Liberation Music

Richard Gott

  • Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished by John Tilbury
    Copula, 1069 pp, £45.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 9525492 3 9

What do we remember about Cornelius Cardew? That he was a brilliant avant-garde composer who pioneered free improvisation and led a Scratch Orchestra of musicians and artists; that his father was Michael Cardew, the potter; that he wrote a polemical tract alleging that Stockhausen ‘serves imperialism’; and that, after spending a decade as a prominent Maoist, he was killed by a hit-and-run driver, in an apparent accident that conspiracy theorists have liked to construe as the work of the intelligence services.

Now we have a thousand-page book to fill in the details of his life, written with affection, humour and perspicacity by the pianist John Tilbury. Tilbury was Cardew’s friend and colleague, and a one-time (and part-time) fellow-traveller on the Maoist road; he has spent a quarter of a century writing this book. Aficionados will love his account; others might have preferred a more succinct version; yet for all its length, Tilbury’s book is a sparkling account of a moment in British history when debates about music, art, poetry and revolutionary politics became the obsessive concern of a small group of talented practitioners. It has been relegated to a footnote in most cultural histories of the time, but Tilbury provides a more complete story.

Cardew left a large archive as well as a detailed and reflective journal, maintained from 1952, when he was still at school, until 1974. Tilbury, generally a sympathetic biographer, suggests that the journal was ‘an expression of middle-class vanity’, the product of someone ‘with an unshakeable belief in his own historical destiny’. Cardew was by all accounts a charismatic figure, but in the 1970s, at the height of his messianic Maoism, his self-belief had begun to evaporate. His life hadn’t quite worked out the way he might once have hoped, and in what turned out to be his final years he backed away from almost every position he had formerly held, even rewriting his early and most difficult ‘elitist’ compositions to make them more accessible to the ‘masses’.

Born in 1936 to a radical, bohemian and impoverished middle-class family in Cornwall, where art and music flourished, Cardew had a precocious musical talent, first nurtured as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, and later at King’s School Canterbury. He learned to play the piano and the cello, took lessons in composition, became interested in the music of Schoenberg, and soon seemed destined for the Royal Academy of Music. His headmaster couldn’t wait to get rid of him, describing him as ‘one of the most difficult boys I ever knew – shy, reticent, introverted, self-centred, obnoxious to most people; lacking graciousness and humility … everyone was glad when he left.’

The Royal Academy in the 1950s was hardly a place for progressive spirits, and although Cardew proved an exceptional interpreter of Bach and Schubert, his natural dissidence soon led him to the European avant-garde – Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen – to which his contemporaries Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett were also drawn. The mecca for music students in those days was Stockhausen’s headquarters at Darmstadt, where the ‘Darmstadt Headbangers’, as Tom Lubbock describes them, treated Britten and Shostakovich with derision as traditionalists, and serialism reigned supreme. In 1957 Cardew won a scholarship to study at the electronic studio of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, then considered the most advanced outpost of Western musical thought and practice.

Initially, he threw himself into the machinery of electronic music with enthusiasm, becoming Stockhausen’s protégé, helping him with his musical production, and lodging at his home. Stockhausen was only eight years older than Cardew, and together they visited the Brussels International Exhibition of 1958, and listened to the music composed by Varèse and Xenakis for the Phillips stand that Le Corbusier had designed (a recording was played at the recent Cold War exhibition at the V&A). Yet he all too soon became aware of the group’s inadequacies. He disliked Stockhausen’s ‘religious mania’, and complained about having to say grace before meals – not at all the habit of an irreligious former choirboy. He was ready for something new, and when a fresh wave of American composers, influenced by John Cage, arrived at the annual Darmstadt summer school to sample the European experience – and find it wanting – Cardew was excited by the alternative that they appeared to offer. David Tudor, Cage’s pianist and pupil, was an important new influence, as were other American composers like Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and La Monte Young. He even contemplated emigrating to the United States.

Cardew returned to London to digest these discoveries and to propagate the music of his new friends. He became involved, as the music editor, with New Departures, an arts magazine established at Oxford by his schoolfriend David Sladen and the poet Michael Horowitz. Soon, as Live New Departures, this became a vehicle for itinerant artists, poets and musicians to spread the counter-culture. Contemporary music as a ‘happening’ gradually became familiar to reviewers. As early as June 1962, a Times critic at a Wigmore Hall concert where music by Cage, Feldman and Christian Wolff was played noted with pleasure that Cardew ‘actually played the piano instead of trying to demolish it’.

It took time, though, for the new experimental music to be widely accepted in London. Cardew and Tilbury had played pieces by Feldman and Cage at a concert at the Conway Hall in January 1960, and Rodney Bennett, who was present, recalled that the audience of 70 sat ‘transfixed with gloom’ while the two pianists produced, slowly and laboriously, ‘a series of small tired noises, not violent, not beautiful, not exciting, not even remotely interesting: the whole effect as soporific as an evening spent listening to the complete Methodist Hymnal’.

Eventually, and largely through dance, the new American music began to gain an audience. When Merce Cunningham’s company first appeared in London in September 1964, Cardew noted (in the Musical Times) that the music of Cage, Feldman, Wolff and Young had been slipped ‘without protest … into the ears of the ballet public, and been enjoyed’, receiving ‘a high degree of acceptance from the ballet press’. At the same time, he observed caustically, it had been ‘unwaveringly rejected by our more powerful pundits of musical taste’ – Hans Keller, William Glock and Peter Heyworth.

For someone like Keller, the gatekeeper of the debate about new music in the 1960s and 1970s, Cardew was a godsend: Keller might not agree with what he wrote, but he enjoyed orchestrating the subsequent controversy. Cardew became known not just as an outstanding and original composer, and a charismatic performer of difficult music, but also as a fluent writer and critic, able to discuss the crossover from art to music. ‘It was impossible to disentangle the compulsion of the audience to cut, and Yoko Ono’s compulsion to be cut,’ he wrote in the Financial Times in 1966 of the famous performance in which Ono encouraged her audience to attack her clothing with scissors. She was his house guest at the time and had long outstayed her welcome.

Re-established now in England, Cardew quickly discovered that the composition and performance of new music, coupled with occasional journalism, were unlikely to prove profitable. He needed more regular means of support and, like many artists and musicians, was obliged to make his living in an adjacent field. He had acquired a passion for notation and design while working as Stockhausen’s amanuensis, and in 1961 took a typography course at the London School of Printing. Later, he secured a job as an assistant art editor at Aldus Books, where he joined a team of designers that included Germano Facetti, who later transformed the jackets of Penguin Books. Cardew’s interest in typography was soon transferred to musical notation and to the almost insurmountable task faced by a composer of contemporary music who sought to give performers some freedom of action. He was more aware than most, Tilbury writes, of ‘the limitations which the constraints of the Western notational system imposed on compositional thought’.

Fascinated with music as sound, with the human response to different sounds, and with the difficulty of exactly notating their production, he explained to Horowitz, circa 1960, when taxed with his lack of interest in politics, that he was really interested only in ‘noise’. He was exploring a line of inquiry first mapped out by the Futurists, half a century earlier. Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises (1913) advocated walking through the city and listening to ‘the throbbing of valves, the bustle of pistons, the shrieks of mechanical saws, the jolting of trams on the tracks, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags’. But despite musicological attempts to place Cardew in the Futurist tradition, no evidence exists to suggest that he had much awareness of his musical forebears.

Cornelius Cardew graphic score

He came to believe, Tilbury says, that it was only ‘through the spontaneous generation of sounds in freely improvised music’ that music could aspire to a sourceless and transient autonomy, the ambition of his friend Morton Feldman. As a result, the manuscript of his first major work, Treatise, looks more like an artwork than sheet music – a ‘graphic score’ – with wavy lines and exuberant diagrams providing only the most approximate guide to what needs to be played. Based on Cardew’s reading of the Tractatus, it was composed between 1963 and 1967, and some parts of it were broadcast on the Third Programme. Cardew later described it as ‘an attempt to escape from the performance rigidities of serial music and to encourage improvisation amongst avant-garde musicians’. Tilbury, who has himself wrestled with the playing of Treatise, regards it as the culmination of Cardew’s career, and several heroic pages of his book describe the problems with which its performers are faced, noting philosophically that some of them feel ‘frustrated and sceptical’. Another Herculean (nine-hour) work was The Great Learning (1968-71), based on Confucianism. Unlike other avant-garde artists of the 1960s who were taken with Indian mysticism, Cardew was more intrigued by China, perhaps because of an inherited family interest. He was steeped in Chinese philosophy and culture long before he became aware of the works of Mao Tse-tung.

Inspired by his interest in jazz (he was never a jazz performer), he moved ever further in the late 1960s towards free improvisation, joining the guitarist Keith Rowe and the drummer Eddie Prévost in the ensemble AMM (an acronym whose meaning remains unknown). In 1968, as revolutionary ideas spread through institutions of higher education, notably art schools, Cardew was asked to set up an experimental music workshop at Morley College, an adult education centre in South London. His class attracted musical amateurs, students from the Royal Academy, and avant-garde enthusiasts from the visual arts, many of whom came together in the Scratch Orchestra, created under Cardew’s inspiration and leadership in 1969. Among those who passed through the orchestra are Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Hugh Shrapnel, Howard Skempton and Tilbury himself.

Cornelius Cardew grahpic score

A significant number of artists and musicians, some with little musical training and no ability to sight-read, were attracted both by Cardew’s charisma and by his desire to escape from what were perceived as the principal enemies of the cultural world. Artists were opposed to the conservatism of the art schools, while musicians disliked the elitism of serious music, even of the avant-garde that Cardew had earlier espoused. Both were hostile to the commercialism of pop and to the prevailing ‘discotheque culture’. The Scratch Orchestra sought to provide a radical alternative, organising London concerts and taking to the road in hippie fashion in the summer of 1970, to play in village halls in Cornwall and Wales.

Because of the support for Cardew within the Arts Council and similar bodies, the orchestra secured some external funding, even appearing on one occasion on the BBC. Yet sometimes the players would outnumber the audience, and inevitably, in the politicised climate of the time, such a large democratic body became ever more radicalised, splitting into factions. The orchestra couldn’t survive the strain of these internal divisions, and petered out after a controversial appearance as part of the cultural programme of the Munich Olympics in 1972. The radicals emerged on top, and in 1974 the orchestra changed its name to the Red Flame Proletarian Propaganda Team.

Cardew had by now taken up the Maoist cause with enthusiasm, influenced by Keith Rowe, a fellow ‘Scratcher’ and member of AMM who had become an ardent and persuasive member of a Maoist groupuscule, originally known as the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist). In the obscure and largely forgotten interstices of the British left during the upheavals of the 1970s, when hundreds of actors, artists and musicians took up the cudgels (usually Trotskyist) in support of what they hoped was an imminent revolution, there were few more perverse and irrelevant political groupings than this particular sect. Cardew was to devote the last ten years of his life to promoting its interests.

The CPE(ML)’s prophet was a Punjabi-born Communist called Hardial Bains, one of the first Communists anywhere to set up a ‘revisionist’ Party in the early 1960s, designed at the time of the Sino-Soviet rift to support the pro-Chinese cause. From his base in Canada, Bains helped to establish pro-Chinese parties in India and the United States, as well as in Britain and Ireland. A flavour of Bains’s uncompromising stand can be gleaned from the title a Maoist study group at London University gave to a meeting held in November 1971: ‘Alan Sillitoe and David Mercer: Traitors to the English Working Class’. Further meetings, with more innocuous titles like ‘Seek Truth to Serve the People’, were held in December that year, and Cardew and Tilbury, with other members of the Scratch Orchestra’s ‘Ideological Group’, were persuaded by Rowe to go along. Soon the Ideological Group began to criticise the inadequacies of the Scratch Orchestra itself. ‘The message of Yenan’ is clear, Cardew wrote in his journal in January 1972: ‘We must associate with, talk to, study, know deeply, live with, make intimate friends amongst, work with, the working class.’ In practice, he went on, we have regarded ‘our petty bourgeois comrades and friends as more important than workers’.

Obsessed with the Maoist command ‘to serve the people’, Cardew now began to condemn avant-garde and ‘elitist’ music – his own and others’. The main focus of his attack was Stockhausen, his old friend and mentor. Stockhausen Serves Imperialism was the title of a talk he gave on the BBC in 1972, later published in the Listener. In it he attacked Stockhausen’s music (and more specifically Refrain, an electronic work of 1959, scored for three players on piano, celeste, cymbals, cowbells and vibraphone) for being ‘part of the cultural superstructure of the largest-scale system of human oppression and exploitation the world has ever known: imperialism’. Stockhausen’s mystical music, he implied, belonged with ‘the American war machine in Vietnam’ as a manifestation of imperialism. ‘Salesmen like Stockhausen,’ he wrote, ‘would have you believe that slipping off into cosmic consciousness removes you from the reach of the painful contradictions that surround you in the real world.’

In 1974, this essay formed part of a small book in which Cardew engaged in a ferocious bout of Maoist self-criticism, questioning all his earlier enthusiasms: Stockhausen and Cage, of course, and then his own entire oeuvre from Treatise onwards. All his compositions needed serious revision. When William Glock, controller of music at the BBC, asked for part of The Great Learning to be played at the Proms in 1972, the Ideological Group demanded changes. Cardew presented Glock with a programme note that quoted Mao to the effect that ‘works of art that do not meet the demands of the struggle of the broad masses can be transformed into works of art that do,’ and announced that ‘slogans’ would be inserted ‘to link the work with the current situation’. The slogans may seem quite anodyne now but it is hard to imagine the Prom audience being confronted with banners declaring (for example) that ‘a revolution is not a dinner party; it is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.’ Glock politely requested the version of the piece that he had asked for. He eventually got one 12 minutes long (the version he wanted lasted for an hour), and a programme footnote which said that ‘by agreement between the composer and the BBC the political content has been removed.’ Honour was saved by the Listener, which printed the offending slogans.

As Cardew became ever more radical, so he was more and more in demand. ‘For educational and art institutions, and the media,’ Tilbury writes, ‘Cardew’s reputation as a maverick composer made him a desirable temporary presence: a Maoist on the loose for a day or two, marauding through the minds of the inhabitants of the institution, ruffling a few feathers’ and ‘provoking apathetic students to stir themselves – something the lecturers themselves were unable to achieve’. Cardew toured the country’s art schools with his revolutionary message.

Cardew and Sheila Kasabova, his third wife, went to live in East London, where he helped to form a political rock group – People’s Liberation Music – for which he sang and composed. Chinese revolutionary songs, and later Irish rebel and folk music, became his principal inspiration. Yet he remained much in demand in his earlier incarnation, playing and lecturing in Ireland, Germany, Italy, the United States and Canada, and even, for his Thälmann Variations of 1974, receiving praise from ‘revisionist’ critics. Alan Bush, a much older composer, who belonged to a more conservative musical tradition but was a member of the (Moscow line) British Communist Party, described the Variations as ‘splendid’. (The two men remained friendly, and when the impecunious Cardew was fined after accusations that he had assaulted the police at a demonstration, he was not above touching Bush for money.)

Cardew’s supporters today make much of the fact that he ‘later rejected Maoism’ (which is true), but they tend to gloss over the fact that he substituted for Mao the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, and eventually ended up a defender of Stalin. In 1979 Bains’s party renamed itself the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), but Mao’s ghost and influence remained in the background. Tilbury notes that the party’s high-handedness often created resentment and alienation, and led to the ‘total withdrawal’ of many supporters. Yet Cardew remained obsessed by his political activities. They took up almost all his time, and he composed little of quality in his last years.

In a bizarre episode at the end of 1979, he went with half a dozen composers from Britain on a tour of Canada, sponsored by the ineffable Bains. Their principal task was to set to music texts that Bains had written – texts ‘of an unsurpassable political and literary crassness’, Tilbury writes. One was called ‘Workers of Ontario’:

We are the workers of Ontario,
We work for the rich of the United States,
We work for the rich of Canada,
We work under the yoke of wage slavery
Hauling the riches out of the earth,
Manufacturing commodities for the rich to sell.
We are the workers of Ontario,
A mighty section of the Canadian working class.

The following year We Sing for the Future was published, containing 78 such songs; unkind critics noted that the title music, composed by Cardew, bore some similarity to the ‘Eton Boating Song’.

Cardew continued with his political activism in the early years of the Thatcher era, taking part in the Irish and anti-racism struggles. In June 1981, he addressed a large conference against racism and fascism at the Conway Hall (some 500 people attended), and in October of that year was thrown out of the House of Commons gallery after shouting ‘this House stinks of racism’ during a speech by Enoch Powell. He was frequently arrested, and on one occasion sent to prison for a month. Tilbury writes of Cardew’s ‘unfinished life’, and it is of course possible that he might have dusted himself down and set off in a new direction after the collapse of Communism. Yet having rejected so much of his past, it is difficult to imagine what he might have gone on to do.

Very early in the morning of Sunday, 13 December 1981, walking in the dark from Stratford station to his home in Leyton, Cardew was knocked down by a car on an icy road and killed instantly. He was only 45. He had returned late from a political meeting in Birmingham. The car disappeared and the driver was never traced. The coroner concluded that the death was accidental, but other political activists had been killed in strange circumstances in the course of that year, and in the obsessive atmosphere generated by a small sect, conspiracy theories were inevitable. On an unlit road, why had he been walking with, rather than against the traffic? As someone who suffered terribly from the cold, why were his thick socks still in his briefcase? Was it possible that he had been pushed out of a car, and that his severe injuries – a massive blow to the head and an almost severed leg – had been caused earlier by an unknown assassin? Was this the work of the state, or of a Nazi activist? ‘The possibility that Cardew was assassinated cannot be ruled out,’ Tilbury writes judiciously, though he leaves the reader with the impression that he thinks it unlikely.

Cardew received unsympathetic obituaries. Time has been kinder. Articles, films and radio programmes have been produced about his work, not just in Britain and the United States but also in Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy. Much of his music is available on CD and he still enjoys a stellar position in the leftist firmament. Having passed through the wilder shores of Maoist cultural debate and the revolutionary desire to wipe out history, he came at the end to believe, or so Tilbury suggests, that ‘contemporary culture has to assimilate and rework the best of the past.’ He seemed in his final years to be groping towards his roots in an English cathedral town – to the folk music tradition, to the choral singing he heard as a child, and to the Renaissance music once written for the virginals. Some of his final songs, many written on the hoof while campaigning in Canada, have impossible words but delightful tunes, and an irresistible rhythm.