Recorded at the Recording Studio, Royal College of Music, London during the early months of 1996.
Front cover artwork (reproduced above) by Keith Rowe: featuring a detail from Octet '61 for Jasper Johns.
Long overdue recording (made in 1996) of some of Cardew's pre-political period music. February Pieces, Volo Solo, Unintended Piano Music are just some of the works which reflect Cardew's then aesthetic preoccupation with sonorities and touch. The piano is exhaustively and lovingly explored. Tilbury, who was one of Cardew's closest musical associates, collaborates in Cardew's search for a creative relationship with musician and materials and succeeds magnificently.
february pieces '59, '60, '61. volo solo.
unintended piano music. three winter potatoes.
material. Treatise (excerpt).
All the music included in this recording (with the possible exception of Unintended Piano Music) belongs to Cardew's early period of radical exploration and experiment in the late 1950s and 60s, when having fully assimilated the advanced language of the European avant-garde, he went on to develop new techniques and new aspects of indeterminacy, to use notation in increasingly flexible and open-ended ways and to encourage the creative involvement of performers in the realisation of his musical ideas.
After completing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1957, Cardew went to Germany, where he worked as assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen, collaborating with him in the composition of Carre for 4 orchestras (1959-60). It was while he was living in Cologne that he first came into contact with John Cage and David Tudor. Attending concerts which they gave there in 1958, he was deeply impressed by the freedom and openness of Cage's attitude to sound, and by the virtuosity and inventiveness of Tudor's playing. He became familiar with pieces such as Cage's Music of Changes, with the earlier work of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, and soon afterwards with that of LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. The freshness and informality of the new American music and its direct involvement with the physical realities of sound, the passage of time and the dynamics of performance opened up a perspective quite different from that of European serialism, with its complex and rigid notational controls. While Stockhausen and other European composers responded to the challenge of Cage's innovatory ideas by allowing for a limited degree of performer-involvement - provided this could be contained within the compositional schema - Cardew, in contrast, began to explore the implications of indeterminacy with much greater freedom: instead of trying to restrict and incorporate the methods of Cage and the other American composers, he took them further and extended them in new directions. In works such as Autumn '60 and Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, for example, he was concerned not only with liberating sounds from compositional control, but with creating new challenges for performers; he invited them, in effect, to become not only interpreters but also collaborators in the realisation of the music. A series of increasingly open and experimental works of the early 1960s reached its culmination in the 193-page graphic score Treatise (1963 - 67), composed purely of graphic elements, for which interpreters must find their own musical responses: " No player is told what to play; each has to find this out for himself by reading the score." (Cardew, Treatise Handbook p.xiii).
The piano music occupies an intermediate stage in this process. Cardew was continually seeking to devise new and flexible ways of using notation to stimulate the performer's imagination and ingenuity, leaving open certain aspects of the music which had traditionally been under the composer's control. In these pieces, for example, while pitches are fully specified, duration and articulation are treated very freely: note-lengths are not confined within a strict metrical framework, rhythmic flexibility indeed is always actively encouraged. Tempi are not determined by an abstract scale of chronometric values, but are relative to the situation, to the activity and perception of the performer. In Volo Solo and Material no dynamic, articulation or phrase markings are given: these aspects of performance are left entirely to the discretion of the players. On the other hand, precise aspects of sonority and resonance are sometimes indicated - in February Pieces, for example, where subtle modifications in the timbral quality of sustained sounds are introduced as they decay, the harmonics being altered after the initial attack through use of pedalling and of silently depressed keys. This goes straight to the heart of the characteristic resonance of the piano and the way it is actually heard; as Tilbury has observed, it is a much more realistic way of 'controlling' sounds than by imposing serial principles on them. 1
Three Winter Potatoes (Cardew explained the title with the remark that they had been "lying underground for some time") were written between 1961 and 1965. The first is his own piano version of the more radically indeterminate Octet '61. The third is derived from Material (1964), which in turn is a transcription 'for any ensemble of harmony instruments' of the composer's Third Orchestra Piece 1960. The second Winter Potato is a volatile and exuberant virtuoso piece making liberal use of cadenza-like passages of chromatic grace notes and fast-repeated single notes, a feature which it shares with Volo Solo (both pieces were written in 1965 while Cardew was living in Rome on an Italian Government scholarship). As with February Pieces durations are always flexible, the absence of time-signatures and tempo markings allowing the performer considerable rhythmic freedom; the music unfolds in a relaxed and elastic sequence of loosely connected phrases and irregular bursts of activity, each with its own shape and gestural character.
1. 'The Contemporary Pianist': John Tilbury in conversation with Michael Parsons, The Musical Times, February 1969.
Volo Solo, ' for a virtuoso performer on any instrument', was written at John Tilbury's request. Despite the title it is not necessarily a solo piece: the first performance was in fact given by Tilbury with the composer on piano and prepared piano in Paris in February 1966. Cardew added a note to the instructions 'If desired Volo Solo may be performed by a number of virtuoso performers simultaneously, in which case the performers should begin each group together and finish independently.' The score consists of 60-odd events of widely differing length and complexity, separated by pauses, ranging from single notes and short groups to long passages spanning the full width of the keyboard, characterised by strings of repeated notes. The aim is 'to play as many of the written notes as possible, and to play them as fast as physically possible. The instrument should seem to be breaking apart.' In a letter to Tilbury (March 1965) Cardew suggested another compelling image for the piece: "Aim at low dynamics and in the long passages the instrumental sound will build up to forte of its own accord. In fact that is the way I envisaged the long passages: the piano is playing and you are sitting there holding the terminals and getting electrocuted."
In this recording two versions of Volo Solo are superimposed: in the short groups the double articulation of pitches is clearly audible, whereas in the longer and denser passages the result is a juddering heterophony.
The score of Material consists of 17 sections of varying length and harmonic character, mostly chordal and sometimes densely chromatic. Sections may be repeated several times, and in an ensemble performance they may be freely counterpointed. Not all of the written notes need necessarily be played; melodic strands which lie hidden within the succession of chords may be revealed by selection from the given pitch-material. In this version three layers are superimposed, and the performance begins with a sequence of dense chromatic clusters. As Cardew suggests in the instructions, the parts are synchronised at the start and then gradually drift apart, dissolving the focus and creating an ambiguous sense of space with multiple images and overlaps.
Among the works included in this recording, Treatise is unique in that the score provides no specific musical material. The role of the score is here irrevocably altered; it no longer determines the sounding music, nevertheless its influence remains subtle and pervasive, acting as a unifying focus for the players' attention. The interplay and development of its graphic elements may suggest degrees of activity, continuity, differentiation, dynamic flow or interruption in the shaping of a performance. They may suggest ways of listening and responding to sounds as well as of producing them. The score is inherently problematic in that it forces its interpreters to invent their own rules, to question and re-evaluate their activity as it unfolds, and to rely on their intuitive responses to a developing situation. There is a long aural tradition of performing Treatise within AMM, reaching back to the late 1960s when Cardew himself was a member of the group. Tilbury is here joined by Eddie Prevost in a spacious reading of the sparse and reticent final pages, in homage to Cardew as performer, who often used prepared piano, percussion and found radio sounds in his own versions of Treatise in the 1960s.
Unintended Piano Music (1970 or '71) has none of the impetuous virtuosity of the earlier piano pieces: it is more reflective in character, its sparsely decorated bass line and floating chords delineating a limited harmonic area coloured by subtle changes of sonority - closer in spirit, perhaps, to the music of Howard Skempton (who studied with Cardew in 1967 and became one of founders of the Scratch Orchestra in 1969).
John Tilbury's playing of all these pieces reflects an intense involvement with and dedication to Cardew's music over a period of more than 30 years, including the experience of having worked very closely with him in the 1960s and '70s. While his performances are in this sense 'authentic', they are not necessarily definitive or exclusive: other performers may well find alternative and widely divergent ways of playing the pieces. This is inherent in the nature of Cardew's approach: he regarded his scores not as self-contained logical systems, complete in themselves, but as catalysts in the essentially social activity of music-making. 'Like seeds, they depend on the surrounding soil for nourishment.' (introduction to Four Works , Universal Edition 1966); they contain the capacity to evolve in response to changing needs and circumstances, to engage performers and listeners in new ways. Apart from their brilliance and originality as studies in piano sonority and technique, these early works already express Cardew's deep awareness of and commitment to social values; far from being superseded by his later political convictions, their questioning spirit and wealth of potential remain continually inspiring and challenging to performers and listeners alike.
Michael Parsons May 1996
This recording contains examples of Cornelius Cardew's music for solo piano (sumptuously performed by his friend John Tilbury, pianist with the improvising ensemble AMM) dating from the period prior to his evolution toward explicitly political music. While his later work was "traditional" in its reliance on melodic song forms and rhythms, his earlier pieces were quite abstract and modernist, though never succumbing to the sterility of much post-serialist music. In fact, it has much more in common with the conceptions of New York School composers like Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff in its concern with note placement and a certain subtly rapturous texture, especially evident in pieces such as the lovely "Unintended Piano Music." Many of Cardew's compositions have scores giving wide latitude to the performer; "Treatise," an excerpt of which is performed here, consists entirely of a (very beautiful) graphic score with no written instructions. Much credit, therefore, must be given to pianist Tilbury, whose interpretations are never less than stunning, deeply thoughtful, and incisive. Aside from being a rich and valuable document of a vital segment of the work of an important if underappreciated composer, Cornelius Cardew Piano Music: 1957-1970 is simply an exceptionally fine collection of modern piano music, wonderfully played.
All Music Guide