This blog has reviewed many works by avant-garde composers, including the usual suspects (Cage, Stockhausen, Philip Glass), as well as more obscure figures (Luciano Berio, La Monte Young, et al). One of the least known innovators in the field was England’s Cornelius Cardew.
What separated Cardew from his peers was his embrace of improvisation. Even in the randomly generated music of Cage, the score itself remained inviolate. Cardew, however, saw improvisation as an opportunity to play in the “pure present”.
Cardew embraced a kind of “musical socialism””, in which music was not only accessible to amateurs, but able to be performed by large groups of people. This was the principle behind the Scratch Orchestra, a loose confederation of musicians which existed from 1969 – 74.
Because much of the Scratch Orchestra’s music was improvised, very little of it was recorded. A notable exception is The Great Learning – the work we are reviewing today. Based upon Confucius’ treatise of the same name, Cardew’s work consists of seven movements, or “paragraphs” (in keeping with the structure of Confucius’ work).
The 1971 LP consists of Paragraphs 2 and 7. (The CD version has Paragraph 1 as well.) Cardew’s “score” provides some insight of his working methods. Paragraph 7, for example, is a purely vocal piece scored for an indeterminate number of singers. Cardew’s “rules” are as follows:
1) For the first line, you may sing any note you like.
2) For the second line, you must sing a different note that you heard another vocalist sing during Line 1.
And so on.
Eventually, Cardew’s socialist beliefs led him away from avant-garde music; he felt it wasn’t accessible to the masses. By the late 70’s, he was writing Maoist folk songs. Tragically, he was killed in 1981 by a hit-and-run driver at the age of 45.
What direction would avant-garde music have taken if Cardew had lived longer? We’ll never know. At any rate, Cornelius Cardew deserves a prominent place in the history of experimental music. But in order for that to happen, it’s not enough to just talk about Cardew’s music. It must be listened to:
**** (out of four)