There are many reasons to visit Bath: for the Austen connection, for the Georgian architecture, for the Roman baths and the new swanky spa, or, regrettably, as a hen party destination. But yesterday, the best reason to be in Bath was the Cardew connection – a day devoted to the radical composer Cornelius Cardew, as part of the Bath International MusicFest. The day started in the Assembly Rooms with an introductory lecture by Howard Skempton, loosely structured as an A-Z of Cardew’s all too short life (only 546 months, Skempton had calculated), his work, influences and ongoing impact. The pianist, and Cardew biographer, John Tilbury, then joined Howard Skempton to discuss their friend and take questions from the audience. The overriding impression was of Cardew as an immensely vital and intelligent presence, a brave political campaigner, a gifted musician and a composer of wonderfully experimental and varied music. After a short break, John Tilbury performed some of Cardew’s piano pieces. Startling juxtapositions, shifts of intensity, moments of quiet decay – spellbinding stuff. I loved the sparseness of ‘Unintended Piano Music’; and then, the contrasting, comparative lyricism of Cardew’s version of the Irish revolutionary song ‘Croppy Boy’ brought a few unguarded tears to my eyes.
In the afternoon, Cardew’s chef-d’œuvre, ‘The Great Learning’ (seven ‘Paragraphs’ based on texts by Confuscious, each part having a different set of instructions for the performers, leaving the score open for improvisation and multiple interpretations) was performed simultaneously at seven venues across the city. We managed to dip into six of the seven (got there just too late to catch any of Paragraph 6 at The Museum of Bath at Work), and what a surprising and richly rewarding experience it all was. From the interweaving vocal resonances of Paragraph 7, performed by the Organum Choir, to the percussive improvisations of Paragraph 4 as rendered by CoMa; to hear Cardew’s arresting and challenging music in chapels and churches, performed by enthusiastic amateurs and young music students; to come across others making the same pilgrimage from venue to venue; it was exciting, inspiring and moving to be part of this celebration of Cornelius Cardew – the man and the music.