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
(second draft)

By Beppe Colli
June 30, 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 decided to search for an instrument that would enrich our timbral palette - we also considered harpists and trombonists. I'd met Lindsay when she'd been playing in Comus, now she was playing in Ritual Theatre with an old friend of ours, Clive Bell. So Fred and I went to see her and it was immediately obvious that she'd be perfect: classically trained - no trouble with all our complex writing - and a great improviser. That was an almost unheard of combination of talents in those days. And we knew we needed someone who was better and more advanced technically than we were, to push us to become better ourselves in order to keep up. That was Lindsay.

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 of compositions, though John wrote too - much of the music for the Bacchae was his, and Half Asleep; Half Awake is an important part of Unrest. But - with Lindsay settling in, everyone adapting to the new situation, the Slapp Happy interlude, Lindsay's leaving and returning to the band... and our ridiculous work schedule thereafter... not much writing got done. Then John left and we had to find another bass player... by which time Fred hadn't written anything for a couple of years and Tim, who wrote big pieces, but very slowly, had completed just one 20 minute composition. The story gets complicated now, but it winds up with the group dividing around the compositions we had, then making a record of other pieces - which had been written very quickly on the way to the studio, mostly by Fred and me - then not releasing that record as a Henry Cow record, and finally deciding to break up. Curiously, this chain of events unleashed an unexpected rush of creative optimism in all of us, and we decided, before we parted company, to organise farewell tours all over Europe - and only to play new music... of which Lindsay and Tim wrote the lion's share. You can hear a lot of it on Western Culture. Listening now - as then - it's obvious immediately how mature and evolved Lindsay's writing was.
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. We met by chance in Amsterdam when she spontaneously leaped in at the end of Teenbeat while Lindsay and Tim were playing together out in the auditorium. We had no idea who she was, but a month later she was in the band.

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 in some way official. But we did ask Lindsay to leave in the summer of 1974, and I did unilaterally call her from St. Christopher's while we were rehearsing for IPOL and ask her to join us for the recording. She came, and played and then stayed with us until the band broke up, and I don't think anyone ever said another word about it. Ben Piekut, I'm sure, will tell a fuller story when his book comes out - and that will be a composite gleaned from everyone's accounts. I'd prefer wait for that.

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 and Dagmar and Georgie were both in it. For us, in those years, cultural work was political work. The Music for Films concerts were enthusiastically received not in spite - but because - of the politics; and because the majority of the group were women. There's no quick answer as to why. Those were optimistic times, alight with oppositional ideas. It's the mirror opposite today, but to say why in a few words, would taker a book in itself, and it's not one I'm competent to write.

I hope you don'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 she played accordion and acted. One night, she and I were talking and I told her how much I loved the harp; that I'd tried to get a harpist into Henry Cow, and Zeena said: you know, I mastered in harp but I don't play it any more; it's big and heavy and hard to transport, and there are no real opportunities to play in a rock context, and I said: if you take it up again I promise we'll make a record. That was the spark for News from Babel. I wrote some texts and gave them to Lindsay and we all met in London and recorded. We never toured, simply because it was hard to get gigs and be paid enough to ship Zeena from New York and get her a harp and still get from place to place without losing money. We would have solved that if anyone had invited us to play, but no one did... 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 it'll be great finally to 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 drumstool?

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's a jewel. There was always talk of building a film around it, and it could certainly bear that. And that way more people would hear it.

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 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 they had a concert in London and David, whom I'd known for a long time, said why don't you come and play with us? That turned out to be the first Pedestrians first show. Then we toured on and off for the next four years, slowly adding musicians until the band morphed into the Wooden Birds and finally back to Pere Ubu, by which time Lindsay had moved on. The Pedestrians' concept was simple; we were a rock standup comedy/poetry show: David talked and sang and Lindsay and I supported or contradicted - making most of it up as we went along. The trio was flexible, fast on its feet and... well who else did rock standup? Yes, More Places is still available, but only on vinyl; there's still some of the original pressing left. But I plan to release a double CD of Lindsay's unreleased and out-of-print pieces to coincide with the November concert, and I will try to include something from the Pedestrians on that.

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 12. By very good luck David Jones at Serious was prepared to take it on (no one else I approached would take the risk: 'nice idea' they said, 'but impossible to sell'). David said 'yes', taking a big chance on the back of old friendships, for which I am very grateful. So. Fingers crossed. The four bands will play Lindsay's compositions in the order they were composed (HC, MFF, NFB, OM), and all members of the ensemble will play in each other's programmes as required. 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 will take the bassoon parts, Alfred Harth and Tim Hodgkinson the saxophones, Fred, Zeena and John the piano parts. It'll be fun.

Beppe Colli 2014

CloudsandClocks.net | June 30, 2014