PRINT March 2007


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 for those wishing to look beyond Cardew’s politics to piece together a coherent idea of his work.

The publication of Cardew’s collected writings, Cornelius Cardew: A Reader, would seem to contribute to this fractured image of the artist—he argues with himself endlessly, both within and between the essays, and, toward the end of this chronologically arranged volume, renounces his compositions almost as soon as he completes them. However, what emerges from these texts is a thread running through all his music, a concern that is best revealed in his essays because it is essentially a literary one: Why write music? What the Reader makes clear is that the mechanics and ethics of notation were paramount to Cardew, from his earliest work to his last.

Indeed, reading Cardew might be the truest way to experience his music. For Cardew, notation posed problems directly related to Wittgenstein’s investigations of language. “Notation and composition determine each other,” he writes in a 1961 article first published in Tempo magazine. This logic fueled Cardew’s five years’ labor on what might be considered his masterpiece, Treatise (1963–67). Across 193 pages—of which any number of pages can be performed as a complete score—Cardew drew two empty staves of music. Above them, a central line traces a nearly continuous path through the score; around that line, Cardew placed a variety of abstract figures drawn with a compass and a ruler (he was also a graphic designer), together with a few numbers. There are no other instructions.

So what does Treatise sound like? That would seem to be entirely up to the performer. However, in a fascinating set of working notes to the piece (Treatise Handbook, 1971), Cardew specifies, “The sound should be a picture of the score, not vice versa.” This inversion of the usual relationship between the language of a score and the music it represents reaches beyond Wittgensteinian complication toward a kind of conceptual music: Notation and composition not only determine each other in Treatise, they are one and the same. Cardew elaborates: “The notation is more important than the sound. Not the exactitude and success with which a notation notates a sound; but the musicalness of the notation in its notating.” This knotty text (typical of Cardew’s philosophical pirouettes) pulls cleanly into a logical line: The notation of Treatise is itself a form of music—just not a music that need be heard, necessarily. “Sounds-ideas,” writes Cardew elsewhere; “reading Treatise is a twilight experience where the two cannot be clearly distinguished.”

It is this merging of sound and idea that is Cardew’s artistic legacy; it is also why it is a challenge to understand his work through performances of his music alone. Recordings often depend so heavily on the given musician(s) that it is difficult to know which ideas, if any, are from Cardew himself. The Cardew Reader, on the other hand, provides a direct encounter with Cardew’s ideas—and therefore with his sounds.

In the years following Treatise, Cardew explored, with two ensembles, the possibilities of merging sound and idea. He joined the free improvisation group AMM in 1966, in which he explored completely unnotated music. And in 1969 Cardew cofounded the Scratch Orchestra, a large, open-ended group dedicated to collective composition—a mix of trained and untrained musicians performing a range of activities they scripted for themselves. Both experiments further blurred the line between thought and action, ideas and sounds, composition and music. What Cardew writes about his experience with AMM could equally apply to the Scratch Orchestra: “When you play [this] music, you are the music.”

While AMM “operat[ed] without any formal system or limitation,” as Cardew described it, the Scratch Orchestra was the most tortured and deliberative of collectives, complete with a draft constitution (included in the Reader), “discontent meetings,” and slogans. It was in an ideological group within the orchestra that Cardew began studying Marxist theory, perhaps to better understand these twin experiments with collective action. Ultimately, Cardew left both groups and abandoned his graphic compositions together with the rest of “the bourgeois musical avant garde” in order to look for ways his music might more directly serve his political goals—he even formed a kind of rock band to perform at demonstrations.

It is ironic that in his Maoist period Cardew recorded the music with which it is easiest to associate him as an individual musician rather than as a member of a collective—an album of “socialist piano music” based on revolutionary and workers’ songs. These works are not sounds-ideas, however; or rather, there is only one idea that is meant to emerge from them. When Cardew turned his back on the avant-garde, he began annotating his music: He went so far as to request that banners with Maoist slogans hang over the heads of the Scratch Orchestra, as the group performed one of his works at the Albert Hall in London. Only a writer could think those banners would make a difference.

A musician and writer, Damon Krukowski is the author of The Memory Theater Burned (Turtle Point Press, 2004).


Cornelius Cardew et al, Cornelius Cardew: A Reader, ed. Edwin Prévost, (Harlow, UK: Copula, 2006), 400 pages.