Cornelius Cardew: rock musician


May 19, 1970: Cornelius Cardew is a British composer of experimental music that’s so far ahead of the game that he makes the avant-garde we all know and love look positively pre-historic. He’s 34, they call him one of England’s most imaginative young composers, and he’s here to perform at SFU.

The concert, which starts with an audience of 30 and ends with an audience of 20, includes a piece consisting of a single note held for eight minutes on a cello, a 15-minute piece in roughly equal halves, each half consisting also of a single note held on a cello, and a work called Stones, by Christian Wolff.

This “begins any time you start listening,” says Cardew, and consists of him tapping, scraping and hammering a series of stones that he hangs from wires and from a coat-hanger. He taps them in what seems like random sequence for what seems like a random time. What sort of sound do they make? Well, you know: real rock music.

He’s perfectly serious about all this, as becomes clear when we talk. He’s looking for a return to “elemental simplicity” in our lives. His music is a way for people to clear their minds. For instance, the time that you’re listening to that note on the cello, you’re not being exposed to pop music.

What does he say to people who say, yes, but is it music? “I’m a musician,” he says, “and whatever I do is music. You must trust a musician. My music is simply what it is. There is no hidden meaning. It is truly a return to simplicity.”


Cardew became heavily involved in left-wing politics and worked tirelessly to politicize culture in the UK. He eventually gave up this “experimental” musical idiom to write in a much more accessible tonal style, what he called “people’s liberation music.” His 1974 book, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, denounced his own earlier work as an assistant to the composer. He died in a hit-and-run accident in 1981, and according to one conspiracy theory his death was possibly engineered by MI-5 because of his Marxist-Leninist activism.


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