Chicago Scratch Orchestra

Sometime a week or so ago, I was introduced to the idea of  a “scratch orchestra.”  For those of you who are, like me, new to the concept, below is a nice short description courtesy of Wikipedia:


The Scratch Orchestra was an experimental musical ensemble founded in the spring of 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton.

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 Scratch Orchestra arose from Cardew’s ‘Experimental Music’ class at Morley College, London, which served as a venue for extra rehearsals for Scratch Orchestra concerts, but Scratch Orchestra rehearsals were also held separately.

The first meeting of the Scratch Orchestra was at St. Katharine’s Dock, 1 July 1969. It was announced by means of a ‘Draft Constitution’, published in “The Musical Times” in June 1969. The Draft Constitution set out categories of musical activity: Improvisation Rites, Popular Classics, Compositions, and Research Projects. Cardew also proposed that the responsibility of programming of concerts be assigned in reverse seniority, so that the first concert, on 1 November 1969 at Hampstead Town Hall, was designed by Christopher Hobbs, an eighteen-year-old student of Cardew’s at the Royal Academy of Music.

Despite the emphasis on free improvisation, the varying experience of the members, and the ‘do your own thing’ free aesthetic of the time, the Scratch Orchestra was a disciplined ensemble. Eventually the strains of Cardew’s “reverse seniority”, tensions between musically-trained and non-musically-trained members, and an increasing interest in political aesthetics led to a gradual change in the activities, and then the outlook of the ensemble. It was effectively inoperative by 1974.


When asked if I’d be interested in joining the Chicago Scratch Orchestra for this year’s Chicago Calling Arts Festival, I read Cardew’s Draft Constitution and knew it was something I’d been waiting for!  The best part (for me, as I don’t know how well I’ll be appreciated by the other members OR the audience) is that I can pick my instrumentation….and I picked cello and/or laptop.  This is an instrumentation I’ve been experimenting with in my band, Sound Collision Alliance.  I have been pretty excited with the results while working with 2 others who I have years of experience performing with and I can’t wait to be thrown in the mix of people I’ve never even met.  If you are intrigued or frightened, I suggest you check out my Upcoming Events page for details on performances and how you can attend (or avoid).

If you are interested in the cello and/or laptop instrumentation, check out this recent Sound Collision Alliance recording with members of NU Directions Chamber Brass:


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