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Prom 47: Cornelius Cardew

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Will Gompertz | 10:03 UK time, Tuesday, 13 July 2010

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.

Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting an orchestra

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Out of interest, how many women are there among the 58 photographs of featured performers and conductors?

  • Comment number 2.

    Where did you get said wallchart?

  • Comment number 3.

    It's good to see Cardew receiving coverage here, but I'm afraid this report is stuffed with half-truths and inaccuracies:

    1. To say Stockhausen "renounced all romanticism in favour of the purely intellectual (for which, read experimental)" is a vast over-simplification. Are you saying 19th century Romantics weren't intellectual too? And Stockhausen's relationship with Romanticism, and German tradition, was far more complex than you imply.

    2. Stockhausen was never much interested in chance, especially during this early period; think you're muddling him with Cage?

    3. Yes, Cardew was initially inspired by Stockhausen, and worked as his assistant in Cologne. But doubt quickly crept in and Cardew denounced Stockhausen. Later he wrote a famous book called "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism"...

    4. The Scratch Orchestra was a reaction against the sort of formal modernism Stockhausen et al represented, and 'chance' is a hopelessly loose term to describe how the orchestra functioned.

  • Comment number 4.

    And another thing: at this Prom, John Tilbury isn't playing Cardew's music. He's playing Morton Feldman (not Feldon).

  • Comment number 5.

    To desscribe The Scratch Orchestra as a mere reaction against something is in itself an inaccuracy. The emphasis was on the empowerment of all its participants with regard to both organisation and performance, an openness of approach with regard to scores and a willingness to consider anyone for membership regardless of technical expertise.

    Also, the contributions of Michael Parsons & Howard Skempton to the formation and activity of the Scratch Orchestra should not be overlooked.

  • Comment number 6.

    "To describe The Scratch Orchestra as a mere reaction against something is in itself an inaccuracy"

    Absolutely. But I was trying to put distance between what actually happened and Will Gompertz's assertion that Cardew, somehow motivated by his dealings with S'hausen, "went for it" and created The Scratch Orchestra. The full story is of course infinitely more involved and anyone interested should consult Tilbury's Cardew biography.

  • Comment number 7.

    "Stockhausen was never much interested in chance, especially during this early period; think you're muddling him with Cage?"

    Stockhausen, at several points in his career, was very interested in Chance music, and actually worked with Cage during the 1950's. What about Stockhausen's 'Intuitive Music' works, such as 'Aus den sieben Tag' and 'Fur Kommende Zeiten'?

  • Comment number 8.

    You've pretty much answered your own question. 'Intuitive music' has nothing to do with chance. It's to do with intuition. Far from Mr. Gompertz's assertion that Stockhausen's early music responded to Duchampian ideas of chance, these pieces are controlled to with an inch of their life. Which is partly why Cardew lost the faith.


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