British Composer who was classically trained, but decided to appeal to a wider audience. At one point he taught composition at the London Morley College. In 1958-1960 he had the opportunity to be Karlheinz Stockhausens assistant.

He was a member of AMM free improvisation group.

One of the most important figures in the British post-war avant-garde.

From 1966-1971 he taught at Morley College.

In 1968 founded, with Howard Skempton and Micheal Parsons, the Scratch Orchestra. The group used ground breaking methods, some of the musicians played carefully prepared classical compositions, while other musicians were free to play whatever they chose to play. Sometimes referred to as collective improvisation.

He also formed along with Gavin Bryars, the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

...if the word 'romantic' should be rescued from the whimsical sentimentalists, it is so that we could then apply it, properly, to Cornelius Cardew: a real fountain of breathtakingly adventurous music. Immense skill and moral discipline, yes, but at the heart of the matter is simply the actual beauty of these hauntingly evocative soundscapes

-- Robert Wyatt on Cardew's "Piano Music"1

What is the purpose of modern classical music? It is often elitist, obscure, over-intellectual, and sometimes painful to hear, but does it need to be this way? Can it have any role in making a better society, and can it ever appeal to the masses? These are the questions that Cornelius Cardew wrestled with all his life.

One of the greatest figures in twentieth century British music, Cardew was a highly-regarded avant-garde and experimental composer, as well as a skilled performer of his own work and that of others. But throughout his life he wrestled to reconcile the complexity and intellectual abstraction of experimental music with his marxist political beliefs that challenged him to create a socially valuable form of art. His body of work as a composer offers a string of strategies to link his love of new music with a love of humanity and a belief in the necessity for revolutionary social change. But is it possible for high art to appeal to everyone, or for instrumental music to be political?

Cardew's death at the young age of 45, killed by a hit-and-run driver on the streets of London, left many of these questions unanswered. He may have taken as many wrong directions as right ones. But his work is vitally important, not only to those interested in creating political art, but for all lovers of modern music who can appreciate the genius of his compositional skills.


He was born into an artistic family: his father Michael was a potter, and his mother Mariel an artist. Although he began his life in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire in the west of England, he moved at an early age to Cornwall with his family. During World War II, the Canterbury Cathedral School, one of the most eminent institutions of its kind in England, had also relocated from its home in Kent to Cornwall. Cardew was lucky enough to be admitted to study there, where he was a chorister.

After finishing school, Cardew began his education in the best of contemporary avant-garde music. He attended the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied piano and cello, and immediately after that he won a scholarship to study electronic music in Cologne. In Germany he became an assistant to Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. He worked with Stockhausen between 1958 and 1960, assisting on the German composer's composition "Carre".

In the 1960s, his education continued. He won a scholarship from the Italian government to study with Goffredo Petrassi, a highly acclaimed composer and musician born in Zagarolo near Rome. Then in 1966 he became a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London and an Associate at the Centre for Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York. The following year he was made professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music.

Throughout that decade, he was also active as a musician and a concert organiser, responsible for premieres including "Structures" by Pierre Boulez. He put on concerts by the best of the contemporary avant-garde including Stockhausen, LaMonte Young, John Cage, Terry Riley, Christian Wolff, and Frederic Rzewski. At the same time, he studied graphic design in London, and he worked intermittently as a designer for the rest of his life.

Breaking the tyrrany of the composer

Cardew's first major influence as a composer was the American John Cage, best known for 4'33" and his works for the prepared piano. Cage was part of a reaction against the traditional avant-garde of the mid-twentieth century. The works of this time, by serialist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, demanded enormous technical virtuosity from performers whilst rigidly dictating how the work should be played. Going against the idea of the composer as a tyrant and the musician as his vessel, Cage sought to split the work between the player and the performer.

John Cage and his followers tried to allow the musician freedom to improvise within a framework specified by the composer. They rejected the traditional musical notation of staves dotted with precise patterns of quavers and crotchets, in favour of written instructions, random or aleatory methods of music-making, and ambiguous geometric shapes that offered hints to the player. The performer of such pieces as Cage and Cardew wrote at this time were never free to make things up completely: the idea was that playing a piece should be a collaboration, an interplay, between composer and performer.

With this in mind, Cardew's compositions in the 1960s featured informal or suggestive instructions to the musician such as "Tune a brook by removing the stones in it." The score for Cardew's first major work, "Treatise" (1963-66) looks like an abstract drawing, with complex shapes and calligraphic figures running over conventional five-line staves. Throughout the decade, he refined his talents, always at the forefront of experimental music. "The Great Digest" (1968) was the first piece of music to be called "minimalist", identified as such by composer and musicologist Michael Nyman, in a review in The Spectator2.

Anybody can play

Cardew's works of the 1960s appear to be early attempts to change music from a prescriptive method to a participatory style, where performers are free to add their own input to a piece. Despite this, they were still tied in with the traditional model of an expert composer collaborating with highly talented musicians who have trained all their lives to make music. His next departure was to be far more radical, as he rejected the notion that you need an education at the Royal Academy of Music to perform classical compositions.

The big innovation of Cardew at the end of the 1960s was the formation of the Scratch Orchestra, which combined virtuosi musicians and people with little musical training or talent. The orchestra was formed almost by chance during rehearsals for what is perhaps Cardew's masterpiece, "The Great Learning". It is named for one of the four classic works of Confucianism, and draws heavily on Confucian teaching.

"Paragraph 2" of this composition is based on a story of monks who go to a waterfall and try to chant more loudly than the roar of the crashing waters. Drums play the role of the waterfall, and a choir tries to drown out their roar. At first their voices are dwarfed, but slowly build up to be louder than the percussion, before weakening, and the drumming taking the lead once more. Cardew's orchestra for this piece had twenty members, but he found they could not produce a sufficient volume of noise to mimic the waterfall and the monks out-singing it. Therefore, he decided to invite the friends and family of his musicians to come along and be trained for the performance, irrespective of their level of musicianship. The result was loud and not very tuneful, but still coherent and enormously powerful.

This idea that non-musicians could join in and perform on a major work of modern music proved a major breakthrough for Cardew. The ensemble was put together by Cardew with the help of Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton and went on to perform works by avant-garde composers such as Cage and Riley.

A number of distinguished classical, jazz and rock musicians and composers played with The Scratch Orchestra, including Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, David Jackman, Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, and John Tilbury, but many of its members were always non-musicians. The latter group included artist Tom Phillips.

According to member Michael Chant3, the Scratch Orchestra represented "a turning point in music history". It stood out against the academic nature of classical music:

It had democratic ideals, participants from many walks of life, and a programme of taking music to the people. Thus in its ideals it stood against elitism and careerism.
Chant also sees the Scratch Orchestra as a force against the increasingly consumerist nature of entertainment. The goal was to make art that involved ordinary people in its production, that wasn't just a question of people sitting at home with their headphones on and the latest LP from the record shop on their turntable. It was to be a democratic art, not a hierarchic system where either composers or record company owners could impose their tastes on people:
The Scratch Orchestra took up music and activities which set out to have mass appeal, or have the potential of having mass appeal, and was not concerned with the preoccupations of the individual as consumer, and the gratification of their needs as consumer.... One of the important questions the Scratch Orchestra posed was how there can be mass participation, direct participation, in the music making.

But Chant feels, there was something even greater to the project than the encouragement of people's creativity and producing music. It sought to change people's lives by showing them the importance of collective action against the atomisation of capitalism, and for Chant it succeeded:

What was alien to the Scratch orchestra was the notion of an audience of passive consumers who derive some personal pleasure from what they hear and then go home, get on with their lives as before... Speaking personally, it was through the Scratch Orchestra that I began to learn what it means to join a collective and be inspired by a collective and work for its aims. This was a very deep and sometimes painful lesson, but ultimately liberating.

As with his earlier Cage-influenced compositions, the Scratch Orchestra's methods of working sought a middle way between improvisation and conventional composition. Cardew invented "improvisation rites", attempts to allow improvisation within limits. Sometimes these placed figurative restraints on a performer, sometimes literal ones. In "The Houdini Rite", performed by John Tilbury in 1970, a recording of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto was played. After the first few bars, Tilbury approached the piano, tied up in ropes, and attempted to play the piece while restrained by his bonds. In another work, "Soon", the choir was dramatically interrupted by one member of the Scratch Orchestra, who started arguing with them.4

Cardew also participated in other groups with a radical musical agenda: the AMM free improvisation group, a chamber ensemble founded by Eddie Prevost, Lou Gare, and Keith Rowe, which also featured for a time John Tilbury and Christopher Hobbs. The musicians all had classical or jazz backgrounds, but the result sounds like neither classical nor jazz music. And he was involved with the People's Liberation Music organisation, which comprised Laurie Scott Baker, John Marcangelo, Vicky Silva, Hugh Shrapnel, Keith Rowe and others.

However, the Scratch Orchestra remains probably Cardew's greatest idea, and the one with the biggest influence. It has inspired musical innovators around the world. These included the Portsmouth Sinfonia founded by Adrian Rifkin and Gavin Bryars, a group of people of differing musical abilities trained to play classics such as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Brian Eno played clarinet with the Sinfonia a few times. There is also a Cornelius Cardew Choir, founded in 2001 in Berkeley, California, and a New Zealand Scratch Orchestra was founded by Phil Dadson, who moved on to lead a spin-off band, From Scratch. A key technique of the latter is "hocketing", the sharing of a rhythm or melody between two or more instruments, which alternate the notes.

We sing for the future

However, while the Scratch Orchestra grew in renown, Cornelius Cardew began to have doubts about the whole project he was undertaking, to question the worth of "difficult" experimental music. At the same time, his political beliefs, which had always been on the radical left, moved towards the revolutionary socialist ideology of Maoism. The result was the final stage in his musical evolution.

In keeping with the Maoist doctrine of self-criticism, he produced "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism", a collection of essays critiquing his own work and that of Stockhausen and Cage. He then repudiated all of his own earlier works. A 1972 attempt to rewrite "The Great Learning" for a Proms concert to reflect the teachings of Mao rather than Confucius ended in failure, and Cardew finally dismissed the work entirely.6

Cardew declared:

I have discontinued composing music in an avant-garde idiom for a number of reasons: the exclusiveness of the avant-garde, its fragmentation, its indifference to the real situation in the world today, its individualistic outlook and not least its class character (the other characteristics are virtually products of this).5
Rejecting the elitism and absence of overt political content in his earlier compositions, Cardew decided to create plain and melodic works, instrumental pieces and songs, that would appeal to the masses and express political messages. Much of this work was written for solo piano, or piano and vocals, and played on record by Cardew alone. "Four principles on Ireland and other pieces" (1974) was made up of simple piano pieces, many based on Irish and Chinese folk and protest songs, with the intention of being universal and populist.

"Four Principles" was followed by "Thälmann Variations", a collection of Maoist songs:

I wrote the Thälmann Variations in 1974 to mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Ernst Thälmann, Secretary of the German Communist Party from 1927. In 1933 he was imprisoned by the Nazis and in 1944 he was executed in Buchenwald concentration camp. The theme of the variations is "The Thälmann Song" (1934) which is still popular today in the German Workers' movement.7

After this came "We Sing For The Future", another attempt at vocal-less political music by Cardew:

The song is for youth, who face bleak prospects in a world dominated by imperialism, and whose aspirations can only be realised through the victory of revolution and socialism. In the framework of a solo piano piece lasting about 12 minutes, something of this great struggle is conveyed. The music is not programmatic, but relies on the fact that music has meaning and can be understood quite straightforwardly as part of the fabric of what is going on in the world.8

However, these works were received far less enthusiastically than his compositions of the 1960s and early 1970s. Composer and critic Adrian Jack accused Cardew: "The music you have written recently sounds almost deliberately bad."9 Cardew's last works are viewed as beautiful by some but painfully dull for others, marking a move towards tonality away from the discordant noise of his earlier ones.

Part of this antipathy can be explained by the annoyance of former friends at Cardew turning his back on a large part of their lives, but much of the criticism is not ideological but directed at the music, and particularly the lyrics. The Maoist pop songs collected on "Thällmann Variations" were particularly singled out for lines like "Smash, smash, smash the social contract". Cardew was plainly a better writer of music than lyrics, and his words are accused of being patronising and ridiculous. Critic Brian Olewnick says:

Regardless of one's political affiliations, these lyrics have all the subtlety of a propaganda poster, and a crude one at that. Instead of transmitting his message through the music's evocation as he (and Rzewski) did with instrumental music, he insists on bludgeoning the listener over the head with simplistic sloganeering. The singers rail against capitalist bloodsuckers, imperialist pigs, etc, with all the smug self-righteousness of those born to wealth (as was Cardew) who find it easy to "slum," knowing they're never very far away from home and warmth. "Ever since World War II / U.S. imperialism and its followers / Have been launching wars of aggression / Revolution is the main trend in the world today... / Wages are falling / Conditions are worsening / As the capitalist system approaches its doom... / We have nothing to lose but our chains."10

Despite the widespread mockery directed at his songs, the instrumental music of this last period has recently been more favourably received by critics. The works for solo piano (without voice) share some of the ideas of Rzewski and Howard Skempton, and are enjoyable for their lyrical beauty irrespective of your political beliefs.

Then, on New Year's Eve, 1981, Cornelius Cardew was knocked down and killed by a hit-and-run driver in Leyton, East London, near his home. He was only 45 years old. There are signs that shortly before his death, he was again less doctrinal in his thought and more open to the music of his earlier years.11 Whether his last recordings were the last gasp at the end of a brilliant career, or just a transitional step, the greatness of his early works stands large.

He attempted more than any other composer of the last century to change the relationship between the composer, musicians and the audience, and the communal participatory ideals of the Scratch Orchestra are a challenge to anyone who interacts with music as nothing but a passive consumer alone in their room. This, more than any attempt at Maoist popular music, was his truly revolutionary invention. Although a very talented musician himself, Cornelius Cardew's greatest gift was to encourage the unmusical to perform.

Cornelius Cardew Timeline


This is a list of the main works by Cardew which are likely to be currently available


1Robert Wyatt, CD liner notes for the album: Cornelius Cardew, Piano Music, B&L Records, 1991. Reproduced online at Brigid Scott Baker, "Cornelius Cardew", British Composers Project, 06/12/2001., accessed November 26, 2002.

2Nick Kimberley, "Michael Nyman: Biography", Michael Nyman official website,, accessed November 26, 2002

3Michael Chant, "A Turning Point in Musical History", 1999, reprinted in Experimental Music Catalogue,, accessed November 27, 2002

4Sarah Walker, "Bracknell bus driver is unsung hero of new music", BBC website, January 5, 2001, reproduced at, accessed November 26, 2002

5Cornelius Cardew, quoted on "Cornelius Cardew's We Sing For The Future", Other Minds., accessed November 26, 2002.)

6Virginia Anderson, "Historical Assumptions of the Avant-Garde and Experimental Movements: The Participants and Their Historians", Experimental Music Catalogue,, accessed November 27, 2002

7Cornelius Cardew, quoted by John Tilbury, CD Liner Notes to "We Sing For The Future", reproduced on New Albion website,, accessed November 27, 2002

8Cornelius Cardew, quoted by John Tilbury, "We Sing For The Future", quoted on "New Albion", Forced Exposure website,, accessed November 27, 2002

9Quoted in Brian Olewnick, "Cornelius Cardew: Four Principles on Ireland and Other Pieces", All Music Guide,, accessed November 26, 2002

10Brian Olewnick, "Cornelius Cardew: We Only Want The Earth", All Music Guide,, accessed November 26, 2002

11Gregory Taylor, "Untitled", in "Cornelius Cardew", extracts from Brian Eno mailing list., accessed November 26, 2002


  • Ampersound Records, "Cornelius Cardew: Four Principles on Ireland and other pieces", Ampersound,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • Virginia Anderson, "Historical Assumptions of the Avant-Garde and Experimental Movements: The Participants and Their Historians", Experimental Music Catalogue,, accessed November 27, 2002
  • Tom Bowden, Review of "We Sing For The Future!" Cardew/Rzewski, The Education Digest website,, accessed November 27, 2002
  • Michael Chant, "A Turning Point in Musical History", 1999, reprinted in Experimental Music Catalogue,, accessed November 27, 2002
  • Cornelius Cardew Choir, "Cornelius Cardew Choir", Metatron Press., accessed November 26, 2002
  • Forced Exposure, "New Albion", Forced Exposure website,, accessed November 27, 2002
  • From Scratch, "From Scratch",, accessed November 26, 2002
  • Johann Haidenbauer and others, "Brian Eno Discography", Enoweb, November 2002,, accessed November 27, 2002
  • IRCAM, "Cornelius Cardew" IRCAM-Centre Georges Pompidou, accessed November 26, 2002 (French Language)
  • Nick Kimberley, "Michael Nyman: Biography", Michael Nyman official website,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • Brian Olewnick, "Cornelius Cardew: Four Principles on Ireland and Other Pieces", All Music Guide,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • Brian Olewnick, "Cornelius Cardew: We Only Want The Earth", All Music Guide,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • James Olsen, "Cornelius Cardew", Varsity, January 18, 2002,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • Other Music, "Other Music New Release Update", Other Music website, September 27, 2000,
  • Brigid Scott Baker, "Scratch Orchestra", MUSICNOW., accessed November 26, 2002
  • John Tilbury, "On indeterminate notation", Coma,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • John Tilbury, CD Liner Notes to "We Sing For The Future", reproduced on New Albion website,, accessed November 27, 2002
  • Various, "Cornelius Cardew", extracts from Brian Eno mailing list., accessed November 26, 2002
  • Lynn Vought, "Cornelius Cardew", All Music,, accessed November 26, 2002
  • Sarah Walker, "Bracknell bus driver is unsung hero of new music", BBC website, January 5, 2001, reproduced at, accessed November 26, 2002

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