Cornelius Cardew


e rarely think of music as method, as process; rumbling out of the radio it seems sui generis—caused of its self: accomplished without aid of others, whether they be material or make-believe. It’s rarer even for us to decontextualize sounds from a song: if we strip the strings from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, we have something more like the edgy stabs of Bernard Hermann than Mozart; erasing everything but the circadian whirr of rhythm sticks and hallow taps of temple blocks from the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel” leaves us with some sort of Lomaxian field-recording rather than a British hewed hootenanny. This is admittedly peculiar, to concern oneself with aural building blocks. But this is really what it is; for Cardew’s work is like Hermann’s score for Psycho boiled off like a broth and strained into sections separated like bits of Sapphian fragmenta. For when the art is as ambiguous as the pieces that populate Cardew’s Material, removing specific instrumentation from its scored floor is not only to one’s advantage, it’s absolutely necessary.

Cardew’s Material is a collection of five pieces of a longish nature, scores for an undetermined lot of musicians of an undetermined instrumentation. The volume of liberty disseminated via Cardew to performer is not unusual; Stockhausen, who tapped Cardew to be his assistant from 1958 to 1960, spoke highly of Cardew’s gift for improvisation, as well as his theoretical knowledge, and skill at the piano. Listening to these five pieces one is struck by their subtle diversity, the attentiveness and stoicism of the musicians that make this music, the utilization of silence as a trope in the tonal repertoire: “Autumn 60” is nearly about the composition crafting itself; sounds sink into stichomythia: a dialogue of improvisational jazz’ call-and-response tactic. Cello, saxophone, contra-bass, viola, trombone and piano converse in a tone at once astringent and oddly assuasive. This is not so much a piece as it is the piece’s architecture: sound as skeleton; the more the musicians bow or blow, the more the music moves, the more it becomes the body, the more it resembles its realized state. It’s difficult for me to think of any piece of music that’s more self-reflective: this is a piece about a piece, music about music—or at least about music as a method, as a process. The piece piles upon itself, like layers in a lasagna, until it’s pulled from the firing: bubbling, browned and finished. The selfsame process is played in the ostensible title-track, “Material”. Cardew’s awareness of Form as the organizational unit of Matter is again on display, and it unfolds with even more drama and device than in “Autumn 60”.

John Dewey, one of the great American Pragmatists, argued that insofar as Art’s objects are expressive, they are lingual: art isn’t medium specific; it fits into molds as easily as an actor into personae. And as there are many media, there are many tongues. Of course, for art’s language to persist, it must be listened to as intently as it is spoken. Following from this proposition, Dewey curiously surmises that art is seer/hearer dependent; art’s sole teleology is to be worked in/into other’s experience; art is finished only when one other than its maker manipulate(s) it. Yet this is not a manual manipulation: it’s prescriptively cognitive—a mind unbound from its body. Stepping back from these conundra is as necessary as it is imperative: taking the argument from the ground up is more pressing than resting on its roof, gazing at the view. Of course, going back to the ground takes us to terrain Aristotelean, which is precisely where one needs to kneel when the music is as ruinously palatial as Cardew’s is.

So enter the four causes: Bricks, mortar, wood and nails are respectively laid and hammered by workers into such a shape (a house), to comprise a house to protect its occupants (a family). The house’s material cause, that out of which it comes to be, is its material—bricks, mortar, wood and nails in this case. Its architecture, the material fact that it has rooms and windows and doors and a roof, is its formal cause, that which makes it a home. The house achieves its formal cause by worker’s hands, those that instantiate form in matter; its final cause, or telos, is to protect its occupants from the elements, which takes one back to the purpose of the material cause; this is, what makes the house a house. Bricks could build a bridge, but they were organized with intent: the worker aids the architect by transforming drawing into dwelling.

The organizational force behind a house is as apparent as a balloon held by its helium, the river run of its current, or the night—a sun loosed of its light. As the architect’s mind meanders, so do the organizational forces: balloons become loons with the loss of letters; currents go static when propulsion’s compulsion putters out; entropy cells heat & light together and the earth bears witness to their tumultuous marriage. The architect in this case is Cardew, but his drawings are anything but definite; the way in which the piece may/might be performed is in flux; which provides one the purest instance of Dewey’s notion of artistic consummation: that the musicians finalize Cardew’s mindful meanderings as Art proper is no surprise—these are populist pieces, music for men and women. Yes, there’s often a stifling incongruity, but that’s apparently the point: Cardew’s music, on paper or in the air, agrees to disagree; it’s consistently inconsistent; for these pieces are, metaphorically, unfinished. They’re only material, willing to be built up or broken down, reorganized methodically into this or that. And only with your ear can they become the stuff of song.

Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin

Reviewed on: 2004-09-07

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