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The Wire

Cornelius Cardew is one of the strangest figures in post-war British music. He began as a disciple of Stockhausen and there weren't too many of those this side of the Channel — before turning to Cage (ditto this side of the Atlantic). He then abandoned both for a career of political activism through his Scratch Orchestra. Other composers showed a similar turn through the 60s and 70s notably Frederic Rzewski and Luigi Nono — but Cardew's reaction was the most extreme. He was killed near his East London home by a hit-and-run driver in 1981, in circumstances which have never been 'fully explained' as they say — what you make of that depends on what you think of the idea of security service interest in a little-known composer with Maoist sympathies.

On this disc AMM pianist John Tilbury continues his work for the estimable Matchless label with a programme of Cardew's earlier pieces (an earlier success was the wonderful Dave Smith First Piano Concert). Most virtuosic is Volo Solo, not really solo at all, but with two versions superimposed (Material has three). The different versions arise from Cardew's very loose performance specifications. Three February Pieces and three entitled Winter Potato are perhaps less demanding pianistically (Cardew said these had been "lying underground for some time'). All are influenced by the spiky, transparent, highly dissonant idiom of Stockhausen's earlier Klavierstúcke . Standing apart is Unintended Piano Music, a rather slowmoving piece with repeated bass figures and jazzy chords.

Cardew's later piano pieces were, rather risibly, meant to show his solidarity with the proletariat (check out Cornelius Cardew: The Piano Music on B & L). The former assistant to Stockhausen now wrote a book called Stockhausen Serves Impenalism, and composed revolutionary and romantic ballads in a four-square style, totally abandoning the freedom of his earlier work. Piano Music 1959 -70 shows Cardew at his best, and the pieces are never less than fascinating.

Andy Hamilton
The Wire November 1996