The Great Learning Orchestra at a workshop
in November 2003 at SAMI, Stockholm,
playing Cornelius Cardew & Christian Wolff.
Up front: Leif Jordansson, Jan Liljekvist & Jonna Sandell

The Great Learning Orchestra: To me the name opens up visions of Tibetan monasteries, Searchers for Truth and a truly spiritual atmosphere – perhaps because my discovery of this orchestra coincided with my re-awoken studies of Tibetan Buddhism, a series of intense Lapland hikes through rock deserts below towering glaciers and a general spiritual re-orientation towards a secure realization of the eternal aspect of ourselves; the sudden impact of the realization that all of us are eternal beings in temporary bodies, riding our body vehicles through innumerable lives, learning, learning and… learning! The Great Learning Orchestra fitted right into my own place in existence, into my own discovery.

It was Terry Riley who made me aware of the orchestra, or perhaps Folke Rabe, who was the one who broke the news to me that Riley – whom I hadn’t seen since 1994 – was descending on Stockholm in May 2002. Rabe offered me his music studio in central Stockholm for sleeping, so I rolled out my sleeping bag there and didn’t have to travel back and forth between the town of Shitville (Skitköping) where I live, and Stockholm, during the days that Terry Riley and his comrade in arms, Stefan Scodanibbio [double bass], played at different locations in Stockholm, like Nalen, the Concert Hall at the Culture House and the catalyst meeting place of Stockholm youth; LAVA. [Scodanibbio not part of the LAVA venture].

Ingvar Loco Nordin, Folke Rabe & Terry Riley
in Stockholm, May 2002
In the background; Erik Bünger
(Photo: Sung Hae Park)

Anyhow, it was the last night of Riley’s Stockholm Sojourn, and he was to play with this ensemble with the magic name – The Great Learning Orchestra – and I was sure to be there, chatting wildly with singer and producer Sung Hae Park, who had taken care of all the administrativa making Riley’s three-day appearance possible.

The night at LAVA in May 2002 proved exhilarating, revelation-like. It was like an injection of the best of the 1960s into the beginning of the 2000s! People were moving in and out of the premises, some not interested at all, some caught spellbound, and the audience which had come for the event in intense concentration, spread all over the hall, in their seats or on the floor, and up the wide staircase at the opposite side of the room from the stage. Folke Rabe was sitting in with the orchestra for the night, playing a keyboard in the back.
I recorded the event on my MD-recorder (and Bebe Risenfors recorded too; a recording which was aired on Swedish radio with magnificent sound a few months later) and moved about, taking pictures, only to return to my seat beside Sung Hae Park, who was sporting Riley’s cap, which he had placed on her head for the concert.

It was a magic event, and it blew my interest for The Great Learning Orchestra open wide.

In the fall of 2003 I’ve been lucky to be present at a few of the orchestra’s workshops at different locations, and I also recently got a copy of an interview that Robin McGinley made with two of the members for Resonance Radio in London. This interview gives a glimpse of the origin and the aim of The Great Learning Orchestra, so I’ll provide an edited account of the interview here [with the consent of the interviewer]. The people being interviewed are Leif Jordansson and Pelle Halvarsson, who founded The Great Learning Orchestra in 1997.

McGinley began with asking if The Great Learning Orchestra isn’t something like a latter day Cardew Scratch Orchestra, with a number of professional and amateur musicians working together, and got an affirmative response from Pelle Halvarsson and Leif Jordansson.

Halvarsson and Jordansson [their different contributions to the discussion mixed throughout, sometimes with the added views of McGinley too], on the origin of the orchestra:

Leif [Jordansson] and I met in an orchestra – The Theatre Orchestra. We played Black Rider; a Tom Waits gig. It was in 1997, and we had never met before. We consulted our address books for colleagues, and realized that we had no musician friends in common. We both tried to persuade one another that our own friends all were really great musicians, so we decided to get all these folks together to play music that we rarely get to perform. Also, when you play in a theatre, you work together for six or eight months, after which you diverge into different productions, and we thought this was a good way of playing together, in this new constellation, even if we also worked with other productions in different settings. It was a realization that we could still meet and play, no matter if we were doing different things outside this new ensemble, and we could meet new people to play with.
When you work with theater music, you really have to listen to each other [musicians and actors] and play together. It’s not like playing a concert. You may be skillful in reading music, but that’s not really interesting in when you work with theatre music, because you have to be very attentive to what’s happening on stage. I started to read about pieces, and about ideas of how to work with music, and I got in touch with Cardew stuff through Brian Eno’s
Diary, where he writes about being a part of a choir that does Paragraph 7 on the Great Learning. To me it was so beautiful, the way he described it, so I just told Pelle that, hey, this is great, this is the kind of music we should play, and this is the way we have been thinking for the last 15, 20 years, but not really knowing that there are composers working in this field.

I got an article about the Scratch Orchestra, and it sounded great, so we decided to go ahead.
If you want to gather a lot of people to play, you have to come up with something. I mean, let’s assume we’re 50 people playing. Of course nobody will get paid for playing. It’s impossible to get money for 50 people playing on this voluntary basis. We had to find interesting pieces that you cannot do by yourself at home; you have to be with lots of people to do it, because then it will be interesting. That is the pay. The experience is the salary. Of course, the legacy of the Scratch Orchestra and a big part of the experimental music tradition, is finding new ways of bringing people together to play in ensembles of new combinations of instruments. The Great Learning Orchestra has people from all areas; from rock and jazz and theatre and symphony orchestras, so we can get very nice instrumental combinations. Any piece we play must allow for a flexible mix of instruments and any number of players.

The Great Learning Orchestra
with Terry Riley
at LAVA, Stockholm, May 2002

When we started out we needed a good piece to begin with, and of course we decided on Terry Riley’s In C. It was our first piece, because it’s so well suited for that kind of an orchestra. Four years later, in 2002, we discussed performing another Terry Riley piece, because he was coming to Sweden to do some concerts, so we spoke with Folke Rabe who is a good friend of Terry’s, and he promised to help us. He had some email contact with Terry, and he suggested that it would be more fun this time if we played Tread On the Trail, because it had only been done three times prior, so it was Terry’s idea for us to play this piece. He had reworked it some, and changed some parts, and he thought it would be fun to play it. We also believed it would suite our orchestra, because of the rock and jazz origin of some members and the way Tread On the Trail is written. It’s sort of like In C, but not in the sense of bars. This piece is more like jazz melodies that you repeat over and over, and you divide the orchestra into a number of small sections, just like you do in In C. We tried the piece, and it was really groovy!

The Great Learning Orchestra
performing Tread On the Trail in May 2002.
Up front; Leif Jordansson

Earlier, in 2000, we talked about doing a Christmas concert, and pondered on what piece we could choose. We didn’t want to fall into the Christmas carol idiom, so well represented around Stockholm. As you know, much of the charity concert money does not go to the needy, so we decided to do a real Christmas concert for the homeless, so what piece could we play? Well, Gavin Bryar’s Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet came up, so we called him up and he accepted the invitation immediately and flew over to Stockholm, and we shared a workshop. We also spoke a lot with him about his music and about his collaboration with Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra.

The second piece the Great Learning Orchestra ever played was Erik Satie’s
Vexations. After In C we discussed what to do next. When we looked back in time to Terry Riley and to John Cage, and thought about what they did for this kind of music, we found that John Cage did one of the first performances of Vexations, in the 1950s I think. The title translates Irritations, and Satie wrote it after his one and only love affair had ended. He wrote this short piano piece, with a duration of about two and a half minutes. However, the score has the indication that the piece should be played 840 times when performed, which equals about 24 hours… It’s customary to perform it with 8 pianists who take turns, though attempts have been made by solo pianists to play it through. Since we had the Great Learning Orchestra, we saw no reason not to let the orchestra play Vexations, and so we did, for 24 hours, and we recorded it. It was the first time it was ever done by an orchestra.