Monday, June 22, 2015

Cornelius Cardew in New Cross, and a ballad of East Street

'Cornelius Cardew (1936-81): a life unfinished' by John Tilbury (Copula, 2008) is a monumental biography of the radical composer by one of his closest collaborators. Its 1100 pages document in close detail Cardew's musical and political life, cut short at the age of  45 when he was hit by a car in East London.

Cardew became involved with the musical avant-garde in the late 1950s, working for a while as an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. He helped introduce the work of American and other experimental composers into British musical circles. For instance in in July 1963, Cardew was involved in organising a Little Festival of New Music at Goldsmiths in New Cross with performers including John Cale (later of the Velvet Underground), Enid Hartle, Fred Turner, Griffith Rose, Robin Page, Tomas Schmitt and members of the Fluxus group George Macunias and Emmett Williams. Two concerts, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, including pieces by La Monte Young, Nam June Paik and Williams' 'Counting Song', which consisted of him counting the audience.

In 1966 Cardew joined the improvisational group AMM, founded the year before by  Lou Gare, Keith Rowe and Eddie Prévost  (Prévost had been to Addey and Stanhope school in Deptford, and been introduced to percussion in the 19th Bermondsey Boy Scouts marching band).

In 1968 Cardew began an Experimental Music class at Morley College in Lambeth. Many of those attending  'were later to form the nucleus of the Scratch orchestra' including Michael Parsons, Howard Skempton, Carole Finer (a lecturer at London College of Printing and later at Camberwell College of Art) and Psi (Peter) Ellison (who for 'some months... squatted in a clothing shop in Deptford'). The Scratch Orchestra's approach to music was playful and inclusive (see Stefan Szczelkun's participant account) but this was soon to be rejected by Cardew as he came under the influence of the 'Maoist' Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist).

The last ten years of Cardew's life were dominated by his involvement in this group, and musically he turned away from experimentalism towards didactic political song aiming to put across the party's line to the masses through vehicles such as People's Liberation Music. His earlier collaborators were denounced as bourgeois in texts such as Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.

In October 1975, Cardew started an evening class at Goldsmiths, 'Songs for our Society', its participants including 'composer Howard Skempton (occasionally), a homeopathic nurse, a lady on day release from a mental hospital, a young German called Holger, a retired railway worker' and others. Afterward 'the class would adjourn to a nearby pub, usually the Goldsmiths Tavern, occasionally the Marquis of Granby, and there would be a further two hours of intense political discussion'.

One outcome of the class was a gig for prisoners at Brixton Prison Medical Wing in 1976, where a band including Cardew, Eddie Prevost and Keith Rowe treated the audience to songs including Up and Over the Wall and The Ballad of George Jackson - the latter written and sung by a member of the class, Jim Ward, who recalled it as 'rather strong.... with its references to racist pigs and fascists in the prison service'. Later, in June 1981, Cardew organised a concert at Goldsmiths to commemorate the deaths in the New Cross Fire that year, though as Tilbury recalls there some controversy about the event being used to push the party line.

Cardew and his comrades were frequently in conflict with the police - he was arrested in the anti-National Front 'Battle of Lewisham' in August 1977, and in another anti-NF demonstration in Camberwell in 1980. In the latter case, Cardew was already on a suspended sentence following a previous arrest,  and he was jailed for a month in Pentonville after an appearance at Newington Causeway Magistrates Court.

Cardew's song/piano piece 'Four Principles on Ireland' was inspired by another local confrontation. According to Tilbury, it  'related to a demonstration in East Street market in South East London in 1972. The Party comrades who were leafleting were "brutally attacked" by the police and several received prison sentences' - Cardew's subsequent song was based on the leaflet.

For me the devotion of Cardew and others to the tiny maoist sect seems rather tragic. Their sectarian, dogmatic rhetoric had little impact other than contributing to the image of radical leftists as ridiculous fantasists - their grandiose sounding front organisations such as South London Revolutionary Youth and South London People's Front no doubt inspired the 'Tooting Popular Front' of late 1970s sitcom 'Citizen Smith'. One of the more comic touches in Tilbury's book is a reference to Cardew taking part in 1980 in a delegation to Germany as part of the 'Stalin Youth Brigade'- at the time Cardew was 44 years old and the other 'youth' delegates were aged 33 and 'mid twenties'!

While Cardew may have been on the right side of history in fighting against fascists in the 1970s, he was also an apologist for mass murderers like Stalin and Mao, and you have to wonder what atrocities he would have been capable of countenancing if his unlikely fantasy of the party taking power had been realized. No doubt other kinds of radicals - denounced as social fascist  - would have been first against the wall - a 1972 letter talks of  'Revisionism, Trotskyism, Anarchism, Reformism,Terrorism, the Labour Party etc' as lines to be struggled against: 'isolate them and wipe them out, so that we can achieve the necessary unity to go forward'. Those with the wrong musical line would probably also find themselves having to 'work harder with a gun in your back for a bowl of rice a day' (to quote the Dead Kennedys 'Holiday in Cambodia'). In 1977, the party's Progressive Cultural Association published an infamous 'Punk Rock is Fascist' article in its journal Cog and Wheels. I'm sorry but give me The Clash any day over Cardew's late period songs such as “Revisionist Somersaults And The Opportunist Opposition”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent piece. Thank you.