Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981)

Full Length Works

Cornelius Cardew Memorial Concert (1985)
Cornelius Cardew - Piano Music of the 1970s

Cornelius Cardew interviews and music from the BBC archive (unreleased)
Features performances by the Scratch Orchestra

  1. Cornelius Cardew talking about the Scratch Orchestra (4'27")
  2. Cornelius Cardew on Stockhausen (19'05")
  3. A Composer's Portrait – Treatise (23'15")
  4. Paragraph 2 of The Great Digest (aka The Great Learning) (48'54")

The Great Learning

  1. Paragraph 2 (22:05)
  2. Paragraph 7 (20:29)

The Scratch Orchestra, Cornelius Cardew

The concept of Cardew's work, The Great Learning has fascinated me since I first saw the score in Source magazine back in the early 70s. The textually based piece was elegant, but left my 12 year old mind with no way to imagine what the actual sound would be. In the time since, Cardew abandoned his avant-garde roots for music based in his Maoist ideology and my interest in the composer waned, as it did in many music circles. But with the rediscovery of European improv in the 90s, Cardew has become more in vogue again. This rerelease of the original Scratch Orchestra realizing two paragraphs of the Great Learning has done much to reanimate the reputation of this fascinating composer, performer, conceptualist and political activist.

The complete text score of The Great Learning is seven pages long and yet, in performance, it lasts over nine hours. Each paragraph of the work takes a portion from one of the seminal texts of Confucism and sets it in a conceptual framework. Paragraph Two is an elegant conception. The "orchestra" (drummers and singers) are divided into small groups of one drummer and several singers, dispersed throughout the performance hall. The drummers are given a list of rhythms from which they may choose. Once the rhythm is established, the singers sing words on any of 25 "sentences", scale fragments, singing a word on each note and holding each note for the length of a breath. When each "sentence" is finished the drummer moves on to another rhythm and the process is repeated. In concert, the audience is invited to move around from group to group, or to stand in one place and experience the overall sound. In the recording of course, the latter is all we can do, but the overall sound is oddly affecting. Through the cacophony of drumming droned notes seem to appear and disappear, and the rhythms coelecse and then pull apart again. The work feels less like a musical performance and more like a shamanic ceremony, doubtless exactly what Cardew was going for.

While paragraph 2 is all energy and wild abandon, paragraph 7 is light and peace. The conception for this paragraph is even more simple than for Paragraph 2. The score consists of 25 events (sing 9 (F2)swept away - this means sing the words "swept away" nine times with two of the times loud and the rest soft) and a set of directions. Each performer is to pick an individual note for the first event and us it for the duration of the event. During each subsequent event, each performer picks a note that they hear another singer singing. The result is a very complex chord that, over the time of the work, gradually becomes more simple, until it morphs into an open fifth. (Reports claim that this always happens even though it is never specified in the score.) Cardew displays a deep knowledge of human musical behavior and psychology in this piece, but the results are much deeper and more effecting than the concept. Paragraph 7 is a half an hour meditation on tone and the spirituality of tone.

-- Christopher Forbes

Interview with Cornelius Cardew

From a KPFA program recorded on January 25, 1975, Charles Amirkhanian interviews the British composer, pianist, and Socialist, Cornelius Cardew. Born in 1936, Cardew had a traditional music education, studying composition and piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In the late 1950’s he became interested in avant-garde and electronic music, working with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and composing a series of aleatoric pieces influenced by the ideas of John Cage and others. In the late 1960s and 70s Cardew’s interest in Socialist politics, the Chinese Revolution, and the teachings of Mao Zedong, led him to reevaluate the academic avant-garde, essentially rejecting it as elitist, and irrelevant to the struggles of the working class. He went on to be a founding member of both the Scratch Orchestra and the People’s Liberation Music, both of which were nonhierarchical musical collectives with decidedly pro-Socialist intentions. In this program Cardew discusses the political aspects of his music as well as playing a selection of his protest songs and politically inspired solo piano works. Cardew died in 1981, the victim of a suspicious hit and run accident. The program concludes with a spontaneous performance art piece by Ingram Marshall, otherwise known as eating lunch, and a brief excerpt from a tape work by Anthony Gnazzo

BBC Documentary on Cornelius Cardew (MP3)

Cornelius Cardew's "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism" in UbuWeb Historical
Cornelius Cardew's "Towards an Ethic of Improvisation" (1971) in UbuWeb Papers
Itchy and Scratchy Orchestra in UbuWeb Sound