BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 05 MAR 02
Featured in
Issue 65

Settling the score

Dan Fox lends an ear to Cornelius Cardew

BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 05 MAR 02

'Tune a brook by moving the stones in it'
Cornelius Cardew, Scratch Music, 1971

A month or so ago the east London suburbs of Leyton saw the anniversary of a particularly sad moment in its cultural history. It was there, in December 1981, that the composer Cornelius Cardew was knocked down and killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Aged just 45, Cardew's contribution to the development of experimental music was hardly the stuff of bathroom recitals or Classic FM's soundbite broadcasting. But if musical taste is a case of cultural tuning, then so too, and more fundamental, is the question of how one defines music itself. There are tales of Western ethnomusicologists who have become so immersed in the usic of the far-flung culture they are studying that, upon their return to the West, they find Bach and Beethoven impossible to listen to. Avant-garde works in the Western canon often require careful sonic acllimatization too - learning to hear the timbre of a note rather than its tone, or subtle harmonic effects, can take some doing, especially when all you want is something nice to sing in the bath. Cardew's work ranged from the abstract to the ultra-traditional, his reputation oscillating between idolized magus, unorthodox selfless educator and radical ideologue. His musical legacy perhaps sounds too self-consciously 'avant-garde' to contemporary ears - almost as if its improvised structures , angular tonality and languourous sonoritites had sprung from the satirical mind of a contributor to The Simpsons rather than from one of the world's foremost composers. Yet it must be said that, fuelled by passionate political beliefs, he injected an unprecedented level of freedom into the gaps between thought and expression in British experimental music. 

Born in 1936, the son of ceramicist Michael Cardew, his training took him from London's Royal College of Music to Cologne, where he acted as Karlheinz Stockhausen's assistant on the German maestro's Carré (1960). During his time in Germany Cardew came across the music of John Cage and David Tudor, and was swiftly seduced by their credo of improvisation and musical indeterminacy. He gradually began to introduce more chance elements into his compositions, elements that would undermine received ideas about the performer's duty slavishly to interpret every nuance in the composer's score. 

One of the most important elements he began to explore was the approach to musical notation. Eager to rail against received wisdom, Cardew attempted to puncture the idea that the musical score was the be-all and end-all of musical interpretation. In 1961 he trained as a graphic designer, and turned his design skills to finding new ways to liberate musicians in their interpretation of his compositions. Octet 61 for Jasper Johns (1961), for example, with a score divided into 60 signs and numbers, was produced after seeing an exhibition of Johns' number paintings in Paris in 1960. In an earlier piece, the delicate Autumn 60 (1960), players were allowed not only to ignore Cardew's obliquw symbols but also to introduce their own material into the performance, and in Treatise 67, his landmark work of 1967, he turned the very idea of the score on its head by asserting that 'the sounds should be a picture of the score, not vice versa'.

The late 1960s saw the first meetings of the Scratch Orchestra, a Fluxus-like collaborative group comprising many of the first musicians to perform Cardew's mammoth seven-hour work The Great Learning (1971) (in a review of which Michael Nyman first used the term 'Minimalism' to describe music). The Scratch Orchestra's idea of just what defined music encompassed everything from using conventional instrumentation to taking a walk or directives to 'subsist on a diet of love letters'.

Cardew's Beuysian belief in the democratic importance of music-making - that everyone has the potential to be a musician - let him further towards radical left-wing politics. A founder member of the Revolutionary Communist Party on Great Britain (Marxist/Leninist), from the mid-1970s until his untimely demise Cardew's increasingly extreme political views came to dictate his musical direction. In 1974 he published the book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, and completely renounced his avant-garde work of the preceding 20 years, turning instead to folk and traditional song forms. Though continuing occasionally to earn money by performing avant-garde works, Cardew had, as Julian Cowley put it, 'in effect ... renounced musical modernism and become a Socialist Realist composer'. 

If dissonance and atonality were two of the dominant characteristics of both serial and improvised avant-garde music in the 20th century, then another was the disparity between the composer's intent or methodology and the accessibility of the result. A deeply principled man, Cardew appeared to be trapped between ideology and idealism, caught in the gap between intention and outcome that so often sees well-meant experimental work fall over itself in trying to accommodate everyone in its democratic world-view. As Cardew said of his own works, 'like seeds, they depend on the surrounding soil for nourishment'.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).