Spiral Scratch

The 'Scratch Orchestra' founded in the 1970s by composer Cornelius Cardew was an experiment in democratic music-making, turning the orchestra into the microcosm of a new society.

A “Scratch Orchestra” is a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music-making, performance, edification).

The notice, printed in 1969 in both the The Musical Times and the underground newspaper IT, made it sound as much like an activist group as a musical ensemble. And in a way, it was. The Scratch Orchestra, founded by composer Cornelius Cardew with students from his class at the Morley adult education college, London, along with the many more civil servants, housewives. traffic wardens, and labourers who found their way to rehearsals one way or another, was always about far more than just sound. It was about people, their relationships, and interactions — an experiment in new forms of being together.

For Cardew himself, the Orchestra was a ‘microcosm of society’ — and a utopian one at that. The Scratch was a vision of society in which class has been abolished and life is lived as a work of art. By 1970, the ensemble’s membership had swelled to over 200 — ‘probably the largest and most heterogenous group of people ever to have been united in a common artistic cause’, according to one of them, Roger Sutherland. They played over seventy concerts, in venues ranging from the Southbank Centre to local village halls, political rallies and the courtyard at Euston Station. They performed a ‘collective shout’ in the National Gallery and a ‘pigeon event’, involving drawings made with seed, in Trafalgar Square. Instrumentation might include tubas and clarinets — or tables, chairs, coins, ashtrays, and vending machines. Even when taking place in traditional concert halls, with traditional orchestral instruments, Scratch Orchestra presentations had a way of disrupting themselves, with members marching across the backs of audience members’ seats in surreal costumes or wheeling a motorbike on stage and noisily revving its engine.

These last-named activities were the work of a subgroup of the Orchestra known as the ‘Slippery Merchants’, who regarded it as their duty to undermine Cardew’s gnomic authority. Stories about the Scratch Orchestra tend to speak of sensational beginnings scuppered by a subsequent Maoist ‘politicisation’ and descent into factionalism. But in truth, there were competing subgroups within the Orchestra from the very beginning —not just the Slippery Merchants, but equally the Harmony Band, Private Company, or the Comprehensive Omni-Media Entertainment Troupe, each of which would specialise in different kinds of activities to interrupt or superimpose upon the work of the wider collective. Far from destroying the group, the self-criticism and Marxist analysis of the Scratch’s later years produced for a brief while a new focus and renewed sense of purpose.

Things had come to a head after a concert at Newcastle Civic Centre in July 1971, which was disrupted first by a gang of skinheads, then by the police. The events themselves — apparently sparked by some rude words written by Cardew on a roll of toilet paper — seem trifling in retrospect. But they led the group to question the gap between their professed democratic ideals and the general bafflement they were met with on the part of the general public. Cardew instigated a series of ‘Discontent Meetings’. What ensued, as member John Tilbury admits, was ‘without exaggeration, traumatic’. But the group that emerged was in many ways more radical than ever. They had left behind the official avant-garde and become something entirely other, unclassifiable.

The door to another kind of practice would remain open only for a short time. In 1974, the Scratch Orchestra would reorganise itself along the lines of a strict Leninist democratic centralism. The name was changed to the Red Flame Proletarian Propaganda Team and shortly afterwards dissolved altogether. Cardew himself published an essay collection entitled Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, dismissing much of his own earlier work as reactionary and self-indulgent. Once Britain’s premier interpreter of the work of composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, over the course of his involvement with the Scratch, Cardew sacrificed his esteem, his source of income, most of his friends, and ultimately his marriage. By the close of 1981, he was dead; killed in a hit and run that some continue to regard as politically motivated. But grappling with the legacy of the Scratch Orchestra remains vital for any attempt to think through the relations between politics and the avant-garde in the late twentieth century.