The Evening Standard DECEMBER 20, 2001 - by Rick Jones


The groundbreaking music of Cornelius Cardew is to be revived in a celebratory concert.

The influential British composer Cornelius Cardew died twenty years ago this month after being struck by a hit-and-run driver near his home in the East End. He was forty-five.

Cardew's early death has enhanced his mystique. His followers mutter darkly of assassination. Could anyone have objected to his music so much? MI5 could, say the Cardewites.

Their man was a founder member of the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain. As a habitual protest marcher he had more than once been arrested and imprisoned. Shortly before his death, he made such a nuisance of himself in the public gallery of the House of Commons that Parliament banned him from attending again. His agit-prop political songs such as Revolution Is The Main Trend and We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Chains will feature in a commemorative concert of his music next week.

Of course, MI5's involvement was never proven. A more likely contributory factor was Cardew's aversion to "the slavish practice of doing what you are told". Perhaps he was walking in the middle of the road. He abhorred rules.

He thought traditional music notation bred conformity.

In 1967 he devised a new form of written score for his work Treatise - It consists of beautifully drawn continuous tone lines, percussive dots, and voluminous geometric shapes which players interpret as they choose. At the publisher's insistence, Cardew reluctantly wrote an instructional Treatise handbook. It includes four years of diary notes (1963-67) which amount to a summary of his music philosophy. In it he derides traditional composition as "surrendering to the vulgar desire to hear what I imagine".

Of course, not all Cardew's works accord with this principle and he composed in conventional terms as well. Indeed, he eventually reacted against the avant-garde by converting to Maoism in the '70s and refusing to write anything that didn't have a political context. His 1977 work, Mountains, for bass clarinet is a set of variations on a theme of Bach beginning with a quote from Mao Tse-tung.

Not surprisingly, Cardew had an unconventional childhood. His father Michael was a pioneer potter, his mother Mariel an artist.

He grew up in Cornwall but was educated as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral.

He studied electronic music at the Royal Academy of Music and subsequently worked as Stockhausen's assistant. Later, as a Communist, he denounced his mentor in an article headed Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.

During the '60s, he was inspired by the indeterminacy theories of John Cage and embraced unreliability and incompetence. He founded numerous experimental ensembles including the Scratch Orchestra, which consisted of both musicians and non-musicians. The Scratch Orchestra performed his most famous work, The Great Learning, which was given at the Proms in 1972 to general incomprehension.

Part of it will be played by former members at the concert.

The Cardew commemoration is also a reunion. Among old associates is the American composer Fred Rzewski, who performs the piano piece We Sing For The Future. Pianist John Tilbury revives works he premiered in the '70s. The jazz musicians of AMM perform The Tiger's Mind and the members of the People's Liberation Orchestra play the Octet of 1961.

The Beatles met Cardew in the '60s.

Brian Eno briefly worked with him and refers to him frequently.

John Adams, the subject of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's composer study weekend in January, acknowledges Cardew as an influence.

Cardew conceived music in the most extreme terms. The last paragraph of his Treatise Handbook urges the performer to reflect that "a musical score is a logical construct inserted into the mass of sounds that permeate this planet and its atmosphere. There," he says, "that puts Beethoven and the rest in their place!"