Improvisation Rites: From John Cage’s Songbooks to the Scratch Orchestra’s Nature Study Notes

stefan szczelkun

Stefan Szczelkun has published this new book under the Routine Art imprint, due in early 2018. Having read David Toop’s ‘Into the Maelstrom’ in mid 2017, Improvisation Rites offers some thoughts and personal memories of the late 1960s improvising scene, but is largely given over to a comparison of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew’s two works – Song Books and Nature Study Notes. It does not however take an historical approach but mainly describes how, over a period of time, a fresh line up of people devised both works in different spaces (since 2011).

While Toop’s book is often dense and penetrating into the tributaries of music and sound improvisation, Stefan Szczelkun’s book homes in on the reconstruction of the methods of the Scratch Orchestra, of which he was a member in the late sixties. As with much of Szczelkun’s writing, it is underpinned by reflections on communal culture and the conundrum’s of working class people engaging in ‘elite’ art (modernism).

As a way into thinking about this, in the late 1990s I found myself entering Jah Wobble’s house in Bethnal Green with my friend Jean-Pierre Rasle (a fine pipes player and member of Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart at the time). On entering we were given good old fashioned East End hospitality which comprised of bottles of beer, watching the largest TV set I had ever encountered and some extreme insults towards Jean-Pierre (“John Pierre, you fucking French cunt”). Wobble’s approach with the Invaders of the Heart was to surround himself with very good musicians, including Clive Bell, Harry Beckett and Jean-Pierre Rasle (along with many more). Upstairs, I was treated to an insider view of multiple takes being expertly cut by Mark Ferda and sampled together in Logic on a Mac for the forthcoming album. The earlier studio jams were layered up and intricately dropped in, creating a dense mix with the signature dub bass cruising and anchoring at the same time. Wobble’s approach was to drive ideas and assemblages through force of will, until something sublime emerged.

Stefan Szczelkun’s methods are different but are deliberately and honestly revealed in this new book. Although his approach is more the shop floor convenor than maverick working class ‘genius’, there is however a curious similarity in the open intellectualism of Wobble and Szczelkun, both trying to grab things from the apparent contradictions of the organisation of improvised space – although Szczelkun is clearly conscious of his role as a connector and organiser. Wobble of course sits roughly ten years along the musical timeline, aligning with Public Image Limited and punk, whereas Szczelkun sits in the late hippy underground and early eco movement of the 1970s, as a starting point.

Szczelkun has been publishing in various formats since 1972 and among his most important works are the Survival Scrapbooks. I have a very battered and precious marked up proof of one of these in my personal clutter. Amid the many formats that have come and gone since the 1970s, it seems odd to make a book about an improvising process but Szczelkun understands the durability of paperbacks compared to something like soundcloud and in this respect has become an underground cultural historian. He is also a friend of the low-fi, get it down and get it out approach.

‘Improvisation Rites’ as a book, is unfussy and roughly laid out to show how Szczelkun brought together some founding members of the Scratch Orchestra and some new people to work with Cage’s ‘Song Book’ and Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Nature Study Notes’. He is careful to point out that this is not The Scratch Orchestra, it is an evocation and playful reenactment of the working methods of the original orchestra formed in 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. Stefan Szczelkun and Carole Finer read out some of the rites here along with some excerpts from a performance at Cafe Oto in London in 2015.

At the core of the experiment and the book is some consideration of Cage’s approach, founded on indeterminacy, and that of Cardew, more given to an extension of these ideas in terms of rites, ie a group of people ‘assembling for action’. Cage was heavily influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau and in particular his classic work ‘Walden’. Thus, Song Books includes texts from Thoreau. Perhaps the best known quote from Thoreau, which makes its way through from Cage into the new evocations described in this book is ‘That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.’ It is a core principle of American anarchism and to this day sits ambivalently in the libertarian ideas around the gun lobby and taxation in the US.

Stefan Szczelkun, locates Cornelius Cardew’s appropriation of indeterminacy in Nature Study Notes as more of a communitarian and communal expression, opening up the performer as agent and activist. In this way Cardew connects more to marxist thought and later abandoned avant garde ideas in his life and work. Personally, I would have delved more into this parting of the ways on indeterminacy and the cultural differences in the UK and US (around anarchism), but Szczelkun tends more towards exploring the role of music and improvised performace to bring people together and create common purpose; evidently responding to this as a precious commodity in uncertain times. I’m sure he might say that this is a form of anarcho syndicalism, or direct action – perhaps another book in the making?

Improvisation Rites includes the rough accounts for holding the event at Cafe Oto and the Chisenhale Dance Space. It also recounts the use of a Google spreadsheet to log new ‘rites’ between participants and gives the minutes of various meetings in between performances. Some readers might take this as unnecessary detail or navel gazing but the author’s aims are intentionally set on expanding on how things like this work. An example of this is the comment by Matt Scott that ‘ the rites were best meant as an invitation to make music and a way of enabling a group of people’. The impression given by the author is that Cardew’s ideas and that of the Scratch Orchestra are more feasibly aligned with social space and interaction, whereas Cage’s work always sits within his domain. Szczelkun implies that Cardew’s lesser known work has more of an enduring role in culture, whereas Cage’s work, which uses things such as a typewriter, tends towards an evocation of a hallowed masterpiece.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the book is the consideration of spaces to perform in and their relative cultural ‘profile’. Cafe Oto, seen as the desirable high bar by the author to perform in, is in many ways a limited space to work with; but its compactness creates a merging of performers and audience members and it has become the de facto London venue for experimental music. By comparison the Chisenhale Dance Space is much more suited to multiple performers and comfort for a seated audience, but as Szczelkun observes only draws in a crowd of 37 people. This permeable nature of the space between an audience and a performance is integral to both, that are enhanced when the boundaries of common purpose are blurred (as in Cafe Oto).

As a convenor of culture Szczelkun is tireless and conscious of the need to record methods of direct action. If you are interested in the role of experimental art in England as I am, then this book is worth a read and provides links to documentation of the the performances.

Improvisation Rites: : from John Cage’s ‘Song Books’ to the Scratch Orchestra’s ‘Nature Study Notes’. Collective practices 2011 – 2017

Simon Poulter, December 2017