Cornelius Cardew was an English experimental music composer and founder of the Scratch Orchestra, an experimental performing ensemble.

Cardew was born into an artistic family (his father was potter Michael Cardew) and began his musical career as a chorister in Canterbury Cathedral School, which had relocated to Cornwall during the World War Two. He later attended the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied piano, cello, and composition.

In 1957, Cardew performed in the British premiere of Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and won a scholarship to study at the recently established Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne. In the late 1950s he was the assistant to the legendary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was so impressed by Cardew’s talents as a composer, musician and performer that he invited him to work on the score he was composing – something he had never offered to any other musician.
A series of concerts by John Cage and David Tudor introduced Cardew to the ideas of indeterminacy, and led him to abandon serial composition and develop the graphic notation and experimental scores for which he is best known.

Cardew’s most important scores from his experimental period are Treatise (1963–67), a 193-page graphic score which allows for considerable freedom of interpretation, and The Great Learning, a work in seven parts or “Paragraphs,” based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound.

In 1966 he joined the free improvisation group AMM where he was able to explore music in a completely democratic environment, freely improvising without recourse to scores. Two years later, with Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons he formed the Scratch Orchestra, a large experimental ensemble whose aim was to bring music out of the world of academia and to involve large numbers of untrained people in music making activities that included improvisation, performance of experimental compositions, performance of standard compositions in alternative ways, and performances of ‘Scratch Music’.

Cardew later abandoned experimental music in favour of peoples liberation music, as he felt the former remained elitist which did not sit comfortably with his growing left-wing tendencies. His creative output until his untimely death reflected this political commitment and he composed many songs, often drawing from traditional English folk music, which were put at the service of lengthy Marxist-Maoist exhortations. Representative examples are “Smash the Social Contract” and “There Is Only One Lie, There Is Only One Truth”.

Cardew died on 13 December 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident near his London home in Leyton. The driver was never found and there are various conspiracy theories as to whether he was killed deliberately.

Fun Fact

As a teacher at the Royal Academy in the late Sixties, he used unconventional methods to challenge his students. Once, he walked out of a class and locked the students inside, so they had to shout for help from the window. Another time, he held a “silent lesson”.

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Collection 2 #17

Minutes by Cornelius Cardew