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12 May 2006

‘So What Influence Has Cornelius Cardew Had On What You Are Doing?’

I’m in a café just on the edge of the University Of Newcastle campus. Not a café you would chose to spend much time in, but it is the closest to the Hatton Gallery and so handy for the interview I am doing with Neil Cooper for the Scottish art magazine, MAP. MAP is a comparatively new magazine (early 2005). I got a copy of the first issue and liked the look of it and my sometime colleague, Duncan McLaren seems to have an outlet in it for his creative musings which is a good thing by me.

The question posed above has just been put to me and this is the way I am answering it. Well, maybe not quite ‘cause I’m writing these words early the following morning and maybe I’m not remembering everything I said and maybe I’m writing more than I said to make myself sound more articulate.

If I had been asked this question six months ago, I could have done the hand-on-my-heart thing and said I’d never heard of him. But this is now the third time I have been asked this question in the past few months, so I can’t deny ever having heard of him. As for him having an influence on me, this is a more complicated matter.

The first two people to ask me were Gwilly Edmondes and James Saunders, both involved academically with new music. They know their history of 20th-century serious music. They both thought there were parallels between what I am attempting to do and what this Cornelius Cardew had done in the 1960s.

Both Gwilly and James emailed me blurb on Cardew, which I read. And I thought it was more than interesting, but it did make me wonder what the point is in doing The17. It has all been done before, 40 years earlier. This Cardew bloke turns out to be a giant of postwar serious contemporary music, everybody who’s anybody knows his stuff and what he was about. It’s like me having never heard of the Sex Pistols but wanting to form a fast and furious rock band in 2006, screeching songs about anarchy, destruction, getting pissed and swearing on TV. Pointless.

Then I reread what they had sent me and went on Google and decided that what I am trying to do is different, but yes, there are some parallels with the Scratch Orchestra work he was doing between 1968 and 1972. I learnt that Cornelius Cardew was born in 1936 and died in 1981, was British, studied with Stockhausen in the late 1950s and had started something called the Scratch Orchestra. The more I read about him the more I became aware of the influence he had on me. As with so many influences, they happen in roundabout and unbeknown ways. The text that follows is an example of a roundabout and unbeknown way.

In May 1973 I was in my last throes of being an art student at Liverpool School Of Art. Whatever was going on in the art school was losing any meaning for me. But one day in May I did amble into one of the art school buildings that has long since been flattened. It was called the Deaf School and had, in a previous life, been a school for the deaf. On this particular day in the main studio a space had been cleared and there was a man there, a visiting lecturer I assumed, and he had with him boxes of violins, cellos and an assortment of other classical instruments. As I may have pointed out earlier, I hated anything to do with classical music then, but I wondered what he was going to be doing with these violins and things. I thought if I hung around and listened it seemed like a valid reason for not getting on with whatever else I was supposed to be doing.

Within five minutes I had a viola under my chin and a bow in my right hand. There were about half a dozen of us in similar positions with these instruments and he was beginning to show us where to put our fingers so that we could play the opening bars to ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz by Strauss. He was also telling us you didn’t have to spend years learning to play classical music, you could do it in a day, and that by the end of the afternoon we would all be playing a whole chunk of ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz.

And he was right. By the end of that afternoon we were and it sounded brilliant in an out-of-tune cacophonous sort of way. He told us that we could be part of the Portsmouth Symphonia and that they were going to be doing a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He told us he was serious about what he was doing; that we had to try hard; that this was not a piss-take; that if we wanted to take part; we would have to commit; and that it didn’t matter if we were unmusical or had no ambitions to be professional musicians.

If you can call it a lecture, that was the last one I ever went to in my life. Within a month I was no longer at art school. I was off into the big wide world.

This Portsmouth Symphonia thing went on to reach some sort of infamy, releasing a couple of albums that I never heard, playing the Royal Albert Hall that I never went to. But that day trying to learn to play ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz in the Deaf School had a profound and long lasting influence on me. This influence was two-pronged. The first is one that never a day (or a week) goes past without me thinking about. Whoever the visiting lecturer was, he said stuff on that day that has stuck with me ever since. Of course I can’t remember any of the actual words he said, but the overall message was that the classical music world is all about keeping people out by making it harder and harder for people to take part. It is a place where the cult of the virtuoso reigns supreme, where they want the audience to sit quietly, know their place and appreciate genius. This, he told us, has brought about stagnation in music and music-making.

Now I didn’t know anything about the world of classical music but what he seemed to be saying seemed to fit perfectly with what I had been feeling about the rock music being made in Britain over the previous couple of years. It seemed to have become all about musicianship: the more of a virtuoso you were, the better. The distance between being a 17-year-old lad with a guitar and those on stage was so vast it would have seemed like there was no point in having a go yourself.

What this bloke seemed to be saying to us was – if you want to do something, don’t wait to be asked or given permission by whoever, be it your mother, teacher, peer group, music press, record companies or art establishments. The fact that you may lack confidence and don’t know what the fuck you are trying to do should not be reasons for not doing whatever it is. There will be a million people out there who will want to let you know that you are shit. Ignore them. There will be others who will think that without their validation what you are doing is worthless. Ignore them.

This, if anything has been the guiding principle in everything that I have tried to do ever since. I am a person riddled with insecurities but that one day in the Deaf School made me think ‘Fuck ’em!’

The following week at art school we were meant to be putting on our end-of-year show. I had literally nothing to show, as I had already burnt all my paintings and most of my days were now spent wandering around Liverpool, in the thrall of this broken-down and fucked-up city. I believed there was nothing I could do within the confines of the art school which could compete with the reality on offer at every turn of the corner in this city.

There was an old piece of packing case in the yard of where I was living. It measured about two feet by three feet. I painted it white. Then I stencilled on it in paint ‘Is Clapton still God?’ This bit of tat was the only thing I put in the show. I gave no explanation. I had none to give. They sent me a letter asking me to consider my future at art school. I’m still considering it. With hindsight, an explanation could have been:

In the late 1960s a graffiti started to appear on walls around the country. It read ‘Clapton is God’. The Clapton referred to was Eric Clapton, the former guitarist with Cream. This was in the days before graffiti was a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. It was also not part of a cynical record company marketing ploy. Lads of my generation had been moved in various quarters of the country to go out, pot and brush in hand, and paint on walls ‘Clapton is God’ for no good reason. Although I had never done this myself, in early 1969 I would have gone along with the sentiments and did go as far as to scrawl it on the cover of my geography jotter.

My generation thought of Eric Clapton as the greatest guitarist in the world, we knew that Hendrix was maybe better but he was too exotic for us to identify with in any way. But by elevating Clapton to the pantheon of the Gods we distanced ourselves from ever even dreaming we could do anything as worthy. It wasn’t too long before his feet of clay became all too obvious. It was something in that day spent with a viola under my chin trying to play the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz and listening to what this bloke had to say prompted me to stencil those words on the side of a packing case.

By June 1973 it must have been almost four years since anybody had bothered to graffiti the original proclamation. What I had done in no way connected with anything in the outside there-and-then world but it connected with everything going on in my head. The more you put an artist, musician or anybody, however talented, on a pedestal, the more you take away something from yourself.

After being asked for the second time if Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra had been an influence on me, I did some minor research. I discovered that Gavin Bryars (1943–), an English experimental composer of now major repute, was a member of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. In 1970, inspired by the Scratch Orchestra, Bryars went on to set up the Portsmouth Symphonia while teaching at the Portsmouth School Of Art. It must have been Gavin Bryars who spent a day working with a bunch of us in the Deaf School buildings on 1973.

Once you start reading what the Scratch Orchestra was about and then abolut the Portsmouth Symphonia, it becomes very obvious what influence Cornelius Cardew has had on not only The17, but on everything I have done since that late spring day in 1973.

As I said earlier, the influence was two-pronged. The following term in the Deaf School building at the art school in Liverpool, Gavin Bryars returned for a few more sessions. The nucleus of students which I had been part of was joined by some fresh recruits from the new intake. Gavin Bryars was as good as his word. They all took part in the infamous performance of the Portsmouth Symphonia at the Royal Albert Hall. The bunch of students, or at least a chunk of them, were thus inspired by Bryars to go on and form their own band. This band carried on rehearsing in the same space. The band called themselves Deaf School. Deaf School’s music was everything but classical.

By this time I had escaped the clutches of the city and I was out in the world trying to be Jack Kerouac or Jack London or somebody, searching for that beckoning peak or at least a road to be on. It didn’t last long. By autumn 1975 I was back in Liverpool building stage sets at the Everyman Theatre.

Deaf School, the band not the building, had evolved from a concept to a real thing. Music papers put them on front covers; Warner Brother’s Records signed them; they recorded and released three albums, but the hits did not come so they split up. Deaf School are now cited as Liverpool’s most influential band after The Beatles.

One of the fresh intake of students who got involved with the Gavin Bryars stuff was Clive Langer. He was the musical driving force of Deaf School. Clive and I met and became friends sometime after my return to Liverpool. At 7.35 on 5 May 1977, on the eve of Deaf School’s first US tour, Clive Langer, Phil Allen, Kev (James) Ward and myself were in The Grapes pub on Mathew Street. Later that evening we were going to be seeing The Clash. Kev had been in the year above me at art school, he designed much of Deaf School’s artwork. Phil was the brother of Enrico Cadillac, Deaf School’s front man, and roadie for the band. Clive was holding forth. Punk was happening. Deaf School were not. Clive had an idea. On this tour of the US the band were not taking their own equipment with them but hiring everything out there. Clive’s idea was that Phil, Kev and me should form a band while they were in the States, and seeing as we didn’t have any gear we could use some of Deaf School’s. Phil would be the drummer, Kev the bass player and me the guitarist.

None of us had ever played in a band before. I don’t think Kev had ever picked up a guitar, let alone played one. By the time Clive came back from America we had played our first gig as a three piece at Bretton Hall College near Leeds; recruited Jayne Casey to be our front person; headlined the Hope Street Festival; got our first press cutting, the opening line of which read ‘Sadly, they saved the worst for last.’

So the rather strained logic goes – no Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra, no Gavin Bryars and The Portsmouth Symphonia; no Gavin Bryars and The Portsmouth Symphonia, no Clive Langer and Deaf School, no Clive Langer and Deaf School, no me and Big In Japan; no me and Big In Japan, no me doing The17 and everything else I have done in the meantime. So without Cornelius Cardew – different life path, different everything.

So back to me in the café in Newcastle and being interviewed by Neil Cooper from this MAP magazine. When he asked me if I had been influenced by Cornelius Cardew I don’t think he was expecting the full on and in-detail times-dates-places answer that he got. Although I did miss out the Eric Clapton thing with him.

I got another cup of tea and Neil asked his next question.