Old EMC web guide to Cornelius Cardew, 13 December 2001

Whilst trawling through the EMC attic, admin found this very short guide and tribute, which was meant to last only for the occasion. It is now very much out of date; if you wish to know anything about Cornelius Cardew, you must start with John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished (Essex 2008). We have noticed, however, that this little note is listed in WorldCat as a library holding. It might have interested someone, so I put it up here, as a blast from the past.

Cornelius Cardew: A source guide and personal tribute on the anniversary of his death

As my major interest is British experimental music, today marks the anniversary of an important event. Some of you may be interested in this directly, or at least might need such information for undergraduate classes and library orders.

Twenty years ago this evening, the British composer Cornelius Cardew was killed by a hit-and-run driver while he was walking in deep snow to his home in East Leyton, London. Cardew could roughly (but with some justification) be called the “Cage” of Britain, in that he developed a particularly British philosophy of notation and indeterminacy which was wholly new. Morton Feldman said (in “Conversations Without Stravinsky,” Source 2 (July 1967), p. 43) that

[a]ny 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’s work divides very neatly into the tripartite format of Beethoven and others (which I was warned not to adopt automatically in undergraduate history classes). His early work was modernist and he was a briefly a student and then assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen, performing most of the realisation of Stockhausen’s notes to Carre’ (and then parting company with this work and with avant-garde modernism in “Report on Stockhausen’s Carre’,” The Musical Times, September, 1961, p. 619 (Part 2 in November 1961, p. 700)).

At the same time Cardew met Christian Wolff and John Cage, and soon he found that music notations which spurred the performer to action, leaving other elements indeterminate, was more attractive. Cardew wrote, during this second period in his working life, two landmark pieces of writing on notation, its psychology and aesthetics: “Notation, Interpretation, etc.,” Tempo 58:21 (1961), pp. 21-33, and the often overlooked Treatise Handbook. Both pieces concentrate on Cardew’s ideas which led up to Treatise (New York: Gallery Upstairs Press, 1967; now sold through Peters), his 193-page graphic score.

Cardew also worked with the improvisatory group AMM and became interest in a kind of notation which would not need literacy in music (by means of common-practice notations) nor in the visual arts (by means of graphic notations), but rather in written English (or by translation, any spoken tongue). His concern with a music which anyone might, with practice and thought, play at a high artistic level, led to the founding of the Scratch Orchestra (particularly in Scratch Music (London: Latimer Press, 1971) and to his largest-scale work, The Great Learning (London: Experimental Music Catalogue, 1971; available through http://www.matchlessrecordings.com). This work might arguably be the largest, most complex work of experimental music, having seven sections and taking about seven hours to complete, and forms a compendium of experimental techniques and styles.

During this period Cardew showed his gifts as leader and teacher, inspiring a whole movement of British experimental performers and composers: John Tilbury, Cardew’s equivalent to Cage’s David Tudor, an accomplished pianist who allied himself to the movement; Gavin Bryars, John White, Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons, contemporary composers who joined him; Christopher Hobbs, Hugh Shrapnel and other students in his Royal Academy of Music classes; critics like Michael Nyman; improvisatory musicians like Keith Rowe and Eddie Prevost; visual artists like Tom Phillips. The classic work which dealt contemporaneously with both American and British experimental music is Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London: Studio Vista, 1974; reprinted Cambridge: CUP, 1999).

After Cardew completed The Great Learning he entered a new phase in which he (at least at first) repudiated his previous avant-garde and experimental works as part of a concern with Marxist-Leninist philosophy and Maoist aesthetics. For most people this break with modernism came in his book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (London: Latimer Press, 1974); musically it can be heard in the re-release of his album Four Principles on Ireland and Other Pieces (Ampersand ampere7, 2001 (for which I wrote the update’s liner notes)); scores of the music (the Piano Albums from 1973 and 1974) can be found on the Experimental Music Catalogue http://www.experimentalmusic.co.uk. Another personal view of graphic works from a late-Maoist angle is Cardew’s “Wiggly Lines and Wobbly Music,” Studio International, November/December 1976, pp. 247-55 (part of their Art and Experimental Music issue).

From here many uninformed commentators have merely dismissed Cardew as a political agitator (for he was a leading figure in his political sphere) and writer of protest songs for workers (one writer whose name I have, perhaps thankfully, forgotten seemed to think that the entire British experimental scene had disappeared from music into politics), but there remain works of note, particularly Mountains (1976) for bass clarinet, which Cardew wrote for Harry Spaarnay, and Boolavogue (1981) for two pianos. After Mao’s death Marxist-Leninist aesthetics seemed to allow more use of art-music techniques while retaining political content: Mountains is a Bach-like fantasia which, at one point, moves into a section of graphic notation, and Boolavogue allows limited performer choice at one point. This late work is harder to find: one may try Forward Music (2013: now out of business) and http://www.experimentalmusic.co.uk for scores published by the Cornelius Cardew Foundation. The Scratch Orchestra and Composers’ Project site, Musicnow http://www.musicnow.co.uk is also useful as a source of recordings and information.

Cardew’s long-time friend and performer John Tilbury has been, for years, working on his monumental biography of Cardew; from the taste he gave in “Cornelius Cardew,” in Contact, Spring 1983, pp. 4-12, and from discussions of his work and its scope, this should be the major Cardew source when it appears. For a larger overview of Cardew and the scene in general, I have to set aside humility and suggest my MA thesis: “British Experimental Music: Cornelius Cardew and His Contemporaries,” (Unpublished thesis: University of Redlands, 1983, 278 pp.; reprinted by the Experimental Music Catalogue http://www.experimentalmusic.co.uk, 2000 2013: now out of print), which goes into the subject in a little more depth than Nyman’s and is a good companion to that book.

Those who live in Britain will find Julian Cowley’s “Revolutions from Scratch,” The Wire December 2001, pp. 26-31 to provide a good overview of Cardew’s life and memorial of the 20th anniversary of his death, as it includes interviews with many of the people who worked with him. Those who can tear themselves away from the queue for the Harrods’ sale in London (do people still do this?) can come to the Conway Hall in London on 29 December for a day (2pm-6.30pm) devoted to Cardew’s works performed by those who knew him.

A personal note: I had completed my second semester of my MA and my first trip to Britain was the usual cheap haul nightmare on December 18, 1981. We had to disembark from the plane far out on the tarmac and be bused to customs because of heavy snow. I waited for almost an hour for my host, Christopher Hobbs, to appear: he had had to run two miles to his nearest tube station because the buses could not make it up the hill to his part of town because of heavy snows. As we made our way from Heathrow to his house, Chris told me that he would have to leave me the next day because he had to go to his Cardew’s funeral, and explained what he knew of the circumstances, the most serious outcome of that season’s rotten weather.

Chris went. He told me that it was a moving service: Bach was played and the Internationale sung. I felt that I couldn’t go. I hadn’t met him, although I knew him — his works — well. I had first come across his views of notational aesthetics and psychology in “Notation, Interpretation, etc.,” while doing a paper on notational aesthetics as an undergraduate and had played Octet ’61Autumn ’60, and Paragraph 6 of The Great Learning. I owned Scratch Music— as did most of the people I knew, as its 99¢ cover price made it about the cheapest book in any music book store, even in the 1970s. I was a fan, but a fan who would have called him “Mr. Cardew” (or would have avoided any address until I had felt comfortable enough for a first name). I still refer to “Cardew”, as I will never have a chance to meet him; “Cornelius” – still more, “Cor” – is for his friends.

Cardew’s death had hit everyone in British experimental music and to some extent brought them back together for the first time since the Scratch Orchestra. Spats between Marxists and non-Marxists of professional and non-professional musicians were put aside. Cardew’s young age — he was only 45 at the time — made the sense of urgency to keep ties and to take note of important events and works more keen. I was caught up in this: the people I talked to on that vacation all had Cardew’s life and works at the forefront of their discussions and this led to my choosing Cardew and other British experimentalists for my MA thesis and pretty much everything I written about since.

At the time of his death there were signs that Cardew was going to enter more fully back into experimental and new music: he had agreed to take part in a concert with AMM, for instance. It’s too bad that we couldn’t see how that artistic life may have continued. I really wish that I had met Cardew. I’m only one among many who learned from him and who were affected deeply by his ideas.

Virginia Anderson, 13 December 2001

Author: Virginia

Virginia Anderson is a writer who messes with the EMC Blog. She specialises in the study of experimental, minimalist, and free improvisatory music. She also plays clarinet, and has recorded on Zanja, Advance, and Rastascan Recordings, specialising in new works for Eb clarinet and free improvisation.