The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew

By Bickley, Tom | ARSC Journal, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew


Bickley, Tom, ARSC Journal


The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew. By Tony Harris. Burlington, VT. Ashgate, 2013. 217pp (hardcover). Musical illustrations, Index. ISBN: 973-1-4094-4310-5. $105.50 (available also as ebk-PDF and ebk-PUB).

A core concept in liberation theology as well as many other aspects of critical theory is that a writer's viewpoint is determined largely by that writer's geographic, cultural, class, etc. location. While that point may be rather obvious, it is important in assessing and enjoying Tony Harris' writing on Cornelius Cardew. Harris, Senior Lecturer in Music Education at Nottingham Trent University and an active composer/performer in experimental music, examines the legacy of the English musician and political activist with particular emphasis on integration of the social ramifications into the practice of music making and music education.

The ten chapters of the book present information about Cardew's life and career via both a broad literature review as well as original commentary. Harris' disclosures about his own encounters with Cardew's musical and textual writing set the stage for his inquiries. He digs deeply into the political streams that inform and critique Cardew's book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (Latimer, 1974, republished as a pdf edition in 2004). The author thoughtfully examines the ways Cardew's pre-Maoist composing and music making set the stage for Cardew's criticism of avant-garde music. Harris provides evidence against pigeonholing Cardew as a bourgeois composer. The Scratch Orchestra, Cardew's engagement with Marxism, and the composer's efforts at composing revolutionary art music form the middle chapters. We see the diversity of viewpoints on Cardew: enthusiasm at the engagement with community in the Scratch Orchestra, shock at his rejection of the musical establishment, dismissal of his efforts at making revolutionary music, sympathetic grappling with the questions he raised, and admiration of his fervor.

One of the book's most valuable aspects is Harris' cogent explanation of Marxist political theory and lineages as they impacted Cardew's engagement and reception. In contrast to the reductive depiction of a Maoist musician (typical of some of the reactions dismissing Cardew's post-conversion polemic and compositions), Harris describes the social-political climate of the U.K. in the early 1970s, the viability (and lack thereof) of various Marxist organizations, differences between the Maoist anti-revisionist communism of Cardew's Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and the Frankfurt School. Tilbury (Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): A Life Unfinished, Copula, 2008) also delves into these topics, but not to the extent of providing a larger picture as does Harris. Items in the bibliography are a great resource of deepening understanding of the threads influencing and restricting Cardew's later aesthetics.

The earlier chapters form a critical background for Harris' synthetic work in describing and theorizing the legacy of Cardew. In wrestling to define "Cardewism," he describes ways in which Cardew's musical approaches live on and how his political efforts influence current music making. Harris' six point Cardewist Manifesto articulates beliefs about the intrinsic social nature of music (both its composition/performance and reception). In this manifesto, we recognize Harris' own personal engagement and an outcome of his efforts at integrating the diverse directions and apparent contradictions in Cardew's life and work. Of particular value in chapter nine is detailed examination of ways Cardew's work manifests in music education in the U.K. (e. …

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