Politics

The Passion of Cornelius Cardew

'The ideology of a ruling class is present in its art implicitly; the ideology of a revolutionary class must be expressed in its art explicitly. Progressive ideas must shine like a bright light into the dusty cobwebs of bourgeois ideology in the avantgarde, so that any genuinely progressive spirits working in the avantgarde find their way out, take a stand on the side of the people and set about making a positive contribution to the revolutionary movement.'1

The words of Cornelius Cardew express a hope shared by several composers of his generation in the early 1970s, as it became clear both that political establishments in the west were retreating from the apparent idealism of the early 1960s ( Kennedy had been the friend of liberal intellectuals; Nixon found his allies elsewhere) and that, on a more local level, the musical avant garde had been compromised in its opposition to the dominant culture. Boulez, who had been a firebrand as a young man in Paris, was now conducting Brahms in London and New York. The most iconoclastic music of Cage had been embraced by the publishing, recording and broadcasting industries. The early works of Stockhausen were being taught in colleges and conservatories. Now, at the time of the Vietnam war, of the evident failure of postwar liberalism to efface social divisions, and of increasing agitation for the rights of minorities, younger composers were bound to feel uneasy at the prospect of being assimilated into the controlling system. If, as it seemed, any kind of music could become acceptable, then the most emphatic political expression seemed to many to provide the only way of being unacceptable.

Cardew had gone on from his work with Stockhausen to align himself more with Cage, and to produce in his Treatise ( 1963-7) a magnum opus of music as graphic design, as game without instructions, map without key: Example 38 shows a representative extract. The work was, by intention, both triumph and disaster. 'Psychologically', Cardew wrote, 'the existence of Treatise is fully explained by the situation of the composer who is not in a position to make music.'2 The only music he could make at this time was improvised music, as a member of the London performing group AMM, who worked with conventional instruments and electronics, and who sought, through communal concentration and discipline, to exceed their individual boundaries as musicians trained in jazz or classical traditions. For Cardew, and for other musicians, the experience of improvisation was a politically

____________________
1
Stockhausen Serves Imperialism ( London, 1974), 86.
2
Treatise Handbook.

-185-

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