Formed in 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, along with Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons, the Scratch Orchestra was a reflection of Cardew’s experimental philosophy at the time. Anyone could join, as graphic scores were used rather than traditional notation, and improvisation was a major part of any performance. Forty-five years later, the philosophy continues; original Scratch Orchestra members joined with new performers for a new interpretation of Nature Study Notes on Saturday June 28th.

Nature Study Notes is a collection of 152 written instructions or rites for improvisation. How these are presented depends on the performers involved in a specific performance. Chisenhale Dance Space provided a relaxed, informal setting, and the group were similarly relaxed, in a variety of outfits with a variety of props. And so the scene was set for an hour of hugely inventive and highly imaginative performance from an extremely talented group.

© Martin Dixon
© Martin Dixon

What really came across as the hour unfolded was the sense of travel. There was ebb and flow, with several climactic moments building towards a final zenith near the end of an hour. It was also an auditory and visual feast - to give an idea, here are just a few examples of the sounds and sights I experienced; a music box, someone dressing in bubble wrap, throat clearing, scrawling with a marker pen, face washing, breathing through a tuba and reading from Zola.

The performance made the most of the space as well, moving about it to bring contrast and meaning to the visual and sonic effects. At times it was curiously relaxing, and if I hadn’t been enjoying what I was seeing so much, I would have closed my eyes to let the sounds wash over me. In other places my senses were heightened, and I became very aware of the details of each performer’s rite.

© Martin Dixon
© Martin Dixon

It also felt very true to the title; even when there was digital and technical manipulation the performance felt very naturalistic. There were night-time scenes, tribal climaxes and jungle sounds. The only swerve away from this was about halfway through, where a repeated gesture and sound (digitally manipulated to produce varied echoes) stage front brought us a little too close to pastiche. Otherwise, it all felt incredibly fresh, thanks to complete commitment of the entire group. Everyone looked like they were having a lot of fun, and I felt a very strong temptation to get up and start walking around, so much did Cardew’s ethos seem to be in practice.

As things drew to a close, the open fire escape brought a wonderful addition as birdsong filled the space, which was darkening under the dusk. The performance faded into the nothingness from which it had emerged, and we sat in hushed silence for some minutes, enjoying the stillness. It is impossible to capture the details of such an experience in words, and of course another performance would be an entirely different experience. But this is the beauty of it; I hope very much that this is not a one-off performance and that there will be opportunities to see Nature Study Notes again in the near future.

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