As the thirtieth anniversary of his death approaches, I’ve been thinking about the English composer Cornelius Cardew recently. Cardew’s musical career took an unusual turn in the 1970s along with his discovery of Marxism. After a stellar early career as an assistant to Stockhausen and a co-founder of the anarchic Scratch Orchestra, Cardew rejected and abandoned the avant-garde music scene and began to write populist political songs which drew inspiration from Mao's Yan'an talks on literature and art and resonated with the tradition of musical agit-prop from Brecht and Weill to John McGrath. By 1981, he had also become a relatively high-profile political organiser, going to jail on more than one occasion for his activities; this has led some to speculate that his death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver in December of that year was a political assassination effected by MI5.
Listening to Cardew’s political songs today, it is hard not to scoff at the crude objectivism, didacticism and Leninist langue de bois of lines like ‘In the 1840s Marx and Engels on our shores / organised and hammered out the objective laws’ and 'Persisting in the face of every difficulty / In 1979 was formed our new party / A glorious victory'. And yet, risible as such bombast is, you have to acknowledge the power of its unadorned sincerity. These songs now stand out not so much for their originality – a virtue which, by the late 1970s, Cardew had come to regard as trivial and bourgeois – as for their urgency, energy and commitment, however glutinous their Maoist rhetoric.