Against the blank white walls of the Yellow House, the Song Company – artists dressed in white – performed a preview of Accidental Plans, a musical journey through the life, work and death of one of the stranger musical personalities of the 20th century, English composer Cornelius Cardew. The ‘kind-of-opera’ was created with guest artist designer and writer Adrian Self.

The story is told by five singers – led by Artistic Director Antony Pitts from the keyboard – through a series of chapters mingling Cardew’s words and works with those of other composers, and it begins with Cardew’s death. The composer was killed in a hit and run incident on the night of December 12, 1981. The driver was never found, prompting speculation – if no real evidence – that Cardew was assassinated because of his political activities.

Baritone Mark Donnelly is Cornelius Cardew, emerging periodically from the ensemble’s sound as soloist and protagonist with a penetrating timbre. The first chapter, Singing for Timelessness (Lament for Cardew), combined fragments of Cardew’s We Sing for the Future with recomposed fragments and words – including a chorus of sliding and clacking rocks –Cardew introducing his life as “an unsolved mystery.”

The Clay, The Kiln, and the Fire opens with the singers reciting numbers and letters in stand-offish social confrontation. A dysfunctional family life – Cardew’s distant, potter father left while Cornelius was young to build a pottery studio in Africa – no doubt contributed to the composer’s detached behaviour as a young boarder. The singers organ-like rendition of Walton’s Set me as a Seal Upon Thine Heart sees counterpoint spinning across the ensemble like pottery wheels while Andrew O’Connor’s resonant bass-baritone fills the room.

Cardew’s life wandered through several years as assistant to Stockhausen – illustrated by a rendition of Stockhausen’s Choral – before the falling out that may have prompted Cardew’s 1974 book of essays Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. The ensembles slide fluidly between narrative and more abstract soundworlds, full of ambient and percussive vocal noises.

After Stockhausen, Cardew became enamoured with Cage and indeterminism. More than half a century old, Cage’s 4’33’’ has become something of a light classic of experimental music – it can be hummed as readily as the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth – and there was certainly no shock or surprise in the audience at the musicians’ silence. This did, however, allow for the work to imbue the room with a meditative stillness, the audience listening to the whisper of fanning programmes and the sound of air cascading from the air conditioners.

La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7 – essentially a single sustained pitch – underpinned the narration leading into some audience participation in Sing Koala X Number of Times before interval.

Cardew trained as a graphic designer to make ends meet and this soon formed part of his output, his magnum opus Treatise a vast and complex graphic score, excerpts of which opened the second half with shapely crescendo, hisses, whistles and breaths. Accidental Plans is itself infused with elements of Cardew’s art in Self’s design of video elements and scores.

Explorations of improvisation and further audience participation experiments – The Great Learning Paragraph 7 ­– led into the final, most politically charged chapters in Cardew’s life. His embracing Maoism may have led to important questions like “What is music for?” but Cardew’s 1977 political song Smash the Social Contract has all the poignancy of an ad jingle or saccharin sweet musical theatre  number – “Smash, smash, smash the social contract” may as well be “clang, clang, clang went the trolley.” In his final years he became involved in Irish Republicanism with a similar passion.

The Song Company’s vocal flexibility and inventiveness is on display throughout the performance – a particular highlight was a kind of rhythmic riffing on philosophers, drawing attention to the textural sound of the names Lichtenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida. Accidental Plans presents the fascinating life of a man who wanders through many significant musical and political movements of the 20th century, who seems to cling desperately to the next ideology (or father figure?) before becoming disenchanted and moving on.

Though Cardew’s sincerity is believable, it’s hard not to question whether he was drawn to these movements simply because of their potency rather than their worthiness. The upbeat finale – a rendition of Pharrell Wiliams’ Happy sung whilst batting coloured balloons in the air – culminates in a kind of call to arms, to “burst that bubble.” But the call to wake up and fight, seeking to frame Cardew’s life in the broader political struggles of today, doesn’t quite answer the questions “fight what?” or “why?”