Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Life Unfinished, Finished

Christmas morning I finally finished John Tilbury's Cardew biography, Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, having saved the final, political years for my third extended session with the book. In the 1970s, Cardew turned away from the avant-garde music that had gained his reputation, and began writing more populist music that would be useful in mobilizing the troops for the imminent revolution. Most of his energies during his final decade were for the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), a Maoist organization (despite its name) until Mao's death and almost immediate repudiation in 1976. He wrote songs for the Party and fielded a couple of big commissions to exercise his compositional muscles, but otherwise his musical efforts were directed to performances at party congresses, rallies, and strikes. Tilbury speculates that Cardew had reached the highest levels of a revolutionary group whose threat was taken seriously by the British government. Enough suspicious and unresolved details about his death in 1981 from a hit-and-run accident remain for Tilbury plausibly to suggest an assassination.

The earlier observed thematics of Virtue and Morality reach a culmination in Cardew's work writing songs for the Party. The interplay between warring tendencies in his aesthetics, music as individual creation or music with a specific purpose, is a central theme of the last decade. When Cardew first became involved with the CPE (M-L), the Scratch Orchestra was still active, and Cardew and others in the group wanted to use performance occasions to further a revolutionary cause. The debate over to what extent music should be subservient to the Party line eventually led to songs with lyrics whose political line made no concessions to poetry, or even singable diction. But to proclaim the primacy of individual creation is to fall back to bourgeois ideals, promoted by capitalism to ensure that any opposition is diffuse and ineffective. Cardew combated this tendency in his art music by composing to a strict agenda, even in his art music. The large piano set of the Thälmann Variations, for example, was programmatically based on the life of proletarian hero Ernst Thälmann, and Cardew considered diverging opinions to be pointless rubbish. "You've got to get to the heart of things and find out what actually is the case. And when I play this music I'm saying to you what actually is the case.... Nobody is going to tell me any different" (850). If it were generally true that only the composer's intention mattered, I'd probably stop listening to music. The Party's struggles to accommodate Beethoven are at once illuminating for an example of its Jesuitical tendencies and opaque for what the discussion revealed about Beethoven.

Composer's intention, form vs. content, and especially music's relationship to external events, all of these aesthetic discussions were dominated by Marxist-Leninist politics. As the Party sought to understand, and eventually to manipulate, how music affects people, Cardew actively engaged these issues, and the choices he made in response carried life-altering consequences, both for himself and for people in all walks of life, not just other musicians. Tilbury was Cardew's contemporary, born the same year and sharing many of the same musical and political activities, making him perfectly placed to observe and report. Both men grappled with their aesthetic choices, with all of the ambiguities that come with the long-term engagement that is our lives. Tilbury expresses the uncertainty of the turbulent times that he shared with Cardew, writing entire paragraphs in the interrogative, seeking perspectives on the correct line to take on whatever issue was at hand. The ambivalence comes from a fellow traveler, the sense of companions growing older together, the intertwining of Tilbury's trajectory with Cardew's. Tilbury articulates the ambivalence without judgment, accepting with respect the individuals involved, the different strata of emotions that place us on our specific path. He identifies his own inner relationship to Cardew and the Party being neither stable nor consistent over the decades that he worked on the book, and thankfully he didn't try to make them all conform in a final grand stroke of editing. Tilbury is an ideal chronicler, close enough to the subject to have traveled many of the same roads, yet able to maintain a distance, sometimes ironic, always sympathetic. The detail and reflection together give the book its heft, but I have read no other book that describes what it means to be a musician as well as this biography.

The Party's struggles with Beethoven start on page 860. Tilbury's meta-reflection starts on page 978.


Robert said...

Hey Caleb,

Well done, thanks for posting these. When I read through Tilbury's magnum opus I took notes throughout figuring I'd eventually end up writing a review. When I outlined the review it looked like it'd end up practically being a book in and of itself! So I shelved it thinking I need a different approach and well now that ship has probably sailed.

So your posts on the book, picking on a couple of topics per, was a good way to go, I think. Pretty much impossible to cover a whole life in a - or a series - of blog posts; Tilbury need 1000+ pages afterall! For sure I've used material from the book for my various Treatise, AMM and Tiger's Mind writings and that perhaps is how it'll all get out for me in the end. It's an amazing job from Tilbury and in the end I'd just like to get him a few more readers.

Thanks again and happy new year!


crow said...

I have just launched into Tilbury's sprawl, congrats on completion and happy new year, Caleb.
I am really not looking forward to the agitprop years, dreadful and tedious as Statists are in their harangues. Sad [saying nothing new here] that such a catalyst as Cardew fell into demagoguery.