- The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew by Tony Harris
Mediating between the past and present in recent music history is tricky. Our own time affects and alters how we understand past ideas, such as those of the composer Cornelius Cardew (1936–81). Cardew’s biography should be clearer than many, as it breaks into three distinct phases, each with its own theory, philosophy, and social outlook. In his first phase (c.1956–60), Cardew was an avant-garde composer who first studied with, then became assistant to, Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1960, Cardew criticized Stockhausen’s authorial control (in ‘Report on Stockhausen’s Carré’, Musical Times, 102/1424 and 1425 (1961)) and turned to Cagean experimentalism. He wrote extensively on the philosophy of notation, indeterminacy, and, after joining the group AMM in the mid-1960s, free improvisation. Cardew taught experimental music courses and cofounded the Scratch Orchestra (with Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton), an egalitarian ensemble of musicians and non-musicians. Cardew’s important experimental works are Treatise (1963–7), a 193-page piece in graphic notation, and The Great Learning (1968–71). The Great Learning, a seven-part, seven- to nine-hour piece for up to one hundred performers, is a summation of 1960s experimental techniques and styles. Cardew’s third phase began in 1971 when he adopted Marxism-Leninism, denouncing his experimental and avant-garde pasts in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (London, 1974). Until he died (he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1981), Cardew’s music carried a clear political message in an accessible musical style.
These phases exhibit extreme aesthetic shifts for a single artist, but over time they have become blurred. The best early source on Cardew’s experimental period is Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge, 1999, orig. 1974), but younger English composers have complained that Nyman does not provide an aesthetic context for their own present-day work. The source may give a false indication of the quality of information. Sources from ‘good’ publishers, including Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After (London, 2010 (previous editions 1981, 1995)) and Norman Lebrecht, The Complete Companion to Twentieth-Century Music (London, 2000, orig. 1992), were written by supposedly ‘impartial’ journalistic critics who disdain the music, yet accurate writings scattered among journals such as Musical Times, Contact, and Studio International and unpublished sources were written by ‘biased’ participants who knew it. John Tilbury’s Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished (Matching Tye, Essex, 2008) has largely cleared this confusion. Tilbury worked as Cardew’s pianist (just as David Tudor worked with Cage) and was a lifelong Communist who prompted Cardew’s conversion to Marxism. He used Cardew’s personal diaries, compositional notes, and interviews with colleagues to create this comprehensive book. At over 1,000 pages, Tilbury’s biography is as expansive as Alan Walker’s three-volume Liszt biography (Ithaca, NY, 1988, 1989, 1996), so it is a daunting prospect for the casual or contextual reader. Cardew scholarship sorely needs a concise critical biography such as those on Cage by David Nicholls (Champaign, Ill., 2006) and Rob Haskins (London, 2012). It also needs an assessment of Cardew’s experimental and political aesthetic. The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew aims to fill the second need.
As an educator and performer interested in Cardew’s late political ideology, Tony Harris has played and directed Cardew’s experimental music in schools and CoMA (Contemporary Music for All), a nationwide initiative promoting new music for amateur musicians. After an introduction, Harris begins with Cardew’s political third phase of work and ideology. He discusses underlying ideas behind the polemic of Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and defines key Marxist terms as Cardew knew them. Harris indicates that Cardew believed that the art work has both superficial contradictions that must be assessed and an underlying content reflective of the dominant bourgeois society and the proletarian struggle for change. He relates this to Adorno’s idea of a ‘truth-content’ within an art object and the need to break free from a spell that is...