Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Trip to London Part 2: celebrating Lindsay Cooper

The event that drew me to London was taking place in the Barbican. This was the Henry Cow and Friends Salute the Magic of Lindsay Cooper concert. My knowledge of the music of Henry Cow and Lindsay Cooper is limited, mainly based on a piece one Mr Dave Berry wrote about them in the pages of Frank's APA and a compilation of music featuring Dagmar Krause put together by Emily K., a star of the Internet. With that limited initial exposure you would think that I would not really be the target audience for this event, yet there I was in the audience. I think it must be Fear of Missing Out that made me not miss this memorable occasion: in my old age have I finally become an Event Person?

Some background for readers who know even less about Lindsay Cooper than I do. Ms Cooper was a composer and musician who played bassoon and oboe with Henry Cow and other acts in the 1970s and thereafter. She also composed music for film and television and so on. She appears to have straddled the worlds of composed and improvised music, being also involved in the Feminist Improvising Group (who sound like the best thing ever). She died in 2013 after suffering for many years from multiple sclerosis.

In format this concert was divided up into segments representing different aspects of Cooper's career, but with more or less the same musicians playing on everything. The musicians included such star names as Chris Cutler on drums and Fred Frith on guitar (the others are probably also star names too but I live under a stone and so did not recognise them), while vocalists included Dagmar Krause, Sally Potter and Phil Minton. The overall musical lineup was like a meld of standard rock formatting with more outré instruments, so you got various keyboards as well as brass and wind instruments.

The concert began with a run of pieces Cooper had composed for Henry Cow, mostly instrumental. Right at the beginning of this there was a bit of false start, where a tune began and then had to be halted because someone had not come in properly or something. Depending on your perspective, this was either a disturbing suggestion that things can go very wrong with live music or an indication that this was going to be an evening of exciting edginess in which things were going to be kept real. Either way the Henry Cow material was a bit rough around the edges, but I liked it.

It is hard for me to produce reference points for the Henry Cow segment, because the instrumentation and the style of music made it sound rather different to most things I am familiar with. One thing that did come to mind was Peaches en Regalia, the orchestral jazz album by Frank Zappa. The kind of soundtracks Michael Nyman used to do for Peter Greenaway also sprang to mind.

The following segments were a performance of music written for a group called News From Babel that Cooper had formed with Chris Cutler, a series of film music she had made with a group called Music For Films and then as a closer music she had composed for a song cycle called Oh Moscow, about the Cold War. The different segments largely blurred into each other, with the music in broad terms being of a roughly similar type. There was more in the way of vocals after the Henry Cow section. Dagmar Krause's contribution was relatively limited. As she was the main draw for me this could have been a major disappointment except that the other vocalists were most excellent and the music generally of a very high standard.

If I was to start handing out prizes to the musicians then it would probably be Frith and Cutler who would be receiving medals from me, though again it might just be prior awareness that had me noticing their work more (and also latent rockism, perhaps, that would cause me to favour them over any of the people on non-rock instruments). The musical highlights were probably the songs from Oh Moscow. The Cold War lyrics went over my head but the music stuck in it, perhaps because it was a bit different to that of the rest of the evening (more piano driven and less rock). Vocals here were by Phil Minton (who is apparently an interesting player in the world of improvised music etc.) and Sally Potter, who had written the lyrics. I was surprised to discover that she is the same Sally Potter who directed Orlando.

I think maybe the Oh Moscow music was the hit of the evening and the segment that was the least familiar to attendees. Certainly the merch stand ran out of copies of that album afterwards. If you are interested in Oh Moscow, there is great footage on YouTube of a piece from it being played in 1991 in Volgograd (with scenes filmed on the streets of that town more famous to the world as the site of the memorable Battle of Stalingrad).

Aside from the members of Frank's APA and our loved ones, there were loads of famous people knocking around at this concert. I saw Thurston Moore queuing for coffee at the interval while there were reports of popular comedian Stewart Lee also being present. And when, after the show, one of my friends said "Oh look, there's Steve Davis", it took me a while to register that he was not talking about some mate of his called Steve Davis but the star of snooker; apparently Mr Davis is a big fan of progressive and forward thinking music, hosting a radio programme on this very subject.

And then eventually we made our way into the night. Getting out of the Barbican proved surprisingly difficult, as the place is huge and maze-like (two of my friends got lost and are still there to this day) but in the end we emerged into the darkness of a foggy London night.

Lindsay Cooper image source (Northern Soul interview with Chris Cutler)

Lindsay Cooper obituary (Guardian)

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