Cornelius Cardew: chamber music 1955-64
Matchless MRCD45-CD

Alongside his status as important modern British composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was probably one of the few outrightly romantic figures in 20th century contemporary music. Darkly handsome in a Bohemian fashion, Cardew began his career with a Royal Academy of Music education than a period as assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Later more attuned to the ideas of John Cage, he was soon turning out graphical scores, and was for a period the chief link between the more radical European composers and musicians with their American counterparts. At the same time he was a founding, although short-lived, playing member of the seminal free improv group AMM.

This wasn’t enough however and late in the 1960s he organized The Scratch Orchestra made up of full and part time musicians, who were also involved with interpreting charismatic Cardew’s increasingly left-wing political scores. Subsequently denouncing his earlier compositions as bourgeois and too abstract, Cardew’s later work became simplistic and functional, especially after he helped found the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain in 1979. His death two years later, as the result of a hit-and-run accident, was deemed suspect by his political fellow travelers.

Still, the real tragedy, like the premature death of John Coltrane during an equally-searching period of his career, prevented us from knowing how the music of Cardew, who had already affected a rapprochement with AAM just before he died, would have evolved in the future. Certainly the supposition that he could again equal his earlier brilliance was very much in evidence.

The thought-provoking material, performed on this CD by the shifting personnel of Apartment House, the experimental music ensemble, for instance, deals only with his chamber work, written in his pre-AAM, pre-Communist period. It ranges from student studies to full-blown, graphical scores and is as notable for its variety as its individualistic maturity.

Cardew was no Mozart, however, as the earliest pieces here show. Despite the difference in instrumentation, both suffer from the sort of sombre seriousness you associate with concert hall classicism. It isn’t what the booklet notes refer to as “fragmentary elusiveness” which sabotages them, but the hushed reverence that seems to infect its performance. Note perfect rendition of the tiniest detail of the scores appears to be all that is demanded of the trumpeter and string players involved.

The other major criticism which can be directed at this CD, and by extension the composer’s work — is its lack of humor or even levity. Considering that Cardew ended his life affiliated with Maoists, a group never known to have made any contribution to night club stand up, sit-coms or come to think of it, the dissemination of witty epigrams, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But considering humor of the broad or subtle type has been an important construct of the work of most of the greatest exploratory musicians, its absence is felt.

Happily, the work here created by the mature composer — the last was written at 28, the age at which Jimi Hendrix died, after all — show a steady mastery of indeterminacy. They’re the sort of compositions that could easily fit among the creations of contemporary avant-garde, so-called serious musicians and free jazz oriented improv experimenters.

“Material Version I” and the extended “Material Version II” are especially striking in that the singular piano trills and glissandos, electronic interjections, prepared piano excursions plus protracted churchy organ continuo and vibrato coalesce into a package of pointillistic sonorities.

On the other hand, the sparse “Solo With Accompaniment” — a more obvious title is hard to imagine — utilizing humming, broken cello thrusts and split second guitar variations, actually sounds like the sort of structure Cardew would explore as part of AMM a couple of years later. Meanwhile, the ensemble’s treatment of “Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns”, which puts scratched and off-pitch wrenched cello yanks in concert with arco passages, appears to be as futuristic as it is contemporary, with the original score’s overlaid, embedded numbers used as a basis for improvisation. Without knowing the composition date you could easily confuse it for a brand-new piece created by one of those semi-composed/semi-improv organizations like Klanforum Wien or the TonArt Ensemble.

All told this 74 minutes plus of music serves as the perfect introduction to a modern musician from arguable his most interesting compositional period. With too many so-called classical ensembles caught up in bi-centennial, tri-centennial and by-rote performances of souvenirs of the past, it also shows how much fresh music there is to investigate.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Solo with Accompaniment (1964) 2. Three Rhythmic Pieces for trumpet and piano (1955), Movement I 3. Movement II, 4. Movement III 5. Autumn ’60 (1960) Version I 6. Material (1964) Version II 7. Second String Trio (1955) 8. Piece for Guitar (for Stella) (1961) 9. Material (1964) version I 10. Memories Of You (1964) 11. Autumn ’60 (1960) Version II 12. Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns.

Personnel: [collective personnel]: Marco Blaauw (trumpet); Andrew Sparling (clarinet); David Ryan (bass clarinet, piano); Gordon MacKay (violin); Bridget Carey (viola); Sarah Walker (piano, prepared piano); Dave Smith (prepared piano, melodica); Tania Chen (piano); Robert Coleridge (organ); Michael Parsons (electronic keyboard, conductor); Alan Thomas (guitar); Rhodri Davies (harp); Anton Lukoszevieze (cello, conductor, director); Simon Allen (vibraphone, marimba)