One doesn’t usually expect much from 16-page pamphlets, but ‘Nature Study Notes’ is an exception. Designed to look like one of those little booklets we wrote college exams in, it defines 152 ways for musicians to improvise with one another. The booklet was compiled largely by English avant-gardists, who used to play together as the Scratch Orchestra, and it is an excellent document of what their Scratch Music was all about. It is also one of the richest collections of innovative musical ideas that I know of.
The ‘Nature Study Notes’ were compiled in 1969, but they are still almost unknown in this country. In fact, it was only this year that I actually saw a copy myself. But the attitudes are still highly relevant to anyone interested in communal music making, and many of the procedures suggested reflect a depth of insight which goes well beyond most of the improvisation I hear around New York, from either the jazz musicians or the classically oriented groups.
Consider these two entries, for example, both of which force the improvisers into a theatrical direction. They are the work of Cornelius Cardew, the founder of the Scratch Orchestra. ‘This rite should be preceded and followed by patches of dead silence. At the sound of a champagne cork popping commence animated social intercourse. Under cover of the din, surreptitiously improvise. Cease at the sound of a gun going off.’ And, ‘Construct a silver pyramid. Bathe it with light. Play.’ Or this contribution by Michael Chant, which presents a violent image with many possible implications. ‘Two classes of performers: improvisers and stone throwers, the former class to contain more members than the latter. The stone throwers throw stones to miss the improvisers and cause no damage, with a vigor proportionate to the intensity of he sound.’ Any of these instructions could be carried out in a reasonable length of time, and presented in interesting ways, all are viable as public performances. But some of the ‘Nature Study Notes’ go beyond the limitations of the concert hall. This one, for example, credited to Michael Parsons, would almost require that everyone be a participant. ‘Place comfortable mattresses about the room. Those who feel tired lie down. The others play or sing relaxing music. A player who feels tired may also lie down. Ends when any or all of those lying down are asleep. Follow one of these instructions at a time. (1) play or sing more quietly than someone near you. (2) play or sing more continuously than someone near you. (3) play or sing at lower pitch than someone near you. (4) play or sing with purer timbre than someone near you. (Move around)’ Another, by Hugh Shrapnel, is performed in transit. The performers would have to be in England to execute the instructions exactly, but they could easily adapt them to some more convenient locale. ‘Walk down the riverside path from Greenwich Pier, past the Naval College, the little Trinity Hospital, the Power Station, to the Gasworks at Woolwich, picking up on route odd items, such as driftwood, scrap metal, etc. Make sounds in any way with the items picked up.’ Of course, you wouldn’t have to be a particularly good musician to play that one. Others, such as the following one by Cardew, could not be brought off very effectively unless the players had a variety of traditional musical skills, as well as some new ones. ‘At some point in an improvisation let the absence of something strike you. Set to detecting its hidden presence and exposing it (drawing it out).’ I can’t help wondering what would happen if Miles Davis and his group decided to work on that. Or what would happen if the Concord String Quartet was turned loose on this one by Alan Brett: ‘Play in a manner that can in no way draw attention to your self or yourself.’ For all their surface simplicity, I suspect that either of those tasks would be difficult to perform effectively. And if you don’t believe me, just try to imagine how you would go about interpreting the instructions if you were asked to join in a performance.
Some of the ‘Nature Study Notes’ are even more demanding than these. One entry asks the performers to play in accordance with the expressions they see in the eyes of other players. Another asks the players to try to imagine a score, and to play only what they see in their imagination. Another even calls for an ability to tell fortunes, or at least for a basic faith in divination. The idea is to listen to your sound and read your future from the way it ‘sinks or floats.’ Of course, not all of the 152 entries are unique, or as interesting as the ones I have quoted, but all in all it is a stimulating and unusual collection. Perhaps the most unusual thing about it, however, comes right on page two, where the copyright notice ought to be. Instead of a copyright notice, we read: ‘No rights are reserved in this book of rites.’ That is partly a political statement, of course, and reflects the Communist feelings of some of the creators, who do not like the idea of individual ownership. More important musically, it emphasizes that improvisations can only be the property of the people participating in them.
Occasionally I hear complaints that the British avant-garde stole its ideas from American artists, and it is true that their basic approach owed much to American innovators, and particularly to John Cage. But it has been a long time now since Cage first began to visit European arts centers, and in the meantime Cardew and the others have evolved many approaches on their own. And by now, there is quite a bit that Americans can learn from the British.