Cornelius Cardew’s move from notes to performance notes

I just came across the music piece Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns by Cornelius Cardew online.

It contains some of the early electronic noises I’ve loved in sound recordings from Stockhausen performances in the 60’s. There’s a purity of tone and a warm analogue sound in them.

I was curious to see how the music was written down, and a little look around led me to the performance notes for it by the composer himself, quoted on this page.

screenshot from

As I suspected, there is an element of the graphic score here, meaning a performance score which doesn’t use conventional musical notation and which requires input from the performers to interpret/create more of the content than is averagely the case.

I was interested, though, that in this score – an early one from the young composer – the notation is very close, actually, to conventional notation.  The form of it is just about readable by musicians who are able to read music. In his performance note, Cardew states an intriguing idea of the graphic score almost as a sort of Sudoku puzzle:

‘The signs should be allowed to suggest something concrete: a sound, a technique. The traditional connotations of signs or parts of signs should provide sufficient context for a concrete interpretation of at least one sign by almost any musician. This done, his utterance of the one sign should provide sufficient context for the comprehension of neighbouring signs. And so on…’

So the idea seems that if at least one of the players is able to interpret from their previous training and understanding ONE of the signs out of the 61 he creates for this score, then that one interpretative act should be sufficient to set the context for interpretation of the other signs by the initial player and the seven other players.

I like that in this piece, there’s an easing out of conventional notation practices rather than a sudden break. This is of course makes sense, that a new idea doesn’t arrive fully formed with no reference to the past. I was aware that the later graphic score work used very beautiful  and controlled drawing which used the graphical language of musical scores, however visually abstracted. This fills in the gap for me a bit. The attempted precision of a traditional music score is allowed to unfocus.

I enjoy tracing an artist’s route to his or her iconic ideas/practices through their earlier work. Hindsight is fun to engage, given that the creative figure at the point of making the work could have less idea than us where their ideas would take them. Fun for us to know and spot the signposts retrospectively.

Playfully, Cardew says of the Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns,  ‘My reputation is free to suffer.’! And I think this is doubly playful because he acknowledges that even though he is decentring the importance of the composer as authority for the content of the work, and wants to do so, he accepts that it is his name that is linked, auteur, to the results. Is he having his cake and eating it?!

As well as the idea of  shifting some of the responsibility for creating the content from the composer to the performer ‘interpreter’, there’s a connected idea here of translation between art forms, between languages. The Octet was a musical response to Cardew’s experience of seeing Jasper John’s ‘0 – 9’ drawings, which superimposed all the number digits in the decimal system.


In fact, I think Cardew appropriates numerology, the belief in mysterious significances of numbers, to underpin and justify the process he is using here. It creates an insoluble structure underneath the form the expression takes, deeper in structure even than the level of a musical score. This numerological reading is I think reinforced by his title ‘Octet ’61’ where the date of composition becomes part of the data defining the structure of the expression. The composer lays out 61 symbols, musical pictograms, to be interpreted by the players live in their historical and cultural moment. The actual visual form of the numbers from Johns’ drawings is encoded visually into the symbols on the graphic score – another element which the human interpreter of the score finds interpretation for if they can.


To put the introduction at the end, Cornelius Cardew is a musical composer in whom I’ve had an interest since my undergraduate study at Cambridge University, where I was introduced to his most famous work Treatise by the composers John Woolrich and Peter Wiegold. A scratch group of students performed 20 pages of the work in the Old Music Room at St John’s College. I think of the moment where someone in the audience’s phone started ringing and I decided on the spur of the moment to vocally imitate it as being a eureka in developing my understanding of creativity and connection: how it can happen truly in a moment  if you’re brave, and create a richer and more generous experience for people. Which is another way of saying, I got a laugh.

Elizabeth Jennings for Easter

I always think of Elizabeth Jennings as being an Easter Poet. Some of my favourite of her work engages with the pained contortions of the Christian ritual and story of the season. I think she’s someone who felt that the performance of pain, and subsequent ripening transformation had a true resonance with her inner experiences.

Here’s a link to some of her work on the Warwick University webpage. I’ve just read the first, ‘A Requiem’, and really enjoyed it. The formal patterning of her verses in it replicate her point that it is in restrained observance of trodden form that mystery can be at its most powerfully effective. I think there’s a sort of perversity in that standpoint which I like (!) and which I think may even be true, or at least as true as the opposite view. It puts her in my mind with poets like Edwin Muir who have been posthumously chastened for paucity of expression, mean-ness, which I can find moving.

Forest performance planning, with help from Richard Taylor


Was over the road at Forest Centre Plus tonight, looking at spaces for my Emily Dickinson all-poems readings. My pal, the artist Richard Taylor was helping me check out a former consultation room, complete with security glass, which is looking very promising. The idea would be that the public – that’s you! – could come and listen to me reading the poems from the other side of the glass. Here’s Richard with some additional plastic in front of his face.

Emily space RT

I might look at partially concealing myself as well as being behind the glass, which is why we were messing around with masking. The thought of Emily Dickinson keeping herself sealed in her room, is somewhere behind this idea. There’s a famous story, and I wonder if it’s true, that when her doctor came to examine her in her last illness, she only let him peer around the door from the hallway. I’m intrigued by a possible valency linking the sealedness of Emily D and the locked away parts of this dormant building.

And talking of Richard Taylor, earlier in the day, I enjoyed seeing his art work in a three-person show with Dickie Webb and Claudia de la Peña at Newhaven Station, in Edinburgh. Here’s me loving his work Paint By Leaf. It’s on till Friday if y’all get the chance to catch it.

Iain paint by leaf Richard Taylor



Iain Morrison residency @ Forest Centre Plus

Basically every part of what’s written below is overexciting me….

In April, I’ve been invited to do a text-based residency at the new Forest Centre Plus space in Edinburgh.

For those who don’t know it, the Forest is a volunteer-run arts collective which used to have its base in an old Methodist Chapel in the centre of Edinburgh. That building was sold by its owners Edinburgh University a year or so ago. The much-loved Forest cafe has more recently found a new home in Tollcross, but space for the previous levels of creative activity was lacking in the new arrangement. Until now, that is!

The Forest have taken over several floors of Argyle House, a modernist 60’s office block opposite, as it happens, my flat. That was one plank of fate lining up to connect me to the new enterprise.

Also Mirja Koponen, Forest committee members and general power-house, saw a performed reading I gave with long-time collaborator Leiza McLeod on the delivery platform at the back of the office building, in 2011. Our reading was of a text Leiza and I produced called This Is Not The Place. We first wrote this in 2008 in Bristol, recording walks we took from each of our homes to a location picked because neither of us had ever been there. In the 2011 performance, we added material describing a walk both of us took from Argyle House to somewhere we’d never been before. So the first walk was a convergence and the second walk, a divergence.

Mirja saw the performance, and it must have stuck in her mind; when she was planning the Forest’s move to the new space, she asked if I’d be interested in doing a performance or something else in there. Apparently I was the only person she knew who’d actually noticed the building beforehand, which I think tells you something about the cleverness of its construction given that it’s 10 stories tall and has 3 wings!

This has come together into a plan, now that the space is up and running. I am looking at doing a few different things in Argyle House over my residency month of April.  I’ll write more about these as they approach but broadly they are:

1) a revisiting of the This Is Not The Place material, possibly making a connection with the inside of the building and the place outside where Leiza and I performed in 2011.

Screen-shot from the facebook page for our 2011 event 'This Is Not The Place'.

Screen-shot from the facebook page for our 2011 event ‘This Is Not The Place’.

Leiza and I reading This Is Not The Place, 2011 at Argyle House

Leiza and I reading This Is Not The Place, 2011 at Argyle House

Above the platform from inside the building

Above the platform from inside the building

2) an attempt to read all of Emily Dickinson’s poems over 4 Mondays. I am having my talented friend, and other Emily, Emily Goodwin adapt a white dress for me to wear during this.


3) some sort of poem writing directly onto the walls of the building inside. Using it like a sketchbook is the idea, working to a final draft.

4) Holding a meeting of PiP, the poetry workshop group to which I belong, in Argyle House at some point during April.

I’m really looking forward to this. Forest Centre Plus is currently a very hot new arrival on the Edinburgh arts scene, and I’m grateful to circumstance and Mirja for opening its doors to me. I’ve looked at it for three years, and now I get to play inside.


Zoe[oz] & Iain[iaI]: Topping and Tailing!

This post comes accompanied by a sigh of contentment. Zoe Fothergill and I burst through the finishing line of our own investigative race against time, and delivered personal bests, or at least a lecture in a kitchen….

On 2nd March 2013, we gave a lecture/performance titled

Zoë Fothergill & Iain Morrison: Never Odd or Even

and subtitled

A formless monster of dismaying length, a rodent in a squirrel cage, going nowhere very rapidly and very tediously, and ending up exactly where we started.

Intriguing? I hope so! One of the things that I think really worked about the lecture performance was that it’s 7 sections were delivered in an order chosen blind by the audience (7 lovely souls who squeezed into the !Wakaka!! kitchen).

7 lovely souls

We asked them to “pick a card, any card” from some specially Zoe-made ones with the names of each section on one side and the fetching poster, designed by our hosts, on the other. That certainly kept it fresh for us, and audience members said that they liked the degree of interactivity. Our main theme was ‘structure becoming content’ so I hope this was apposite.

You can see in the picture below Zoe and I mid-flow, with the sections lining up in front of us.

Iain_zoe2for blog

And here, in a dazzling display of audience talent, are some magnified sea-monsters made during the ‘structure workshop’ section!

edit seamonster


Our hosts were marvellous to work with. I would encourage anyone with the slightest degree of creativity to start wooing them now in an attempt to get a booking for one of these kitchen extravaganzas. They were very open to our ideas, however vague they must have seemed at first, and the experience of preparing a ‘lecture’ for a cosy group in this context was a wonderful chance to try out something that we might not have had the support and headspace to do otherwise. Each family member contributed, not least Chris and Jennie’s seven-year old son Rudy who recorded a poem for us coping deftly with vocabulary that might have given pause to someone twice his age – eg. bioluminescence, I kid you not. Also, the food was delicious!

There’s a publication being produced by Chris and Jennie at !Wakaka!! towers, which pairs up some of the text we wrote for the ‘sequence’ sections of the lecture with images that they and the kids produced. So watch for news on that and I’ll probably dip into the tranche of writing/image material we generated again on this blog, but for now, Zoe, my fine collaborator, thank you for the experience. I’ve learned a lot from chewing the rather large mouthful we bit off there.


*picks content from teeth*


Just looked up the definition of the word “allopoeisis” after attending the Allopoeisis night at Inspace last week, but only just now thought to wonder what the word meant (doh!). Came across this earnest young man. He’s like a young Al Filreis!

Enjoy. Hope everyone’s well and stimulated, but not over stimulated out there. Will have more news soon about my forthcoming residency at the marvellous Forest Centre Plus. First, #brainrelax.

In like a lion, out like a lamb?

March: An Ode

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Ere frost-flower and snow-blossom faded and fell, and the splendour of winter had passed out of sight,
The ways of the woodlands were fairer and stranger than dreams that fulfil us in sleep with delight;
The breath of the mouths of the winds had hardened on tree-tops and branches that glittered and swayed
Such wonders and glories of blossomlike snow or of frost that outlightens all flowers till it fade
That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than the day, nor the day than the night,
Nor the winter sublimer with storm than the spring: such mirth had the madness and might in thee made,
March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite.
And now that the rage of thy rapture is satiate with revel and ravin and spoil of the snow,
And the branches it brightened are broken, and shattered the tree-tops that only thy wrath could lay low,
How should not thy lovers rejoice in thee, leader and lord of the year that exults to be born
So strong in thy strength and so glad of thy gladness whose laughter puts winter and sorrow to scorn?
Thou hast shaken the snows from thy wings, and the frost on thy forehead is molten: thy lips are aglow
As a lover’s that kindle with kissing, and earth, with her raiment and tresses yet wasted and torn,
Takes breath as she smiles in the grasp of thy passion to feel through her spirit the sense of thee flow.
Fain, fain would we see but again for an hour what the wind and the sun have dispelled and consumed,
Those full deep swan-soft feathers of snow with whose luminous burden the branches implumed
Hung heavily, curved as a half-bent bow, and fledged not as birds are, but petalled as flowers,
Each tree-top and branchlet a pinnacle jewelled and carved, or a fountain that shines as it showers,
But fixed as a fountain is fixed not, and wrought not to last till by time or by tempest entombed,
As a pinnacle carven and gilded of men: for the date of its doom is no more than an hour’s,
One hour of the sun’s when the warm wind wakes him to wither the snow-flowers that froze as they bloomed.
As the sunshine quenches the snowshine; as April subdues thee, and yields up his kingdom to May;
So time overcomes the regret that is born of delight as it passes in passion away,
And leaves but a dream for desire to rejoice in or mourn for with tears or thanksgivings; but thou,
Bright god that art gone from us, maddest and gladdest of months, to what goal hast thou gone from us now?
For somewhere surely the storm of thy laughter that lightens, the beat of thy wings that play,
Must flame as a fire through the world, and the heavens that we know not rejoice in thee: surely thy brow
Hath lost not its radiance of empire, thy spirit the joy that impelled it on quest as for prey.
Are thy feet on the ways of the limitless waters, thy wings on the winds of the waste north sea?
Are the fires of the false north dawn over heavens where summer is stormful and strong like thee
Now bright in the sight of thine eyes? are the bastions of icebergs assailed by the blast of thy breath?
Is it March with the wild north world when April is waning? the word that the changed year saith,
Is it echoed to northward with rapture of passion reiterate from spirits triumphant as we
Whose hearts were uplift at the blast of thy clarions as men’s rearisen from a sleep that was death
And kindled to life that was one with the world’s and with thine? hast thou set not the whole world free?
For the breath of thy lips is freedom, and freedom’s the sense of thy spirit, the sound of thy song,
Glad god of the north-east wind, whose heart is as high as the hands of thy kingdom are strong,
Thy kingdom whose empire is terror and joy, twin-featured and fruitful of births divine,
Days lit with the flame of the lamps of the flowers, and nights that are drunken with dew for wine,
And sleep not for joy of the stars that deepen and quicken, a denser and fierier throng,
And the world that thy breath bade whiten and tremble rejoices at heart as they strengthen and shine,
And earth gives thanks for the glory bequeathed her, and knows of thy reign that it wrought not wrong.
Thy spirit is quenched not, albeit we behold not thy face in the crown of the steep sky’s arch,
And the bold first buds of the whin wax golden, and witness arise of the thorn and the larch:
Wild April, enkindled to laughter and storm by the kiss of the wildest of winds that blow,
Calls loud on his brother for witness; his hands that were laden with blossom are sprinkled with snow,
And his lips breathe winter, and laugh, and relent; and the live woods feel not the frost’s flame parch;
For the flame of the spring that consumes not but quickens is felt at the heart of the forest aglow,
And the sparks that enkindled and fed it were strewn from the hands of the gods of the winds of March.