Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

No other 20th-century composer so vividly inhabited the overlap of music and politics as England’s Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). Though killed 22 years ago, he had a tremendous impact on many colleagues in contemporary music, and his influence still determines much of how new music is seen in the context of the world political situation.

From 1958-60, the young Cardew worked as an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen in preparation of the latter’s score Carre, and in so doing met and fell under the spell of John Cage. Cardew’s magna opera to this day are two large, Cage-influenced indeterminate scores from the 1960s, Treatise (inspired by Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus) and The Great Learning, based on the teachings of Confucius. Another claim to fame is that Cardew was a founding member of both the Scratch Orchestra—a wrangling, obstreperous collective of the 1970s that gave concerts devoted to conceptual art, improvisation, and scores of experimental and even bizarre notation—and also the smaller, tighter improvisation group AMM, formed with Eddie Prevost, Lou Gare, and Keith Rowe.

Yet despite this stellar avant-garde resume, Cardew’s life took a disconcerting left turn. In 1971 he began to study Marxism and, along with some of his Scratch Orchestra comrades, to apply its teachings to his musical activities. He was greatly impressed by English Marxist Christopher Caudwell‘s essay The Concept of Freedom:


But art is in any case not a relation to a thing, it is a relation between men, between artist and audience, and the art work is only like a machine which they must both grasp as part of the process. The commercialisation of art may revolt the sincere artist, but the tragedy is that he revolts against it still within the limitations of bourgeois culture. He attempts to forget the market completely and concentrate on his relation to the art work, which now becomes further hypostatized as an entity-in-itself. Because the art work is now completely an end-in-itself, and even the market is forgotten, the art process becomes an extremely individualistic relation. The social values inherent in the art form, such as syntax, tradition, rules, technique, form, accepted tonal scale, now seem to have little value, for the art work more and more exists for the individual alone.

Recognizing himself in this isolated and self-defeating portrayal of the avant-garde artist, Cardew committed a startling apostasy. He turned away from improvisation and indeterminacy and began writing tonal piano pieces based on folk tunes, as well as utilitarian revolutionary songs. Even more shockingly, in 1974 he published a savage little book called Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and Other Articles, in which he attacked his former idols and accused them of complicity with bourgeois forces of oppression. Cardew followed theory with action, and in addition to participating in frequent political activism, chaired a national conference on racism and fascism and in 1979 founded England’s Marxist-Leninist Party.

From 1971 on, Cardew took as his bible Mao Tse-tung‘s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art of 1942. Mao, announcing that artists and writers should be supporting the good of the working class against the oppressive bourgeoisie, challenged artists to go among the masses and learn their viewpoint, their problems, desires, attitudes. He admitted two sets of criteria for judging art, the political and the aesthetic—both important, but the political always primary. The artist’s task, he said, is twofold: to popularize and to raise standards. The first priority is to give the masses “works of literature and art which meet their urgent needs and which are easy to absorb,” and only afterward to raise their standards so that they can appreciate “[w]orks of a higher quality,” which, “being more polished, are more difficult to produce and in general do not circulate so easily and quickly among the masses at present.” In contrast to the stereotype of Marxist art, Mao castigated as worthless art that is politically correct but lacks artistic quality: “we oppose both the tendency to produce works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the ‘poster and slogan style’ which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power.” In addition, Mao stressed the importance of criticism, not only self-criticism, but collective criticism by those well steeped in Marxist thought—a concept Cardew took very much to heart, and one partly responsible for his incendiary little book.

The Scratch Orchestra became Cardew’s and pianist John Tilbury‘s workshop for putting such Marxist ideas into practice. As Cardew recounts it in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, the Scratch Orchestra never raised much of a public following, and many of their concerts were abject failures. Under Cardew’s and Tilbury’s Maoist prodding, as a solution the orchestra members began to interact more with the audience, taking Mao’s advice about learning from the masses. The group had originally adopted a policy of “no criticism,” but now turned to self-criticism and finally collective criticism, examining each performance with a fine-tooth comb and allowing all members to speak their minds.

Stockhausen Serves Imperialism was the somewhat arrogant, but earnest and inevitable outcome of Cardew’s exposure to the Maoist idea of criticism: that all comrades need dispassionate but firm correction. Here he documented his own apostasy from the avant-garde, and severely castigated Cage and Stockhausen, as the two emergent leaders of the world avant-garde, for writing music that played into bourgeois interests by ignoring, and distracting people from, the truth of the oppression of the world’s masses by corporations, dishonest governments, and the bourgeoisie. This little book, which seemed so crazily counter to the prevailing Cage and Stockhausen worship when my friends and I first read it in 1975, has retained its staying power, and is now widely sought-after as a collector’s item, having been long out of print.

Following Caudwell, Cardew begins by attacking the notion that a composer is a “free producer,” that his music is his to do with as he sees fit. “[A] composition,” he argues, “is not an end-product, not in itself a useful commodity. The end-product of an artist’s work, the ‘useful commodity’ in the production of which he plays a role, is ideological influence…. The production of ideological influence is highly socialized, involving (in the case of music), performers, critics, impresarios, agents, managers, etc., and above all (and this is the artist’s real ‘means of production’) an audience…. [U]nder the bourgeois dictatorship, it is clearly impossible to bring work with a decidedly socialist or revolutionary content to bear on a mass audience. Access to this audience (the artist’s real means of production) is controlled by the state.” He goes on to say that the industrial working class is the strongest and most revolutionary class, the only one that merits serious attention. “Obviously Cage, Stockhausen and the rest have no currency in the working class, so criticism of their work is relatively unimportant.” But for those of us under the spell of the avant-garde that once enthralled him, he does it anyway (as further detailed in the page on Music as Political Metaphor).

As brutally honest with himself as with others, Cardew shows himself no quarter either, and in the course of the book (like Tolstoy‘s very similarly motivated mea culpa in What is Art?), disowns much of his early music. The subsequent music he would write consisted mostly of political songs like “Smash the Social Contract” and “Soon There Will Be a High Tide of Revolution”; small piano pieces based on political folksongs, like “Father Murphy” and “The Croppy Boy”; and more extensive themes and variations making reference to early English keyboard music, like Boolavogue and the Thaelmann Variations. In these works Cardew abandoned any pretense of originality, a quality he discounted as bourgeois. As John Tilbury put it shortly after his death in 1981, “What Cardew renounced over the last ten years was the market mentality, a corollary of which in the West has been an obsession with ‘originality’—the often unconscious need to produce something ‘new’ at all costs. In this sense he abandoned originality, but never his individuality, which he consciously placed in the service of the socialist collective.” In the program notes to the first set of this piano music, Cardew wrote, “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).”

It is easy to argue that his songs and piano works didn’t make Cardew any greater a composer than he had been in writing Treatise and The Great Learning; Cardew would probably have agreed, and dismissed the comment as trivial, even counter-revolutionary. He had become a more relevant composer, and had quit living in what he came to see as a fantasy world. For the remainder of his brief life Cardew performed and sang at May Day and anti-fascist, anti-racist demonstrations, agitated for the liberation of Ireland, and went to prison on more than one occasion. “I’m convinced,” he wrote, “that when a group of people get together and sing the Internationale this is a more complex, more subtle, stronger and more musical experience than the whole of the avant-garde put together. This is not pseudo-scientific fantasy but represents real people in the real world engaged in the most important struggle of all—the class struggle.” As Marx had said about philosophy, “It is not enough to understand the world, the point is to change it”—Cardew added: “It is not enough to decorate the world, the point is to influence it.”

In light of Cardew’s role in England’s Marxist-Leninist party, it is believed that his death—a hit-and-run on December 13, 1981—was probably a political assassination.

From Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics
by Kyle Gann
© 2003 NewMusicBox

Page 2 of 912345Last »

2 thoughts on “Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

  1. Pingback: Kyle Gann on “political music” | Phil Thomson, Composer

  2. Pingback: Cartoon Trumpets and Horseshit: Marx Estranged | My Website

Comments are closed.