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Reading John Tilbury’s enormous book on Cardew (Cornelius Cardew, an unfinished life, Copula) is a daunting task, but its exhausting detail enables me to say with some certainty that I met Cardew on or about the 28th of October 1976 when I was 17. As part of an Irish tour, Cardew came to Derry’s Magee College. Tilbury says that the event was badly publicized and poorly attended. I now suspect that the event was thrown into the tour as an afterthought, perhaps in an attempt to spring the radical composer north of the border into the war zone. There were six of us in the audience.

Cardew’s music was new to me, but not his name. My library in Derry had a book by him with the unambiguous enough title Stockhausen serves imperialism. I can’t pretend that I understood much of it. But Cardew himself made an enormous impression on me. I was struck by his English courteousness and civility, surprising in a radical firebrand. I was callow enough to think that a radical composer must come from a working class background like my own. Tilbury’s book draws a picture of bohemian middle class mayhem in which private schools and cathedral scholarships co-existed with real financial hardship, especially when Cardew’s father walked out on the mother and three boys: genteel poverty, in short.

My memories of that occasion at Magee are necessarily vague but worth trying to salvage. Cardew played his entire programme as if for a full house and was completely open to opinions and objections, of which I expressed plenty. This impressed me, and I have tried to act by it ever since: an audience is always an audience, and must be treated with respect. The music included piano versions of Chinese songs and the Thaelmann Variations for piano. In the middle of performing this work, Cardew was bothered by a noise from inside the piano, stood up and corrected it, sat down and carried on. I obtained a score from him at the end, and (again my callowness) was surprised that such an idealist should insist on payment. (He charged me two pounds.) I had the good fortune to be taught ‘A’ level music by a fine composer, Redmond Friel (1909-1979). But we all when we are young take the teachers who give us bread- and- butter instruction a bit for granted, and Cardew had the glamour of the radical, the imported and the unknown.

His memory would have been better served by a more concise and traditional biography. Tilbury’s accounts of the labyrinthine squabbles of the avant garde and (later) the British communist movement reinforce my prejudice that the bitterness of such quarrels is in directly inverse proportion to the significance of the groups involved. In Derry, Cardew expressed his admiration for Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Maoism was of course only the latest installment in the liberal left’s advocacy of political gangsterism from Stalin through Castro. Should they not by 1976 have wised up a bit?

Another puzzling aspect of Cardew (and here too he is representative) is his belief in the supposed solidarity between the working classes and avant garde art in the 1950s-70s. My own memory of growing up during that period is that the proletariat took its soundtrack from Top of the Pops, the BBC’s craven knee-bend to musical commercialism, more than from Feldman, Cage or Earl Brown, whose reputations in our housing estate were surprisingly muted. Incidentally, a lovely anecdote in the book describes a recital of Cage, Feldman, Brown et al given by Cardew in 1960, of which his friend Richard Rodney Bennett memorably said that it was as exciting as listening to the Methodist Hymnal played from cover to cover. The reader of Tilbury’s 900 pages is advised to savour such moments of humour; revolutionizing the bourgeois-capitalist power-structure does not permit too many of them.

Of course there were significant Left figures in the musical firmament (Shostakovich), but Cardew and his kind totally disregarded them. For the Left avant garde, stringing together Webernesque whisps of noise in Manhattan earned you more anti-fascist credit than having lived through the Siege of Leningrad. That is until, understandably fed up with the inbred tedium of happenings, Zen, the Tao and graphics mania, Cardew decided to write like Shostakovich and Britten. By the time of Thaelmann Variations and Boolavogue for two pianos (one of my favorite pieces by him), a new populism was his chosen direction. One must give him some credit. He grew up with the characteristic post-war belief that every form of inherited beauty and wisdom was a hypocrisy and a swindle. The move towards melody and harmony was therefore the most authentically radical one he ever made.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole cultural episode described in Tilbury’s book as the misguided behaviour of some very misguided middle class people. Yet Tilbury also offers us the portrait of a generous man and composer who gave himself completely to other people and to music. Cornelius Cardew was the kind of selfless person you do not often meet among composers, and this is why he will continue to haunt us.

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