The Guardian NOVEMBER 5, 2008 - by Richard Gott


Cardew's political enthusiasms may have been questionable, but a recent memorial concert demonstrated the glorious range of his experimental spirit, says Richard Gott.

To the Warehouse on Sunday for an afternoon of talk and music devoted to Cornelius Cardew. The Warehouse is the Mecca and Medina of new music enthusiasts, a brilliant venue tucked away in the narrow streets beside Waterloo station, while Cardew is, or was, the enfant terrible of British music in the late twentieth century, with a very special and precocious talent that spanned the spectrum from Stockhausen to musical improvisation, who ended up with a passion for people's music and the thoughts of Mao Zedong ("a position of ludicrous Maoism," according to Philip Hensher).

This particular event was prompted by the long-awaited publication of a gigantic biography of Cardew, written over the years since his death in 1981 (in a hit-and-run accident) by his friend and collaborator John Tilbury, himself a famous interpreter of contemporary piano music. Some fifty people from the various worlds that make up the musical avant garde of the last half-century were there to remember and pay homage to what Tilbury, in the subtitle to his book, has called "an unfinished life" - Cardew was only forty-five when he died. In the corner of the room, beyond the wine and nibbles, a modern television showed ancient, amateur Super-8 film of Cardew and his friends walking across Hampstead Heath, playing music in the Welsh countryside (perhaps the famous Scratch Orchestra using graphic scores in which anyone could join in), and performing in a village hall concert. His surviving friends call him Cor, and on the screen he is charismatically handsome, smiling with his arms around a girl, sharing a joint. The long hair, the clothes, and an occasional shot of an ancient automobile suggest a date in the late-1960s. Cor was a pied piper who led an entire generation a merry dance.

The concert proper started with a student trio from the Royal College of Music playing two pieces from the mid-1950s, astonishingly precocious works written when Cardew was only nineteen. Difficult to play, but sustained with an insistent beat, you can understand why he always had difficulty with his teachers. The viola player told me that Cardew was a part-time interest rather than a central figure on the curriculum of the Royal College where "Stravinsky is still regarded as the cutting edge of contemporary music." Tilbury then played an exceptionally lyrical piano piece, as though to prove that Cardew could compose traditionally acceptable music when he wanted to (although increasingly that was not the case).

The musical focus then moved to the middle period of Cardew's life, when he had escaped from the influence of Stockhausen, the Darmstadt School and the European avant garde, and become fascinated by the possibilities of free improvisation and the qualities of sound. Eddie Prevost, one of the event organisers, pointed out that Cardew had been the first articulate spokesman in Britain for that kind of music (even if he would later denounce it as a bourgeois indulgence). The chance to create an alternative to bombastic modernity has undoubtedly become the focus of those today who perceive themselves to be working and playing in the Cardew tradition. Prevost and Seymour Wright then embarked on a gripping improvisation exercise, one with a bow playing on the edge of a cymbal, the other making sounds with the mouthpiece of a saxophone and various extra devices, and eventually picking up the saxophone itself to make noises beyond the instrument's typical range. This music-making was more immediately recognisable as a kind of performance art.

This was also apparent when David Ryan performed a Cardew work, Memories Of You, which involved making sounds around the sides of a piano with three everyday objects: a metal ruler, a roll of cellotape, and a comb. Taking up the ruler, he would scrape it along the floor and hit a chair leg. Then he would hit the side of the piano as well as the keyboard with a length of cellotape, before going back to the music stand to see what was next on the score - a similar performance with the comb. It is easy to describe what the musician does, less easy to write about the particular quality of the sound produced. Hugh Schrapnel, a former participant in the Scratch Orchestra, then returned to some more orthodox piano playing.

The afternoon concluded with some music from Cardew's Maoist period. An impassioned rendering of The Worker's Song, composed in 1979 for solo violin and played by Mizuku Yamamoto, a student at Goldsmiths doing her PhD on late twentieth century performance art, received the most powerful applause of the day. Then Vicky Silver, a veteran of People's Liberation Music, a band from the 1970s, sang a splendid song, The Hand Of History, from a text by Mao. The concert ended with Mountains, another Mao poem, played on the bass clarinet. Though Chinese in conception and inspiration, like much of Cardew's work, all three works from this period are hauntingly familiar, infused with the idiom of English (and Irish) folksong. Cardew had what now appear to have been exotic political enthusiasms, but at heart he was a vernacular troubadour.

Cornelius Cardew: An Unfinished Life by John Tilbury is published by Copula, an imprint of Matchless Recordings and Publishing.