The Independent JUNE 28, 2000 - by Keith Potter


Even the laudable Coma - promoting contemporary music-making for amateurs - has not, in my experience, ever generated the special magic that The Scratch Orchestra used to do, if all too briefly. A short concert on Sunday by the London Coma Ensemble under Gregory Rose - part of the Almeida Opera and Hoxton New Music Days' Union Chapel Weekend - achieved good playing standards, but no music that I'd want to hear again.

Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning, the work on which The Scratch Orchestra was founded more than thirty years ago, is a compendium of imaginative, ingenious devices for activating the creative energies of anyone, regardless of musical training, who is sufficiently bold to stand up in public and make some sounds.

Sixteen years ago - still in the wake of its composer's death two-and-a-half years earlier - the Almeida Festival mounted the work's first complete performance.

On Saturday, this festival's newly emboldened successor offered just four of The Great Learning's seven sections - Paragraph 1, 2, 6 and 7 - over the course of a four-hour evening. Once again, Islington's Victorian gothic Union Chapel made a suitably imposing, yet user-friendly space, with musicians not only on stage but also in the galleries or, as in Paragraph 1, mounting the intimidating central pulpit one by one to play whistle solos, and, in the concluding Paragraph 7, singing while perambulating the length and breadth of the church.

Again, too, this was somewhat of an old Scratchers affair, with musical direction credited to Michael Parsons, John Tilbury and Dave Smith. The latter directed Paragraph 1, in which the monumental organ solo was impressively despatched by Bob Coleridge. In the festival's pre-publicity, Michael Nyman was announced as the performance's curator, though we were never told what this involved. But he was there as a performer all right, moving amongst the faithful who stayed the course for Paragraph 7. Damon Albarn, Brian Eno and Nyman were even in the same group of vocalists and drummers for Paragraph 2.

Such reinforcement of the significance of Cardew's magnum opus for an older generation was mirrored by the presence of a large number of much younger musicians. More than a hundred people took part in this performance in all. It was sufficient for five groups to fill the church with the joyous racket of voices and drums in Paragraph 2, though I sometimes lost my concentration during its hour-long rendering. It was sufficient, also, to make the even longer account of Paragraph 7 a fulfilling experience, despite the usual quota of insensitive, attention-seeking singers and other irritations.

It was, however, the smaller, seated circle - mixing experienced Scratchers with alert, sensitive young musicians - articulating the isolated sounds of Paragraph 6's any sonorous materials which provided the most satisfying musical experience of the evening. And with it the hope that the present heightened interest in experimental activities on the part of such twenty-somethings might yet produce new compositional work of the imagination and freshness The Great Learning itself so abundantly displays.