Monday 28 November 2011

A Celebration of Cornelius Cardew, 27 November 2011

Purcell Room

February Piece 1959
February Piece 1960
February Piece 1961
The Fourth System
Unintended Piano Music
Croppy Boy

John Tilbury (piano)

This ‘celebration’ at the Purcell Room is part of a greater festival devoted to Cornelius Cardew by Morley College, of which further details may be found at Cardew is certainly an absorbing, intriguing figure to read about, progressing from boy chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, to the Royal Academy of Music, to assistant to Stockhausen on Carré, to composer of the seven-hour-long Great Learning, founder of the Scratch Orchestra, and radical political activist, having engaged in vigorous Maoist self-criticism, finally meeting his death in a mysterious hit-and-run accident near his Leyton home.

Opportunities to hear Cardew’s music are infrequent. John Tilbury, a friend of the composer, has engaged in tireless advocacy, whether as pianist or biographer. There was certainly no reason to doubt in the truthfulness of his performances. (I have seen no scores.) They sounded committed in every sense, born of experience as well as devotion. To my ears – which, I am well aware, are not necessarily well-attuned to the composer’s voice – it was the earlier works that exerted greater interest. Tilbury mentioned in his programme note Cage and Stockhausen as influences on the three February Pieces; they indeed sounded present, though so, I thought, did Schoenberg, especially in some of the harmonies, if only accidentally. (According to Tilbury’s fascinating memorial lecture, Cardew would later, in 1967, write of Schoenberg: ‘From America Columbus brought us back syphillis, or Death through sex; there is no reason why the compliment should not be returned with myself as the humble vehicle, in the form of total serialism - of Death through music. In the case of serialism the damage has already been done, Schoenberg is the bearer of that intolerable guilt.’ Boulez’s ‘Schoenberg est mort’ sounds relatively innocuous by the side of such words.) The nature of Tilbury’s page-turning suggested aleatory writing; whatever the nature of the compositional principles, this seemed attractive, well-crafted music, even if it was difficult to discern great individuality on a first hearing. The Fourth Element, ‘a kind of appendix to the February Pieces,’ involved a ‘prepared’ element to the piano. Again, it was attractive enough, though somewhat repetitive as time went on.

Material is Cardew’s 1964 piano transcription of his Third Orchestral Piece from four years earlier. Though the material is therefore contemporary with the February Pieces, to me it seemed harmonically more conventional, as if the composer were already moving towards a variety of experimental English minimalism. The previously advertised Winter Potato no.1 – there are three such ‘potatoes’, the pieces, according to Cardew, having lain underground for some time – was omitted, though Croppy Boy took its place, albeit as the final work on the programme. Before that, we heard Unintended Piano Music from 1970 or 1971: Cardew apparently ‘slipped [Tilbury] a single sheet of manuscript paper with a few chords and grace notes.’ I am afraid that is rather what it sounded like: muted doodling. Croppy Boy, based upon a revolutionary Irish song, may well have been important to Cardew in terms of his political principles; yet, as piano music, it sounded merely inconsequential to these doubtless-jaded ears.

I am afraid that I was unable to stay for the second half of the concert, which offered instead of other works by Cardew, improvisations by Tilbury and percussionist Eddie Prévost, coming together as AMM, a ‘cloaked acronym,’ which is both ‘the name of a music improvisation ensemble and the embodiment of a philosophy’. On the basis of Prévost’s programme note, it would seem as though AMM has had something of a fractious history, which once included Cardew, who departed from the ensemble – perhaps the philosophy too? – twice. Further details may be found at