Roger Marsh Composer

Mug Grunt

Richard Orton (1940-2013) was probably a bigger influence on the creative environment at York than is generally acknowledged.  While Wilfrid Mellers rightly receives recognition for the remarkable department he created and steered through its early days, his real genius was in the way he brought people together and the bravery he showed in letting them offer their best in their own way. He spotted potential in people and helped it to flourish.  As a scholar he was brilliant and inspiring. As a composer he was prolific and sometimes infuriating (ask copyists and conductors), and always adventurous.  But did he have much of an influence on the work of the younger generation of composers?  I would say not.

Richard, on the other hand, was a quiet dissident. Outwardly very proper, with his Cambridge acquired confidence and impeccable cathedral tenor voice, he was always the first to champion the experimental.  He was responsible for establishing the York Electronic Studio (YES), the first of its kind in a UK university.  He brought experimental pioneers to York, in particular Hugh Davies, who made music from his encyclopaedia volume Shozyg (SHO – ZYG).  He brought together a group of experimentally minded undergraduates, with Hugh, to form a group, The Gentle Fire, that would challenge the contemporary conventions through the combination of electronics and instrumental improvisation; at the height of their activity they were invited to perform with Stockhausen.

Left to Right: Michael Robinson, Graham Hearn, Richard Orton, Hugh Davies, Stuart Jones, Richard Bernas

It was Richard who, along with Stuart Jones and some others, invented the ‘Project System’ of teaching, – a radical rejection of the traditional lecture/tutorial/examination system, -which has endured at York to this day (albeit with some recent modifications which reflect the increasing move towards homogeneity in the UK education system).

But just as important as all this is the contribution Richard made as a composer.  His Sampling Afield for amplified voices and tape, and the wonderfully titled Clock Farm, were extremely sophisticated and ambitious, the latter inspired by the farm of that name which Richard passed on his way from Sutton on Derwent to York every day.  Everything Richard did was done elegantly. Brass Phase placed brass players on individual swivel stools, so that they could spin effortlessly while playing, modulating the phase patterns between instruments. I stole the swivel stool idea later in Spit and Blow.

But it is Mug Grunt that really hit a spot, and became probably Richard’s most performed work. He probably thought it a trifle, and perhaps it is in some ways.  But it is unlike anything else, in its concept and in the challenge it presents to performers, of which there have been very many.  Originally composed for Tom Endrich, Steve Stanton and myself, the piece became a part of the Clap music theatre repertoire.  Bernard Rands replaced Steve Stanton; at some point Trevor Wishart also took part. It has been performed by student performers in many universities and colleges.

The piece is simply described – three people, each with a large tea mug (empty), sitting side by side on three individual chairs.  They grunt, they move their heads from left to right and up and down, they raise and lower their mugs, thrust them out to left and right, and finally lower their faces into the mugs and mumble.  That’s it.   All carefully notated, and hilarious. A much fuller account can be read in Michael Hall’s book Music Theatre in Britain 1960-1975 (chapter 11 Musica Poetica).

The image below is from Clap’s disastrous final concert in the Camden Festival in 1974. Because the theatre had left us with a full size double decker bus on stage without warning us, we had to draw the curtains in front of it and perform our whole show on the shallow apron in front of the curtains.  Thus we had to rethink our plan to pre-set the stage for the pieces in the first half, and before Mug Grunt it was necessary to push a grand piano towards the wings.  One reviewer commented that the Orton piece began with three workers, in flat caps, hauling away the symbol of bourgeois culture before grunting and burping into their tea mugs. He didn’t like it. On all other occasions the piece was a winner.


Roger Marsh, Tom Endrich, Bernard Rands on stage at the Shaw Theatre London 1974



Last three pages of the score of Mug Grunt