Cornelius Cardew: a life unfinished

David Hayes
7 May 2011

The English composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-81) was among the most adventurous, controversial and innovative musicians of his generation. After an initial association with Stockhausen and the European avant-garde, he became engaged with the aesthetic ideas of John Cage and the New York school. A leading figure in the experimental music of the 1960s, Cardew is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of indeterminacy, graphic notation, free improvisation and performer involvement. As well as extending the boundaries of music in unprecedented directions, he enquired deeply into its social relevance and meaning. His passionate and untiring quest for wider social significance led him eventually to become a political activist.

Also in openDemocracy on Cornelius Cardew:

Virginia Anderson, "Cornelius Cardew lives" (5 May 2006)

In the 1970s he repudiated his earlier experimental work and adopted a more traditional musical language. He joined a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party and devoted himself to political action, at the same time searching for ways to express his commitment in musical terms. At the height of his political involvement he died tragically at the age of 45, killed by a hit-and-run driver near his home in East London.

This book brings together a diverse collection of Cardew's major essays and writings from different stages of his career, together with commentaries by other writers associated with his work. It reflects developments, changes and contradictions in his thinking about music from the late 1950s to the end of his life. As a companion volume to John Tilbury's biography, Cornelius Cardew: a life unfinished (Copula, 2007 / ISBN 0 9525492 3 9), it provides essential material for the study of Cardew's life and ideas; it also makes a significant contribution to discussion of the wider issues involved in the relationship between music, ideology and political commitment.

Edwin Prévost, ed., Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): A Reader (Copula, 2006)


Virtues that a musician can develop:

  1. Simplicity. Where everything becomes simple is the most desirable place to be. But ... the simplicity must contain the memory of how hard it was to achieve.

  2. Integrity. What we do in the event is important - not only what we have in mind. The difference between making the sound and being the sound.

  3. Selflessness. To do something constructive you have to look beyond yourself. The entire world is your sphere if your vision can encompass it ... You should not be concerned with yourself beyond arranging a mode of life that makes it possible to remain on the line, balanced. Then you can work, look out beyond yourself.

  4. Forbearance. Improvising in a group you have to accept not only the frailties of your fellow musicians, but also your own. Overcoming your instinctive revulsion against whatever is out of tune (in the broadest sense).

  5. Preparedness ... for no matter what eventuality ... or simply Awakeness ... A great intensity in your anticipation of this or that outcome.

  6. Identification with nature. The best is to lead your life, and the same applies in improvising: like a yachtsman to utilise the interplay of natural forces and currents to steer a course. My attitude is that the musical and real worlds are one. Musicality is dimension of perfectly ordinary reality. The musician's pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world.

  7. Acceptance of death. From a certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music's fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful characteristic - its transience ... The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn't it would lack vitality. Life is a force to be used and if necessary used up.

Cornelius Cardew, Treatise Handbook (1971)


Despite his reputation as a controversial figure, as the enfant terrible of the English musical scene, Cardew never insulted or abused his audience, he never subscribed to the theory of épater le bourgeois; his music, even in the later political and militant works, is never in the least aggressive. But he was marvellously unpredictable and original: the music sharpens social and psychological contradictions so that, from confronting the music, the audience finally comes to confront itself.

This unpredictable music naturally produces unpredictable responses. At a performance of the first paragraph of The Great Learning at the Cheltenham Festival in 1968 the audience split into two factions, one supporting and one opposing the music, which because of the uproar could hardly be heard. In the artists' room after the concert an elderly gentleman, who looked like a retired colonel, pushed through the crowd to confront the composer; he grabbed Cardew's hand and said: 'Thank you Mr Cardew, what a relief to hear your music after all this horrible modern stuff!'"

John Tilbury, "Cornelius Cardew", Contact / 26 (1983)


For more on Cornelius Cardew, his contemporaries, and successors, see:

Edwin Prévost, ed., Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): A Reader (Copula, 2006)

[this book includes most of Cardew’s published writings, with commentaries and responses from Richard Barrett, Christopher Fox, Brian Dennis, Anton Lukoszevieze, Michael Nyman, Eddie Prévost, David Ryan, Howard Skempton, Dave Smith, John Tilbury and Christian Wolff]

Journal of Experimental Musical Studies (Jems)

Matchless Recordings


Danny Dark Records

Brian Eno, "Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts" (an exploration of Paragraph 7 of Cardew's masterpiece The Great Learning), in Christoph Cox & Daniel Warner, eds., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (Continuum, 2004)

Music is a vagrant; it has no fixed abode. It's a menace to society. It needs cleaning up. The impossibility of abolishing music. Its omnipresence. Its uncatchability. Perhaps after all we have to step down and let music pursue its own course.

Cornelius Cardew, 1965 (diary entry)


If the word 'romantic' should be rescued from the whimsical sentimentalists, it is so that we could then apply it, properly, to Cornelius Cardew: a real fountain of breathtakingly adventurous music. Immense skill and moral discipline, yes, but at the heart of the matter is simply the actual beauty of these hauntingly evocative soundscapes.

Robert Wyatt, 1991


I suppose my most intense recollections (of the Scratch Orchestra) are the tours; the campsites in particular: the slow grace and calm with which people went about their business, accompanied by the occasional musical sound emitting from within a tent, or beyond in a field - like a Merce Cunningham ballet.

John Tilbury


We (AMM) are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.

Cornelius Cardew


For Cardew there were no two ways about it: people could be encouraged, inspired, or even cajoled, but ultimately they had to be trusted to make their own music on the basis of their own background, experience, and attitudes.

John Tilbury


In (Cornelius's work) there's a seamless line of humanity, which is expressed in different ways, sometimes discreet and subtle, at other times very crude. I never ever heard Cornelius tell anyone what to do. In a world which you could describe in general terms as contaminated, by all kinds of issues like money, fame and fortune, Cardew was one of those very rare people who you look to with absolute integrity. A man of absolute integrity. One of the difficulties that people like Cardew, Eisler, Shostakovich, and Christian Wolff have struggled with, is how do you deal with the politics of your life, the things that are happening around you.

Keith Rowe, 2001

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, 1983


The Austin New Music Coop plays Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning over two days on 6-7 May 2011 in honour of the 75th anniversary of the composer's birth on 7 May 1936

The most essential and certainly the most comprehensive source of information on and understanding of Cardew's life and work is John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished (Copula/Matchless Recordings, 2008)

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