Prom 47: Cornelius Cardew
Last night, I replaced the Gompertz household's Match World Cup 2010 wallchart with the BBC Proms 2010 Plan Your Summer at a Glance wallchart; replacing one set of international stars with another.
The new wallchart struck me in two ways:
(1) Of the 58 photographs of featured performers and conductors, there is only one non-white face: the conductor and organist Wayne Marshall, whose photo sits below left of a - the only - robot. For the "World's Greatest Classical Musical Festival", it was a surprising visual synopsis of the 21st-Century international classical music scene.
(2) Friday 20 August, Prom 47, 2200 BST: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldon with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and John Tilbury on the piano.
This is the Prom for me. Cornelius Cardew was a gifted musician who became enamoured of the music of the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of many German contemporary composers to renounce all romanticism in favour of the purely intellectual (for which, read experimental). This was in part a reaction to the war, but also a response to technology and Duchampian ideas of chance.
Anyway, Cardew went for it and ended up creating the Scratch Orchestra, which was a group of musicians put together on an ad-hoc basis, of different abilities, with chance being the modus operandi; a sort of 1960s version of flashmob.
But this was far more serious than a latter-day stunt; Cardew was a thoughtful and serious man, the output of his Scratch Orchestra in some ways sublime. Here you can see a re-enactment by an American group called Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound.
Cardew was interested in the idea of improvisation as a way of reaching something original and truthful - a philosophy that he shared with the AMM Group which continues today with this Prom's British pianist, John Tilbury, among its ranks. Tilbury was a friend and since his death, biographer of Cornelius Cardew and has written knowledgeable essays such as this one.
Cardew eventually rejected Stockhausen and the rest of the avant-garde, seeing them as being just as elitist as those in traditional classical music. He became more and more involved in politics and the left. Such was his commitment to left-wing philosophies that when he was killed in 1981 by a hit-and-run driver while still only in his mid-40s, there were some who suspected the deadly hand of MI5 to be responsible.
Cornelius Cardew was a one-off - as will be this Prom, with John Tilbury playing piano.