began his musical education as a boy chorister at Canterbury Cathedral (1943–50) and continued it at the Royal Academy of Music in London (1953–57), where his teachers included Howard Ferguson (composition) and Percy Waller (piano). In 1957 he went to Cologne to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who employed Cardew as his assistant, specifically to collaborate with him in the composition of Carré (1958–60). Cardew returned to London in 1961, where he took a course in graphic design; he worked intermittently in this field until his death. In 1964 he received an Italian government scholarship to study with Go redo Petrassi in Rome. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1966, and in 1967 was appointed professor of composition at the RAM. He was killed in unclear circumstances near his home in Leyton, East London, by a hit-and-run driver.
While in Cologne in 1958, Cardew attended concerts given by John Cage and David Tudor. The American avant-garde music he heard made a deep impression on him and was the catalyst for a series of “indeterminate” compositions in the early 1960s, including Autumn ’60, Octet for Jasper Johns, Solo with Accompaniment, and Memories of You. These works express Cardew’s concern for the relationship between composer and performer, which eventually assumes a central position in his compositions and music-making over the next decade. roughout this period Cardew was also active as an interpreter of contemporary music, in particular by US composers: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff, as well as his own music. He performed as a pianist at festivals and radio stations. He also learnt the guitar and played it in the first British performance of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître in London in 1957.
From 1963 to 1968 all of Cardew’s other music was, in one way or another, subsumed into two dominating and complementary activities: the graphic score Treatise, in which traditional notation is abandoned altogether, and the free improvisation group AMM, in which musical notation no longer played any role whatsoever. Treatise, inspired by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, comprises 193 pages; it is a continuous weaving and combining of a host of graphic elements (of which only a few are recognisably related to traditional musical notation) results in a long musical “composition,” the meaning of which in terms of sound is not specified in any way. Any number of performers, using any media, are free to participate in a “reading” of Treatise and to interpret it in an individual way. Cardew’s idea was that each musician should give of his own music in response to the score (which also shows evidence of his considerable graphic skills).
It was Cardew’s own view that joining AMM was a crucial turning-point in his musical career. AMM embodies a form of collective music-making in which no sounds are excluded and the essential features of which derive from firstly, the recognition and exploitation of music’s transience (“uncatchability” was Cardew’s description); secondly, an investigative ethos where the performers “search” for sounds and for responses attached to them rather than preparing and producing them; and thirdly, dialogue, comprising the spontaneous interplay between players and the necessity, on the part of each individual, for heightened awareness of the contributions of others.
The latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s similarly saw two parallel, complementary and all-consuming activities: The Great Learning (1968–70) and the Scratch Orchestra (1969–72). The Great Learning is a large-scale choral work (with a duration of approximately seven hours) in seven movements. It uses both traditional and graphic notation, conventional instruments and found objects, and involves trained and untrained musicians who sing, speak, drum, play stones and whistles, perform actions and gestures, invent games, and improvise. It represents an important stage in Cardew’s development at a time when he was moving away from the purely aesthetic concerns of the avant-garde towards a recognition of the social and political roots of musical life.
The Scratch Orchestra emerged out of Cardew’s composition class at Morley College in London in 1969. A performing group playing experimental and improvised music in multifarious situations, it turned to Marxist thought after an initial anarchic and fragmental period. Inspired by the theoretical works of Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolution, Cardew submitted his own early work, and the avant-garde in general, to vehement criticism, both in his public pronouncements and his book of essays Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (1974). He discontinued playing with AMM and renounced indeterminate music, turning to a conventional musical language, to tonality, and to the creation of a music that he judged could serve the political movement he espoused. He was engaged in intensive political activity: composing, performing, touring (e.g. in Ireland in support of the Republican cause), organising, lecturing, analysing and discussing with comrades, and demonstrating on the streets (for which he was arrested and imprisoned) against fascism and racism. He wrote a number of instrumental works, mainly for piano solo, but the majority of his compositions in the last decade were political songs for specific occasions.
Selected works: Three Rhythmic Pieces for trumpet and piano (1955), String Trios nos. 1 and 2 (1955–56), Why Cannot the Ear Be Closed to Its Own Destruction for voice and piano (1957), Three Piano Sonatas (1955–58), Two Books of Study for Pianists for two pianos (1958), Octet (1959), Arrangement for orchestra (1960), Autumn ’60 for large ensemble (1960), February Pieces for piano (1959–61), Ah Thel for choir (1963), Material for any harmonic instruments (1964), Bun no. 2 for orchestra (1964), Memories of You for piano (1964), Solo With Accompaniment for any instruments (1964), Three Winter Potatoes for piano (1961–65), Bun no. 1 for orchestra (1965), Treatise for undetermined forces (1963–67), Sextet – The Tiger’s Mind for undetermined forces (1967), Schooltime Compositions for undetermined forces (1968), Schooltime Special for undetermined forces (1968), The Great Learning for various performers (1968–70), The East is Red for violin and piano (1972), Piano Album 1973, Piano Album 1974, Thälmann Variations for piano (1974), Vietnam Sonata for piano (1975), Workers’ Song for violin (1978), We Sing for the Future for piano (1981), Boolavogue for two pianos (1981), political songs (1971–81).