We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

Rzewski's politically (or at least esthetically) efficacious “compromise” with tradition exposed a fault line within the politicized avant-garde of the late 1960s. On one side were those determined to remain true despite their political commitments to the esthetic principles of avant-gardism that had by then become a tradition in its own right; on the other were those for whom the political commitments of the so-called “new left” outweighed the esthetic. Sometimes the two commitments battled one another within the same unhappy creative personality.

Internalized Conflict

ex. 2-4a Frederic Rzewski, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” theme

Internalized Conflict

ex. 2-4b Frederic Rzewski, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” first variation

The most extreme case was that of Cornelius Cardew (1936–81), an English composer who after a conventional elite training at the Royal Academy of Music went to Cologne and worked for three years (1957–60) as Stockhausen's assistant at the equally (though differently) elite electronic music studio maintained by the German Radio. In 1967 he was appointed to the faculty of the Royal Academy, but by 1969, under the influence of the Cultural Revolution instigated in China by Mao Tse-tung and his Red Guards, Cardew renounced his advanced musical techniques as “bourgeois deviationism.” Together with some friends and like-minded musicians, he formed an organization called the Scratch Orchestra, “a gathering,” as Cardew later put it, of “musicians, artists, scholars, clerks, students, etc, willing to engage in experimental performance activities.”42 The willingness in question meant readiness to submit to a radically egalitarian discipline, bordering on anarchy, in which no a priori standard of quality could be asserted. “No criticism before performance”43 was the group's motto. Their main activity consisted of group improvisation, for which members prepared by writing and teaching to the rest of the group examples of Scratch Music, something “halfway between composing and improvising.”44

It was defined in the Orchestra's draft constitution as “accompaniments, performable continuously for indefinite periods.”45 An accompaniment was defined as “music that allows a solo (in the event of one occurring) to be appreciated as such,” notated “using any means—verbal, graphic, musical, collage, etc.” The only condition was that a piece of Scratch Music “be performable for indefinite periods of time.” A necessary proviso was that “the word music and its derivatives are here not understood to refer exclusively to sound and related phenomena (hearing, etc); what they do refer to is flexible and depends entirely on the members of the Scratch Orchestra.”

For outsiders, further definition had to await the publication of Scratch Music (1972), an anthology edited by Cardew, containing examples by himself and fifteen other members of the Orchestra. Very few Scratch pieces employed musical notation as normally defined. Many consisted of drawings that, without oral explanation, could not readily be translated into the sort of continuous action the constitution specified. Some, however, consisted of verbal prescriptions that occasionally suggested vivid musical (or at least sonic) results. “Take a closed cylinder (empty pepsi-cola tin),” one began. “Bang it. Drop things through the holes the pepsi came out of.”46 A more elaborate recipe for action, entitled “Scratch Orchestral Piece with Gramophone” (i.e. phonograph or record player) read as follows:

A gramophone record of an orchestral composition, known to have a scratch in it such as will cause infinite repetition of one groove, is taken and played. The (live) orchestra accompanies the record, repeating the music heard to the best of its ability. (What will come out is a sort of canon between the recorded and live performance.) The record should preferably not be a popular classic. The performers must play quietly to avoid losing touch with the record, which should not be played loudly.

When the record arrives at the repeating groove, the performers should, after a few repetitions, be able to play in unison with the record. The general volume level will probably rise here. When a member loses touch with the record, he may go over to the gramophone and jerk the needle on. This action should be plainly visible to the other performers, who must immediately resume their low volume and follow the record as before. The performance ends a) (if the gramophone is automatic) when the gramophone switches itself off, b) (if the gramophone is manually controlled) at any time after the record has ended. The audible click which sometimes occurs as the needle moves around the innermost groove may be taken as part of the record, in which case a similar situation to the one described above may obtain.

The piece could be played by any performer(s), in which case the record should match as far as possible the instrument(s) or voices(s) used.47

The book culminated in a list titled “1001 Activities, by members of the Scratch Orchestra” (Fig. 2-6). Some, perhaps most, are entirely “conceptual” in the sense that they can be more or less vaguely imagined but not literally realized. It is not clear whether the performable items in the list were actually performed as Scratch Music; but in any case, by the time the list was published the Scratch Orchestra had disbanded. It lasted only two years and is probably best categorized as one of the many failed experiments in utopian living that proliferated during the late 1960s.

“Did all this have to change? It changed,” was Cardew's Samuel Beckett–like comment in retrospect. He went on to describe how

the internal contradictions in the Scratch got sharper and sharper until, possibly triggered by the civic and press response (we had a concert banned on grounds of obscenity and the press went to town on the scandal) to our Newcastle Civic Centre concert on June 21 1971, I opened the doors to criticism and self-criticism. A collection of the resulting documents was circularized under the title “Discontent.”…The Scratch was saved from liquidation by two communist members. At the August 23/24 discussions of the Discontent documents John Tilbury exposed the contradictions within the orchestra, and proposed the setting up of a Scratch Ideological Group. I and several others were glad to join this group, whose tasks were not only to investigate possibilities for political music-making but also to study revolutionary theory: Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung. Another aim was to build up an organizational structure in the Scratch that would make it a genuinely democratic orchestra and release it from the domination of my subtly autocratic, supposedly anti-authoritarian leadership.48

Internalized Conflict

fig. 2-6 Cornelius Cardew, pages from “List of 1001 Activities” (Scratch Music, 1972).

But the group was never reconstituted; its members escaped from freedom. The perennial political contradictions between anarchistic ideals and the realities of leadership were not the only factor. The Scratch Orchestra came up against the perennial dilemma of maximalism: they reached the limit. As one antagonist scoffed, “How can you make a revolution when the revolution before last has already said that anything goes?”49 The thought was unkindly put, but the truth that it contained was one of the predicaments that led eventually to the eclipse of the avant-garde as a force in contemporary music.

Like Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew wound up writing mass songs to incite popular activism, and in 1974 published another, rather disillusioned book called Stockhausen Serves Imperialism “Nowadays a Cage concert can be quite a society event,”50 he noted sarcastically; and also, more wistfully, that Cage's “emptiness does not antagonize the bourgeois audience which is confident of its ability to cultivate a taste for virtually anything.”51 Even the avant-garde, he had found, could be commercially co-opted, consumed, commodified; the process (exemplified most dramatically by the New York Philharmonic's notorious experience with Atlas eclipticalis) had painfully exposed “the sharply antagonistic relationship between the avant-garde composer with all his electronic gadgetry and the working musician.”52

As for Stockhausen, he had been tamed, his erstwhile disciple charged, by “repressive tolerance,”53 the insidious and corrupting approval of the establishment. All that was left was shopworn romanticism, the old idealistic religion of art that Cardew now attacked the way Marx had denounced “the opium of the people” in the name of historical materialism.

“Salesmen like Stockhausen,” he wrote,

would have you believe that slipping off into cosmic consciousness removes you from the reach of the painful contradictions that surround you in the real world. At bottom, the mystical idea is that the world is illusion, just an idea inside our heads. Then are the millions of oppressed and exploited people throughout the world just another aspect of that illusion in our minds? No, they aren't. The world is real, and so are the people, and they are struggling towards a momentous revolutionary change. Mysticism says “everything that lives is holy,” so don't walk on the grass and above all don't harm a hair on the head of an imperialist.54


(42) Cornelius Cardew, “Introduction,” in Scratch Music, ed. Cornelius Cardew (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1974), p. 9.

(43) Ibid. p. 12.

(44) Ibid. p. 9.

(45) “A Scratch Orchestra: Draft constitution,” in Scratch Music, p. 10.

(46) Scratch Music, p. 62.

(47) Scratch Music, p. 61.

(48) “Introduction,” in Scratch Music, p. 12.

(49) Charles Wuorinen, interviewed by Barney Childs (1962), in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, eds. Elliott Schwartz and Barney Childs (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1967), p. 371.

(50) Cornelius Cardew, “John Cage: Ghost or Monster?” in Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and Other Articles (London: Latimer New Dimensions Limited, 1974), p. 35.

(51) Ibid. p. 36.

(52) Ibid. p. 39.

(53) Cardew, “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism,” in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and Other Essays, p. 48.

(54) Ibid. p. 49.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002007.xml