A note from Beppe Colli:

"A couple of days after the interview was uploaded, Chris Cutler expressed his dissatisfaction with the text he had sent, so he chose to send a corrected version because he said the first draft he sent was too clumsy, and he's not happy to leave clumsy versions floating around in public forever.

This new version of the text is now labeled 'second draft', with the first one now labeled 'first draft'.

Attentive readers will notice that both versions remain available here, as they will for eternity - or, at least, till we pay our bills. The reason for this is quite simple: Since day one, it's been our editorial policy not to change anything appearing on this website once it's uploaded, the only exception being, of course, typing errors and the like."

Lindsay Cooper: An Appreciation
An Interview with Chris Cutler
(first draft)

By Beppe Colli
June 24, 2014

The title of the message I found in my e-mailbox last week was almost impossible to believe:

"Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel, and Oh Moscow, play the music of Lindsay Cooper".

When? Where?

Friday 21 November - London Barbican

Saturday 22 November - Huddersfield - Lawrence Batley Theatre

Henry Cow?

"The concerts will feature Henry Cow (1968 - 1978, who said they'd never re-form)."

Then, a long list of names. Time to think.

I'm sure readers haven't forgotten that sad, sad moment, last year, when the news came that Lindsay Cooper had died. And the grief of the whole community of musicians and music lovers, all over the world, had not been less intense for the fact that the circumstances concerning her illness had been public for a while - though it has to be noted that the diagnosis was made in the last days of Henry Cow, but kept a secret for about two decades.

We still have her music. And after a period of hard work - those things are never easy, you know - now here come the news.

As it's my custom in cases like this, I immediately e-mail Chris Cutler. "Wanna talk?" "OK."

It was forty years ago that Henry Cow released their second album, Unrest, and I'm sure you've talked about this a million times already, but I'd really appreciate if you could talk once again about those personal and musical qualities that Lindsay Cooper possessed that made the group decide in her favour when choosing their new comrade.

Well, we knew we didn't want to try to replace Geoff, who was irreplaceable, and we were looking for new sonorities to enrich our timbral palette (we also considered harpists and trombonists). I knew Lindsay a little - I'd met her playing in Comus. So Fred and I - as I recall - went to see her play with Clive Bell in Ritual Theatre and it seemed immediately obvious that she'd be perfect: classically trained - so no trouble with all the complex writing - and a great improviser; an almost unheard of combination of talents in those days. Also, we needed someone who was better, more advanced, than we were, so that we'd have become better ourselves to keep up. That was Lindsay. The fact that she was also smart and tough was bonus we didn't know we were looking for, but it made the band what it was.

Four years later, Western Culture - the last studio album released by Henry Cow - featured a new, different "signature" in the composition dept., most of the music on Side 2 being penned by Lindsay Cooper. Also, different sonic ingredients in the recipe - Irene Schweizer on piano, Anne-Marie Roelofs on trombone and violin - while the piece Look Back hints at what's to come. Were the Cows surprised to see her bloom as a composer?

Surprised, no; pleased, yes. Earlier, Fred and Tim had produced the lion's share. John wrote - a lot of the music for the Bacchae was his - but we hadn't recorded any of it. Half Asleep; Half Awake was the only composition of his that appeared on a Henry Cow record.

And then Lindsay settling in, everyone adapting, the Slapp Happy interlude, Lindsay's leaving and returning to the band in the summer of '74 and our work schedule thereafter, were all very time-consuming. Nobody wrote much during that period. After which John left and we had to find another bass player. By this time Fred hadn't written anything for a couple of years (Beautiful as the Moon was his first composition after a long break, and that was a collaboration). And Tim wrote very slowly: 3 pieces between 1972 and 1977. So when the next Cow record - which would have included Tim's new piece Erk Gah (eventually recorded by Tim many years later as Hold to the Zero Burn), Half the Sky (mostly by Lindsay with some parts by Tim) and Slice (all Lindsay's) - turned into Hopes and Fears (a collection of short songs) and the band decided to break up, we experienced a sudden rush of creative optimism, and decided to do farewell tours for another six months, and play only new music. Tim and Lindsay got writing and the result was Western Culture, on which they each fill a side. Fred, who had written most of Hopes and Fears, also produced some short pieces, which we performed, but didn't in the end record. Most impressive was how mature and evolved Lindsay's writing was right from the start. That record was fun to make. Irene? Well, we were in Switzerland and Irene was in Switzerland, and she and Lindsay were already playing together in FIG, so that was easy. Anne-Marie was pure luck. Henry Cow had a gig in Amsterdam and at one point Lindsay and Tim left the stage playing together and Geoff Leigh, who had brought his tenor was out in the audience and joined in. So far so planned. But then suddenly there were four people playing in the auditorium. Anne-Marie, whom none of us knew, happened to be there, with her trombone and just joined in. A month later we made her part of the final Henry Cow lineup, which endured to the end. Had Henry Cow continued, who knows what Lindsay might have written for us, or how it might have influenced Fred and Tim (because that's how HC worked)... but...

I think the release of The Road - the 40th Anniversary Box - was a great addition to the Henry Cow studio albums we all know and love - not forgetting the live album Concerts, of course. When it comes to Lindsay Cooper I'd like to single out the live concert DVD-V titled Vevey 1976, also the quartet line-up heavy on improvisation featured on Vols 4 & 5 - Trondheim 1976. Are those still in print?

They are. And I hope to keep them that way.

I'd like to quote you from the first booklet of the Box, p26: "We decided to come off the road, regroup and rethink. Three months later we reconvened and asked Lindsay to leave." (...) "I had already unilaterally invited Lindsay back for the recording (I don't know how I had the nerve, but in her absence we had all realised how indispensable she was)". As it is, it's quite cryptic for an outside observer. Would you mind elaborating?

Not really. There are sensibilities I want to respect and I don't want to make my recollection and interpretation of events "the truth." But that we asked Lindsay to leave in the summer of 1974 is a fact, and that I called her from St. Christopher's while we were rehearsing there for In Praise Of Learning and asked her to join us for the recording, without consulting the others, is also a fact. She came and she played and she stayed until broke up, and I don't think anyone ever said another word about it. I'm sure a fuller story will appear in Ben Piekut's book, when it comes out, which will be a composite gleaned from everyone's accounts, and not the selective memory of just one of us.

I could be mistaken, but I think the next album featuring music by Lindsay Cooper I listened to was Rags (1980), her soundtrack to the movie The Song Of The Shirt, and though I suppose that the music she wrote for The Gold Diggers (1983) is more celebrated, I have a soft spot for Rags, both in concept and execution. Also Music For Other Occasions (1986). You played on some of this music, alongside former Henry Cow members Fred Frith and Georgie Born, plus familiar faces such as Phil Minton, Sally Potter, and Dagmar Krause. While obviously showing her growth as a composer and instrumentalist, the music Lindsay Cooper scored for those media also engaged with complex political and sexual issues. Would it be possible for you to give me a description, however brief, of the cultural framework that makes it possible for works such as these to exist and flourish?

Lindsay launched the Feminist Improvising Group (FIG) in the last year of Henry Cow (Dagmar and Georgie were both in it). For us, cultural work was political work. Those were just the times: across Europe, communist parties were strong, feminism was militant and we all thought there was world to win. The Music for Films concerts, as I recall, were enthusiastically received not in spite but because of the politics - and because the majority of the group were women.

I hope you won't mind if I say that I regard the two albums released under the moniker News From Babel as one of the pinnacles of - ahem - "modern rock music". (By the way, I think this was the first time I listened to Zeena Parkins.) While you wrote the lyrics - and played the drums, of course - Lindsay Cooper wrote all the music. Here I have to confess that though I greatly appreciate the anguished mood of Sirens And Silences/Work Resumed On The Tower (1983) I consider the sonic signature - and the mournful atmosphere - of the group's second album, Letters Home (1986), as a modern masterpiece. But the group never toured, right? Which greatly surprised me. Would you mind talking about this?

After Art Bears, I asked Lindsay if she'd collaborate on another song project. We were working together in the Music for Films group at the time. I suggested Zeena because I'd met her in Holland when I was working with the Black Sheep on a project with Chris Wangro's Janus Circus, in which Zeena was playing an accordion. She and I were talking one night and I told her how much I loved the harp and that I'd wanted to get a harpist into Henry Cow. Zeena said, you know, I mastered in harp but I don't play it any more because it's big and heavy and hard to transport and there are no real opportunities to play it in the rock world. I said, if you take it up again I promise we'll make a record. That was the spark for News from Babel. I thought: Lindsay, Zeena, Dagmar, what a band. I wrote some texts and gave them to Lindsay. I think the band never toured simply because it was hard even then to get gigs; to get paid; to ship Zeena from New York and get her a harp... Art Bears toured only once, for about 12 days, and that was hard enough, so News from Babel never really stood a chance. And Robert wouldn't tour. So Zeena and I are very happy that we can finally perform some of these songs live.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the song-cycle titled Oh Moscow, with text by Sally Potter, is the work by Lindsay Cooper that most people all over the world have an appreciation for. The version we all know is the one recorded live at Victoriaville, 8 octobre 1989, featuring Phil Minton, Sally Potter, the late Hugh Hopper, and Alfred Harth, where Marilyn Mazur played the drums, though Charles Hayward also drummed, as you did, on selected dates. Would you mind talking about this piece, as you saw it, on and off the drum-stool?

It's a fully realized, fully mature work that uses all of Lindsay's skills. The songs are highly memorable and the match of music to text is perfect. It needs to be filmed; then I think it would reach the wider audience it deserves.

I'd like you to talk about the time you toured and recorded with Lindsay Cooper in the line-up called David Thomas & The Pedestrians - I have a soft spot for More Places Forever (1985), wonder if it's still available.

After Pere Ubu broke up, David toured in America with Ralph Carney (the sax player from another Cleveland band, Tin Huey, who later went on to work with Tom Waits). In Europe David hooked up with Lindsay and they toured for a while as a duo. At some point there was a concert in London and David, whom I'd known for a long time, said why don't you come and play with us? And that was how The Pedestrians got started. After that we toured on and off for the next four years, slowly adding musicians until they morphed first into the Wooden Birds and then Pere Ubu again, by which time Lindsay had moved on. The concept was simple; we were a rock standup comedy-slash-poetry show: David talked and sang, Lindsay and I supported or contradicted, making most of it up as we went along. That was fun. Once we got a bass-player there were more songs and more organized routines. The trio was flexible, fast on its feet and... well who else did rock standup?  More Places is still available, but only on vinyl - there are still copies left. Also, I plan to release a triple CD of rarer pieces of Lindsay's to coincide with the concert in November, which will include Outtakes for Other Occasions, Music for the Small Screen, unreleased live Oh Moscow material, Trio Trabant, some solo pieces and, I hope, something from the Pedestrians.

The occasion for this conversation, of course, being the special event dedicated to Lindsay Cooper scheduled for 21 and 22 November in London. The list of participants confirmed is quite impressive, featuring Alfred Harth, Anne-Marie Roelofs, you, Dagmar Krause, Fred Frith, John Greaves, Michel Berckmans, Phil Minton, Sally Potter, Tim Hodgkinson, Veryan Weston, and Zeena Parkins. I understand that's too early in the day to discuss things in detail, but I'd like you to give a hint of what's in store.

It would have been more than I could manage - or anyone could finance - to present a full cross-section of Lindsay's work so, in the end, I opted to reconstitute the four main groups that had performed her compositions: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow - because that was practical and could be achieved with an ensemble of only 12. By very good luck David Jones at Serious Speakout was prepared to take that on (no one else I approached would take the risk: "nice idea but impossible to sell", they said). David said "yes," taking a big chance on the back of old friendships. So, fingers crossed. I'd be amazed at such a line-up, but how many like me are there? We'll see. Organizationally, the four groups will play Lindsay's compositions in chronological order (Henry Cow, Music For Films, News From Babel, Oh Moscow), and all members of the whole ensemble will be in some other ensembles. Lindsay played Bassoon, Soprano and Piano - and often all three at once on recordings - so it takes three people just to cover that: Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero, a very old friend, will take the bassoon parts. Alfred Harth and Tim Hodgkinson the saxophones and Fred, Zeena and John variously the piano parts. It'll be a party.

Beppe Colli 2014

CloudsandClocks.net | June 24, 2014