Just finished John Tilbury's massive* biography Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) a life unfinished and can recommend it highly, as a scholarly and — discretely — personal account of both the person and the musician.
Cardew was very important to me, as a music student, if chiefly as the composer of Autumn '60 and the Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, two kit-like pieces in which the performer has to engage with the score in challenging ways in order to create individual parts as well as forge an ensemble from a set of notations that initially appear very open but gradually reveal themselves to be systematic and carrying many constraints when followed consequently. (For a term paper in college, I compared Boulez's original version of ...Explosante/fixe... with the Cardew Octet '61, much to the advantage of the Cardew. I also had the pleasure of performing the piano-as-percussion-solo Memories of You several times, one of the most charming pieces of the era; my best version involved a flyswatter introduced at a strategic moment and used only once.) Later work by Cardew, although more impressive in scale, was more interesting intellectually than musically to me — Treatise, The Great Learning — and what I knew of the Scratch Orchestra intrigued me, but I had no real feel for the project as actual music. Cardew's turn to what appeared to be rather doctrinaire and marginal party Marxism was intriguing but much less attractive and the bits of the late, mostly-tonal music I encountered ran the gamut from sweet enough (the Piano Albums or the Thaelmann Variations) to puzzling (Mountains) to deadly dull (The Vietnam Sonata).
(N.O. Brown and I spoke at some length about the fall-out from John Cage, with Young and Cardew representing for Brown spiritual and social/political directions, respectively; I believe we agreed that both directions had largely failed, in the sense of moving musical or more worldly mountains, but this was still far before minimalism — for which Young was a critical catalyst — had become anything like an establishment force; who knows, with capitalism in its present state, perhaps Cardew will eventually be received as a similarly prescient force.)
But Tilbury's book puts Cardew and his music into a context that is profoundly different from that I which had understood or imagined. The works that were — and remain — important to me actually represented the passing or even tangential contact between the journeyman Cardew and the continental avant-garde, and Tilbury makes a very good case — albeit one that is, at times, surprisingly critical — for Cardew's unique career trajectory and, indeed, forces me to reconsider that later work and later working milieu as far closer to sense and sensibility and central concerns of the man himself than the handful of high avant-garde pieces written in his late 20s. Perhaps more importantly, Tilbury's description of the biographical context is a valuable reminder of how distant any bit of music history can be. For all of its detail — much of it quite intimate in nature, especially that taken from the composer's private journals and interviews with his wives — I still cannot say that I have a much of a feel for how Cardew came to be the composer he was, how he went straight from his traditional schooling as Anglican cathedral choirboy to an interest in the most modern continental-style music, or how he fit (or, at the case appears to have been, didn't fit) with the contemporary spectrum of composers in Britain.** Knowing more about the poverty in which Cardew spent essentially his entire life***, and of his connections to Blake, Wittgenstein, Chinese classics or Mao, or to his father's William Morris-like approach to the crafts helps considerably and makes Cardew a rather more sympathetic figure, but it is still far from knowing how he really ticked. In any case, Tilbury has succeeded in presenting more of Cardew than we had expected and yet leaving him as one of the most intriguing figures in late 20th century music.
*How massive? More than a thousand pages. But it's certainly the most readable 1000+ pages I've ever encountered in a sans-serif font. Book designers, please, long books need serifs!
**Isn't it fascinating, for example, how distant Cardew, with his connections to the continental avant-garde, to experimentalism, and to improvisation, is from his near-contemporaries in the establishment-modernists-to-be of the Manchester group?
***In discussing money matters, it would have helped to have had some more explicit hints about the historical purchasing power of the pound to really.