Music and materiality: Cardew and the musical politics of Marxism

Martyn Hudson
Newcastle University
This paper is dedicated to the memory of Marxist and music lover Colin Tipton, my old teacher and comrade.


This article looks at the question of Marxism and music – specifically the journey of Cornelius Cardew from the Darmstadt avant-garde to his late Maoist works and the degeneration of his experimentalism in favour of a music which would ‘serve the people’s struggle’.


‘Four Principles on Ireland, based partly on an old Irish melody, is a new song written in support of a campaign by the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) The Four Principles are: (1) that Ireland belongs to the Irish people and that British Imperialism’s criminal interference – not only its military interference but also its economic, political and cultural interference in Ireland’s internal affairs – must cease, (2) that the Irish people are one people, and that the partition of Ireland in 1920 and the present attempt to divide the North on religious lines have been engineered by the British Imperialists as measures to enable them to continue their exploitation of Ireland, (3) that the Irish can solve their own national problems without outside interference, including the problem of their own treacherous comprador bourgeoisie whose aim is to sellout Ireland’s resources to foreign capital, and (4) that a nation oppressing another nation cannot itself be free (Engels), i.e. that Britain’s colonial and neo-colonial hold on Ireland acts as a powerful brake on the working class movement in England, and this brake must be released. The song ends with the prospect of close coordination between the Marxist-Leninist parties in England and Ireland so that British Imperialism can be attacked from within and without’ (Cardew 1973:277) – programme notes for Piano Album.

In the work of Marx and Engels there was a sustained attempt to understand the nature of aesthetics, specifically literature and the role of art in the transitions between society, but little attempt to think about music. Specific references to music emerge largely in letters where they gossip about visiting musicians – there is nothing that would distinguish these comments from any other cultural consumer of that period. The only section that would lay claim to some insight is in the 1844 manuscripts where Marx is trying to understand the relationship between social formations and the human form and senses the cultivation of a sensibility that would comprehend musical richness. Yet classical composition would not for long be separated from politics. The twentieth century was breaking. As Alex Ross has said

‘In the classical field it has long been fashionable to fence music off from society, to declare it a self-sufficient language. In the hyper-political twentieth century, that barrier crumbles time and again: Bela Bartok writes string quartets inspired by field recordings of Transylvanian folk songs. Shostakovich works on his Leningrad Symphony while German guns are firing on the city, John Adams creates an opera starring Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong’ (Ross 2012:xvii).

Yet it is only with the October revolution that would see emerge the central themes of the Marxist relationship to musical formations – specifically the servitude of musical practice to political expediency. The propagandistic power of music was undeniable and certainly four works from that period emerge as telling illustrations of this; Eisler and Brecht’s ‘Lenin Cantata’, Avraamov’s ‘Symphony for Factory Whistles’, Mosolov’s ‘The Iron Foundry’ and Schulhoff’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’ – which of course sets the whole of the Communist Manifesto to Music. The Novembergruppe in avant-garde Berlin and the developing work of Eisler (and the German Workers-Singers Union) and Weill have become representative of the music of Marxism of the period but it is true to say that with the nascent Stalinist counter-revolution the earlier Bolshevik experimentation in the arts became more problematic. The atonalities that had been inherited from the avant-garde, specifically Schoenberg, were tolerated less and there was a concerted effort to enforce romanticism and classicism in soviet music – a music of the people that the people would appreciate, heroic and optimistic. Although it is very clear that Stalin was very well-educated in the avant-garde in both music and literature. It is also true to say that the peoples music took a different from in the compositions of Bartok which explicitly used field recordings from peasant communities in Transylvania and also because his librettist was Bela Balazs, friend and confidant of Gyorgy Lukacs. In fact ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’ By Bartok and Balazs can stand in some ways a motif of what would happen in the ‘midnight in the century’ as Judith opens the seventh door and finds a room stacked with the decomposing severed limbs of her wifely forebears (an analogy that Pina Bausch would later make explicit in her dance variations on the piece). Caught up in the vortex of Stalinism and the purges and seeing their orchestra’s and friends disappear one by one the two great composers of the soviet period Prokofiev and Shostakovich took different routes to deal with this. There has been a debate over the years about Shostakovich’s complicity or non-complicity with Stalinism, his outward compliance with socialist realist rules of presentation, and his encoding of messages of pessimisim and discontent hidden in the scores and performances – strange rhythms, small atonalities. He survived and his Leningrad Symphony itself was flown by airplane into besieged Leningrad and performed as a tactical strike against German morale on 9th August 1942 (Ross 2012:268).

Analogous processes were happening in Nazi Germany also where again the avant-garde was being suppressed in favour of grand, martial, heroic music and the professors of atonality were gradually being eliminated as Jewish elements – the multiple resurrections of Wagnerianism as against new ways of thinking about music specifically represented by Alban Berg and Anton Webern – whose death at the hands of US forces was a tragedy that would be both ironic and magnified in many of the critical and fractious debates to come. The collapse of integrity of soviet composition in the face of the death camps had led Adorno to state ‘better no art at all than socialist realist art’.

In the US the peoples music of Aaron Copland had little time for the atonalities of experimentalists like Ives and were themselves complicit with Stalinist popular front period politics and then subsequently faced repression, culturally rather than through extermination, through the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in the 1950s.

In Britain, where composition had since the late Victorian period been enmeshed in the folk tradition, field recordings and the peoples music, a direct inheritance of both Elgar and Vaughan Williams as well as Mahler and Schoenberg lay in the music of Benjamin Britten and Michel Tippett. Britten certainly avoided any political impact on his art whilst at the same time his art is resolutely engaged. Tippett’s journey was different and documented elsewhere by me (Hudson 2012). An early Trotskyist Tippett’s initial compositions and politics can be seen in his work amongst the unemployed in Northern England where locals performed his opera ‘Robin Hood’ in village halls. As he moved out of revolutionary politics he suppressed these early works but never surrendered his commitment to his idiosyncratic form of human liberation, using the story of Herschel Grynszpan, to illustrate the struggle of human beings against totalitarianism and darkness allied to the universal emancipatory sound of the African-American spiritual, themselves having codes within them to escape the slave states of the south and point to the routes of liberation. Tippett, however, made fewer concessions to political art than Britten at the same time as his ‘Child of our Time’ is one of the most outstandingly liberatory pieces of music, enmeshed in atonality, dissonance and fragmentation.

The complicity of tonality with totalitarianism and dissonance and atonality with liberation and freedom was something clearly understood at the close of the war. Even in the prison camps themselves the beginnings of the new avant-garde were being delineated in Messaien’s experimental compositions owing little to the music of totalitarianism and much to philosophies of quiet and mysticism and in Karlheinz Stockhauen’s reaction to Nazism.

Darmstadt and Cardew

The origins of the Darmstadt school lay in the US occupation of Europe after the second world war and the attempt of cultural forces amongst the US troops who wanted to cleanse European culture of the dark arts of totalitarianism. The killing of Webern by US troops is ironic because it is in Webern’s music that the new avant-garde finds it direction – a music so profoundly unsocial that it could never be at the service of any form of politics (Ross 2012:383).

Schoenberg’s ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ (Ross 2012:62) was discovered by a new generation of composers and practitioners profoundly committed to redefining the whole nature of music in the aftermath of totalitarianism (Ross 2012:426).

The new generation of composers, foremost among them Stockhausen but also containing definitive works like Ligeti’s 100 metronomes piece from 1962 also contained the young Cornelius Cardew. The collaborative piece ‘Carre’ from 1958 by Stockhausen and Cardew was a symphony for airplane noises and it would also later draw John Cage into its stream. The relentless philosophical architect of it all was Pierre Boulez. In some ways Cardew embodies chronologically, but also philosophically, the two conflicting tendencies of Darmstadt; that of an obsessive, highly structured and highly formalist set of serialist compositions represented by Stockhausen and the, new unstructured, almost amateurish, improvisatory work of Cage which would find a resonance in new musicians thinking about Marxism and the ‘peoples music’ and would have an impact on ensembles like AMM, Keith Rowe and Edwin Prevost – all co-workers of Cardew. From the original formalism of Darmstadt to the open form and indeterminacy of Cage Cardew took its base elements and reforged it into a significant philosophical project to rethink the nature of sound and practice (Prevost 2006:265). Roger Smalley, has argued that in this period Cardew was ‘continually probing and developing the very nature of music’ (Prevost 2006:x) and its clear that his new ways of thinking of musical notation, influenced by Frege and Wittgenstein, were breaking new ground. Certainly, by 1967, the composer Morton Feldman was saying this of Cardew -

‘Any direction modern music will take in England will come about only through Cardew, because of him, by way of him. If the new ideas in music are felt today as a movement in England, it’s because he acts as a moral force, a moral centre’ (Tilbury 2008:371).

This recognition was largely because of his new theories and practice of notation. Cardew’s masterpiece, the visually expansive and experimental ‘Treatise’ was to break new ground not just in terms of improvisation and the complexity of scores but also the aesthetics and the scores of the notation itself. In Cardew’s working notes of 1963, influenced by Wittgenstein, he wrote about ideas of how to notate sounds, not natural sounds but ideas or ideal sounds, and then leaving their interpretation free, precisely because of the very precise notation (Prevost 2006:99). The borderlines between ‘instantaneous’ improvisatory events and lines which persist through the piece were, for Cardew a problem, to be solved otherwise the work collapses into ‘evasions’ where both notation and improvisation is discarded (Prevost 2006:100). The experimental nature of this and the implications that this would have for notation and the practice of music was severe. As Cardew notes; ‘Treatise is a long continuous drawing – in form rather similar to a novel. But it is composed according to musical principles and is intended to serve as a score for musicians to play from. However, indications of sounds, noises and musical relationships do not figure in the score, which is purely graphic’ (Prevost 2006:117).

The implications of this experimental work lie in a rejection of Stockhausen, the early Darmstadt school and a measurement of the weight of Cage and improvisation where the amateur can become part of a performance opening out music to wider practice. The influence of this but also the rejection of ‘Treatise’ would have an impact on the next stage of Cardew’s journey – into Maoism and a music which would serve the people.

Imperialism, class struggle and music

John Tilbury, erstwhile musical comrade and biographer of Cardew, talking of Stockhausen Serves Imperialism has argued that ‘embedded within the political jargon of Cardew’s book are key thoughts which refer back to, and cohere with, concepts and notions, critiques, which preoccupied him throughout his life’ (Tilbury 2008:xvii). Cardew’s political comrades ‘have argued, if I am characterizing their disagreement accurately, that the qualitative change in his life in the seventies, through a decisive, revolutionary rupture with ‘bourgeois’ ideology, effectively derails my thesis of ‘continuity’’ (2008:xvii). Tilbury argues that Cardew continued to be influenced by Wittgenstein and Frege and still continued to perform his earlier avant-garde work but with talks around the music which condemned it as juvenile and imperialistic, not sufficiently committed to the cause. He stresses the importance of Cardew’s journals in displaying this (2008:xviii). Having been involved in the improvisatory, groundbreaking experimentalism of the AMM group (2008:xx) with Edwin Prevost he now rejected that legacy of improvisation as bourgeois. But Stockhausen Serves Imperialism is not just an attack on Stockhausen and Cage but a settling of accounts with his own past and the setting out of the musical programmes of the future. Tilbury argues for this forcefully; ‘In fact, the title Stockhausen Serves Imperialism gives a misleading impression, inflating Stockhausen’s presence and importance in the book. It is not simply a polemic against Stockhausen, which forms just part of one of the four chapters; it is essentially a critique of ‘bourgeois’ art in general and the avant-garde, of which Cardew had been a committed and respected member, in particular’ (Tilbury 2008:733). Having moved away into the beginnings of the Scratch Orchestra and the Ideological Study Group, an orchestra which would itself hold within it both Communist and ‘Bourgeois Idealist’ elements leading to its fracture and the hostility of audiences ( or no audience whatsoever – certainly at most times the orchestra outnumbered the audience) Cardew took it upon himself to purge his music of all avant-garde elements in favour of simple tunes, often taken from English and Irish folk song, and easily played parts. The complexities and philosophy of the ‘Treatise’ was dispersed. Eddie Prevost himself deplored ‘the crass Party rhetoric and the dreary writing which pervades much of the book’(Tilbury 2008:733) and the subjugation of music to the class struggle. An example of this that Tilbury tells is when Cardew was writing piece for the ‘Workers of Ontario’ a Canadian Maoist comrade told him that the workers over there liked yodelling so he incorporated yodelling into the score (2008:925). Bourgeois music itself was to be discarded. An Interview with Adrian Jack in Music and Musicians of 1975 give some flavour of this; ‘AJ: You must admit that the working classes don’t like Beethoven or Mozart very much. CC: I’m not at all surprised that the working class doesn’t like Beethoven or Mozart, because they are the composers of the bourgeoisie.’ (Prevost 2006:236-237). In an article from 1976 (Prevost 2006:249-266) ‘Wiggly Lines and Wobbly Music Cardew talks about ‘the disease of notation’ where scores become aesthetic objects in their own right (2006:249). But also that the musical avant-garde was ideologically active and ‘virulent’ component of western imperialism (2006:249).But he also talked about discussions within Maoist musical circles; ‘We have not yet taken a definite stand on Beethoven’ (Prevost 2006:268) ‘So Beethoven, who is eminently good for the bourgeoisie…is bad for the working class’ (Prevost 2006:269).

As Cardew became more committed to Maoism and Maoist conceptions of art (specifically the Yunan talks) and later to Enver Hoxha and the Albanian regime, his music became simpler and profoundly different from his earlier work. To rid itself of any taint of Imperialism Cardew would play in village halls, demonstrations, workers festivals.

As he says in Stockhausen Serves Imperialism he began to develop two broad questions around music and politics (1973:7) – the relations of production in the field of music in bourgeois society and the significance or non-significance of musical polemics in the class struggle. The ideological role of music in the ‘bourgeois dictaorships’ (1973:8) were complemented by the essential non-importance of his own book largely because even though the Darmstadt avant-garde was important for him and other musicians Stockhausen and Cage held no place in the minds of the proletariat thankfully ‘though Cage and Stockhausen have no hold on the working class, they did have a strong hold on me’ (1973:8). Through his experience with the Scratch Orchestra and the Ideological Study Group, and in the aftermath of the composition of ‘The Great Learning’ (1973:11) he begins to develop a full critique of the separate but linked traditions of Serialism (Stockhausen) and Improvisation (Cage and Christian Wolff). In fact the latter was part of the journey towards the ideological structuring of the Scratch Orchestra with the music of improvisation a ‘random music with a multiplicity of fragments without cohesion, as opposed to serialism’ (1973:12) which almost anyone could play, an almost but not quite, peoples music. But ‘Serial music, on the other hand, was definitely elitist, uncompromisingly bourgeois, and anti-people’ (1973:12), which in fact it was in some ways, raising issues about humanism, authorship, and the ideologies of aesthetics as we see below. In a key article from Stockhausen Serves Imperialism on John Cage (‘John Cage; Ghost or Monster’) Cardew uses Maoist methods of aesthetic analysis as ‘magic mirror for detecting ghosts and monsters in our theatres’ (1973:35). If works of art, according to Maoism, are ideological forms produced by the human brain in lived society (1973:35) then politically and musically challenging those ghosts, monsters and phantasms is important, and also the embodiment of those ghosts and monsters in human form – specifically the human form of John Cage. Cardew; ‘People often speak of the ‘dilemma of the bourgeois artist’, as though he was trapped, paralysed, unable to act. This is not the case. Ghosts have some sort of dilemma; they can never be alive. Monsters have one; they can never be human. But I see no dilemma for Cage,’ (1973:40).

Unlike Stockhausen he could go over to side of the workers – learning to write a peoples music, the very route from improvisation that Cardew himself had followed. And this does raise a significant question about humanism, at once in the relation of humanism to the algebraic and robotic precision of total Serialism but also to the randomness and fragmentation of a music in which the human will has abdicated intervention and determination as in Cage’s own view of his ‘Music of Changes’ as inhuman and monstrous (1973:43). But there is little time left for Cage. As Cardew says ‘Cage serves imperialism and will go under with imperialism’ (1973:45).

If Stockhausen’s ideas are manifestations of imperialism (1973:47) and it is true that the English working class is ruled not by force but by deception (Lenin) (1973:53) then it is also true for Cardew that that deception can only be overcome by overcoming anti-consciousness (1973:66). The deceptive, discursive practices of music have to be challenged in a series of ideological and musical forays to bring the English working class back to consciousness. The conjuring up of phantasm and monsters, as Cardew says of Cage, is really the same process that Marx outlines in The German Ideology and The 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. But the recursive, resurrective, intent of Cardew in terms of the endless repeating of the simple motifs of the songs of the past itself makes ghosts ‘walk again’ itself is a ‘conjuring up of the dead generations’ (Hudson 2000, Hudson 2002). I’m afraid to say that Stockhausen and Cage were the actual poetry of the future and Cardew’s journey became a poetry of the past, and just when he seemed to revolutionizing himself and things, he wrapped himself in the battle flags of defeat, unwitnessed by any audience.


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