Commentary Magazine


Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, by Cornelius Cardew

Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.
by Cornelius Cardew.
Latimer New Dimensions (London). 126 pp. £3.00.

The subject of this book—the penetration of music by politics—is not new. It has a disreputable history in our time as an example of the subjection of ideas to state power. What is new about Cornelius Cardew’s approach is twofold: his god of action is Mao, not Stalin, and he is a willing, not an enslaved, transformer of art into propaganda. It is, one hopes, still noteworthy when a man offers himself into bondage.

Cardew is a well-known, even notorious, English experimental composer. Now approaching middle age, he was educated at the Royal Academy of Music where he is presently professor of composition. In the late 50′s he served as assistant to the German experimental composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen; until the late 60′s he was, by his own admission, a follower of both Stockhausen and the American John Cage. He was thus a part of the international musical avant-garde, and as such essentially non-political in his creative work, if not in his social ideas.

In 1969, along with two other English composers, Cardew founded (and himself became the driving force in) the Scratch Orchestra, a group of musicians and non-musicians come together for experimental performance activities. These activities included improvisation, performance of experimental compositions, performance of standard compositions in ways different from the intention of the composers and the tradition of past performances, and performances of Scratch Music.

Although it is difficult to define Scratch Music, because it did not ever achieve a settled form, Cardew’s conception of it best conveys the flavor of his pre-Maoist approach to music. Scratch Music is a music of ideas-for-performance, not of sounds meant, as in traditional music, to be heard exactly as notated. It is a music of transient, changeable, impermanent qualities—its first practitioners conceived of it as being written in a scratch book. It is a set of directions for activities which may or may not involve music or even sounds. It is what anyone wants it to be.

The emphasis in the Scratch Orchestra, as can be seen from the idea of Scratch Music, was on voluntarism rather than on the discipline which is the sine qua non of traditional ensemble activities. This voluntarism led both to public scandal, consequent on the orchestra’s concert behavior, and to internal disintegration amid factionalism and apathy. As of the beginning of 1975 the orchestra had temporarily been saved by several ideologically oriented Maoist participants, of whom Cardew is one. These militants have attempted to direct the orchestra away from aimless experiment and provocation and toward a conscious effort to serve the masses. On its surface, much of Cardew’s book is about this attempt.

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The book itself is composed of articles by others as well as by Cardew, although he has supplied all the introductory, explanatory, and connective material. The book begins with a short history of the Scratch Orchestra by Rod Eley, whom Cardew rather portentously describes as “the most educated of us.” This is followed with attacks by Cardew on Cage and Stockhausen, an account of a “Critical Concert” in Berlin in 1973 at which Cardew performed avant-garde works and then flayed them on ideological grounds, and finally a chapter of self-criticism in which the composer repudiates his earlier work and attempts to map out a set of goals for a politically desirable music.

The political content of the book is a combination of Marx, Mao, and Marcuse, superficially digested and laboriously regurgitated. We are told endlessly that art and ideas reflect the class basis of the society in which they arise, that the bourgeoisie is decomposing in the face of the historically inevitable victory of the working class, and that the role of culture is to unite with the masses and hasten the revolution. Cardew and his collaborators see the avant-garde as a force attempting to escape the morbid clutches of the bourgeoisie; in their view any support or toleration of avant-garde culture by the establishment is an exercise of repressive tolerance, a killing-by-kindness. The crime of Cage and Stockhausen is that they use their talents to produce music which, because it avoids direct involvement with politically revolutionary subjects and forces, is tolerated by the bourgeoisie even while being rejected as art. Thus the bourgeoisie wins the only victory still open to it—to delay the inevitable by co-opting the forces of change.

Cardew goes further. He attacks on ideological grounds some explicitly revolutionary compositions by two close sympathizers, Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski. Wolff’s piece, Accompaniments, is set to a text taken from Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle’s China: The Revolution Continued. The text is a discussion by two Chinese, a veterinarian and a midwife, of the benefits to the people of the New China brought about by the improved sanitation and contraception developed in the light of Mao’s thought. The music was written rapidly as a response to the text, and consists of simple chords and rhythms to be applied, as is the vocal part, at the discretion of the participants. Cardew criticizes the piece on the grounds that the text is only seemingly about the revolution and its benefits; actually, he says, it is about “pollution and the population explosion, two of the great red herrings (secondary contradictions) that the bourgeoisie has brought out in the last few years to distract people’s attention from the principal contradictions, capital and labor.”

The two pieces of Frederic Rzewski that come in for political scrutiny are Coming Together and Attica. Coming Together is a setting of a letter written by Sam Melville, a convicted radical bomber who died in the Attica rebellion, about the change in his attitudes and life caused by his imprisonment. The second piece, Attica, is based on a quotation of Richard X Clark, one of the leaders of the rebellion. Cardew criticizes these pieces for treating the texts musically in a subjective, fragmented, and repetitive way, so that the words become hypnotic and obsessive, rather than rationally clear. He further objects that the ideology underlying the Melville piece is anarchistic because Melville’s consciousness is based on personal, rather than social, desires; therefore the piece appeals more to alienated youth than to the class-conscious proletariat.

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In thus beating up on his closest comrades-in-arms, Cardew provides us with another example, and that not yet the last, of the revolution devouring its children. Cardew also criticizes himself—for believing that in his compositions, music and art could be autonomous, and that his music could provide a complete, self-enclosed world. He finds that this relic of bourgeois individualism as it separated him from the world also separated his music from the audience. Though he discusses fully the wrong motives musicians have had in the past as well as the motives they ought to have, nowhere does he discuss what an ideal music from his standpoint would mean in terms of notes and sounds—that is, in terms of music. Does he have perhaps in mind the Chinese anthem, The East is Red? Or perhaps that product of collective composition, the Yellow River Concerto? Has any music been written which would satisfy his political criteria? Cardew seems able only to assist in the destruction of the past and the present, not to help in the construction even of his own future.

The problem, of course, is that he wishes to put culture at the service of politics. This desire, which surfaces at times of cultural and social crisis, remains eternally green in the face of the most shocking enormities perpetrated in its name. One need only point to the atrocities committed upon ideas—and what is worse, on people—whenever politics has taken command in our time. From the repression and liquidation of Soviet writers in the 30′s, to the exile and murder of German writers by Hitler, to the extraordinary ravings of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the contemporary man of ideas has become a target for the exercise and abuse of arbitrary power. Ideas have suffered, and their holders have been killed. Cardew is selling a remedy nobody wants for himself. The record is clear; for culture, 20th-century revolutions, whether of the Left or of the Right, have been a curse, not a blessing.

There is a further foolishness in Cardew’s argument. He continually invokes the coming revolution of the working class. But where has it come: in the Soviet Union? Is Russia, that land without Soviets and unions, controlled by the working class? China? Is not China controlled by yet another group of bureaucrats ruling under the self-proclaimed mandate of heaven? Where is the legitimacy of any of these revolutions? Perhaps Cardew sees the British working class, or the American, as a revolutionary force. But he has no evidence for this pipe dream, and the lack of evidence only makes his voice more isolated and shrill.

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Why, then, since this book is obviously meant as a political tract from beginning to end, does it seem to have so little to do with politics? Because its motivation is so stronly personal, and Cardew so strongly wants to be a musician. His tribute to the music of the 19th century must have been painful indeed to write:

I believe I speak for the vast majority of music lovers when I say: let’s face it, modern music . . . is not half as good as classical music. . . . What does good mean in that sentence? It means effective, wholesome, moving, satisfying, delightful, inspiring, stimulating. . . . By comparison with [what] we . . . derive from Beethoven, Brahms, and the rest, modern music (with very few exceptions) is footling, unwholesome, sensational, frustrating, offensive, and depressing.

It is no fun to be a child of such a parent. His rage and envy in the face of the past comes through clearly in his remarks on Wagner:

I have never seen a Wagner opera. . . . I . . . know a piano duet version of the Prelude to Act III of Tristan and Isolde, and once played in the fifth desk of cellos in a non-professional performance of the same piece. . . . I can hear someone saying, “My lad, if you’ve reached the ripe age of thirty-six without having learned anything about Wagner, you have only yourself to blame.” Well, I think the reason is that virtually everything written and said about Wagner and his music is extremely boring and irrelevant to the present time, and reasonable musicians with a certain amount of work to do could not be expected to plough through it.

Is this a reason for not listening to the music? It seems much more like a rationalization of disappointment too deeply minded to be faced. Cardew laments his own lack of skills:

. . . I realize that I am not at all qualified to apply technical criteria because in my own period of training I had never mastered anything more than the rudiments. The rest had seemed irrelevant in view of my desire to break with the traditions of tonal music completely. The fact that I was able to pass exams and get diplomas despite my extremely limited compositional technique is due entirely to the fatally liberalistic attitude that permeates our education system.

One can only sympathize with his disappointed hopes and his frustrated ambitions.

It is clear that Cardew bitterly misses an audience for his works; he writes movingly of “the composer’s bright dreams that wither up and die for lack of audience.” The book discusses time and again the loss of audience and the resultant isolation of the artist; indeed, the book seems to represent not so much a case of music supporting a political position as the case of a composer desiring to secure an audience even at the cost of submerging himself in it. It is clear, however, that this is a price Cardew will never be able to pay; not only does he cherish still (though unconsciously) his individuality, but there is also no large enveloping entity on the horizon with which he might negotiate the sale of his soul. Like the devil, revolution in Western society is a myth conjured up to deal with feelings of powerlessness; nobody believes in the revolution, Communists least of all. Cardew, alas, is condemned to freedom.

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Cardew must be credited, though, with accurately describing the three most important elements in the musical crisis of the 20th century. The achievement of the 18th and 19th centuries was overpoweringly strong; music education in our time has become academically fettered and musically slack; and the audience has died. The evidence is easily available. The musical repertory is not expanded by bringing in new or recently written pieces. It is expanded by finding “new” old pieces—forgotten operas of Donizetti or recently completed symphonies of Mahler. Music appreciation is increasingly confined to the dreary classes of our colleges, while music schools, in order to survive economically, try to make themselves relevant by training guitarists and giving courses in Far Eastern music and multi-media events. And the death of the audience is shown not only by the lack of interest in contemporary music, but even more tellingly by the fact, for instance, that both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera must advertise at enormous cost in order to recruit ticket buyers. The story is the same with the sale of classical records as with attendance at recitals.

The effect of all this on the creative musician has been disastrous. He cannot escape the shadow of the great masters; but his society will not allow him to rest content with being derivative. He does not starve; teaching jobs keep the wolf from the door. And there is the direct philanthropy of our governments and foundations, who will pay him if he does what they desire. But for whom does he write? Who listens? Who cares? Nobody. Not here in America, not in Europe, and not in Russia or China save when the masses are told they must. Writing music is like falling in love. One has to have someone with whom to do it.

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The saving grace of this book, and of Cardew in general, is a certain wit, a faint suggestion of the sainted Stephen Potter, the renowned gamesman who taught us all how the athletically untalented might win at sports. Potter, behind the façade he so humorously presented of small-time cunning and bumbling trickery, was a spokesman for all those born against their will into a world of the taller and the more handsome, the richer and the quicker. This is an attractive and typically English attitude of resisting the big battalions of strength and talent by purity of desire, if not of motive. Cardew’s political cause is not mine, but his musical cause may very well be. And in any case, how does one reject a man who can write, “Though Cage and Stockhausen have no hold on the working class, they did have a strong hold on me . . .”? Just think—all those millions of brawny workers and Cardew’s tenderest feelings marching toward the sunrise as equals. Any gamesman will recognize the triumph.

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About the Author




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