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Cornelius Cardew

Cornelius Cardew was born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1936. He was a charismatic and controversial figure whose contributions in the areas of musical notation, improvisation and political music are widely recognized.


In the mid-fifties he worked with Stockhausen, collaborating on Carre, and introduced the music of the American composers Cage, Feldman, Wolff, Riley and, in particular, LaMonte Young to European audiences. His experiments in musical notation culminated in two mammoth works - Treatise and The Great Learning - both of which, in different ways, bear witness to his astonishing invention and originality in this field. The spontaneity and improvisatory quality of his own music and music-making set him apart from both the American and the European avant-garde.

In the sixties Cardew became a focal figure, attracting around him a variety of musicians, including non-professionals, fine artists and jazz performers, and he turned principally to collaborative music-making - in the AMM free improvisation group and in the unique London-based Scratch Orchestra which he founded with Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton in 1969.

By the early seventies the social aspect of his musical activity, so far libertarian and anarchist, took on a more precise, political definition with his opposition to U.S. and Soviet Imperialism and to British rule in Ireland. As a communist he now repudiated as politically regressive much of the avant- garde of which he had been part. During the last ten years of his life, a period of intense political activity, he wrote music based on traditional and political songs, mostly for piano, in a romantic-realist style, aiming it towards a wider audience and within a political context.

On 13 December 1981 Cardew was killed in suspicious circumstances by a hit-and-run driver, who was never apprehended, near his home in Leyton, London.

Biography © John Tilbury

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