Composer Stories

Personal interactions with various well known composers.

Cornelius Cardew

During my freshman year at Toronto’s York University (1974/75), Mr. Cardew came to lecture on his new work and direct a performance of two sections from his major piece The Great Learning. In preparation for Cardew’s visit I had studied his amazing graphic score Treatise, and had read his then newly published Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. I knew he had recently undergone a political awakening and I was excited to hear what his new music sounded like. But I was unprepared for what he presented in his lecture. “Oh, my god!” I remember thinking to myself, “He’s writing simple songs!!” As you probably know, mid 70s experimental composers were indeed re-discovering tonality, usually joined with an expansive sense of time and structure. The use of musical landmarks like classic cadences were still thought to be simply unnecessary for the avant-garde. But here they were in the new music by a master avant-gardist!

Now, to really appreciate this story, please keep in mind that President Nixon had recently resigned in disgrace and the new President, Gerald Ford, had just pardoned him. Also keep in mind that I was all of 18 years old, and had come to York to study electronic, experimental and world music. My young mind was not prepared to think of these kind of songs as anything but conservative. I had to say something. So I raised my hand and said: “Mr. Cardew, these pieces you’re playing sound like music Richard Nixon would enjoy listening to.” Without dropping a beat, he said, “I doubt he would enjoy them if they were being sung by people coming to burn down his house!” That shut me up.

As some of you know, Cardew was tragically killed in a hit and run accident in 1981. Over the last few years there have finally been some CDs released of Cardew’s late piano music, some of them songs. Probably some I heard that day in ’75. Listening to them here in the 21st century, they sound absolutely beautiful. The melodies are simple and singable but also surprising and profound. I might have been right back then; maybe Nixon would have liked them. But that would say more about that poor man’s humanity than it would detract from the greatness of Cornelius Cardew.

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