Cornelius Cardew’s Experimental Music of the Sixties

Michael Francis Duch


In this essay I will describe and analyse a selection of Cornelius Cardew’s experimental compositions of the sixties as presented on the CD Cornelius Cardew: Works 1960-70 on the Norwegian record label +3DB. The essay is primarily based on my own experiences from this recording and other performances of these pieces, and also from discussing them with several of my colleagues, especially John Tilbury, who has also been one of my supervisors during the period of my research. In my experience, Cardew’s music is extraordinary and different from the music of most other experimental composers … and it becomes even more extraordinary the further one goes in depth into his music.


This CD consists of six Cornelius Cardew-compositions from the period from 1960 to 1970 performed by John Tilbury (piano), Rhodri Davies (harp) and myself on bass. They were recorded during two separate concerts at Dokkhuset in Trondheim, Norway. The first during Olavsfestdagene, Thursday 31st of July 2008, with the following programme: Solo with Accompaniment (1964), For 1, 2 or 3 people (1964, by Christian Wolff not included on this CD) and Treatise (1963-67). The second was at the festival called Fri Resonans (Free Resonance), on Saturday 14th of November 2009, with the following programme: Material (1964), 4th System (1961), Autumn 60 (1960) and Unintended Piano Music (1970).


Cornelius Cardew in the sixties

“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 center. Without him, the young “far-out” composer would be lost. With him, he’s still young, but not really lost.” (Friedman, 2000:52) Morton Feldman on Cardew in Conversations without Stravinsky


Cardew's music from the sixties is from his most creative and experimental period as a composer, beginning with Autumn 60 and ending with the last paragraphs of The Great Learning from 1970. The music he wrote before that period has less of its own character and, although some of these compositions are of good craftsmanship, they are in a way works in progress, perhaps sounding to close to the music of the composers he was inspired by at the time. The music he wrote in the seventies had a purpose that for Cardew was far more important than the music itself. This became more and more obvious as the decade progressed. His experience of meeting John Cage and David Tudor and being exposed to their music in Darmstadt in the summer of 1958, together with La Monte Young among others, is what turned him in the direction of experimentalism and indeterminacy. Radical leftist politics is what turned him away from it.


This period can be divided in two parts, where the first half of the decade is the period where Cardew composes indeterminate music, and the latter half where improvisation becomes an important factor in his music-making. Undoubtedly, the meeting with AMM in 1965 had just as strong an impact on Cardew as that of the meeting with Cage and Tudor seven years earlier. This can be observed in the way he composed his music in the latter half of the sixties. In this period improvisation was an important factor in almost all his compositions. This is explored through more impressionistic compositions addressing the relationship between performers, such as in The Tiger's Mind in 1967 and Schooltime Compositions the year after, and finally culminating in The Great Learning, which was written for The Scratch Orchestra in the period of 1968-70. Treatise functions as a bridge between these two periods as it can contain elements of both indeterminacy and improvisation.



Cardew created images both in a graphic and visual way and imaginary through the use of written texts. The compositions on this CD have none of the written texts from the compositions he wrote during his most intense involvement with AMM, but nonetheless; they do demand a certain creativity and use of imagination by the performer. In Cardew's music, there seems to be an invitation to individual interpretation which is more generous and open for the performer, particularly concerning using improvisation, than in the music of John Cage. In Cardew's compositions the instructions are more in the form of suggestions rather than as imposed rules. Where Cage was more interested in the action itself, Cardew seems to have been more interested in how the action is performed, or what one can argue is the human aspect of the performance. For Cardew it was more a matter of indeterminacy in relation to improvisation and interplay, rather than randomness and systems using chance operations. Cardew addresses this in an article with the title Notation – Interpretation, etc. in the magazine Tempo in 1961:


“Indeterminacy. (Cage: ‘pieces which are indeterminate as regards their performance.’) I would say that a piece is indeterminate when the player (or players) has an active hand in giving the piece a form.” (Prevost, 2006: 5)


Some of the stories concerning Cardew's own approach and way of interpreting other composers’ music certainly confirms that he made his personal imprint on the music he performed. There are particularly two incidents which I can think of, that validate this. The first incidence concerns Cardew and Frederik Rzewski’s interpretation of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Plus Minus in the early sixties, where they performed the piece in a Cagean manner, also using improvisation, and they made their own rules about how to perform that particular piece. This had just added to a long list of incidents leading to a growing rift between Cardew and his prime income source at the time, which was quite ironically that of being Stockhausen's assistant.


The second incident happened in Munich, Germany in 1972 with the Scratch Orchestra performing Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, and where Cage, Tudor and Morton Feldman were provoked by the liberties taken by Cardew and the orchestra in their performance of the piece. They claimed that it was not performed in the spirit of the composer and that, while the New York performance of the piece (probably its premiere) had been beautiful, the Scratch Orchestras version was ‘awful’. They condemned the whole performance and they were particularly provoked by the quotation of folk music being included by certain members of the orchestra in their take on the piece (Tilbury, 2008:603).


On my part, this discussion is not primarily included as a criticism of Cage and the New York-school composers. My main purpose is, however, to outline the importance of Cardew and his radical and revolutionary music, and to highlight the difference in aesthetics between the parallel milieus in New York and London at the time. As for Wolff’s own view of the incident in Munich, he later answered the following in an interview in 1991:


”...I thought about it and discovered where that would be possible. It wasn’t recorded, so I haven’t heard it and can’t tell you, but I suspect that it’s perfectly okay; especially given the nature of that particular group, that it would have been very beautiful.” (Tilbury, 2008:609)


From Cage to Scratch

The above examples also show that the difference in aesthetics between Cardew and Wolff were minimal, especially when compared to the other New York-school composers, with the possible exception of Earle Brown. Several of Wolff’s compositions in the late sixties were in fact inspired by Cardew and his English colleagues: Edges by AMM and Burdocks, quite ironically, by the Scratch Orchestra. It was, however, more inspired by the actual idea of the orchestra than by how it sounded, since Wolff had not actually heard them play at the time it was written. In Wolff’s work there are several obvious connections to Cardew's compositions from the same period, written for or inspired by the same ensembles mentioned above. Christian Wolff explains the impact that Cardew and his music had on his own music, when recollecting several events from 1968 when he stayed in London:


“I had been for some months hearing and sometimes playing and improvising with the other musicians, mostly members of the group AMM, and Cornelius Cardew, including performances of Cardew’s non-instrument-specified scenario and project pieces The Tiger’s Mind and Schooltime Compositions which encouraged me to work out differently flexible notations and fluid structures of my own.” (Wolff, 1998:206)


Although several of the compositions I have just mentioned are not included on the CD which this essay is based upon, particularly his text-pieces, I believe this background, which I have given, is essential in order to understand Cardew and his music from the sixties. It is interesting to see the transformation of these compositions, from Autumn 60 to Treatise, and what they were evolving into. In his biography on Cardew, John Tilbury refers to Treatise as: “...the culmination of a trilogy of works (with Autumn 60 and Octet ’61) in which this essential, human dialogue was re-opened, explored and refined.” (Tilbury, 2008: 234). The selected works presented on this CD show Cardew's music from the very beginning of his experimental scores, through the transition from being inspired by Cages indeterminacy to AMM's free improvisation. The following are brief presentations of each of the compositions included on this CD.


Autumn 60

Autumn 60 was among Cardew’s early experimental compositions and his very first total indeterminate score. It is often performed with larger ensembles, but also works well in a smaller format as in this case as a trio. In fact, when it was premiered it was as a quartet consisting of the composer on guitar, Heinz-Klaus Metzger and John Cage on piano and Kurt Schwertsik on horn, and it was conducted by Ben Patterson. Unlike some of the other compositions by Cardew from this period, the form is already decided by the composer and the duration is left for the conductor to decide. In other words this is not an ”open form”-composition, but the level of indeterminacy, and the options and choices left for the performer is, however, still quite substantial.


Each individual performer can more or less chose what, or what not to, play within each conducted beat, but there are certain rules to be followed. If there is only one indication/sign it must be played, if there are two neither of them should be played, and if there are three or more all but two of them should be observed and performed. There are up to eight signs per beat and, depending of the tempo this piece is being conducted in, it can be quite complex and difficult to play for the performers. This version was arranged and conducted by John Tilbury.


4th System

4th System is taken from February Pieces, composed between 1959 and 1961. Originally written for solo piano, the 4th System is the last and most open and flexible of these four pieces, which were published together in 1961. It is also only referred to as the 4th system, whereas the other three systems are referred to only as February Pieces 1-3. In contrast to the other three February Pieces, which are more conventionally written, the 4th System is a selection of pitches with no rhythmic indications. These pitches can be played as they are, repeated in succession or shuffled around in each of the 13 sections. While the letters A to P identifies each section of Autumn 60, the numbers 1- 13 are used as indicators here. Improvisation can be used in an ornamental way to enhance the tonal quality of the pitches. In the introductory text to the score, Cardew writes the following about the Fourth System:


”This is a skeleton. The given bones may be clothed, decorated or connected in any way the player may consider appropriate.”


In this version the sections are played in the given order and the improvisational approach to the pitches is kept within each section. Musically it contains a lot of the same minimalistic and repeating elements that can also be found in the music of Morton Feldman.



Material is a piece for an ensemble of harmony instruments suited for instruments especially like the piano and harp, but not so much for instruments like the double bass. As in Autumn 60 letters are used to identify each section (A to Q) and these sections of phrases are to be played together and in succession before the performers depart to their own tempo and individual choice of which sections to be played. In this version however, the three instruments play in their individual tempos and choice of sections from the very beginning of the piece. This was first done by Morton Feldman in 1957 in his Piece for Four Pianos. There is a limited way of approaching it in an improvisational manner and it has more in common with John Cage’s indeterminacy, but one can chose each section and perform it based upon what the other performers play, and therefore use active listening to adapt to the musical situation, making the phrases ”fit together”, so to speak. This mainly concerns areas of phrasing, speed and volume.


This composition has a lot in common with February Pieces, and what separates the two is mostly that while February Pieces is both written and intended for solo piano, Material is not written for any specific instrument, but for instruments capable of playing harmonies. With this in mind, it seems clear that Cardew had taken a step closer to indeterminacy with this composition, by giving the performer more of the responsibility for the actual outcome of the piece. This is as mentioned earlier restricted to the form of the piece and it is therefore what Earle Brown called an ”open form”; where we know in advance what is to be played, but not the order in how to play it.


Solo with Accompaniment

Solo with Accompaniment has, quite ironically, a complicated part for the accompaniment and a fairly easy solo part consisting of a repetition of single notes and a quasi-improvisational middle section. Like Cardew's February Pieces this piece also consists of numbered sections for the performer to play, but in this piece it is mainly considered as the accompaniment part of the music. Like Autumn 60, 4th System and Material there are certain rules applied to the way they are to be approached. The sections are presented in the form of 24 matrixes where different signs are presented in some of the 16 squares or boxes of each matrix. Signs that are on a horizontal or vertical line repel each other, while the ones placed on a diagonal line attract each other. Those who are neither may be used in combination with the vertical signs if necessary.


Each matrix can be performed in any order and the duration of three of the four sections that this piece consists of is determined by when the performers play a blank matrix. The blank matrix is silent and the first time it is played signals the end of the first section, then followed by the second section that ends in the same way. The soloist chooses when the third section is over and the third time the blank matrix is interpreted ends the piece. Solo with Accompaniment is one of Cardew's most complex compositions and it does have more sets of rules and examples than any of his other compositions, while the form of the piece is quite conventional and traditional.  The second and fourth part of the piece is in essence variations of the first part while the third functions like a cadenza. Although each section is indeterminate in the accompaniment and the solo part has changes from loud to quiet in dynamics and octave changes in pitch, the form can be compared to what is better known as an AABA-form in jazz and popular musics.



Treatise, where the interpretation is left entirely up to the performer, is undoubtedly Cardew's most famous work, and probably also the most performed of his compositions. In Treatise there are no parts indicated by either numbers or letters, only the overall form of this massive 193 page graphic masterpiece is given. In the introduction to Treatise Handbook published in 1971, four years after Treatise was first published; Cardew explains some of his motivation for writing this piece and the reluctance of including an explanatory text with its publication:


”I wrote Treatise with the definite intention that it should stand entirely on its own, without any form of introduction or instruction to mislead prospective performers into the slavish practice of  ´doing what they are told´. So it is with great reluctance – once having achieved, by some fluke, the ´cleanest´ publication it were possible to imagine – that I have let myself be persuaded to collect these obscure and, where not obscure, uninteresting remarks into publishable form.” (Prevost, 2006: 97)


Cardew continues his introduction with outlining the biography of the piece and explains that this handbook was also an opportunity to print his virtuoso piece Volo Solo. This publication also includes Bun no. 2 for Orchestra (both pieces being based on Treatise), three texts, one on interpretation and the other on improvisation and a critique by Michael Chant, as well as notes from the composers diary referring to the making of this piece. This is undoubtedly what should be considered as vital for any analysis or understanding of this work, but not necessarily for performing it. He explains some of these ”pros and cons” further down on the same page, dated 9.2.70, where he writes the following:


”Two years have elapsed since the forgoing was written. I have taken advantage of this delay in publication to include some new material, in particular the lecture on improvisation. Not that I now consider Treatise improvisatory´ any more than I did while writing it. But it does seem (using hindsight) to have pointed in the direction of improvisation. A square musician (like myself) might use Treatise as a path to the ocean of spontaneity. Whether it will equip him for survival in that ocean is another question altogether. The lecture on improvisation represents an initial survey based on a thin veneer of experience.” (Prevost, 2006: 98)


This version, like many others, is an excerpt of some of the 193 pages it consists of. There are no right or wrong ways of performing Treatise, which was quite unorthodox at the time it was written, as most composers gave at least some indications on how to perform their music. Most likely Earle Brown’s December 1952, composed more than a decade earlier, as well as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which the composer himself cites as his main inspiration to this work, inspired it. It can be equally beautiful to watch and read as to listen to, this because of Cardew being an accomplished graphic designer as well as a composer at the time it was composed. And as mentioned earlier, the publication of the Treatise Handbook is an important source to access the Composers personal thoughts about the piece and the process of composing it.


“At first sight a proposition – one set out of the printed page, for example – does not seem to be a picture of the reality which it is concerned. But neither do written notes seem at first sight to be a picture of a piece of music, nor our phonetic notation (the alphabet) to be a picture of our speech.

And yet these sign-languages prove to be pictures, even in the ordinary sense, of what they represent.” (Wittgenstein, 2001:23)


Unintended Piano Music

Unintended Piano Music with its dreamy feel and almost jazz-like bass line concludes this CD. Cardew was, unlike Cage, interested in jazz and took pleasure in listening to his collection of jazz records. Perhaps this is one of his very few compositions where this influence shines through? There is also a story about Cardew, saying that when he first met the AMM he thought he was going to join a jazz band, or as Eddie Prévost put it:


“I think it had been a lifelong ambition of his (Cardew) to play in a jazz band and we were the next best thing.” (Tilbury, 2009:283)


Personally I think that Unintended Piano Music sounds like nothing else Cardew ever produced, somewhere between the most melodic of his experimental music in the sixties and his politically revolutionary music of the seventies. In this version of this piece, which was arranged by John Tilbury, the bass line is played by the piano, the bass plays a steady drone throughout, only changing the octave once before going back to the lower octave again, while the harp plays the chords as arpeggios. While the rest of the compositions on this CD outline a particular period and style of the composer’s music, Unintended Piano Music is a form of a musical fragment standing on its own. In his biography on Cardew, Tilbury describes the circumstances, and the casual manner in which this piece written for him was delivered:


”Sometime in the early seventies, in 1970 or 71, just before I was due to leave for the United States, Cardew casually passed a piece of manuscript paper to me. On it, in pencil, he had written a few chords and an ornamented base line; he had also added some performance instructions. I assumed it was for piano and when I asked him for a title he suggested Unintended Piano Music. I took it with me to America where it received its first performance. I never heard him perform the piece, nor did he ever mention it to me; but then during the seventies he had other concerns.” (Tilbury, 2008:634)



The compositions presented here on this recording is a selection of Cardew’s experimental works from the first half of the sixties with the exception of Unintended Piano Music composed in 1970. Technically, Treatise should also be mentioned here, as it was not completed until 1967, although Cardew did begin composing it in 1963. The fact that he devoted most of his time for music-making to improvising with the AMM in the year before its publication should also be taken into consideration. The only compositions which we could have included here, and therefore would have been possible to perform in the format of this trio (bass, harp and piano), are Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns and Volo Solo, thus we have also left out his five orchestral works from 1960-65, a string quartet and several pieces for solo piano. It should however be a sufficient introduction to Cardew’s music from the first half of the sixties, and particularly to his experimental compositions of flexible instrumentation. A recording of Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns can be found on my solo CD Edges, which is due to be released at the same time as the trio of myself, Davies and Tilbury. It is also analysed in my essay Edges – A listener’s guide and reflections.


The beauty of Cages music lies within the unpredictability of the outcome of his choreography of events created by his many systems of chance operations where the freedom of the interpreter is based upon his or her choices made mainly prior to the performance of his music. What I find intriguing about Cardew’s music is that many of these choices concerning interpretation can be made during the performance itself; split second decisions which one normally finds only in improvised musics. There is no doubt that Cage and the New York-school composers had a huge impact on Cardew and his way of composing. The same can be said about Fluxus, especially La Monte Young and George Brecht, and his first mentor and employer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, in Cologne in the late fifties.


There can also be little or no doubt that Cardew has been less recognized for his radical music and way of composing, than for what I have just mentioned above. This is in a way odd, since the very same people and dozens of others has named Cornelius Cardew as a hugely influential figure in the history of experimental music. However, there seems to have been a renewed interest in Cardew and his music during the last couple of years, with several exhibitions dedicated to the composer, most notably in London, Bretigny and Stuttgart, all in 2009. The long awaited biography on Cardew by his close friend and colleague, John Tilbury, was published the year before and is probably one of the most important documentation on not only the composer himself, but also of the history of experimental music and the impact which Cardew had on it.


“Cornelius was a genuine experimental composer, and there are not many of those. He proceeded by setting up abstract hypothetical premises and then constructed pieces of music which came out of these with kind of inexorable, unbending logic. When he moved in the direction of a new socialist realism in the early seventies, I felt that this was merely a continuation of his work as an avant-garde experimenter. I never really believed his claim that he had turned his back on the avant-garde. I fully expected, right up to the end, that he would suddenly make a new discovery and come up with some new approach to music-making that would surprise us all. If he didn’t have time to make this step, at least he left us with some important guides to method: We do have, after all, Cornelius, memories of you.” (Rzewski, 2007:422)



Cardew, C. (1960), Autumn 60, New York: Universal Edition

Cardew, C. (1961), 4th System (from February Pieces), New York: Edition Peters

Cardew, C. (1964), Solo with Accompaniment, New York: Universal Edition

Cardew, C. (1964), Material (1964, Universal Edition)

Cardew, C. (1967), Treatise, New York: Edition Peters

Cardew, C. (1970), Unintended Piano Music, Unpublished

Cardew, C. (1961), Octet ’61 for Jasper Johns, New York: Edition Peters

Cardew, C. (1967), Schooltime Compositions, published by the composer

Cardew, C. (1967), Sextet - The Tigers Mind, New York: Edition Peters

Cardew, C. (1970), The Great Learning (paragraph 3 & 6), London: Danny Dark

Cardew, C. (1971), Treatise Handbook, New York: Edition Peters

Cardew, C. (1961), Notation – Interpretation, etc., in Prévost, E. (Ed.) (2006), Cornelius Cardew: a reader, Essex: Copula.

Cardew, C. (1967), The Tiger’s Mind, in Prévost, E. (Ed.) (2006), Cornelius Cardew: a reader, Essex: Copula.

Cardew, C. (1969), A Scratch Orchestra: draft constitution, in Prévost, E. (Ed.) (2006), Cornelius Cardew: a reader, Essex: Copula.

Cardew, C. (1971), Towards an Ethic of Improvisation, in Prévost, E. (Ed.) (2006), Cornelius Cardew: a reader, Essex: Copula.

Friedman, B.H. (2000), Give my regards to eighth street, Cambridge: Exact Change.

Nyman, M. (1999), Experimental Music Cage and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Rzewski, F. (2007), Nonsequiturs: Writings and Lectures on Improvisation, Composition and Interpretation, Köln: Edition MusikTexte.

Tilbury, J. (2008), Cornelius Cardew A Life Unfinished, Essex: Copula.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, New York: Routledge.

Wolff, C. (1998), Cues - Writings & Conversations, Köln: MusikTexte.