasing speed with which commodities needed to be redesigned, reinvented and readvertised demanded a highly talented and 'creative' workforce which in turn relied on the ideas generated in avante guarde art circles.

At any rate the majority of working class graduates were sacrificed in the process... but with  the new welfare and dole allowed many of these people to live poorly on this subsistence and provide an unofficial cultural opposition. Unfortunately the ritual of sacrifice required them to give up their previous class identity and adopt a shallow and ill-fitting middle class label.(As the oppressor definition of working class was of someone without intellect then those with a degree could therefore non longer 'logically' be part of this group!)

It was from the ranks of these would be sacrificial art lambs that many of the non-musician Scratchers came.

"Cornelius enabled us to achieve this unbelievable dream with the Scratch Orchestra.  John Cages's notion that all noises, and all silences, can be music was the underlying inspiration. ANYONE who wanted could play and compose music." Carole Finer

"Passionate about modern music and art, I joined the orchestra in 1969 and soon found myself thrown into an energetic environment where to my surprise my musical ideas, however tentative, would be taken seriously and would actually get realised." David Jackman. (both ICA 1994)

People brought the surface needs for cultural capital offered by membership of an 'orchestra' but also brought deeper resonances from a working class oral past. Not that everyone had a working class background but a large proportion did and this is significant considering what a leading position we were in.

"A kind of collective confidence grew out of the common activity of work together." Rod Eley (CARDEW 1974 p.20)

The urban classes had suffered a long period of cultural oppression. Starved of resources for an autonomous cultural formation, derided for what they did do and pummelled with the propaganda of Good Taste.(see SZCZELKUN 1993)

Working class song had been avidly collected by gentlemen throughout the C19th and was bowdlerised and reduced to piano notation in the process of collecting and publication. It was filtered through the silk hose of good taste. The music in the published collections had been gutted. This process culminated in the figure of Cecil Sharp in whose hands the musical tradition of the people became a tool for the creation of a modern national social identity. He and his cronies campaigned against autonomous working class music whilst feeding their sanitised versions into the educational troughs of the new state schooling system.

By the 1950s working class tradition of singing together had been largely destroyed amongst those in cities and suburbs. Active participatory culture was being replaced by the passive commodity audience but this gave 'no satisfaction' and there was a longing to remake a culture of active engagement. This was realised in the ubiquitous three chord four man rock band but there was still a need for a more contemporary expression which was freer in its reformulation of sound. Freer to respond to the massively changed social and technological conditions in which we found ourselves without the burden of traditional cultural inertia.





Between 1600 and 1900 the music of the Western high culture was systematised with a 'functional tonality' (SALZMAN 1974 p.4). This was to create an aesthetic which could be controlled, written and elaborated by the rational mind. In this way the Enlightenment dream of universal standards of excellence could be achieved.(RAMEAU Treatise on Harmony,1722)

The banishment of dissonance and noise was part of the Enlightenment myth of civilisation as progressing to a heavenly state of serene grace and beauty. A harmony which served to mask the cruel realities perpetrated by such civilisations in the course of their rape of the earth and its peoples.

But in the process the music lost it social connection in two ways: First local accents accruing to music were wiped out. The music was no longer in flux and could not respond to changing conditions. It became inert and bound up with a romantic bourgeois identity. Secondly, as the Aesthetic was elaborated it required increasing technical skill to perform which required a highly trained professional musicians. Music production was therefore dissected from social life and moved to State academies. The aesthetic concept of musical excellence moved out of the realm of common experience.

From 1900 there was a reaction to the rigidity of this formalisation by bourgeois composers themselves as 'functional tonality' began to strangle the intuitive aspects of bourgeois music as well as become increasingly divorced from the centre of gravity of social power (which was itself shifting). Both these things threatened the dominance of high culture. Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky began to stretch and bend these rigid conventions which were finally to be shattered by John Cage.

" Art instead of an object made by one person is a process set in motion by a group of people. Art is socialised. It isn't someone saying something, but people doing things, giving everyone (including those involved) the opportunity to have experiences that they otherwise would not have had." (Cage 1967).

Although there has also persisted a more stuffy musical orthodoxy which saw western music as a pinnacle of development from a primitive past. The orthodoxy also continued within the new electronic music. The key European practitioner here was Stockhausen. "Stockhausen argued for the controlled use of multiple realisations as a new conception of performed music, and he argued that such new technologies were in themselves new forms" (SALZMAN 1974 p.172.) Stockhausen was more 'dangerous' as he represented innovation but was hanging onto the old precepts.

John Cage had been born in Los Angeles in 1912. In the year of his birth his father had achieved a world record for staying underwater with a submarine he had invented.

In 1934 he began to study with Schoenberg. He studied until 1937 in which year he met Merce Cunningham the choreographer. In the early '40s he met the Dadaists including Marcel Duchamp and had invented the prepared piano for which he became well-known. In 1946 he began his studies of Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism.

His relationship with Black Mountain College began in 1950 and it was here that he met Morton Feldman, David Tudor and Christian Wolff. In 1954 Cage toured Europe with David Tudor and in 1958 returned to teach at the influential Darmstadt Summer School.

But it was in 1961 - 2 with his lecture series and subsequent book 'Silence' that his world wide influence was truly established. With this and subsequent publications he, along with Buckminster Fuller, had a profoundly uplifting effect many of the key experimental artists of the 1960s.

"We need a society in which every man may live in a manner freely determined by himself. I am not the first person to say so - I am only repeating Buckminster Fuller." (KIAD document source not known)

Any hermetic designation of music was entirely delimited and the relationships of music to everything else were up for debate and experiment.

Cornelius Cardew was seen as the great British hope to topple Stockhausen off his throne. He was born in 1936 and educated as a chorister in the choir school of Canterbury Cathedral from 1943 to 1950 from which he progressed to Kings College public school in Canterbury . He then attended the Royal Academy of Music between 1958 and 1960 from were he went on to study under Stockhausen for two years. On returning to England he took a graphic arts course and this provided a source of income over the following years.

"Cardew, Tilbury and other musicians became regular visitors to art colleges in and around London, in Leeds, Liverpool, Maidstone, Falmouth, Portsmouth and elsewhere. They performed and discussed the new music and involved students as active participants in works by Cage, Wolff, Feldman, Cardew, Brecht, Young, Ichiyanagi and other Fluxus-related composers." (Parsons 1995)

By 1967 he had been appointed to the prestigious position of Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music.

He was, at the time, playing with jazz musicians in the 'AMM' a free improvising group. The other members were Lou Gare, Eddie Prevost and Kieth Rowe. The AMM was a cauldron in which musical knowledge of great profundity could be arise and be exchanged. The sound of the AMM was like being invited into another dimension in the heart of some organic machine at times quiet and delicate and at others roaring with sound like a volcano. Performances were often in total darkness which heightened the effect. The power of such spontaneously generated unstructured noise was important in opening up the possibility of a Scratch Orchestra.

"A composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way of getting things done. I'd like our activities to be more social, and anarchically so." John Cage (undated KIAD library)

Of course Cardew was influenced by Cage but he brought his own upper class English leadership and European experience to bear with a force and sensitivity that gave the S.O. a character of its own and avoided creating a sub-set of Fluxus.

The other influence of importance was his graphic skill which he brought to greatest coherence in his monumental graphic score 'Treatise' (1970). There had been a lot of experiment with concrete poetry in the '60's and graphic scores(see CAGE(ed)1969). but Treatise was like a graphic symphony and achieved a new level of grandeur. To understand the significance of this I must digress into the history of notation.


The Importance of the Score to Western Classical Music. 

Music scores are about 3000 years old but the Western score convention started in the C9th with a single line stave. This was developed by the same monks who were developing the art of the illuminated manuscript. They were practically the sole keepers and publishers of knowledge.

Other staves in different colours were gradually added. These scores were often decorative and graphically inventive.

"Standardisation was encouraged by the church, in musical notation and in other areas of activity, as a way of extending its influence." Hugh Davies in (EYE MUSIC 1986)

With the development of printing from 1540 the score was democratised & secularised along with all written forms of knowledge. The new scientific thought was applied to music and the notation became codified in a standard form. The piano was central in its visual elaboration of this code of tonality in the most unequivocal graphic terms. It stood squarely at the centre of this music.

"Cardew and Tilbury both used to include in their recitals in the 1960s Brecht's 'Incidental Music', a set five pieces dealing with the piano as a physical object rather than a sound source, in the performance of which any sounds which may occur are literally 'incidental'" (PARSONS 1995).

The formalisation of music parallels the literary development of writing which is seen as rational and 'above' the 'lower' oral forms of expression and communication which are seen as uncouth.

The graphic score of the 1960s was therefore a gesture designed to make the representation of music more flexible; to re-evaluate convention; to suggest it might have a visual life of its own. This is in line with contemporary theories of writing which recognise writing as having a life and meaning of its own and was not just a transparent representation of spoken language.(HARRIS 1986)

The question here is to what extent Cardew was conscious of his gesture. In the published notes on Treatise he speaks of simple 'looking for the next mountain'. It seems he was responding to the zytgeist with great skill but without a profound grasp of where he was going. He was a gifted leader who was capable of taking a trend, as yet poorly formed, to its rational conclusion.


I have tried to show some of the main dynamics that informed the Scratch Orchestra. I also recognise that this is a partial and simplistic view and that to build a more complete picture much more research would be required. I say this because it is my thesis that such collective cultural phenomena are very difficult to represent and historicise using the extant methodology.



First a few considerations from music theory.

"The notion that Art - at least great art - transcends the social, the political and the everyday has been under attack for fifteen years or so, in a concerted development of work across a number of disciplines." Janet Wolff in (LEPPERT & McCLARY 1987-92. P.1.)

She goes on to suggest that our analysis of the sociology of music is hindered by a literary mind set which forefronts narrative critique and textual semiotics. This approach does not work well for music. The idea that music can exist apart from the way it is produced, disseminated and consumed is persistent within music orthodoxy. That it's aesthetic value is not contingent on all these things.

Theodor Adorno (1948 & '52) saw music as arising from social conditions but then escaping from its social tutelage and becoming aesthetically autonomous. In Marxist terms the base was enunciating the superstructure.

Jaques Attali's book 'Noise' (1977,1985.) gives an opposite theory, that music can anticipate the base. That in the cultural organisation of noise there are two prophetic indicators of social change. These are; Methods of composition and Modes of production, distribution and consumption. He talks of the mistake of trying to understand our world by just looking. We must also listen. He suggests that conceptualisation of a future social order through our composition of noise should be more widely recognised.

"Music can stand for and offer the immediate experience of collective identity." (Simon Frith in LEPPERT & McLARY 1987)

This seems to be all that goes on if we do not take on the problem of composition in Atallis terms. It seems that composition was offered in the S.O. but within the limited terms of the tradition I have described. We should understand that the organisation of noise that prefigures music is also that part of a continuum which produces language. James Kelman recently pointed out how oral language communicates as music. Vocalised thoughts and feelings are carriers of our emotions. It is the contagion of thought and feeling through these 'musical' perceptions which allow intelligence to become social and possibly apart from or prior to any verbalised rational discourse. This is the way a crowd can think as a community. To a subtle degree sounds also carry the force of what we wish to say. A sensotovoty to such perceptions is knocked out of us in the course of oppressor conditioning.

This was a level of practice and breadth to the meaning of  composition that we could barely perceive in the S.O. Although some of these ideas were latent in the S.O. even if theoretically unformulated. When political ideology was applied to the situation it was a heavy handed imported formula which was stifling and retrogressive. The theoretical and historical perspective I have briefly outline here were present in the S.O.. on the level of semantic nuance although the practical approach to 'composition', with its high degree of accessibility and improvisation, was much better articulated. There was an aesthetic of democratic indeterminacy which defied a linear notation or literary critique.

The ICA event did give the opportunity for a younger generation, and people who missed the S.O.. for other reasons, to be in direct vocal contact with the original members. In this it achieved more than a documentary representation and more that a historical treatise.

Such phenomena are complex because of the level field of democratic cultural practice: the possibility that any individual can, if encouraged and facilitated, influence the social whole. Leadership must be responsive - acutely listening. Often the participants in such contemporary groups do not share deep cultural commonalities due to the fractures and displacements of life, so complex interactions are underway in all dimensions. In the S.O. the activities and groupings were also not constant.

This complexity is both technically and ideologically difficult for critics and historians to deal with. There were no reviews after the ICA event and no history of the S.O. has appeared since the internally generated 'Stockhausen Serves Imperialism' in 1974 which was basically Cardew's public apology for his bourgeois past!

 Perhaps there is no more effective way to represent such complex collective efforts at resistance than word of mouth and noise of hand. On the other hand we could also consider developing methods of analysis and historical representation which can more fully accept the aporia and complexity of cultural phenomena which are collective.

I would argue that this is in fact necessary for the development of a fully democratic society in which all humans can live dignified lives.

Stefan Szczelkun  November  1995.



ATTALI, Jaques. Noise, The Political Economy of Music Manchester University Press 1985 (orig.1977)

CAGE, John. Diary: How to Improve the World (You will only Make Matters Worse) continued, Part Three (1967)  Something Else Press 1967

CAGE, John. Notations Something Else Press 1969

CARDEW, Cornelius (ed). Stockhausen Serves Imperialism Latimer 1974

DAVIES, Hugh and Griffiths, Paul. Eye Music, The Graphic Art of New Musical Notation  Arts Council 1986

FRITH, Simon and Horne, Howard. Art into Pop Routledge 1987-89

HARRIS, Roy. The Origin Of Writing Duckworth 1986

LEPPERT,Richard and McCLARY, Susan. Music and Society, the Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception University of Cambridge 1987-92.

PARSONS, Michael. 25 Years from Scratch  London Musicians Collective 1994.

PARSONS, Michael. The Scratch Orchestra and Visual Arts  M/s 1995

SALZMANN, Eric. Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction Prentice Hall 1967/74.

SZCZELKUN, Stefan. The Conspiracy of Good Taste  Working Press 1993.