The Great Learning was one of British composer Cornelius Cardew‘s most important works, a series of seven “paragraphs” with text from the writings of Confucius and scored for generally large numbers of both trained and untrained performers.
The original productions of this piece, in fact, served as the genesis of the legendary pro-amateur Scratch Orchestra. This 2000 release includes three of the paragraphs, two from the 1971 Deutsche Grammophon album that premiered the composition, as well as an additional section, “Paragraph 1,” recorded in 1982. All three are fascinating musical experiences.
“Paragraph 1” works its way from the mysterious, delicate clicking of handheld stones through harsh yet oddly meditative organ tones and penny whistles to the massed choral intonations of the Confucian script. It is eerie and otherworldly but casts its own unique sense of serenity over the listener.
This spell is abruptly shattered by the percussive explosion that begins and carries through “Paragraph 2,” an exercise in the inevitability and value of failure. The chorus is required to attempt to valiantly surmount the raging drums and to do so over a long period of time, an idea based on the Buddhist method of practicing chanting in front of a roaring waterfall; they will fail in making themselves clearly heard but something valuable may be learned in the process. Little by little, due to sheer physical exhaustion, the singers subside while the drums, gathering rhythmic cohesion, go on and on.
The last piece, “Paragraph 7,” for “any number of untrained voices,” is a lush and complex vocal sea. From a rich and heady underlying drone, individual voices emerge and recede (is that Julie Tippett one hears?) like waves cresting and falling back. The mass of voices becomes palpable and breathing like a single, multi-throated organism.
One can easily imagine, in lesser hands, a composition like this disintegrating into a new agey mush, but this one succeeds wildly as a deep and probing conception, realized fully and with passion. The performance of these pieces is credited simply to the Scratch Orchestra, an organization whose membership varied over the years, but it’s likely that participants in these sessions included most of the members of AMM, Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars, and Michael Nyman, among many others. Very highly recommended.