Feb/Mar 2009

Made From Scratch

A new biography celebrates pioneering British composer Cornelius Cardew

Virginia Anderson


A rather touching aspect of music after 1945 concerns the close relationship between composers and the musicians who premiere their works. This intimacy is heightened in avant-garde and experimental music, which forces performers to adopt new reading skills and special techniques for playing their instruments (and sometimes to invent new instruments). In an indeterminate composition, the performer acts as a kind of co-composer, supplying compositional elements (including any and all aspects of melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, and instrumentation) that the composer leaves free. The communication in these relationships often resembles that in a marriage, due to the nonverbal understanding between the parties. John Tilbury, a noted British pianist, was Cornelius Cardew’s favorite performer. Because their best work together was experimental—they collaborated for twenty years—many writers compare their association to that of John Cage and “his” pianist, David Tudor. Tilbury, also arguably the greatest British interpreter of the music of Cage and of Morton Feldman, keenly felt Cardew’s untimely death, in 1981, at the age of forty-five, and he has spent the intervening years amassing material for this biography. He had access to Cardew’s copious journals, which cover not only his working methods and philosophy but also his private thoughts, and these provide a backing track to an extraordinary life.

Tilbury describes Cardew’s artistic formation in his bohemian upbringing as the child of Michael Cardew, one of Britain’s foremost potters, at the Wenford Bridge Pottery, a complex of an old inn and barns with no electricity or running water, and his wartime existence as a choral scholar in the evacuated Canterbury Cathedral Choir School. These early years, from Cardew’s childhood through his early twenties, are especially fascinating, since little about this time has made its way into accounts of his music. Although Cardew published much of his important thinking from his diaries in two places (“Notation—Interpretation, etc.,” in Tempo 58 [1961]; Treatise Handbook [1971]), Tilbury’s account here also discusses the composer’s interest in Taoism and Wittgenstein, both of which would significantly influence his later experiments.

Cardew was a composer whose principles and ideas led him to abandon typical avenues of success for those less certain. For two years, beginning in 1958, he served as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s assistant in Cologne, an important post for a young English modernist. However, in these same years, he met the American composers Cage, Feldman, Tudor, and Christian Wolff (and Tilbury soon after) and took the unusual step of disassociating his music from that of Stockhausen and the European avant-garde at a time when American indeterminacy and European control were opposing factions. In his experimental phase, Cardew is possibly best known for his explorations in notation, exemplified by Treatise (1963–67), a 193-page score in which common notational symbols are augmented by geometric and graphic elements and for which there are no performance instructions. From 1966 to 1972, he was a member of the free-improvisation group AMM (the meaning of this acronym is secret). The association stretched his conception of indeterminacy to include music without written composition. This led him to write music for group performances outside AMM meant to foster social and musical equality through a music anyone could read. Thus, his other major piece from this period, The Great Learning (1968–1970), a seven-to-nine-hour composition based on the Confucian text of the same name, displays a cornucopia of experimental techniques and notations that reflected the influence of midcentury indeterminacy and early minimalism, almost all of which could be performed, with practice, by both musicians and nonmusicians.

Cardew’s involvement with AMM also resulted in his cofounding the Scratch Orchestra in 1969. An equal partnership of musicians, artists, and the general public, the Scratch Orchestra maintained an open definition of what could be considered music and a reverse seniority in terms of concert planning. Its members applied a kind of jolly anarchy and theatricality to their performances, which were not unlike those of Fluxus, which flourished a few years before. Both movements realized the implications of Cage’s blurred distinction between composition, performance, and listening. The Scratch Orchestra’s work also contained a dimension of English music hall and Victorian seaside entertainment, as well as the atmosphere of fin-de-siècle artistic movements such as Dada. Fluxus, on the other hand, especially La Monte Young’s piano pieces (in which, for instance, the piano was fed hay and water or was pushed against and, perhaps, through a wall), Yoko Ono’s filmed bottoms, and Ben Vautier’s feats of strength, revisited Dada as vaudevillian blackout comedy. (In this, the Scratch was Monty Python to Fluxus’s Laugh-In.) Members of the orchestra composed and performed various types of music, including Improvisation Rites (noncompositions designed to foster improvisation), Popular Classics (experimental and avant-garde music, as well as the staple diet of pop orchestras), Scratch Music (compositional notebooks for self-education), and text and graphic compositions; some studied seriously—there were classes and rehearsals—and some just turned up and did whatever they wanted. The group also conducted mock Research Projects, such as a concert performance inspired by the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage and a Jules Verne–like plan to link the Isle of Wight to an iceberg in order to float it to Tokyo Bay.

After about two years, various divisions—between trained musicians and nonreading performers, between older and younger members—led to a schism within the group. During the orchestra’s tour of the northeast of England in June 1971, Cardew created an uproar when he interpreted Greg Bright’s Sweet FA (the text of which reads “Act as obscenely as you can until the authorities intervene”) by writing four-letter words and drawing nudes on pieces of toilet paper and discarding them around the performance area. This exploit had an unfortunate, albeit successful, outcome: The authorities canceled the next performance, The Sun ran an indignant article about the “blatant indecency” of the “Prof’s Toilet-Roll Orchestra,” and the Daily Telegraph questioned the use of Arts Council funding and the quality of professors teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. The publicity exacerbated the discord among the members, in particular because Cardew was made out to be the group’s leader when it in fact considered itself an egalitarian, even anarchic, ensemble.

Surprisingly, the rift was solved politically. During the tour, Keith Rowe, an AMM and Scratch Orchestra member and a recent convert to Marxism, argued that the orchestra’s problems were class-based. Back in London, during a meeting in which members gathered to air their differences, Tilbury laid out the group’s contradictions (such as its antiestablishment stance and reliance on government money), offering solutions in the form of quotations from the English Marxist Christopher Caudwell and Mao Tse-tung. Some of the members formed the Scratch Orchestra Ideological Group, which Cardew himself joined a few weeks later, and the orchestra gradually turned to a Maoist, then Marxist-Leninist, political orientation and aesthetic. In response, Cardew’s style shifted to tonal music with a clear concern for class struggle, a move first evident in his Piano Albums of 1973 and 1974, which included arrangements and paraphrases of Chinese and Irish revolutionary songs. In 1974, he published Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, a collection of essays that denounced his own earlier work and that of his former influences: Stockhausen’s Refrain “promotes a mystical world outlook which is . . . an enemy of the working and oppressed people of the world”; in Cage’s pieces, “randomness is glorified as a multicoloured kaleidoscope of perceptions to which we are ‘omniattentive.’” Focusing increasingly on political activities, to the detriment of his music, Cardew was arrested several times and imprisoned once for six weeks for taking part in protests against racism and fascism and for agitating on behalf of the Irish Republican movement. The question of whether there would have been another musical phase for Cardew in the ’80s (to match the avant-garde one of the ’50s, the experimental one of the ’60s, and the political one of the ’70s) was answered on December 13, 1981, when he was killed in a hit-and-run accident near his home in London.

Tilbury is afraid neither to criticize his subject nor to reveal uncomfortable facts, such as when Cardew expressed displeasure to his second wife when she signed her paintings as Stella Cardew rather than with her maiden name, Sargent. Though Tilbury might have attributed this irritation to Cardew’s insistence that she succeed in her own right (which Tilbury advances as an alternative), he instead concludes that Cardew considered her act a devaluation of his family’s artistic lineage. In fact, as Tilbury shows, a number of incidents from the composer’s youth and early adulthood demonstrate a dismissive attitude toward the women in his life. He walked out on his first wife, leaving only a note, and once abandoned his young family at a suburban train station outside Rome, unconcerned that they would have to find their own way back to London.

The author also takes issue with features of Cardew’s Marxist-Leninist phase, in which his every action was controlled by party precepts. A lifelong communist, though unaffiliated with Cardew’s Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), Tilbury assesses the party’s ideological sea change, after Mao’s death, from a peasant-led aesthetic (which Cardew called his “Puritanism”) to one led by the revolutionaries themselves. Cardew’s music during this period is much less exciting, as his work had to meet the approval of the party and its founder, Hardial Bains. Tilbury writes that “it was through [Cardew’s] deference to Bains, to the slogan ‘politics first,’ art in the service of ideology, that his considerable aesthetic judgment had been so painfully compromised. . . . How else can one explain the acceptance and accommodation of texts which displayed such an implacable hostility to the art of melody?”

Cardew’s death, about which various theories (including fascist or government assassination) have proliferated, remains unsettled. Though the coroner ruled the death an accident, many of the composer’s musical associates, his political comrades, and even leading civil rights attorneys are convinced he was murdered. The barrister Michael Mansfield was quoted in The Independent magazine as saying, “I would not be surprised if agents of the state decided his time had come.” Cardew’s friend John Maharg claimed, “MI5 are quite ruthless: people don’t realize it. And they kill pre-emptively.” Cardew lived in East London, where there had been a rise in neo-Nazi activities, and Tilbury suggests that a fascist group considered Cardew a “‘traitor’ to the ‘white community’” for his antiracist activities. As often happens with sudden, violent deaths, we are left with more questions than answers. Tilbury ends this chapter appropriately, with the two blank staves that run throughout Treatise, a preparation for the realization of a life cut short, which, whether musical or political, was devoted to social and moral action.

Due to the duration of Tilbury’s work on the book, some parts of this book are much older than others, resulting in a slight change of voice from chapter to chapter. In several sections, the bibliographic information needs updating. Some sections could be cut with little loss to the narrative, and poor copyediting also muddies the book. While Tilbury is willing to take issue with Cardew’s actions, he tends to characterize experimentalists in 1960s London as satellites of the composer. John White, a contemporary of equal importance, is described as being a student in the mid-’60s. In fact, he had already worked as a composition lecturer at the Royal College of Music. (Cardew had yet to do so at the Royal Academy.) Rather than Cardew’s student, White was influential in the development of Treatise through his “perverse” interpretations (reading rising graphics as falling melodies and so on).

However, these are quibbles with a unique and fascinating biography, one that, as a labor of love and a tribute, is unsurpassed. It is frustrating that although Tilbury includes himself in the narrative, he downplays his own activities. In his preface, the author recalls a visit to Cardew’s home in the ’70s, after they had drifted somewhat apart due to Cardew’s political activities and Tilbury’s touring schedule. On the mantelpiece, Tilbury found a picture of himself. It is a nice indication that Cardew, not a demonstrative man, returned Tilbury’s affection.

Virginia Anderson is on the board of the Experimental Music Catalogue and the editor of the Journal of Experimental Music Studies. She is currently at work on a book about experimental music in Britain.

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