A Celebration of Cornelius Cardew, of sorts

Monday 28 November 2011

“Celebration” was in the title of the concert, but as celebrations go it was a muted and introspective affair. Perhaps this was to be expected. For the past 30 years Cardew has remained unfinished business. His last years were consumed by his dedication to a wrongheaded political project that squandered his talent and energy, and his early, unexpected death left the new music world a strangely inconsistent, unresolved body of work. British musicians have chosen, largely, to ignore him while a rump of the avant-garde treated him as a semi-legendary figure and unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the conflicting tendencies that pulled his music in such contradictory directions.

Sunday’s concert in the Purcell Room got us no closer to perceiving a distinct outline of Cardew’s oeuvre, although it presented one piece of the puzzle. In the first half John Tilbury played several of Cardew’s piano pieces, from the Sixties and early Seventies. The three February Pieces and Material felt like an early historical attempt to both accommodate and escape from the prevailing avant-garde dogmas of the Fifties. A sonic delicacy reminiscent of Webern would alternate with passages of stasis, spiky contrapuntal discord and isolated tones, sometimes romantic, otherwise remote, disrupted by a wilful discontinuity, tempered by a reliance on the performer’s instinct to find a form in the score’s aleatory structure. (At times you could see Tilbury flipping both forwards and backwards through the pages.) Overall, the mood was elegiac.

The brief Unintended Piano Music from either 1970 or 1971 was a strange, brooding piece; a series of chords articulated by a repeated triad ascending in the bass. Its lulling, nagging repetitions and pensive mood illustrated why Morton Feldman felt so at home amongst the British avant-garde of the time. The Croppy Boy was the sole acknowledgement in the programme of Cardew’s later dedication to founding a new People’s Music for the Marxist-Leninist revolution that never came. In this context, it came across as overly sentimental and slightly insincere.

After the interval, Tilbury was joined by percussionist Eddie Prévost. Together they performed as the improvisation group AMM, of which Cardew was an early, key member. Prévost’s programme note takes some pains to detail the numerous personnel changes over the years. “One suspects AMM will somehow continue after those who first thought of it have long since departed,” he concludes, yet the preceding history feels more rueful than triumphant. It can’t help but echo the unending splits and factions amongst the various communist parties with which Cardew was involved in the Seventies.

I saw an expanded version of AMM play two years ago. Tonight, the duo’s sound is understandably sparser, with long pauses, and culminating in a lingering uncertainty between them over when exactly they’ve finished. Prévost is preoccupied with a technique, as if he’s rehearsing alone. He spends most of his time bowing a cymbal, a tam-tam, some small gongs, shifting his equipment about casually, almost sloppy. Tilbury slips between foreground and background, but much of the time can add little more to this monomania than slow, chromatic scales, sometimes ascending, sometimes… It’s less a celebration, more resignation, exhaustion.

  1. [...] been doing boring music stuff the last few weeks but on the weekend I did make it to the concert of Cornelius Cardew’s late music at Conway Hall. This was the music he composed while an active member of the Progressive [...]