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The music of Lindsay Cooper

By ProgBlog, Nov 30 2014 09:04PM

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died last year from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. I’m most familiar with her work with Henry Cow and other, like-minded bands that made up the Canterbury scene, notably Hatfield and the North and Egg. She was briefly in progressive-folk band Comus before they split in 1972 (I have a copy of To Keep from Crying which features Cooper’s bassoon on the title track) and it may have been this that got her a job with Henry Cow – To Keep from Crying was released on Virgin in 1974 and Leg End was also a Virgin release, recorded at their Manor Studios in 1973.) Her collaborations were multitudinous and I saw her perform at the Actual 84 Festival in London with combinations of David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Chris Cutler, Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause.

The performance at the Barbican on November 21st was a celebration of the music of Cooper in chronological order of the ensembles she had performed with: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow. I’d gone because it was in effect the first Henry Cow gig since their split in 1978, with the reunion of Fred Frith (guitar and bass), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Tim Hodgkinson (alto sax, organ), Chris Cutler (drums) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The bassoon parts were covered by Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero.

The music almost defies categorisation, but the closest I can get is experimental chamber music. There’s Canterbury progressive in the mix, most audible on the first number they played, Falling Away from Western Culture which I found reassuringly familiar. There were no song introductions but Sally Potter, before she took her place on the stage, made a general announcement about only being able to present a tiny proportion of Cooper’s oeuvre and the appropriateness of the venue for Cooper’s music. The audience was fully aware of the complexity of the song writing but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a band have to stop and restart on three different tunes, Falling Away being the first. This prompted Jim Knipe, in attendance with me, to comment that the performance was along the lines of ‘genially shambolic.’ This opinion may have gained some currency from observing Cutler’s expansive drum technique and the fact that both Cutler and Frith played barefoot. The inclusion of the 36 second long Slice proved to be a bit of a test for the audience; its sudden conclusion could easily have been a pause between sections of a lengthier piece but we did applaud after a brief, awkward silence.

The band weren’t over amplified and the layers of music were quite clear, illustrating Cooper’s ability to write for a number of instruments simultaneously. Her compositional skills reflected her excellent improvisation which was based on her ability to pick out the different lines. With an (up to) 12 piece ensemble playing, her dense, complex and startlingly original compositions were given an almost fun airing, contradicting the popular image of the deeply studious and serious musicians. I was previously a bit wary of Dagmar Krause’s singing but I found her much more melodic than I remember; she came across with a controlled intensity that added to the haunting beauty of the compositions. If anything, the one musician I was slightly disappointed with was Fred Frith, who may have had some problems with his effects pedals. The performance of the Oh Moscow song-cycle (featuring Sally Potter) was joyous and theatrical; that the piece explores the cold war as political fact and emotional metaphor was given new relevance by recent events in the Caucus. This best demonstrated Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.

The review in The Guardian described the audience as a mixture of ‘ageing revolutionaries, prog aficionados and Italian communists’ and though the hall wasn’t full, it was a very respectable turn out for a performance packaged as jazz festival event; there may even have been a few others not fitting The Guardian’s stereotype making up the numbers, just not very many. However, a few of the adjectives have been applied to me at some time or other.

Lindsay Cooper was an articulate political activist and outstanding musician and composer, bringing the bassoon from the orchestral shadows to front-stage in a rock context. This was an extraordinary evening: extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Henry Cow had said they’d never reform but Chris Cutler managed to bring together an incredible number of musicians closely associated with the music of Cooper. It doesn’t matter what you call it: avant-rock, avant-jazz, or experimental chamber music, it was certainly an evening to remember.


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