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Cornelius Cardew

SOME GESTURES are so large, they cast the rest of a career into shadow. Such is the case with English composer Cornelius Cardew, whose rather spectacular conversion to a Maoist-influenced branch of Marxism in the early 1970s led him to denounce both his avant-garde mentors and his own previous compositions. The explosive title of his 1974 essay, “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism,” has reached further than the text itself and, sadly, further than Cardew’s music.

What has been eclipsed is Cardew’s restless experimentation with serialism, Cagean chance, graphic notation, and various forms of improvisation. His political radicalization was just the latest sharp turn in his thinking—and it was his last; in 1981, at age forty-five, he was killed by a hit-and-run driver. It is these philosophical transformations, combined with the indeterminate nature of much of his music, that have made it difficult

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