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Taking place on the 70th anniversary of the birth of Cornelius Cardew, the festival celebrated his life and music. It explored what made Cornelius such a significant musician, composer and political activist.
The event took place on Sunday, May 7, at Cecil Sharp House in London, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The festival was assessed by all who participated as significant, manifesting and creating a unity of purpose and mutual goodwill, and opening the path for future advances in the cultural sphere. It was attended by old friends and comrades of Cornelius, as well as by many people who have been attracted by his work in the 25 years since his death, so that during the day around 200 had either participated as audience, performers or both. The event was organised in such a way that formal and informal discussion permeated the proceedings, so it could be said that very few people attended simply as spectators, but all contributed to its success.
The Festival was organised so that everyone who wanted to had space to celebrate Cornelius, a person who early on had made the decision as to what to do with his life, and had found his outlook within the progressive and revolutionary movement, the movement for the emancipation of humanity, along the high-road of civilisation. The day created an excitement, a palpable sense that the future is before us, that these are new times and there is a golden opportunity for all to contribute to the path of renewal, to the bringing into being of the new culture.
Cornelius Cardew was always a pathfinder, who from his younger days to his final compositions put the human factor at the centre of his work. His commitment to upholding the spirit of the new led him uncompromisingly to become political and to write music which he firmly believed contributed to the progressive and revolutionary movement. He did not see this as a sectarian activity. Far from it this to him was part of opening a path which was of benefit to all, as an integral part of life. In this, he is widely regarded as being a role model and an inspiration to progressive musicians and others. Cornelius Cardew was an internationalist, and his life and work were about that new culture which gives expression to the lives of all as one people.
The whole Festival the Symposium with live music in the afternoon, and the Concert in the evening was inspirational. It celebrated a music that is in the service of life by a composer who saw his place in the struggle of humanity for a new society.
The photos here tell the story of the Cornelius Cardew 70th Birthday Festival. We are also reproducing the presentations given by Michael Chant and Chris Coleman, together with the message to the event from the Canadian Cultural Workers Committee.
Michael Parsons speaking on the early music of Cornelius Cardew
Tania Chen performing excerpts from Piano Sonata No.3
Eddie Prevost speaking on the ethics of improvisation with respect to Cardew's legacy
Octet '61 performed by Eddie Prevost, John Lely, John White, Sebastian Lexer
Howard Skempton speaks on the integrity of the composer
John Tilbury (piano) with Alex Kolkowski and Howard Skempton
John Tilbury introduces his set
John Tilbury (piano) and Alex Kolkowski (violin) perform The East Is Red
Bob Coleridge talking about his experiences of the
Goldsmiths College classes, "Songs for our Society"
David Gershuny presents the message from the Canadian Cultural Workers Committee
"We Sing for the Future", performed by Laurie Scott Baker,
Bob Coleridge, David Gershuny, Vicky Silva, Chris Thompson
Velvet Fist, with Hugh Shrapnel (piano), conducted by Lesley Larkum, performed
"The Founding of the Party" and "There Is Only One Lie"
Michael Chant gives the presentation: "The Spirit of the New and the Movement
which Cornelius Cardew Joined"
Chris Coleman speaks on Cornelius Cardew and his significance
Part of photo exhibition of aspects of Cornelius Cardew's life
Titles of Video by Stuart Monro
The Scratch Orchestra
The Great Learning, paragraph 3, directed by Dave Smith
Haydn Dickenson performing the piano solo We Sing for the Future
Alex Kolkowski performs The Worker's Song for solo violin
Catherine Pluygers performs Pakistan for solo oboe
Bob Coleridge performed two pieces from the Piano Albums.
Cardew's arrangement of Verdi's "Va Pensiero" sung by the Health and Calm Choir
Treatise performed by Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Ben Drew, John Edwards
By Michael Chant, a fellow composer and political activist of Cornelius in the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)
Music is expression. It can be destructive to the spirit and society, or it can be constructive. It can reflect what is best and what can be, or it can do the opposite and contribute to corruption and retrogression. What should be created today, what is consistent with the aspirations for something new and advanced? In his time, Cornelius worked to solve this issue, his life represents that search, and the work took root. What was cut short was the flowering of these solutions, this creative work in the context of the movement of society and the striving for a better humanity in a better world, a different world, a world which we can envision coming into being. One thing about this different world is that everyones culture will find its own pride of place. The new project is nothing less than renewal of everyones cultural programme as the path widens out as the perspective is concretised. It is the rejection of falling back on whatever exists, and abandoning aspirations for what is new, beautiful, popular and inclusive.
What did Cornelius join and why? His whole mature life was one of putting the human factor at the centre. First in reaction against the performer as automaton, setting the performer in motion, then in the social form which was the Scratch Orchestra, making music together, and then having to address the question, for whom, and what to do with ones life, a decision which led inexorably to becoming involved in the struggle to change society, to bring about a society which is healthy and is not beset with hysteria, setting people at each others throats. What was sidelined should take pride of place in the mainstream, and this is the motion of history, which the present retrogression which the ruling elites are imposing on the world is trying to block. The international bourgeoisie is pushing the world back to medievalism, before enlightenment smashed medieval irrationalism and obscurantism. The humanism which came to the fore then and which opened up the path for civilisation to advance, putting man at the centre of things, flowered in the 20th century into the humanism of the collective, of the whole society. No one can doubt when looking at Cornelius life, his music and his writings that this is the path which he embarked on with full vigour. This path did not disappear with Cornelius death, however great the setbacks were when Cornelius was taken from us.
What is a unifying factor in this festival is the conviction that there is a culture where the individual flourishes in not being subservient to the aims that retrogression tries to impose at this present stage of history, but in working together, opening a space where people can operate and get relief from the pressure of oppression. It is a space which incorporates what is best from the past, from the peoples traditions, from the experience of music making and other cultural activity to gladden the peoples hearts, where the conditions for the flourishing of the individual is the flourishing of all, not the opposite, a culture which is consonant with the liberation of modern productive forces and the best levels of expertise which society has attained.
Cornelius set his aims and tasks in the context of the collective work and the demands of the time. It could be said that this was the flowering of what he had tried to achieve with setting the performers in motions and instigating the social forms which would express a truly modern culture, representing the strivings and aspirations of the most advanced forces in society, rather than those who preach individualism and self-aggrandisement. In this respect, Cornelius represented and celebrated many of the best virtues of what is advanced. His internationalism, for example, started by paying attention to the best of the anti-fascist traditions in terms of honouring the life of German communist Ernst Thaelmann, in his support of the struggle of the Irish people for self-determination and the reunification of their island and against the oppressive dictate of Britain, and in celebrating the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War and of the martyrs who gave their life in this cause. There is too the movement against state-organised racist attacks with which Cornelius was so closely associated and in which he played a forefront role. There was his work in organising the youth, in bringing out the best in them, in inspiring them to take up the struggle for a new society under the leadership of the working class and taking control of their own future.
His collaboration with Hardial Bains, leader of CPC(ML), and the Canadian cultural workers, including the joint work of the PCA and CCWC, was something very precious and important, both to him and to the international movement. This capturing and reflection of the spirit of the entire movement is a quality and spirit which we hold very dear and continue to celebrate and attempt to embody. It continues not only in the continued joint cultural work, but in the profound relations of proletarian internationalism which continue to exist between the Party in which Cornelius militated, RCPB(ML), and the Marxist-Leninists of Canada and their leadership. It continues as, with Cornelius example in mind, we uphold the Not-In-Our-Name cultural project to reflect and advance the broad movement against fascism, aggression and war, against the criminalisation and attempts to illegalise whole sections of the people, and to plant the alternative and create a new culture, a culture of our own, and to restore the dignity of the peoples everywhere.
What is this exciting work? It is realising the progressive potential in all those who wish to make a contribution. Cornelius life became wholly dedicated to opening up this path, it became a programme to unite everyone of different shades of opinion in following what was new and human centred. It became a life which provides an inspiration and an example, a role model, to all who wish to make a contribution to the progressive movement, both culturally and politically.
Certainly, the aim of this Festival has been to allow all who knew Cornelius or are keen to find out more about the kind of contribution that Cornelius made to have a space for celebrating Cornelius. In this, the converging point is to look profoundly at the reality of his contribution to a music which has humanity and serves humanitys progress. It is not so much to put Cornelius Cardew on a pedestal as to recognise what his greatest contributions were. It is to recognise that no musician or cultural worker can turn aside from the path which is the high road of humanity, which Cornelius himself so fearlessly marched along.
There is no doubt about where Cornelius Cardew would have been now. He would have been in the thick of the struggles of the people, going against the prevailing stereotypes of what a composer should be, and demonstrating for all that politics is life, life is culture, and that there is no false dichotomy between culture and politics, because just as everyone lives their life as a form of culture, in a definite society, with definite outlook and ideology, and so on, so too the needs of the times demand that for humanity to progress, life must be lived to the full in the fullest meaning of the term! He would have been encouraging everyone to follow his lead, to move forward along with him, not to get left behind!
Cornelius was a political organiser as well as a consummate musician. Far from giving up his political organising, it was being stepped up as the political work to be accomplished was also mounting. Those that knew him primarily through his political work loved and respected him precisely for this work, sometimes never even being aware of his standing as a composer. Equally it can be said that sometimes his fellow musicians did not appreciate the extent to which his abilities as an organiser and aptitude as a leader were put at the service of the political requirements of the times, and how his life was inseparably bound up with the all-round work which his Party had set, including on the cultural front, and was developing and to which he contributed immensely.
Cornelius celebrated the human spirit, the best of what humanity has given rise to, the striving to overcome obstacles, to give birth to a new world. That is why he joined the progressive and revolutionary movement and why this was his whole life, with no hiatus between his words and his actions, between his political commitment and his cultural activity. Cornelius had found the way forward, and his music served life, and was life, and his life was reflected in his music and the music expressed the politics of humanity, an expression centred on the worth of human beings.
I am sure that if Cornelius had been alive today, this event on his 70th birthday would have been completely different. For one thing, there would be so much music to celebrate, and the celebration would be as much for the movement as for Cornelius there would be one celebration! Cornelius would have been here, singing of the dawn of a new world, of a new human person, of which he was an example. Together we would have been celebrating the love of humanity for humanity, a new society, the worth of the mass of human beings and their collectives, and upholding the spirit and politics of "Not In Our Name!", "No One Is Illegal" and "One Humanity, One Struggle!"
As well as being integrated into the movements of the people, putting his talents in their service, organising in their that is, OUR! collectives, Cornelius was a composer for humanity as a whole, and would have developed new forms of music-making, with no culture being second to any other. He would have dismissed with contempt the attempts to marginalise the struggles of the people for their emancipation, the creation of a hysteria so that it is considered sectarian or extreme to give expression to values other than the so-called "civilised values" which are declared to be universal. Cornelius marched on the high road, and rejected these attempts to trivialise culture, to reduce it to side-line entertainment divorced from the high-road, to reduce its expression to an adjunct in the project of Tony Blair et al to try and remould individuals in his own divinely-inspired and chauvinist image, that declares all cultures are equal as long as they adopt imperialist values.
This is not to speculate on what Cornelius might have become. It is to acknowledge Cornelius significance and what he stood for all over again after 25 years. Cornelius died precisely at the point in his life when the issue of the false dichotomy between politics and life would have been settled once and for all. This is not because Cornelius would have settled it as such, but because Cornelius had the marked characteristic of being in the service of the ends of the times. It can be said that the need to oppose all the stereotypical renderings of life, including the issue of politicising music (its stereotypical rendering and rejection), is one of the crucial needs of today.
In the course of letting people know about this festival today, I got an email from a friend of ours in the US, who said: "You [meaning those who have come out of the Scratch Orchestra and remain comrades to this day] have been such a positive force in my life on a day-to-day basis, helping me constantly to keep honest by thinking of your integrity and interest in a music that is in the service of life." This is Cornelius significance today, in demonstrating what was possible, in that change is possible and necessary, not only in peoples lives but in society, and that there can be no higher aspiration for musicians and other cultural workers than the immersion in this work, of advancing the progressive movement and the movement to halt retrogression. His life and work are the embodiment that one should not be afraid or embarrassed to aim high, to work collectively with ones peers, and that it is the human spirit which we celebrate as we strive to actually live life as human beings, to release that human quality.
Cornelius, your example lives on!
Intervention by Chris Coleman, National Spokesperson of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)
I am very pleased to be able to say a few words here today, along with so many close friends and collaborators of Cornelius, and encouragingly considerable numbers of much younger people than us who are part of a renewed interest in Corneliuss life and work.
I knew Cornelius only in his last ten years. We worked together in the Progressive Cultural Association (PCA); he was Founding Secretary, I was Chairperson. We were both founding members of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (RCPBML) and elected to its first Central Committee. We lived near each other in East London and worked closely together in both the cultural and political fields. As everyone else, I have vivid and cherished memories of those exciting times.
It is my opinion that all the different stages of Corneliuss development led logically to him becoming a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. And the remarks earlier by Michael (Parsons), Eddie (Prevost) and Howard (Skempton) seem to me to reinforce this opinion. When someone makes a radical break, they do not necessarily throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and I think this was the case with Cornelius. I see Cornelius in the tradition of the great artists of the Renaissance, of Beethoven, Prokofiev and others, who saw their art as part of the struggle for enlightenment, for the emancipation of the human spirit, for the rights of humankind at the particular historical stage. The Party, Marxism-Leninism, provided I think an organised focus, a perspective for the concerns that Cornelius had always had, for the cause of the working class and people, for the youth, for the women, about racism, fascism and war, and the struggle, among others, of the Irish people for their sovereignty and freedom.
I am one who thinks that perhaps the most significant part of Corneliuss work was in the joint work of PCA and the Canadian Cultural Workers Committee (CCWC) between 1978 and 1981. Here we see Cornelius working fully as part of a collective, guided by the most advanced ideas, carrying out planned work with a clear aim. We see one of Corneliuss greatest qualities: his modesty and his willingness to subordinate himself to the collective. He was of course a pathfinder in his own right and a man of immense talents. But in this work he was a contributor along with others, and especially Hardial (Bains), whose leadership was marked by this same great quality. As we heard presented earlier, some works of great beauty, revolutionary, partisan and of the most advanced ideology, came out of this work. But perhaps most importantly, they provided the threshold for a whole new development. The works were primarily Party music, but they opened the way for music and other cultural forms that were truly mass, of popular appeal and opening the entire path to progress.
Tragically, of course, at this precise point Cornelius was violently struck down and taken from us. I share the view that Cornelius was a potential giant, and would have been a true giant at that. As many have suggested, his greatest work was still to come, his great potential was tragically never realised. One can only speculate what he would have achieved.
We live today in a different period to that when Cornelius left us. He worked in a period of what we term flow of revolution. The Vietnamese and other peoples were winning great victories. In Britain the fascists were driven from the streets, when the state was attempting, in violation of all its treaties from the Second World War, to create a parliamentary fascist party. Cornelius, as we know, made an important contribution to this very work.
Now we are in a period of transition, a period of retreat of revolution, when I think it is no exaggeration to say that the forces of reaction are trying to destroy all the achievements of progressive humankind since time immemorial, and especially since the Renaissance, to create a world akin to medievalism and the bestiality of the Nazis. The great international statutes coming out of the victory over fascism in 1945 are set aside. Torture is openly justified as an instrument of state policy. But I think it must be pointed out that retreat of revolution is not synonymous with retrogression. The retrogression which the dark forces of reaction are trying to impose on the world does not have to be accepted. In fact it cannot and is not accepted. Millions of people on a world scale are increasingly standing up against it, from governments like Cuba and DPRK who refuse to bow the knee, various Muslim countries, governments in Latin America taking up the interests of the poor, to a movement in this country against war unprecedented in its size and broad scope.
The times cry out for culture to serve this whole broad movement against the Anglo-American agenda of fascism, war and neo-liberal globalisation which can lead the world only to catastrophe. No matter how small this movement is in historical terms, however it is abused and ridiculed, however much disinformation is spread about it, nevertheless it is this in all its diversity which represents the future, the new coming into being. And the efforts on the cultural front to serve it, however modest, producing some CDs or presenting operas against the war to some dozens of people, nevertheless represent the new as well. And in such work what better role model could there be than Cornelius, his dedication, his enthusiasm, his willingness to put all his talents in the service of the collective. In the life and work of Cornelius, tragically cut short as it was, we nevertheless see all the beauty of the new world coming into being, the other world which is possible, and I think this is what we have in our minds when we mark his 70th birthday.
- Canadian Cultural Workers Committee, May 7, 2006 -
I am pleased to be here on behalf of the Canadian Cultural Workers Committee and the Canadian working class and its party, the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), to celebrate with you the life and music Cornelius Cardew on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of his birth. I am pleased because his life and music are dear to the heart of the Canadian working class and people. Cornelius and the founder and leader of our Party, Hardial Bains, became the closest collaborators. Cornelius shared weal and woe with us, and his life and music belong not merely to the working class and people of Britain, but also to the working class and people of Canada, and indeed, to the working class and people of the world.
I was still a student in 1979 when Cornelius Cardew first led a delegation of the Progressive Cultural Association from Britain to Canada to collaborate with the Canadian Cultural Workers Committee, led by Comrade Hardial Bains. The songs, poems, and music which resulted from this collaboration were unprecedented in both quality and quantity. Although it happened 27 years ago, more than half my lifetime, and much has happened since then, including the untimely deaths of both Cornelius Cardew and Hardial Bains, the memories of the concerts at which those pieces were first performed are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. Those concerts were, so to speak, the proof of the pudding: a new world is possible, a world without exploitation and oppression, a world where the talent of every individual in every field of endeavour is encouraged to flourish in the service of humanity, both in the collective sense and in the personal sense of our humanity.
It is well known that the history of music, like that of other genres of art and literature, reflects the development of human society. The roots of music can be traced to the rhythms of human life, especially the rhythms of collective work, but also the rhythms of collective joy and the rhythms of collective sorrow. But it is far more than just an expression of what already exists. It also gives expression to what is coming into being and, most importantly, to what the best humanity has given rise to thinks should be. In our opinion, this is rare, but it is where Cornelius was striving to solve the main problem facing the field of musical composition today -- to compose music which expresses the advances the peoples of all countries are striving for.
One of the most beautiful songs written by Hardial Bains and put to music by Cornelius is appropriately titled "We Sing for the Future." It showed the efforts that both were making to provide this problem with a solution. It required paying attention to the dialectical relationship between form and content and dealing with the pressure that music is merely a matter of perfecting form, rather than renewing its content by bringing it on par with the requirements of the times, including the appreciation of the contributions of all humanity. I have been told that a lot of brainstorming involving all the musicians went into the creation of that song and it was very exciting -- and all the more so because it was all in the context of ongoing live performances attended by hundreds of people. At the end of the day, this living content can only be expressed in forms of content.
Music is a form of communication which, at its best, transcends the limitations of language in unifying the people. As such, music is an expression of the human spirit.
Cornelius, who himself represented the finest human spirit, contributed to the development of music as an incarnation of that human spirit, the very essence of what humanity stands for, fights for, and strives to become. After so many years since his passing, we are even now only beginning to realize in small measure the debt we owe Cornelius. It is up to us to appreciate his legacy by mobilizing not only ourselves but the younger generation to carry his contribution forward.
Thank you very much.
David Gershuny, Canadian Cultural Workers Committee
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