A few years ago the French writer, critic and broadcaster Daniel Caux, who died in the summer of 2008, said that there had been three major new musical developments since the Second World War. By this he meant the appearance of radical changes of musical sensibility which had not been present earlier, nor which could be said to have evolved naturally from existing musical modes. He listed them as (i) the music of John Cage, (ii) American minimal music and (iii) English experimental music. The first two in his list are not surprising. Few would deny the overwhelming importance of the work of Cage – for me the major musical figure in the twentieth century – and there seems to be little obvious musical ancestry to his work. The appearance of ‘minimal’ music in the late 1960s was equally startling even if it is possible to locate its roots in the work and teaching of Cage, especially through the attendance of La Monte Young at Cage’s classes at the New School for Social Research in 1958. (En passant it is worth, perhaps, noting that composer James Tenney felt that La Monte Young was the only ‘minimal’ composer – the others producing what he termed ‘pulse-pattern music’).
With English experimental music, however, the family tree is less clear, though it too can be shown to come indirectly from Cage. One source is clearly Cornelius Cardew and the seeds of a new and peculiarly English music may be traced to his encounter with Cage and David Tudor in Germany in 1958, at the time that he was working as assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Another source is the pianist John Tilbury who had studied in Warsaw. Both were aware of the music of the European avant-garde but were also alert to the lesser-known new music emerging in New York (Cage, Feldman, Wolff, and La Monte Young).
When the two of them worked together in the mid-1960s they were proselytising a range of new musics that covered more than Europe. Cornelius would talk about La Monte Young for example, and write articles in the Musical Times, while John Tilbury was performing Cornelius, Cage, Feldman and Christian Wolff – later Terry Riley and other things of that kind. People like myself, Christopher Hobbs and John White appeared a little later and, while we looked up to Cornelius and John, they were like colleagues, not gurus. But Cardew did have a kind of magnetism – people were drawn towards him and a lot of collective music making happened through him – and it is a sign of his powerful influence that many who emerged to compose in the late 1960s disappeared when Cornelius abandoned his experimental position a few years later.
A very important element is the relationship with the visual arts and the role of the art schools of the period. Many experimental musicians found a supportive environment in art schools at a time when university music departments, conservatoires and music colleges – much more conservative then – were not really interested in employing this kind of musician. And at the same time there was a conceptual alertness in the world of fine art that was singularly absent in contemporary music, as well as an openness to the question of what might actually count as ‘music’. After writing the first two paragraphs of The Great Learning, for example, Cornelius realised was that what he needed fora work of this kind (and indeed for most graphically notated scores and text compositions) was a mixture of trained and untrained performers who were open to reading notational systems which are not conventional. The ideal performer was someone who retained a high degree of musical innocence yet at the same time was capable of being stimulated by visual and textual notations. And it was clear that such people were more likely to be located in the art school.
People there, staff and students, were game to try out some kind of performance – the whole area of performance within the fine arts, with Fluxus and so on, was already there. Some had rudimentary musical skills but all, of course, could read English and also interpret graphics in an imaginative way. One of the chief protagonists of Fluxus, George Brecht, lived in London at that time and collaborated on many performances. His Water Yam was one of the key works of the period. At Portsmouth, for example, I would work with students on Water Yam and works like Ichiyanagi’s Distance, on prose pieces by Christian Wolff and La Monte Young. This kind of repertoire informed performances of Cardew’s Fluxus-related Schooltime Compositions, for me one of his finest and most understated works in a line that goes from the completely graphic Treatise (which never fazed those close to fine art), through The Tiger’s Mind and Octet ’61. These artist-musicians were essentially the kind of people that Cardew needed for The Great Learning and the Scratch Orchestra probably really came about for that reason. It was formalised in June 1969 but once these people were together many other things were possible.
The relationship with art colleges was also important for the way in which then current fine art practice was able to inform musical composition and vice versa. For example at Portsmouth there was a strong presence of what was called the Systems Group – painters such as Jeffrey Steele and Dave Saunders. Many within this group were sympathetic to experimental music practice and could see parallels with what they were doing in terms of producing art works from number systems, grids, matrices and even random material. To some extent this was not unlike the link between so-called minimal artists in America like Donald Judd and Sol Le Witt and a composer such as Steve Reich. The difference, however, was that in England this was not just some form of aesthetic kinship, but rather of people actually working together.
A further aspect of collective activity arose with the Experimental Music Catalogue, a publishing venture that was started in 1969 by Christopher Hobbs and is a good example of the kind of idealism and selflessness that characterises so much of English experimental music – its innocence and lack of interest in commercial enterprise. It came about because there had been a lot of pieces written for John Tilbury, and John had acquired a substantial collection of manuscripts that he felt should be made more widely available. A catalogue was made of these and was advertised in the Musical Times. After a couple of years this had attracted many composers and the EMC became too big for Hobbs to handle alone so I ran it from 1972 until its closure in 1981, with editorial help from him and Michael Nyman. Pieces were put into anthologies rather than sold separately, and a number of pieces of more elegantly printed music were added – John Gosling’s edition of George Brecht’s Water Yam, Christian Wolff’s Prose Collection and Tom Phillips’ graphic scores (these two beautifully printed by the artist Ian Tyson). The EMC handled sales and printing but this wasn’t publishing in the full sense in that there was no collection of royalties, no promotion, composers retained all rights and the purchase cost of the music was more or less the cost of printing. But the work was being disseminated and people outside the UK got to know the work. There was a lengthy correspondence with John Adams, for example, who was just starting to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1973, which resulted in the performances of many works in America the following year.
A measure of the increasing international awareness of this music came when, in 1973, there was a week of English experimental music at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels as part of the month-long ‘Europalia’ which celebrated Britain’s entry into the European Union. Then from 1975 Brian Eno’s Obscure label issued several works by composers such as myself, Christopher Hobbs, John White, Michael Nyman, Tom Phillips, followed by a younger generation comprising David Toop, Max Eastley, Jan Steele, Eno himself as well as the Americans John Adams (his first released recording) and Harold Budd.
Throughout its peak period, roughly from 1968 to the mid-1970s, English experimental music was noticeably without any official support (the Belgian performances were due to the enterprise of the Belgian organiser Hervé Thys, who researched music other than the mainstream repertoire provided by the BBC Symphony orchestra and others). There were no commissions from performing organisations (the Cheltenham Festival’s commission of Paragraph 1 of Cardew’s The Great Learning predates this period and, in any case, was not a comfortable one). There was little interest from broadcasters (apart from a recording of one piece for the BBC by John Tilbury in 1969, along with a piece by John White and one by Howard Skempton, which was edited to half its length, I had nothing on Radio 3 – then the Third Programme – until 1987).
But being outside was in no way a disadvantage, on the contrary it was almost relished and the apparent isolation had many positive consequences. The music was able to develop without composers seeking an external approval and there was no real interest in self-publicity. Composers accepted whatever resources were available – writing for fellow composers as performers could throw up unwieldy instrumental combinations – and did the best work possible within those constraints.
In the end there emerged music that was idiosyncratic yet conceptually clear; that was fiercely independent yet benign and welcoming; that was aesthetically challenging yet often deceptively attractive; and which, in spite of its acknowledged historical importance, is still little known.
But of course this is not ultimately something that would cause distress to any of these composers…
Billesdon, January 2009