They Sing for the Future

Very fine and unusual item from Officer!. UK post-punk and art rock heroes from the 1980s enlist international players and come up with a tribute to the music of Cornelius Cardew, of all people. The resulting album is Paragraphs and Principles (GG366) and it’s released on the excellent Klanggalerie label, home to much good music and reissues more or less in the same post-punk area.

The band Officer! Is Mick Hobbs, Felix Fiedorowicz and Bill Gilonis, and while I’m not here to trace the complicated lineage and careers of these excellent players, there are connections to The Work, This Heat, Family Fodder, The Hat Shoes, The Lowest Note, The Murphy Federation…many personal favourites of this listener in that list of bands, and (if you know the music) you’ll note there’s a certain oppositional political strand there, especially in the early 1980s band The Work, a band in which Hobbs and Gilonis played and amazingly managed to include Tim Hodgkinson from Henry Cow, bringing an extra Marxist dimension to their fiercely critical work. I mention this as perhaps it makes Officer! (originally founded around 1983) the ideal collective to tackle the songs and music of Cornelius Cardew, himself no stranger to provocative political texts.

This very unusual English composer famously embraced Maoist politics in his career, and decided he must turn his hand towards producing popular songs and accessible classical music, in stark contrast to the avant-garde compositional and improvisational forms he embraced so whole-heartedly in the 1960s, which he now rejected as elitist. It was a very dramatic shift – a former assistant and student of Stockhausen, he turned against the German maestro in a big way, denouncing him and his work in a notorious book, of which the central argument seems to be that anything (especially romantic and mystical music from egocentric geniuses) that distracts us from facing up to the big issue, i.e. the Vietnam War, is the enemy of the people. Cardew was also a co-founder of AMM, that most ornery of UK improvising originals, albeit his time with the band was exceptionally brief (especially if you take the long view of that group’s existence). I personally enjoy some of Cardew’s avant-garde music, and The Great Learning and Treatise are very interesting and original examples of how to compose using a graphic score and other unusual methods, and those methods when applied by the right players have resulted in beautiful music too. His “People’s Liberation” songs, not so much; those I have heard, performed live one evening at Conway Hall in London (I think this was Cornelius Cardew Day, 29 December 2001), were a bit embarrassing, coming over like leftovers from a very stale form of 1970s Socialist sloganeering and closed-minded dogma.

Which might explain why I approached today’s collection with some trepidation. But I need not have worried, as it’s an exciting, diverse, and very imaginative take on the material, stressing musical endeavour over politics. Yes, plenty of songs about the Cultural Revolution, and texts from Confucius, and even approved lyrics from the Central Political Propaganda Composition Committee (which sounds like the kind of controlling organisation we would all want to stand against), but also original compositions by Hobbs and Fiedorowicz, some great settings for the songs, and mainly some extremely left-field and unexpected contributions from a large number of international left-wing weirdoes and musical freaks, including Alig Pearce from Family Fodder, Xentos Fray Bentos, Mary Currie (partner of Gareth Williams from This Heat), Rick Wilson, and many others from France, Switzerland, and America. Matter of fact the album was recorded in these locations – the project took place during lockdown in 2019-2021, and has obviously involved a lot of planning and logistics. The finished results amount to a baffling, semi-disconnected sprawl of information – songs, readings, collage, radio broadcast snippets, and electro-acoustic assemblages, amounting to a very oblique tribute to the work and music of Cardew.

If there was a problem with the Conway Hall evening, it was that the stiff singers and players on the stage were far too earnest, trying hard to show their respect for the great man and honour the composer’s intentions by sticking doggedly to the letter of the text. Here, the Officer! crew have taken things in quite a different direction, allowing much leeway in interpretation and execution, and while this album may not please purists who insist on preserving the ideas of Cardew in a form of 1971-vintage amber, I believe it reinvigorates the work, opening up fresh perspectives and avenues of inquiry, and adds a bracing dose of post-modern doubt and ambiguity to the mix. Recommended to listeners who enjoy the 1980s music mentioned in shopping list above, to which I will add of course Kurt Weill, Art Bears (classic Rock in Opposition music featuring the hardline Communistic sentiments of Chris Cutler) and Girls At Our Best! – a quasi-feminist poppy post-punk band from Leeds, who used melody and bright female vocals to smuggle subversive points across as they gained airtime on the John Peel show on BBC Radio; at least one song here, ‘The Song About Navigation’ sung by Alison Craig, could easily have fit in the mouth of Judy Evans.

I’m not sure if I’m now a convert who’s about to rush out and pay a collector’s price for a copy of the never-reissued 1985 double LP Cornelius Cardew Memorial Concert on Impetus, but I’m certainly enjoying this CD. From 16th December 2021. Also available as a double LP.

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