The Scratch Orchestra.

The next collective that I took part in was The Scratch Orchestra. The Scratch Orchestra was a very prolific group of around 50 people which was defined in its founding constitution as:

A large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music making, performance, edification). (Musical Times, June 1969)[1]

The Scratch Orchestra came out of a series of music composition classes taught by the composer Cornelius Cardew at Morley College just south of Waterloo in London in 1968 along with the performances of the AMM a sound improvisation group.[2] The Morley classes drew some of the more interesting experimental classical musicians of the time, particularly Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. Morley College is an extra-curricular independent arts college and the classes were also attended by artists who were enthusiastic about music. Cardew was already attuned to the visual dimension of music so had welcomed visual artists.[3]

The inaugural meeting was held on the 1st July 1969 at St Katharine's Dock next to Tower Bridge, then a complex of cheap studio spaces for upcoming artists.[4] The first concert had already been arranged by Victor Schonfield for November in the same year. From then on the Scratch Orchestra 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. Its activities were open to anyone regardless of ability.

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 to 7th August 1970 playing to country audiences in village halls etc. Rod Eley in (Cardew 1974 p17)[5]

The constitution was a montage of contemporary practices influenced mainly by John Cage and Fluxus, which were intuitively articulated into a formula by Cardew. The precise and detailed 'constitution' gave a clear sense of where the orchestra stood in terms of cultural practice.

The Orchestra provided the starting point for sub-groupings which ranged from mainstream contemporary music quartets and to mobile performance orientated artists who took on the name Slippery Merchants and favoured more interventionist public performance.[6]

The Scratch constitution stated that concerts should be directed by the youngest first, so I did not have to wait long to be able to put on my first concert. This was a perambulatory concert that took place in Richmond were I was living at the time.

The Richmond Journey concert, on Saturday the 16th May 1970, followed a route through the landscape designed to compose an allegorical uprising.[7]

We began by attempting to break the 'claustrophobic spell of capitalist normalcy': Richmond High Street was to be disrupted! We would then pay respects to our ancestors before climbing up through the residential district - recruiting deadened office workers. Our growing ranks would proceed to the top of the hill, to Richmond Park, to celebrate our connection to nature and reclaim the heights. After a break to eat we would descend through the steep Thames meadows and follow the great river on to our destination - that benign archive of the earth's flora, Kew Gardens.

The allegory consisted of an image of growth, flowering, seeding and dispersal linked to ideas of political renewal. This was to be realised through a series of movements comparable to those in a symphony, which would explore a sequence of moods and emotions. Each stage of the journey was designed by a different individual to meet the overall plan.

The first stage, to start at 11am, was scored by Psi Ellison and Judith Euren. A study of the high street had inspired 14 optional instructions including such apparently innocuous things as 'either shout or whisper in conversation' or 'as a group stand and stare in a shop window - hummm automatically'. But the final instructions were more radical: 'Produce imbalance in Dickens and Jones' and: 'Sever Marks and Spencer's with a quick march in chain formation holding hands'. The 'imbalance' was easily produced by such activity as rolling on the floor and came to a head when a balloon exploded just as the whole staff had reached a state of near hysteric disorientation. Quite harmless but unbelievably dramatic in its effect. Anyway we escaped this excitement to the next stage which was choreographed by Bergit Burckhadt.

Behind the magistrates court in Paradise Road was an old graveyard through which was a passage called the Vineyard. Bergit had drawn a sort of double helix spiral as a score with musicians in the inner spiral and 'dancers' in the outer spiral. As far as I remember there were about 12 to 16 of us at this time.

The next node of the root map was my own: 'Awakening the residential area'.

'The graveyard of the living?

make enquiries. . .  door to doorâ


quavers/faces/voices/slam shut/ roadâ'

This was difficult to realise as it threatened to fragment the group, although it worked on a conceptual level. The next stage was a release from the tensions of confronting the city as we entered the old landscape of Richmond Park. 'Eating Rites' from the Scratch publication 'Nature Study Notes'[8] and other pieces were directed by Daphne Simmonds. A complex score by Michael Chant, reflected the concentric rings of tree growth.

After our picnic lunch we descended through the terrace meadows towards the river Thames following instructions by Greg Bright, which demanded: 'No conversationâ Remember 3 or 5 things from the journey and say them at any timeâ 3 or 5 hand-claps'. This became very magical as we encountered a large group of Orchestra members waiting for us silently in the steep meadow. We went on to play Greg Bright's light hearted but intense 'Field Spiral'. His score suggested: 'As each person joins the spiral they should play on flutes, whistles etcâ Remembering nursery rhymes'.

We then followed the towpath without any playing to Kew Gardens. The Kew score was a series of instructions from 'Nature Study Notes' along with the 'Piece for Sticks' by Christian Wolff. The journey ended with a formal group photograph by a local photographer (since lost).

Later Cardew wrote that:

New elements accrued which extended the scope of the orchestra and pointed the way to the future development of social involvementâ[9]

The beginning of a movement towards 'environmental events': a well planned all day ambulatory concert around the Richmond area designed by Psi Ellison and Stefan Szczelkun. (Cardew 1974 p17)

The Orchestra effectively came to an end in 1971 after a process of internal wrangling over the purpose of what we were doing. A group around John Tilbury and Keith Rowe, soon to be joined by Cardew, developed a Marxist-Leninist critique which castigated the open playfulness of the Scratch as at best flippant and at worst reactionary.

Recognition of the crisis was confirmed with the project to build a cottage as an environment for activity, designed by Stefan Szczelkun, for the contributions of the Scratch Orchestra to the Arts Spectrum Exhibition at Alexandra Palace, for two weeks in August. (Cardew 1974 p17)

This cottage was to have housed The Refuse Collection. This was a collection of Scratch members' conventional (old) artworks. It was also a place for discussion. A series of 'Discontent' meetings led to a split between the Maoists faction led by Cardew, another group who were unlabeled but broadly anarchist, and a third group of mainly classically trained musicians who were non-political and bemused by the whole affair. I quote from an original m/s by Judith Euren from one of the groups who opposed the hard liners:

All this does not mean that I am opposed to these current beliefs and interests. Things are not so simple. We must structure ourselves to accommodate the complexities of what we are.

In order that decisions can be representative of us all I suggest that we might have a trial meeting in which we order our discussion by every person having an equal opportunity to speak in turn.

This disciplined structure would slow down our present proceedings enough to enable the valuable function of listening to take place. We would be receptive to the present moment and a collective inspiration might then emerge of its own accordâ

We see listening as a creative force.[10]

The Marxist group prevailed and about sixteen people around this core continued to work as the Scratch Orchestra for a further year or so. But the inclusive, ludic nature of the orchestra had been replaced by an authoritarian and judgmental ideology.

Most people who were part of the Scratch Orchestra will agree what a deep impression it made on them in its relatively short life. Here are the views of two of the people who had trained as visual artists:

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 quotes from 25 Years of Scratch ICA 1994) [11]





[1] From the facsimile reprinted in the programme of 25 Years from Scratch at the ICA London 20th November 1994 p20


[2] Prior to the formation of the Scratch Orchestra in 1969 the AMM had a 'settled line-up' of Cornelius Cardew, Keith Rowe, Lou Gare, Eddie Prevost which was joined for 1968 by the American composer Christian Wolff and the percussionist Christopher Hobbs. The pianist John Tilbury participated on occasions. A brief historical summary can be found in Eddie Prevost's No Sound is Innocent, (Copula, 1995)


[3] Cardew had 'composed' the monumental visual score Treatise whilst working as a graphic artist from 1963. (Gallery Upstairs Press c1967, Buffalo. N.Y.) It is 193 pages with no instructions.


[4] A vivid account of this first meeting is given by Roger Sutherland in his article, 'The Death of the Scratch Orchestra'. (Noisegate No 8 2001 pp7 - 14)


[5] Cornelius Cardew published Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (Latimer 1974) as a repudiation of his eminent status a bourgeois composer. The book includes a short chapter on the Scratch Orchestra and its politicisation from Cardew point of view.


[6] Slippery Merchants typical line up included: Bryn Harris, Catherine Morley, Judith Euren, Psi Ellison, Bergit Burkhardt, Hugh Shrapnell, Stefan Szczelkun, Dave Jackman, Greg Bright.


[7] Description based on my own file and notes from the period.


[8] 'Nature Study Notes' was a book of cryptic Fluxus like scores that was published mainly for internal use within the orchestra. Pages were reprinted in the catalogue of 25 Years from Scratch ICA 1994. The scores used on the Richmond journey were : DJBR98, DJAC92, HSBR34, ACSR64


[9] One of which was the Slippery Merchants activity.


[10] This is from a hand-written document of the time, which is in my possession. Names attached are Judith (Euren), Psi (Ellison), Dave (Jackman), Diane (Jackman) and Hugh Shrapnel.