A tribute to Cardew, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Avant-garde adventures
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is 20 years since the radical experimental composer Cornelius Cardew was killed by a hit-and-run driver. In commemoration, a Huddersfield Festival concert at St Paul's Hall was devoted to examples of his work from the Sixties. At this time, fresh from his studies with Stockhausen, Cardew produced a series of graphic scores investigating the various ways flexible notation could inspire performers' creativity.

John Tilbury brought an authority born of close association with the composer to the resonant "February Pieces" for piano. "Octet '61" and "Material" were given imaginative readings by the group Apartment House, emphasising an affinity with Webern in their crystalline pointillism. "Memories of You" inhabited the remoter regions of the avant-garde. Soloist David Ryan had great fun twanging a metal ruler, rubbing a saucepan over piano strings and bashing a music stand – groovy.

But Cardew's "Schooltime Compositions", described by its composer as an "opera book", was an experiment too far. Near the beginning, pianist Sarah Walker clapped her hands as if to say, "That's enough, children." A bewildering tapestry of events slowly unfolded, in which Cardew's music took a back seat. A be-wigged woman dressed in an abbreviated latex costume pranced around, uttering desultory monosyllables before she was blindfolded and bound to a chair with masking tape. Later, a piteous figure with a sheet over his head began mournfully flogging the floor with his belt. Among the other contributors, one sang into a pillar and another, having carried around two tape recorders, lay down for a nap. Courtesy of a TV screen, the composer himself cast a wry eye on such random proceedings as a pizza delivery and the ceremonious wrapping of a cello in aluminium foil. David Ryan had the best idea, spending most of his time on stage reading a newspaper. More enervating than innovative, it was worth experiencing – once.

Howard Skempton, who quietly played his accordion throughout "Schooltime Compositions", was heard to far greater advantage later at the Cellar Theatre. His delightfully artless short pieces for solo accordion ranged in mood from wistful waltzes and quirky dances to the contemplative mindscapes of his "Axis" pieces. Skempton's dignified performance of these poignant miniatures was the perfect antidote to the previous event's pretentious pageant and made a calmly satisfying ending to an unforgettable evening.