The Great Learning

That’s English composer Cornelius Cardew’s title, not mine. It’s also the title of a Confucian text, as translated by Ezra Pound, the first chapter of which Cardew uses within his composition of the same name. It begins as follows:

What The Great Learning teaches is – to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.

A couple of weeks ago the Bath Music Festival devoted a day to Cardew’s music; he would have been 75 in May this year. Andrew Clements of the Guardian gave the day 4 stars in his review. I’m glad I was there and not just because my friend Miles was one of the Oxford Improvisers performing Paragraph 5.

Cardew was a joint founder of the Scratch Orchestra in 1969. As this Wikipedia article puts it: “The Orchestra reflected Cardew’s musical philosophy at that time. This meant that anyone could join, graphic scores were used (rather than traditional sheet music), and there was an emphasis on improvisation.” The Great Learning, dedicated to the Scratch Orchestra, was written about the same time and expresses the same ideas: for example, Paragraphs 6 and 7 are written for any number of ‘untrained musicians’ and ‘untrained voices’ respectively. The score for Paragraph 5 is mostly graphical rather than conventional music notation – aside from the optional ‘Ode Machines which may also be performed separately’. One of the most interesting aspects of Cardew’s work is that it leads us to reconsider, if not challenge, our conventional views of score, musicianship and – most important of all – performance.

I think it’s fair to say that Cardew was more interested in the performance of music by people who enjoyed performing and improvising whatever their musical ability, rather than in an audience listening to music performed by trained musicians. Of course a traditional score doesn’t completely determine how a musical work will sound or there would be no point in multiple performances of the same work. But what seems to matter more to Cardew is that the performers take inspiration from the score rather than are instructed by it; he trusts in their passion and judgement.

At this point I want to make a segue to the world of technology-based learning, great or otherwise. I’m well aware of the risk at this point of sounding like a trendy vicar, as in Alan Bennett’s classic ‘Life is rather like opening a tin of sardines; we’re all of us looking for the key’, mercifully preserved here on YouTube, about five and a half minutes in. But with that risk in mind, I’ll continue anyway.

Instructional design, as I’ve blogged here before seems to me a poor description (and a poor aspiration) for what we should be doing when creating a learning experience. Craig Taylor has made a similar point in his blog. And yet, so much online courseware reads like the most prescriptive ‘score’ imaginable, allowing little or no room for initiative or improvisation. In the worst cases (obviously not your work or mine), it’s written by experts to be read by experts. So there should be little wonder when there’s no engagement with, or enthusiasm from, the real target audience.

My suggestion, then, is that we should think about how we could rise to Cardew’s challenge and benefit from the equivalent of committed ‘untrained’ performance. So, if we want to ‘rest in the highest excellence’, let’s take a tip from the improvisers and put more trust in our learners.

PS: Here’s a 30-second taster, if you want to find out more about Cardew’s music: Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning in Leytonstone Woolies