Cornelius Cardew lives

Virginia Anderson
12 December 2011

Cornelius Cardew (1936-81) developed a philosophy of experimental notation and indeterminacy that influenced art music throughout the world. He was a deeply moral thinker, engaged in a constant struggle for truth in art, life, the political world, and himself. In face of all criticism and mockery, he stood with his personal, political and aesthetic beliefs against British musical conservatism, the avant-garde establishment, and finally, the experimentalism he himself had created.

Cornelius Cardew, 1936 – 1981

Cardew's musical activity divides neatly into the tripartite period division adopted in biographical studies of Beethoven and other composers, and for reasons beyond the merely aesthetic: Cardew tended to burn his bridges once he decided upon a new path.

His early work followed European post-war modernism. He was Karlheinz Stockhausen's assistant in 1958-60, realising Carré (1960) for four orchestras. Stockhausen's composition notes indicated only some elements of musical events, which Cardew completed. While acknowledging Stockhausen's impulse to help a young composer, Cardew felt that he was a collaborator on Carré rather than its orchestrator. Stockhausen took control of his score and its result, a concept usual for common-practice music since the 19th century (see Cornelius Cardew, "Report on Stockhausen's 'Carré'", 1968 parts one and two [subscription only]).

At the same time, Cardew met the American experimental composers Christian Wolff and John Cage, and the experimental performer David Tudor; he also began a lifelong collaboration with the pianist John Tilbury that can be regarded as analogous to the one between Cage and Tudor. In characteristic fashion Cardew both digested and reached beyond the influence of the American experimental view that the composer worked equally with the performer, who realised the indeterminacies of the score. Cage, Wolff, and other American composers accepted the social analogy of this increased equality of responsibility between composer and performer, but Cardew presented the clearest understanding of composer/performer roles in his writings on notation and in his early experimental works. These led to his first major work, the massive 193-page graphic score Treatise (1963-67).

Virginia Anderson is editor of the Journal of Experimental Music Studies (Jems). She has played and studied experimental music since she found John Cage's Silence in her local library in 1968. She is the author of British Experimental Music: Cornelius Cardew and His Contemporaries (1983; reprinted 2000) and (her doctoral thesis) Aspects of British Experimental Music as a Separate Art-Music Culture (2004)

An event to celebrate and discuss the life and work of Cornelius Cardew – including performances of his music – is held on the 70th anniversary of his birth, 7 May 2006. It takes place at Cecil Sharp House, north London. For details, click here and here

Treatise, which structures pictorial and musical symbols in a logical and coherent "argument", is based on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus, itself an attempt to define the limits of language. In pre-publication performances of sections of Treatise, performers were to play certain symbol-types with consistent sound responses, so that the relation of symbol to sound approached the relationship of sign to symbol in language, albeit interpreted anew with each performance.

As Cardew had not yet written instructions for Treatise, performers interpreted the symbols in surprising ways. The jazz guitarist and visual artist Keith Rowe chose to interpret Treatise as visual art rather than as symbolic notation, "reading" the artistic composition as a whole on the page. Cardew, son of a painter (Mariel) and a potter (Michael), found this response so revolutionary that he never published instructions to Treatise. Each performer since has had to find his or her own approach to this work.

Cardew then joined Rowe and the drummer Eddie Prévost in the improvisation group AMM (an acronym for a name that is secret), and found that the act of improvisation was one of shared ownership and responsibility, in which all members were creative equals.

At this stage in his career, the singularity of Cardew's artistic purpose drew the following remark from Morton Feldman (in "Conversations Without Stravinsky", Source 2 [July 1967]):

"(Any) direction modern music will take in England will come about only through Cardew, because of him, by way of him. If the new ideas in music are felt today as a movement in England, it's because he acts as a moral force, a moral center. Without him, the young 'far-out' composer would be lost. With him, he's still young, but not really lost."

Cardew found that Treatise required a visual, if not musical, education. He thus chose to compose music with a strong improvisatory element in English prose, first in his piece for AMM, The Tiger's Mind (1967), then in the "opera" Schooltime Compositions, and finally in a large-scale experimental work, The Great Learning (1968-71). This last piece, in seven parts and based on Confucian texts, uses a combination of graphics, text, and other elements to elicit a distinctive sound-world while not pinning performers down to individual notes.

Between music and politics

Cardew established courses in experimental music at the Anti-University in London's Rivington Street which was active in 1968-69 and at Morley College (itself founded for the education of the Victorian working class). All were encouraged to join, regardless of musical education.

These courses led to the formation of the Scratch Orchestra (1969-73), launched with a draft constitution in The Musical Times. Concerts were designed by members in rotation, beginning with the youngest and all members had equal status as performers and as composers. Professional composers, jazz performers, Cardew's composition students at the Royal Academy of Music, visual artists, and bus-drivers joined. Rehearsals began with improvisation, as in the compositional types called "improvisation rites". Cardew published a group of these in a collection entitled Nature Study Notes (1969), the first of several Scratch Orchestra publications.

The Scratch Orchestra, as with many groups of the late 1960s, attracted people who wanted to "do their own thing". While some members worked to perform large-scale works such as The Great Learning, others showed up and, say, crawled around the performing space dressed in Christmas-tree lights. This freedom eventually led to divisions among the members: musicians wanted to use their training, non-musicians wanted to retain text notation. Anarchic sub-groups wanted more freedom in musical performance, older members were tired of waiting for their chance to organise concerts, and most of the orchestra resented the common outside assumption that the Scratch Orchestra was Cardew's group.

It is true that, as the orchestra's "name" composer, Cardew brought BBC recordings and other exposure that would not have been offered even to other known composers associated with the orchestra. Cardew wore this role lightly, and when he ran into trouble, it was as an ordinary member of the orchestra. He interpreted a text piece that read "Act as obscenely as possible until the authorities intervene", by drawing nudes and four-letter words on toilet paper. Cardew was successful: he was arrested, the concert closed, and the event became national news.

At the same time, tensions within the orchestra led to a series of "discontent meetings". John Tilbury was perhaps the most persuasive speaker, arguing against the orchestra's situation from a Marxist stance. The orchestra established an ideological group to study Marxist theory, particularly Maoism, a lateral move from the Confucianism of The Great Learning. Cardew joined at the third or fourth meeting.

This evolving perspective came to view Scratch Orchestra and AMM improvisation as both elitist and bourgeois. Mao Tse-tung's own aesthetic, outlined at the Yenan forum on literature and art in May 1942, was an influential text for orchestra members struggling towards self-understanding of their work:

"Only by starting from the workers, peasants and soldiers can we have a correct understanding of popularisation and of the raising of standards and find the proper relationship between the two."

Cardew was at this time asked to programme a piece on the BBC Promenade Concerts, which in Britain constitutes the establishment's acceptance of a composer's work. However, The Great Learning was based on the writings of Confucius (then banned by a Maoist government in the throes of its own "cultural revolution"), as translated by the poet Ezra Pound, who had embraced fascism. The texts of the first two paragraphs of The Great Learning were rewritten by a Scratch Orchestra committee, and the performance was to be accompanied by banners depicting Maoist slogans. In the event, the BBC refused to allow the performance to go ahead.

Cornelius Cardew constructing Scratch Cottage at Alexandra Palace, 1971 (digital reprint of a photograph by Alec Hill), still from Pilgrimage From Scattered Points, a film by Luke Fowler Images courtesy the artist; The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow

Throughout his experimental period, Cardew had goaded the musical establishment – especially Stockhausen, in his report on Carré and on his performance with the pianist Frederic Rzewski of Stockhausen's Plus-Minus. After what Keith Potter called "the big switch" to Marxism-Leninism, Cardew pilloried all modernism and art music in general as elitist, most notably in his 1974 book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.

The search for ways to make musical projects part of a larger dynamic of political and social liberation, and the choice of leftist politics as a vehicle for this endeavour, was something Cardew shared with Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski. It would have been difficult enough in any circumstance, but Cardew's predicament was intensified by the particular insularity and venom of British musical life. Cardew's own combative energies drew consistent attacks from critics who dismissed his new, political work as overly simplistic, and undermined his position in modern music.

Yet Cardew's early Maoist work is neither as simple nor as inept as the conventional wisdom portrays. His Piano Albums 1973 and 1974 are descended from 19th-century piano miniatures, despite their political programme. Many pieces are similar to the "new tonality" of the early 1970s written by Cardew's former Scratch Orchestra associates. His political aesthetic was dynamic rather than static: in a talk for the BBC in 1973, he had said that "derivative music (film music, pop music, musical comedy, etc.) will serve for the ideological subjugation of the working class", yet in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, he qualifies this judgment by saying "it was wrong to 'knock' popular music in a general way".

"My last memory of Cornelius Cardew is of an anti-fascist concert, which he had organised himself, only a week before he was killed. He was playing the piano, accompanying, and singing to a packed audience in a community hall in Camden. Many members of London ethnic groups were in the audience and participating. It was a far cry from the international festival of contemporary music where he had begun his career, but it was the destination he had consciously chosen, and which he had reached by forcing his music into life, by making the act of composition something more than the mere manipulation of sound."

John Tilbury, "Cornelius Cardew" (Contact 26 [Spring 1983], a revised version of a memorial lecture delivered at Goldsmiths College, London, on 26 April 1982)

This shift of perspective was reflected in Cardew's decision to join the political pop group People's Liberation Music. His music retained overt political content to the end of his life, but he often used complex art music to do so, notably in his large-scale piano works, such as the Thälmann Variations and his final, unfinished piano duo, Boolavogue. In one case, Mountains (1976), on the death of Mao, he returned to a limited graphic notation. He also wrote for massed amateur groups: We Sing for the Future was an anthem, while Bethanien Song, written for a children's clinic in a poor district of West Berlin, attained the status of a folk song.

A great learning

On the night of 12-13 December 1981, Cardew was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking in deep snow to his home in East Leyton, London. Some associates find his death suspicious, as Cardew was a prominent figure in the political parties he respectively joined and founded (the Communist Party of England [Marxist-Leninist] and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain [Marxist-Leninist]); he was also active in protest movements against British rule in Northern Ireland and United States militarism.

That his death was anything other than a tragic accident in bad weather has never been substantiated. The sudden, cruel loss remains undiminished.

The celebration on 7 May 2006 of what would have been his 70th birthday raises the temptation to speculate as to where Cardew's musical and political intelligence would have guided him had he lived.

It has been said that his political work prevented him from doing more composition during his last decade, but this judgment is belied both by his concentration on just a few major works throughout the 1960s (notably Treatise and The Great Learning) and by the fact that his later output was no less frequent. Moreover, after 1976 Maoism became increasingly discredited and its rather rigid aesthetic less influential even among its putative adherents.

The Scratch Orchestra itself was an example of the way that a mixed group, including working-class and untutored members, could understand, even revel, in "elitist" modernism. Free improvisation was anarchic chaos in the perspective of Maoist aesthetics to which Cardew had subscribed, and it is significant in this light that John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost say that just before Cardew's death he had planned to rehearse again with AMM.

John Tilbury

It is probable that Cardew would have retained a central interest in leftist politics, even if the exact nature of his commitments as the world changed around him can only be guessed. But he may have gone through one or more sharp musical changes in the last two and a half decades. The best indication of where Cardew might now be lies in the activities of John Tilbury, his contemporary (and author of a forthcoming biography), who has retained his political commitment while playing experimental music; as well as in those of the composer Dave Smith, arranger for the Progressive Cultural Association choir, which Cardew founded as part of an artistic arm for the party he founded and helped lead. Smith's own music is both overtly political and not obviously political; Cardew might well have broadened and enriched his work in a similar way.

Whatever steps Cardew might have taken had he lived, one thing is indeed certain: he would have accomplished them fearlessly. In each period he chose to delineate the shortcomings of the musical establishment as he saw them, while staying true to his own sense of musical value and engagement. The integrity of these choices defined Cornelius Cardew's life and work. That is why he remains one of Britain's greatest composers and musical thinkers, as well as a living presence for many who seek to make their own contribution to musical and social development.

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