To celebrate the life and work of musician Lindsay Cooper, four bands are coming together to perform Cooper’s music at the Lawrence Batley Theatre as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
The concert will feature Henry Cow, Cooper’s Music for Films, News From Babel, and Oh Moscow. Northern Soul talks to Chris Cutler – percussionist, composer, lyricist and music theorist – about Henry Cow’s history, legacy and reunion.
Northern Soul: What have the logistics been like in organising the event?
Chris Cutler: It’s been fiendishly difficult to do because all these people are extremely busy and scattered around the planet. We had to plan this a year ahead in order to get everyone together.
NS: Henry Cow were very into the DIY ethic, how did you go about doing things so independently?
CC: We were pretty much forced to do it because when we signed with Virgin, which did us some good because it got our record distributed, it became a liability. The Virgin agency failed to get us any gigs apart from a couple of tours with their own artists. Whereas before we’d been arranging our own concerts.
So we realised that we wouldn’t be working if we just relied on Virgin so we started to set up our own concerts again. It was the same with the recordings. At a certain point Virgin hadn’t made any money from us and they’d made an awful lot of money with Mike Oldfield and they wanted to follow the money. They weren’t even interested in making more records despite the contract obliging them to do so.
In order to survive it was necessary for us to take everything into our own control and organise our own concerts and eventually started putting out our own records. It’s not difficult, it’s just a lot more work. We were never interested in being famous, we were just interested in producing work that was worth producing, and playing concerts that the sort of people that came to them would enjoy.
NS: Henry Cow’s politics were always overtly radical. How does that fit in the contemporary world, given that nothing’s really changed?
CC: Things have changed – they’ve got worse. After World War Two we didn’t realise what a paradise we were living in, relative to what things had been before and between the wars. The Labour Government after the war set up the welfare state, put money into education and nationalised the major industries.
So the time I grew up in was in fact a very healthy climate. Things were not so bad; they were so good in fact that we all thought we could go out on the streets and try and make them better. Optimism was the name of the game in the 70s.
Since then there’s been a continual retraction of everything – all of the benefits that were gained after World War Two have been taken away. The ratio of rich-to-poor continues to go up. Fewer people own more of the wealth of the world now than they did in the 60s. The 7/84 club [where 7 per cent of the population own 84 per cent of the wealth] would be called 3/92 now.
People are generally pessimistic now. We’ve just come through a huge recession but the people who caused it are still in place – they haven’t suffered. Everybody else has paid their bills. It looks and feels to people, especially young people, as if there isn’t anything they can do.
The legitimacy of the political discourse that we were throwing around in the 60s and 70s, all that Marxist terminology, you can’t use any of that language any more. You’re crazy if you talk like that. So there is no discourse any more in which you can discuss the problems of the day without being marginalised because you sound like a raving Marxist. Or you have to use some form of analysis which is a bit crazy, like conspiracy theories.
There are very few people, like Naomi Klein, who manage to spell things out in clear language without being tarred with the brush of being a conspiracy theorist or left-wing loony. She does it by being factual and academic.
NS: There has always been a blend in all Henry Cow’s work between the improvised and structured hasn’t there?
CC: One of the things that was very unusual about Henry Cow is that 40 per cent of any concert was improvised and about 30 per cent written note for note in quite a complicated fashion. The rest was more loose composition like rock bands do.
We all came from very different backgrounds and we all listened to hundreds of records and that was what we learned to play – the virtual world of recorded sound. That’s why we would steal anything that sounded interesting to us without any respect for genre. So we knew we were a rock band but we were interested in contemporary classical music, jazz, free improvisation, electronic music and we didn’t see why the rock language shouldn’t include all of those things.
So the vocabulary that we took musically was very eclectic, drawing on all sorts of different kinds of music. Improvising was important because it’s a musical form in which there are no contradictions between what you play, where you play it and who you play it to. And when you are improvising collectively you learn an awful lot, very fast.
The things that would emerge from our improvisations would find their way into the compositions. So we were constantly learning new techniques and incorporating that into the writing. So improvisation and composition feed each other, which improves both.
We chose early on not to be part of a generic style. Even when they make documentaries on prog rock they don’t include Henry Cow – we just didn’t fit anywhere. We tried hard to create a new musical language that was ours. It was like a research studio or laboratory where constantly somebody would come up with something new and everybody would explore it.
NS: And the decisions you made were all collective too weren’t they?
CC: Yes, the Mothers of Invention were a bit hampered by Frank Zappa because he was the leader. Henry Cow wasn’t ever troubled with that problem because it was impossible for anyone to be a leader. Everybody had something to say. We never did anything on a majority decision, we would only do things when it was unanimous. So we would argue and discuss until everybody agreed.
NS: It was a mixture of philosophy and humour, wasn’t it?
CC: Henry Cow were a complex group because we were all pretty smart, all quite aware of several levels of complexity and the way that people were relating to one another. There was always a level of, not exactly irony, but at which we realised that if we took ourselves too seriously it would be a problem.
NS: Lindsay Cooper was classically trained but you all had a high level of musicianship, didn’t you?
CC: Being self-taught just takes longer and it’s a bit more complicated to get there. We were all on a par except it might have taken us longer to play than it would have done a band of highly trained musicians. Lindsay, quite unusually for a classically trained musician, was a great improviser and had a rock ’n’ roll sensibility and she too was no respecter of genre.
NS: What are your expectations of the event?
CC: What will emerge is the diversity of Lindsay’s writing. You recognise Lindsay’s signature but the four bands don’t sound like each other. So you’ll see the way that Lindsay could, like an actor, adapt the role that was necessary in order to fit the context.
NS: How much of it is notated?
CC: It’s taken us two months – with access to all of Lindsay’s papers which we collected and copied, all her notebooks, all surviving parts and scores – to put the scores together. Because Lindsay’s stuff is all written out apart from the drum parts and had to be recreated – put together from materials she still had. It was an immense amount of work just to arrive at the score, never mind play them.
You can’t busk this music, you can’t make it up. Very often the parts fit together like a jigsaw puzzle – people are not playing in the same meter as one another so you can’t guess or be approximate. You have to be very precise. Everybody individually has been rehearsing for the last month so they will know everything they need to know already.
What will be great is to have this ensemble together, it’s a pretty amazing group of people. Like it or not nobody plays this kind of music anymore, it doesn’t happen. This kind of highly focused concentrated writing played by these sorts of people is now vanishingly rare.
NS: What would you like people to take away from the concert?
CC: I’d like people to enjoy themselves. I’d like people to think that it is amazing that this kind of music was going on 30 or 40 years ago and ignored and reviled. Also, what happened to that musical intelligence that made this kind of music.
By Rich Jevons
Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow will play the music of Lindsay Cooper on November 22, 2014 at Lawrence Batley Theatre (http://www.thelbt.org/music-Lindsay-Cooper-hcmf) as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival