Cardew: ‘The croppy boy’  [2’48”]

Cornelius Cardew, piano

41 Cornelius Cardew

‘Well, well Cornelius’

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Radical English composers have tended to be as rare as hen’s teeth, but Cornelius Cardew, son of distinguished potter (and notable bohemian) Michael, did his best to make up for the fact single-handed.  Exhibiting restless development through a number of distinct phases, his composing started in earnest in 1957 when, still only 21, he landed a place as Stockhausen’s student-cum-assistant in Cologne, about nine months after Ligeti had washed up there.  This was a plum gig for a prentice composer if ever there was one, and he made enough of a mark for the admiring Stockhausen to enlist him as collaborator on his major non-electronic project of the period, the choral / orchestral meisterwerk Carré – the only time he would do such a thing.

Cardew, all the same, would gradually shift his allegiance to the still more radical Cage, embarking on Treatise (1963–7), a massive undertaking in which he was able to call on his professional skills as a graphic designer to produce a symbolic score as unprescriptive as Cage’s had long been, in the Cageian conviction that musicians had been following orders from composers and conductors long enough.  No scores at all were needed by AMM, the free improvisation group Cardew joined in 1966 as cellist and pianist, staying until 1973 (the band itself continues to this day).  If both these projects were designed to provide highly skilled musicians with contexts of considerable freedom in which to create (and not merely re-create) music, the seven ‘paragraphs’ of his next major opus, The great learning (1968–71), setting Confucius (via Ezra Pound), extended the invitation to include amateur and even non-musicians.  ‘Professionalism’ had long been a dirty word in Cardew’s lexicon, epitomizing everything he associated with the triumph of the cash nexus and the death of true musical creativity.  Accordingly, in 1969 he co-founded a collective called the Scratch Orchestra, a mix of ‘proper’ musicians and anyone else who fancied a go, run on ultra-democratic lines and intended, like The Great Learning itself, as “some kind of social ideal”.  The organization’s utopian outlook is typified by a sentence in its draft constitution (as for that matter by the fact that it had a draft constitution): “In rotation (starting with the youngest) each member will have the option of designing a concert.”  Sweet, though of course not destined to last for ever; by 1974 at the latest the Scratch had died a death.  Still, it was some achievement for such a motley collection to get released on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and the stock of The Great Learning itself has only risen in the years since it was written (though amazingly it has no Wikipedia entry – get on it, someone).

Throughout this evolution Cardew showed himself a shrewd, often sardonic observer of the developments in which he participated, though the passion of his convictions can’t be doubted.  Towards the end of 1971, under influences from within the Scratch, he became politically radicalized, from something like a standing start, and before long was producing polemics against his former colleagues, accusing Stockhausen and Cage of “posing as geniuses”, lambasting the “metaphysical essence” of their music, and attacking from the far left the musical avant-garde as a whole (not sparing his own former self) as irredeemably bourgeois.  Some of these splendidly vitriolic writings would be collected in 1974 under the fabulous title Stockhausen serves imperialism.  As time went on he would move from Stalin to Mao Zedong to Albania’s Enver Hoxha (how many father figures does one man need?), each ‘friend of the people’ being roundly condemned when revealed to be – whoops – an ‘enemy of the people’.  The full-blooded commitment Cardew brought to everything in his life he now poured into political activism, with none but the best intentions and, after all, not without a certain amount of right on his side when it comes to the iniquities and inequities of capitalism.  Delusions of impending revolution in England were rife in the cultish circles in which he now moved.  His particular poison was the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist).  It is reassuring to be able to confirm that the traditions of this organization are still being upheld, solidarity with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – yes that one, where when the ruling elite is not starving its population it is treating them like children – being one of its current priorities.  Would Cardew still be going along with such nonsense if he were around today?  I doubt it myself, but we will never know.  Arriving back in London from a political meeting in Birmingham in the early hours of 13 December 1981 he was killed in an unsolved hit and run which might possibly have been an assassination (MI5?) – but probably wasn’t.

Unlike those ‘friends of the people’ he successively espoused, the political Cardew’s only crimes were against music and, caught in the crossfire, the English language, though some were heinous enough to merit the severest punishment.  He could plead some mitigation, as his biographer John Tilbury explains.  “In the early seventies, having adopted the bracing certainties of Maoism, Cardew existed on the horns of a dilemma: he had repudiated his previous music and wanted to recover an expressive language with which people were more familiar; the problem, of which he was well aware, was that he was ill-equipped to provide the kind of populist music the Party demanded.”  This goes some way to explaining songs like Revolution is the main trend in the world today, Smash the social contract and Song for the British working class, though nothing could ever excuse them.  Nor should it be forgotten that Cardew once wrote a piece called Fight sterilization (moral and physical) by the lackeys of imperialism – could so self-aware a man really have done so with a straight face?  Where his defence would have rested, of course, wasn’t on the quality of the music – how could it have been? – but with the urgent importance of the message.  Which is no defence at all in the court of music, where he’ll always be found guilty as charged.

But the man responsible (ultimately) for such wonderful music as that on a 2010 album (see below) of 1960s works performed by piano / bass / harp trio Tilbury / Duch / Davies had, it turns out, not quite been taken political prisoner, and among the sloganizing dross some worthwhile music of a traditional stamp did come out of his last period.   Indeed it’s tempting to imagine working on and playing a simple but touching piano piece like this one, or the lengthier Thälmann variations, tribute to a fallen comrade from an earlier generation, as the only thing keeping Cardew the composer sane – however little store he claimed to set by them.  Could anything be more beautiful than this haunting transformation, feelingly played by Cardew himself, of a song associated with the Irish rebellion of 1798 and by extension with one of his causes in the 1970s, the unfortunate continuing British presence in a part of Ireland?  There’s no shortage of versions of The croppy boy on Spotify.  All more or less resemble each other, except one, Cardew as so often seeming to inhabit a planet of his own.  In this case it’s one I wouldn’t mind a stay on.  Indeed istening, I find it impossible not to “shed a tear” of my own for the untimely, senseless loss of English music’s own rebellious croppy boy, Cor Cardew (1936–81).  RIP.

Wikipedia is a particularly rich source of links to further exploration of Cardew’s career.  One is to a detailed 1983 article by John Tilbury, whose monumental biography of his great friend, not cheap (borrow while we still have a library system?), won’t be superseded.  A 45-minute 1975 interview with Cardew preserved by Internet Archive, though you will have to endure a couple of the cringeworthy populist songs impossible to imagine ever being popular, demonstrates his laser-like focus of mind and purpose, while incidentally showing him to have been early adopter, whether or not in deference to his Californian hosts, of the word ‘like’ thrown into sentences at every opportunity as, like, punctuation.  Ubuweb has much of value, including Scratch co-founder Howard Skempton‘s very worthwhile Radio 3 documentary appreciation from 2001.  There’s quite a bit of Cardew on Spotify, too, though sadly no AMM as I write.  Labelling as often is a problem here, so the fine Tilbury  / Duch  / Davies CD I mentioned isn’t brought up by a search on ‘Cornelius Cardew’, only one on the artists.  Two Paragraphs of The Great Learning (2 and 7) are there, and a Radio 3 50 Modern Classics podcast focuses on Paragraph 3.

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