The Tip Top Orchestra is an amateur avant-garde orchestra dedicated to playing historic avant-garde pieces from the second half of the twentieth century on instruments made of redundant material. The debut of the orchestra consisted of a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, which is in itself already a piece that stands on the border between academic musical practice and a free reign of mind (because of its aleotoric tendencies for instance). An ensemble of twelve musicians and one conductor performed the piece at the Klooster Oude Noorden in Rotterdam, Holland on friday, the 17th of April. The performance was recorded by means of two VHS cameras and edited into a 30 minute film called ‘The Tip Top Orchestra Plays Riley’s ‘In C’!’ The film was edited digitally, uses a split-screen and will be distributed on tape.
Het WORM Jaarverslag is a composition that was requested by Hajo Doorn, the artistic director of WORM, to accompany their yearly report for 2012. During the last year the institute went to several reforms and lost a lot of old staff. Because of this, I was asked to approach the report with the concept of the Requiem in mind. The song was to be presented on the 2nd of April at several institutions that gave WORM funds throughout the years such as the S&C and the RRKC. A requiem requires an organ, of course. Since WORM is a very Dutch institute, making a composition for a street organ, a very common Dutch entity, seemed very fitting. The organ roll was created by use of Midi files and a laser cutter. Through this process the report got recast in several different media, both digital and analogue. The actual text of the composition was written in accordance to the yearly report. The lyrics reference the subject of the requiem and are sung in something resembling monophonic chant. The composition itself however is a typical 3/4 waltz melody popularized by Dutch street organs.
Describe recent work / Identify key themes
The Tip Top Orchestra is an amateur avant-garde orchestra dedicated to playing historic avant-garde pieces from the second half of the twentieth century. By doing so, they reissue past media and ideologies in a contemporary oversaturated musical discourse where the original meaning and implications of the pieces have been overthrown by their historic and canonized function thrust forth by a musical elite. By using amateur musicians and defining the very concept of amateurism, the orchestra is able to prevent the canonized workings of the piece and make the playing of it a non-academic, non-discursive practice that works as an act of defiance against the elite and makes the music accessible to a broader audience. This reinstallation of pieces that were composed on the basis of now redundant ideologies is not only a means of defiance, but also an allegory of the decay and helplessness of the human mind and how humans try to overcome themselves by means of ideology. Beauty is after all the result of a battle of beings with their being, juxtaposed with the banality of existence. The orchestra members reflect this battle in the struggle of playing the right notes and reproducing a play that incorporates an ideology that cannot necessarily be reinstalled and believed in any more now that digital media give them a sense of ambiguity. The same goes for the instruments, made of obsolete media and material like PS2 keyboards and old audio-speakers that have lost their original value, be it on the market or as a fetish object. Their tweaking by the members makes them autographic objects and gives them a different value. By playing ‘In C’ not as performers, but as individuals we have done the same with the piece itself.
The debut of the orchestra consisted of a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, which is in itself already a piece that stands on the border between academic musical practice and a free reign of mind (because of its aleotoric tendencies for instance). An ensemble of twelve musicians and one conductor performed the piece at the Klooster Oude Noorden in Rotterdam, Holland. The performance was recorded by means of VHS cameras and edited into a 30 minute film called ‘The Tip Top Orchestra Plays Riley’s ‘In C’!’. The film is in itself an artistic product that can be looked at and enjoyed without further contextualization, focusing on the instruments and the performers from two different vantage points. The instruments themselves are objects with merit in themselves as well. As such, the orchestra aims on creating a creative environment with a specific set of rules and a goals. Focusing on one piece at the time and producing instruments, recordings and performances from that. The artistic result is not a given thing beforehand.
To truly reinstall past ideology as a means of defiance, there should be an international movement focusing on amateur-avant-garde. This should not not only be done in a musical context, but also in other disciplines. To create a community aware of this notion I aim on producing multiple incarnations of the orchestra throughout the world. By doing so, every country should have at least one amateur avant-garde orchestra which can be the beacon of a striving community. I want to participate in projects across the border to establish these orchestras. Every city has its own population and society, meaning its own concept of obsoleteness and its own obsolete media objects and ideologies. As such, a short term residency would be the ideal way to look at the resources that a city provides and establishing a working orchestra and creative movement from that principle. This means I will take on the role of impresario and work on one project at the time.
Identify how texts you have already produced might be useful (descriptions of work, or annotations for instance)
My writing on reinstallation fits right in with what I wrote about in the above sentences. I uploaded something about redundancy today as well. http://pzwart3.wdka.hro.nl/emo/Reissue
KIKVORS and its meaning also holds a function similar to this artistic community, but is less focused on a single project, but is more an intermediate in producing existing projects, while KIKVORS builds them from the ground up. http://www.kikvorsrotterdam.nl
Another nice thing to check out is my talk about the Tip Top Orchestra from the previous assessment. http://pzwart3.wdka.hro.nl/wiki/User:Niek_Hilkmann/Tip_Top_Orchestra
Or maybe the website of the Tip Top Orchestra. http://www.tiptoporchestra.com
Identify contextualizing texts (art work or literature)
- Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen serves imperialism, and other articles: with commentary and notes (London: Latimer New Dimensions, 1974)
- Michael Parsons (ed) 25 years from scratch: The Scratch Orchestra (London: London Musicians’ Collective, 1994)
Annotate contextualizing texts
Although Cardew's Scratch Orchestra appears to be a lot of things a classical orchestra is not, I believe it is at the same time an outsider exponent of the elitist music structure. By this I mean an incorporated part of the system on the edge of it's accepted boundaries. The first incarnation of Scratch was set up to be anti-hierarchal with all members playing an equally important role in the selection, composition and performing of pieces. These pieces were certainly avant-garde in the classical meaning of the word, usually stemming from a visual concept or framework. However, the way the orchestra was founded by means of a pamflet describing the rules and goals of the orchestra that was published in a notabel music magazine, already bears the seed of the orchestra's ultimate demise. The Scratch Orchestra was set up with decrees telling the members that there should be no hierarchy, but the writer of these rules, Cornelius Cardew, did not believe in anarchy. If he would follow the rules himself after their creation, he would have to put up with a subordinate position in the orchestra after the decrees were put into action, making the original pamflet a sort of axioma and dogma. Any structure trying to replace a structure is doomed to fail, because it is hierarchal in essence. The 'community' created by means of the pamflet only exist on the willpower of Cardew. History has proven this when Cardew chose a new political direction for the orchestra in 1972. When I consider all this in regards to the Tip Top Orchestra the differences between the two orchestras come to light. A structured avant-garde with rules to composing and playing avant-garde is a condicio sine qua non. The notion of amateur avant-garde might be this as well. However, playing canonized pieces in whatever way we like is our first principal goal and here you see the difference. There truly is no other hierarchy than willpower, everybody commits just the amount people want to commit. We are not aiming on changing a musical elitist structure. We want to be as self-contained as the scratch orchestra, but by ignoring any ideology, also our own. Theory is left for the theorists.
One of the most often resonated artistic buzz-words of today is 'Avant-garde'. It refers either to an experimental artistic approach that aims to push the boundaries of an accepted norm or to the people or historic movements that embody this concept. Within a musical discourse one such avant-garde group was 'The Scratch Orchestra'. This 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. In the beginning 'Scratch' aimed on a complete non-hierarchic approach to the production of musical pieces and performing. This free reign of mind without leaders and followers was the very thing that made the orchestra unique.
When Cardew started assembling the orchestra there had already been many musical avant-garde movements before him. Many shared an optimistic vision on a bright, enlightened future, free of the burden of banality and cultural mishaps. However, each one proposed a different musical outcome to how this goal could be achieved. As such there had been many musical solutions to reality side by side at the same time. In the year in which I am writing, 2013 to be precise, another 44 years have past and even more of these musical ideologies and concepts have been proposed and fallen to pieces. The canon of important 'avant-garde' music has become thicker and fatter, while the modernistic utopia foretold in the musical vision of composers such as Xenakis did not come to pass.
In a way the anti-hierarchal free thinking musical and political vision of Cardew is still as relevant as it was in 1969. Certainly now with a large number of musical approaches to choose from as a composer and with institutions become more and more secured from outside influences an 'anything-goes' approach is something people need to get away from conventional 'avant-garde', by which I mean proposed non-traditional approaches to music. In another way however, the orchestra itself has become part of the canon as well and just as redundant as other historical 'avant-garde' pieces. We are currently living in difficult times; a sceptic age on the border of nihilism in which everything is canonized and value is created by means of recombination. Therefore, even a reinstallation of Cardew's free-thinking ideals is nothing but a reshaping of the historical avant-garde and nothing new.
However, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands during the spring of 2013 another musical group was founded. It was called ‘the tip top orchestra’, and it was an international amateur avant-garde orchestra, dedicated to playing exactly this canonized avant-garde repertoire from the second half of the twentieth century. They would play pieces by Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and members of The Scratch Orchestra itself. The only difference being that they would ignore the conceptual territory that the pieces tried to reach and are not integrated into the professional music practice. To be true, the members don't even qualify as musicians.
In this short essay both orchestras will be researched and compared. One of the questions that will be answered is what the differences between the two imply. However, more important is how the two relate to their respective contemporary discourse. This essay will end with a prediction of how the Tip Top Orchestra will become redundant in the future.
An old avant-garde
Avant-garde refers to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics. Avant-garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. The notion of the existence of the avant-garde is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, as distinct from postmodernism. Many artists have aligned themselves with the avant-garde movement and still continue to do so, tracing a history from Dada through the Situationists to postmodern artists such as the Language poets around 1981.
However, something called 'the historical avant-garde' exists, which is usually revered to when talking about 'avant-garde'. In musical terms it usually refers to radical, post-1945 music after the death of Anton Webern in 1945, or "tarting with Wagner or even with Josquin des Prez. However, contemporary avant-garde tendencies are usually referred to as experimental. These two notions, the historic avant-garde and the true boundary-pushing avant-garde coexist now, as they did in 1969 when the Scratch Orchestra started playing it's music. It are two approaches two experimental art-practice.
By combining the notion of the historical avant-garde with the concept of amateurism, the regulated music practice that circles around historic avant-garde pieces is defied. They can be played in a fresh way without stumbling over unnecessary conceptual baggage. The Tip Top Orchestra strives to recombine redundant media and ideologies to create an optimistic artistic environment. They do this in several ways, for instance: 1) They build their own instruments 2) They record on VHS material.
To truly reinstall past ideology as a means of defiance, there should be an international movement focusing on amateur-avant-garde. This movement should not only work within a musical context, but must focus on other disciplines as well. To create a community aware of the notion of amateur avant-garde the orchestra aims to construct multiple incarnations of the tip top orchestra throughout the world. Every city has its own population and society, meaning its own concept of obsoleteness and its own obsolete media objects and ideologies. As such, a short term residency would be the ideal way to look at the resources that a city provides and establish a working orchestra from that principle. The creative community that is shaped by this will be a fresh breeze in the city and generate a series of artistic objects ranging from movies, to instruments, web-applications and social interventions.