An interview with
Chris Cutler (1999)
first became aware of Chris Cutler's highly personal and distinctive
approach to drums in 1973, the year of the original release of Legend
(or Leg End), Henry Cow's debut album on Virgin. Of course, he has continued
to develop his original style on countless albums (my personal estimate:
in the neighborhood of 100+) and in many collaborative efforts - from
Art Bears to Pere Ubu, from Cassiber to News From Babel, from his duo
with Fred Frith to Les Quatre Guitaristes de l'Apocalypso-Bar and, lately,
on his Solo album. He is also the founder/guiding light of Recommended
Records, a label which has released and distributed countless albums
of the "under the radar" type (and which kept the Faust name alive when
nobody cared). He's also a formidable theorist, polemist, historian
- check his File Under Popular book, the many articles/essays he has
written and the (quite optimistically titled) ReR Quarterly magazine.
course, with hype flying left and right - and no advertising muscle
to speak of - it's high unlikely that people have ever heard his name,
let alone his music. So it was with great pleasure that I sent him my
questions for what was to be his first Italian interview ever. (The
interview was conducted via e-mail starting at the end of April, 1999;
it appeared in the issue # 13, June 1999, of the Italian magazine Blow
Up.) Since I assumed that most readers had never heard of him, I tried
to cover as much territory as I could.
Please, tell me about the start of Recommended as a record company
and distribution organization; it was at the end of Henry Cow as a group
and after the so-called "punk explosion"...
By the end of 1977, Henry Cow had decided to break up and we decided
to make one last 6 month tour of all the countries that had supported
us for the last 6 years. Maybe because of this ending I started to think
about our work in a broader way and wanted to try and help other people
who were working in the same field as us to find their public, and to recommend
to our public the many other interesting groups who, because of the
dominance of british and american record companies, had no distribution
and therefore no visibility outside their immediate geographical circles.
Also, this was the time when punk had blown fresh air into the stale
pool of mainstream rock and had laid the foundation for a great explosion
of autonomy, musical experiment and the foundation of independent and
self produced records - yet, for the music in our field, there was no
distribution network for such productions. When I set up my own label
- Re - to release the first ART BEARS LP, the need for distribution
fitted perfectly with the need for some central collection and distribution
point for this music in general. And Henry Cow had been in a specially
good position to find out what was happening, since we had travelled
widely through Europe and had met many interesting and serious groups
who were unknown even to one another. That's why we founded RIO too,
to bring these people together, to create a presence, a visibility,
a community so that we would not all be working in isolation. So Recommended
not only discovered, but in a way created a genre - of "recommended"
Factually, Recommended was set up in the spring of 1978 alongside
the RIO festival in London. At the start the DISTRIBUTION arm was called
Recommended - because I personally "recommended" all the titles
we distributed. At the same time I set up a LABEL - for my own projects.
This was Re. Soon after (1979) I set up the RECOMMENDED LABEL for releases
other than my own. In 1987 the distribution side became a worker's co-operative
and I stepped out, concentrating on running the labels (re, recommended
and points east) and writing the mailorder catalogue. That is also when
I united Re and Recommended into ReR. Things ran smoothly for a while
until, at the end of 1989, owing to enormous unpaid debts from the now
independent distribution to the label I was forced to start my own distribution
system again, at which time the old "recommended" DISTRIBUTION
became THESE Records. And I became ReR/Recommended.
sees the 21st birthday of Recommended Records; I understand there's
something in the works, in the form of a double CD. Would you mind talking
a lot happened in 21 years. Right now I am in the middle of making a
double CD of re-workings, re-mixes and new material based directly on
Art Bears recordings, with a lot of invited composers who have been
associated with the label over the years. And as you say I was also
thinking about an anniversary collection of rare, unreleased and related
materials. Though I am still not sure about this. 21 years is a long
time in this business to exist as a small uncommercial and unfunded
label and I have seen many of my contemporaries disappear, one by one.
Furthermore, we are not a niche label; that is we don't cater for a
simple genre (like prog rock or death metal) which means our musical
profile is always changing. Which makes survival harder, believe me,
so I feel it would be apposite to make a mark here, and look back and
recapitulate. But I just don't know that I have the time to do it. And
looking ahead is more interesting.
like to ask you about a musician you've worked with on quite a few projects
- Henry Cow, Art Bears, News from Babel, David Thomas' albums, the Oh
Moscow tour: Lindsay Cooper. Could you talk about this project you're
going to participate in at the Angelica Festival in May?
met Lindsay when she was working with Comus, and then again in Ritual
Theatre before she joined Henry Cow. She was and is a remarkable person
and a fine musician, one of the few who are equally at home improvising
and composing (though this seems to be the hallmark of all the ex Henry
Cow alumni). So, in the last period of Henry Cow while being one of
our main composers Lindsay was also organising FIG (the Feminist Improvising
Group). In the immediate Post-Cow period she and I made two major song
projects together with harpist Zeena Parkins - the 2 News From Babel
CDs - and later I was in her Film Music Group (with Sally Potter, Phil
Minton, Georgie Born and Vicky Aspinall) and on several of her recordings.
We continued to work together, on and off, especially over about 5 years
in different projects organised by David Thomas, and I later became
one of the drummers in her and Sally's Oh Moscow project. It is an extract
from this, rearranged for full orchestra by Veryan Weston, that I will
participate in at this year's Angelica festival. Lindsay is suffering
from Multiple Sclerosis now, and is unable to play publicly now, but
Veryan works with an ensemble who perform her compositions. And she
will be at Angelica.
Talking about the festival: you've just finished an Italian tour
with Fred Frith, and you're gonna participate in his next project there...
Well Fred and I have worked together in an enormous number of contexts
over the last 28 years - after Henry Cow and Art Bears we continued to converse through an intermittent
but steady programme of duos.
And of course I have played in various projects of his (the Graphic
Scores Orchestra, Tense Serenity) and he of mine (Domestic Stories,
The Science Group, Timescales) as well as projects in which we were
both involved (Aqsak Maboul, Duck and Cover, Heiner Goebbels' Man in
the Elevator and innumerable improvising contexts). I have an immense
respect for Fred - who has a truly original musical voice, both as a
composer and a performer.
About the Angelica group, Tense Serenity: this is one of the only
projects I've been involved in that has found a successful way to bring
composition and improvisation together. Improvisation is something,
as I approach it, that calls for maximum open-ness. That means an empty
mind before playing anything, and no plan, no trajectory, no teleology.
Composition requires precision and following a fixed track. Obviously,
if you switch between the two disciplines, apart from requiring a certain
schizophrenia (which is not so hard to manage) there is immediately
the problem that every improvisation is severely limited by the fact that it has to start
from a determined place - namely the end of a composition, and that
(worse still) it is already on it's way somewhere definite - a fixed destination (the next composed piece). So it is hardly
free to follow it's own logic. And of course the compositions in such
confections are not properly prepared but "fallen into" and
don't properly end (thereby containing themselves) but are lost in the
beginning of something else. So, trying to mix the two forms involves
serious compromises all round. Usually I find the mixture unsatisfying
I have to say. But Fred has a well thought out solution: his composed
parts are highly modular, and have been written to emerge and sink into
different musical landscapes. And there is no order of pieces (Fred
will call what he feels like, whenever he feels like it), so one is
never on the way somewhere. And, finally, since Fred improvises his
calls in response to what he hears, and since musicians can respond
or not respond to his call, or start later, or treat the composed part
as an element of the improvised "outside" and react to it
rather than join in with it, the unfolding of the concert becomes extremely
organic, and each time different.
What's an "improvised 'outside'"?
Yes, it's not very clear, is it. I mean the field, the environment,
so to speak, of sound (what other people are playing) in which one has
to make one's own contribution and decisions.
Since we just mentioned David Thomas, I'd like to know more about
a recent project of his you took part in - a festival in London - or
something - I really know nothing about (with Peter Hammill and quite
a few other people...).
This was a 3-day festival, which David programmed at the Southbank
Centre in London. The centrepiece was a project called Mirror Man (which
has been released on CD now). The idea is ambitious. There is a "band"
- Keith Moline and Andy Diagram (the Pale Boys), Peter Hammil, Jack
Kidney and myself - with David sometimes. Then there are 5 singers and
speakers, sitting in a row of chairs on the stage, who stand up and
come forward one after another to "testify" and tell their
stories. The singers are Linda Thompson, Bob Kidney, Jackie Leven, David
Hild and Jane Bom-Bane. And throughout we hear the comments, scene-setting
and Greek-chorus work of New York poet Bob Holman, who works offstage.
David is the Master of ceremonies. The stories they tell are all of
a lost America, of desolate small-town places where lives are ground
out or wasted unremarked; where people disappear and hopes are dashed,
and about the geography of a kind of twilight zone that may, or may
not, exist somewhere between the present and the past. It's hard to
describe it. But I think these are some of the best texts David has
written for a long time, and he has found a unique form in which to
present them; not a concert, not quite theatre but in some
ambiguous zone between poetry, storytelling revival tent and song.
Pere Ubu were/are quite popular in Italy; some people back then
were a bit surprised about your collaboration with them, since the idea
they had of you made the project "strange"; would you mind
saying something about the two (? hope I'm not wrong about this) records
you did with them?
My connection with Ubu goes a long way back. The first thing I heard
was the single 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, which The Residents played me.
A week or so later I happened to be in Washington where Ubu were playing.
I went to see them, got to know them, reviewed the concert for SOUNDS
(it was the first Ubu review in England) and then kept in touch. Some
years later, when Ubu split up and David was working alone, I joined
his duo with Lindsay and we worked as trio for several years, slowly
adding other musicians. One by one all the old Ubu's joined, and Lindsay
left. By then we were called The Wooden Birds and this group was, effectively
Pere Ubu under another name. We invited Scott Krauss (the old Ubu drummer)
to play with us when we were in Cleveland and he stayed on. It was at
this point that Ubu's manager said "If you call yourselves Pere
Ubu, I can get more money, a serious record contract and a lot more
gigs, because Ubu is a famous band, and it's the name that I can sell, not the people". So we agreed. No
reason to be surprised. I started in Rock bands and have always been
interested in Rock and the song form. Ubu is a good rock band and writes
good songs. I have always been involved in such projects: Art Bears,
Hail, Kalahari Surfers, The (ec) Nudes,The Blegvad trio and, I would say, Cassiber - all
song groups, all based in rock. I am not sure what "idea some people
had of me" - maybe it's like the story of the 7 blind Brahmins
and the elephant: you touch the trunk and think the animal is like a
snake, you touch the leg and think it is like a tree, you touch a tusk
and it isn't even an animal anymore. But it's an elephant anyway and
all the parts of it's body belong to it.
Since you do a lot of things it could seem a bit impolite to ask
you about something you are not doing: I'm referring to the Quarterly,
a project that I really liked: it made one know about the existence
of artists one would otherwise not know, plus it presented a perspective
about "making music" that was informative and clear. Is the
Quarterly at the moment in "suspended animation", or what?
I started the Quarterly back in 1984 because there seemed to be a
need for something like it. I mean firstly a sound magazine - not a
sampler or a compilation, but a window on what was happening, essays
in the possibilities of sound, introduction to new people. And secondly
a printed magazine without the usual interviews and reviews, avoiding
the language and outlook of the vapid music press which substitutes
for thought and content strings of adjectives, comparisons and subjective
word association with a bit of promo material thrown in. It was always
hard to get sufficient material of quality for the Quarterly, and so
it always took a long time to prepare each issue. Also I am not a full
time editor and the magazine hardly pays anything to it's contributors
and has a very small circulation; so the ratio of effort to return is
small. Plus I get no subsidy, no support and each issue makes a loss,
or just about pays for itself. On top of all that, I almost never get
anything sent in without it being commissioned, so each issue represents
a disproportionate amount of work. And I do it when I can. So long as
this is the situation, there will only be an issue every couple of years.
The answer I suppose is, after 15 years, the Quarterly exists if I make
it exist and the response has been so small (I can't recall ever having
so much as one letter in the whole time, and no serious reviews) that
it is not a priority any more. I gave it fair chance. So. Now they are
Sourcebooks and they will, or will not, appear when I have gathered
sufficient materials or when I feel encouraged to press a little harder, or in response to some greater enthusiasm. But no,
it is not in suspended animation. I still think they are a valuable
resource and I will continue to produce them. But in their own time.
Since we're talking about the Quarterly: you've always been interested
in the theoretical side of music (by the way: is your book File Under
Popular still in print?); I remember that about twelve years ago you
gave an interview to Sound Choice where, talking about "informed,
engaged listening" you talked about a Hitchcock movie, Rope, and
how knowing "how it was done" made one change the way one
looked at it. How do you see the current situation with regards to the
press, when considering the way they look at records (yours or otherwise)
and the approach they "suggest" to the listeners?
Yes, my book is still in Print (here, in the USA and in Japanese
German and Polish). I am thinking about publishing another. You ask
about my take on the current situation with regards to the music press?
If I cared enough I would be depressed that, after 35 years there is
still no serious critical discourse about the kinds of music in which
I am involved that compares with the discourses around "serious"
music, film, theatre or literature. I am not against enthusiasm but
I would hope for more than that, in one journal at least. So I feel
that my interests are not yet catered for. It's why I started the Quarterly.
The general level of all the English music press I know is trivial and
shallow. There are no exceptions. Then you jump immediately to Popular
Music, a journal written in hard-core academic language and not intended
for the general interested reader. And so long as there is no serious
critical and theoretical discourse, the field will remain in shadow.
Perhaps we have to wait another 10 or 15 years. But it will happen.
If you don't mind, I'd like to go back to the "song"
topic, since I know there is an album about to come out (The Science
Group) that, from the names I've seen, sounds very promising.
I've been working on texts about theoretical physics, cosmology and
other hard science subjects for some years. I eventually gave them to
Stevan Tickmayer, with whom I was working on music for Hungarian choreographer
Josef Nadj. I've known Stevan for years since we first met in Novi Sad
in the early 80's. Then he moved to Holland and studied with Louis Andeissen.The
songs are extremely complex, and densely composed, but at the same time
direct and could even be called rock - of a sort. But equally they could
be called something else - in fact I hope they begin to approach a new
form... Amy Denio and Bob Drake sing, Fred plays most of the guitar
parts, Claudio Puntin plays clarinet and bass clarinet, Stevan Keyboards,
samples and electroacoustic manipulations and Bob the bass, some guitar
and some drums. He also engineered and mixed. It's not like anything
else I've done, or heard. And I think maybe it will take some getting used
to. There's a lot of information and it comes at you like a flood.
And speaking of Novi Sad, I would like to go on record that I consider
every civilian killed in Yugoslavia a murder and a war crime. That means
NATO leaders as much as the government of Jugoslavia. Doesn't anyone remember why we set up
the UN? If this is the pattern for the millennium, I hope the cockroaches
make a better job of it when we make ourselves extinct.
You just talked about the sad state of affairs in that part of
Europe, and today is the 1st of May - a symbolic date for workers all
over the world. You've always had clear political positions (I remember
when you put out the record to help the miners in their confrontation
with the Thatcher government) and the way you conduct your business
(record company, tours etc.) has always been in accord with your beliefs...
It's pretty hard not to have some kind of political position - because
we are human beings inevitably socialised in some kind of community
with a language, values, a culture - and as such it is impossible not
to have some sort of ethical position, which at a certain point will
collapse into a political position. The question is how informed and
thought out, how consistent and conscious that position is. People who
claim to have no political position are either not conscious of the
position they take or believe somehow that to conform uncritically with
the status quo is to be in neutral, as if the prejudices of any given
group are value free. So, yes, I suppose my position has always been
fairly clear, that is to say conscious, stated and acted upon.
Iancu Dumitrescu was a name I got to know via your distribution
organization. Would you say something about him? Besides, you've known
him personally, haven't you?
Like Stevan, Iancu belongs to the world of contemporary music. And
he stands out in high relief. He was the protégé of the
legendary Celibidache and has been deeply engaged in a phenomenological
and spectral approach to sound and it's organisation for the last 35
years. He really works with the inside of sounds, and demands - and gets - a great intensity and
force from the musicians with whom he works. And there are some remarkable
musicians in Romania, working in orchestras but ready to put in long
hours for other music when inspired by someone like Iancu, who is very
demanding, but for good reason and with great results. I have recently
been working with him, Ana Maria Avram - his partner and another great
composer - Tim Hodginson and the Hyperion ensemble. We gave concerts
on Romanian Radio and in France. It was a strong experience. Plus, on
a personal note, I get to play "classical" percussion in this
ensemble, which is a joy. And it is a great feeling to get be a soloist
in such music with such a great ensemble behind. We plan to continue
I'm sorry, but I've never heard of Celibidache...
Celibidache was a conductor of true genius, who refused to record
because he was concerned with actual experiences of real people in real
If you don't mind, I'd like to go back a bit; the first track
on Henry Cow's second album, Unrest, "acknowledges its debt to
O. Rasputin's Got to Hurry by the Yardbirds". This morning, for
unrelated reasons, I was listening to Hendix (Electric Ladyland). Now,
I don't know whether you witnessed the Yardbirds, Who, early Floyd etc.
in person, but you talked about them in your book. What I find puzzling
is that in that period, good, creative music found its way into the
charts and was released by the Majors (think Zappa or Velvet Underground
on the other side of the Atlantic) and seen by multitudes (think Cream).
Do you have any recollections of that period you'd like to share with
our readers - and any hypothesis about why creative music is not welcomed
by Majors anymore?
I used to see the Yardbirds almost every week, and I went to most
of the early Who, Hendrix, Floyd, Soft Machine concerts - and others
by extremely interesting groups who's names have not survived. It was
a dynamic period in Rock History and I was lucky to have been implicated
in it (the band I was then in was playing the same kind of music in
the same venues). Back then, there were only the majors really, and
major minors (Motown, Stax & so on; independent players but on the
main stage). It was a monopoly. Only Sun Ra I can think of ran his own
tiny artist label - and there was a handful of mavericks like ESP and
Folkways, who offered specialised, minority catalogues. So, if you wanted
to make a record, you automatically sent your demo to the majors, in
the hope that one of them would agree to exploit you. There didn't seem
to be any other option. And, having the whole field to themselves, the
majors covered all the ground - classical, pop, spoken word, easy listening,
folk, novelty, jazz. A positive aspect of this was that, as with book
publishing, there was room for imagination and integrity on the commissioning
fringes. Especially in the late 50's, when the market began rapidly to expand, opening onto
the age of creative A & R.
The rise of Punk in the late '70's saw all that change. With Punk
came the Do-It-Yourself ethic and dozens of independent or artist labels.
It set the new pattern that has not since been overturned. But make no mistake, if any record from any
independent source does seriously well in terms of sales, a major will swallow it, so a few interesting records do still
get out that way (some people would give Tom Waits or Bjork as examples).
However, now that the Independents are doing the groundwork, the majors
no longer have to. Old policy was to throw a mass of material at the
public and see what stuck - then follow up on the winners. New policy is to concentrate on massive
sellers and make them more massive, or to create mass sellers from the
outset - which means greater expenditure on hype and promotion and less
on spraying the market with speculative material.
When the hegemony of the Majors cracked, the old idea of a Mainstream
cracked too. While under central control it was still possible (this
was the case throughout the sixties) to have some broad overview of
the whole range of recorded music, since the big companies were able
to ensure it's presence in most stores and on the radio. Plus, with
a limited number of labels there was a limit to the amount of material
in circulation. A selection, you could say. Following the rise of independent
and artist labels, there was a massive proliferation of material - too
much to keep track of - alongside which ran the rapid growth of all
manner of specialised communities and networks of distribution and information,
since very little of the new output ever found it's way to the radio,
and minor label advertising budgets were non existent. Inevitably, a whole
alternative infrastructure began to emerge: fanzines, mailorder companies,
specialist shops and so on; it was simply a question of survival. Result:
massive fragmentation; disappearance of whole genres of music from the
public media. And this is not something peculiar to Music. Such fragmentation
is deeply ingrained in modern societies a all levels, in fact you could
say it is a condition of contemporary urban life. For the most part,
only the cream or the scum rises to the surface - what the majors want
to sell or the mass media find sexy - and occasionally something else,
that originates in the media wilderness but breaks through somehow directly
to the public in such numbers that it can no longer be ignored. Otherwise,
each subculture takes care of itself and time alone will sort out what
is important from the rest. For an artist, to work in good faith is
the only guide; popularity or acceptance by the industry has little
necessary connection with artistic quality.
A simple answer may be that creative music would be - and now and
then still is - welcomed by the majors, if it sells in huge quantities.
At the end of the day it is accountants who run the companies - and
they don't care if it's Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto so long
as it shifts in quantity. Look at rap.
As we speak the Beefheart box set is about to come out. You got
to know Drumbo (and Beefheart), plus you've talked about Zoot Horn Rollo's
book on your Web site. What do you think of the whole matter?
Don and the early Magic Bands were responsible for revolutionary
developments in Rock and Blues; it is work that shines so brightly I
think it has an assured place in musical history. They earned their
immortality. The rest is gossip. I'm not against gossip, and in the
long picture I think examination of the social dynamics of the development and production of such work is important and
educational. But an interview question is not the place; it would take
One field I'm very interested in is "organized sound";
here, you've done a lot to made this stuff available, from distributing
records by Schaeffer and Dockstader to releasing music by people who
are among my favourites ever: from ZGA (particularly The End of an Epoch)
to Biota (everything, but I have a weakness for Tumble), David Myers'
"Feedback music" and Ossatura. If I'm not mistaken you once
wrote that a lot of "noise, electronic" releases demand one's
attention but often one doesn't see one's effort repaid by the organizational
qualities of the material. What
is the situation at the moment, in your opinion, with regards to the
use of electronic means in the "post-industrial" styles?
While it is interesting to me the way that early experiments in the
field of "serious" music, notably Musique Concrete and Electronic
Music, rapidly found their way into low cultural discourses (by way
of The Who, Early Pink Floyd, Krautrock and so on), it probably wasn't
until the rise of so-called Industrial music that "pure noise"
acquired an iconic meaning as a kind of musically neutral sonic statement
of attitude (Who, Floyd, Faust were anything but musically neutral).
This came along with the rejection of skill and musical literacy that
characterised a faction of the Punk/New Wave that represented the post
Who/Floyd/Faust generation. The main difference between the generations
is aesthetic. An between identification with people or machines. It
is, after all, easy to make "sounds" - especially using new
technology (samplers, computers) even if you have no musical training.
I have no problem with that; it is liberating, it may help new musical
forms to evolve, stripped of prejudice and habit. But that makes the
question of quality more and not less critical. Ignorance may always
be a handicap, but it is not automatically a virtue. Anyone can work
with sound today, like the sound of what they hear and make a CD from
it. The question for me is still, Why? Why make a record? Why this kind
of sound and not that kind of sound? Who and what is it for? Because
I run a record label, I get a lot of CD's and cassettes sent to me.
And more and more of them are drone-based, loop based and "noise"-based.
To my ears 90% of them sound boringly the same (surely America can only
be discovered once). Boringly, because I can discern no organising structure,
no content, no reason why they need to exist. I don't understand them
(though obviously thousands do). For me there is sound that has meaning; that has some
aesthetic value (and I would not therefore call it noise, Docksader,
AMM, ZGA, Biota are good examples - this is rather music made with creatively
stretched resources). Then there is sound that is irritating and formless
(so that, to me, it continues to be no more than noise - unwanted sound).
To my taste there is way too much of the second category and way too
little of the first. After all, if you are going to make a new music
with new sounds, that is a difficult and not an easy task. It requires
a lot of problems to be solved and questions to be answered. It requires
a kind of necessity: a reason to exist rather than not to exist. It
is harder, not easier than most other musics because rules do not yet
exist and have persuasively to be proposed. And if in such music I don't sense innovation,
a musical thread, a well-told story, critical appreciation, editing,
intelligent decision making, a sense of colour, balance, structure, drama, development, tension, necessity - then I hear only
noise. On the other hand, I have a particular admiration for works in
which I do perceive those qualities.
So, the best I can do here is give reasons for my personal prejudices.
I am glad everyone can release whatever CD's they want and win the opportunity
to find some public. But that does not mean I think every offering is
of equal value or is all equally value-free. But where is the critical
discourse? In what language can it be conducted?
I really liked the Cutler/Greaves "rhythm section" in the
Henry Cow days - and I am a big fan of John Greaves' solo work; I have
to say that sometimes I have the impression that, since his solo albums
have mostly consisted of songs, his post-Cow work is maybe considered
as being somewhat "less valid" than what has been released
by the other former members of the group. You've played together again,
on record and in concert, with Peter Blegvad...
was, after Fred and Tim, a founder member of Henry Cow, and I was in
the group with him for six years, so it's not only easy to picture but
to say he was essential to the group and it's development. And we still
share the language we all developed together in those shaping years.
I suppose what
you mean is that our Post-Cow trajectories have been quite different.
And of course John left before the end when he felt that the music was
becoming too complex and cerebral. I suppose I could make two observations.
Firstly Tim, Fred, Lindsay and I not only continued - as John did -
in fairly visible projects after the end of Henry Cow, but also increasingly
in improvising contexts, slowly integrating into that mainstream world
of festivals and ad hoc groupings - as well, of course, as continuing
in rock and composed music contexts. John, as you recall, like Fred
and I, first worked on an LP of songs (something Henry Cow had never
tackled) and continued then in National Health, working mostly in band
contexts thereafter and with his own song material. He didn't really
enter the improvising community as such (though he continued to improvise
and had a band with Elton Dean and Mark Hewins in the late 70's). John,
I would say, like Fred, was someone whose musical centre was expressive
and emotional and not in the first place intellectual. I am not making
a value judgement here, and prizing one bias against another - both
are essential and both produce great music - I am simply making a personal
observation that tries to find the feeling behind your question. But
this did mean that the rest of us became more visibly associated with
the worlds of composed music, "freely improvised musics",
art music and noise experiments than John did - although - when you
get close to it - he includes work with Peter Gordon and Michael Nyman
and the large-scale projects of Mike Mantler in his Curriculum Vitae,
as well as writing for theatre and stints with David Cunningham, The
Penguin Café Orchestra and David Thomas' Pedestrians. Looking
back, perhaps the localities of our various subsequent visibilities
may, to an outsider make it seem we would have been unlikely intimates.
But then Henry Cow was an unlikely confection in the first place - which
was probably the reason it was so interesting to be in and took such
an individual path. Fred came out the Folk clubs, John from his father's
Dance band in Wrexham, Tim was inspired by Coltrane, Lindsay came up
through the National Youth Orchestra and I came to the group
from a psychedelic rock band... who would put money on such a chimera
you say, John and I began working together again with Peter Blegvad
six years ago, and I for one am very happy about that. First, it is
a pleasure to play with him. Second - who else could do that job? Finally,
it is perhaps worth mentioning that when we (the Blegvad Trio) were
in Japan recently, the three of us made three separate shows (very economical
for the promoter - three evenings for three airfares) John played a
solo programme (piano, singing), The Blegvad Trio played Peter's evening
of songs, I played a solo programme, and the three of us also improvised
a set together - Peter reading texts out of his book. A lot of very
different ground covered under a single roof - quite like the old days
like to ask you about the current state of affairs with regards to drumming.
I still like the fluid grooves of Stax/Motown I liked in my pre-teen
days - they "breathed" - as opposed to the layered drum machine
tracks of today's hits; it could be I'm just old-fashioned. But what
I don't see much today is an approach that's innovative with regards
to a "high level" of expertise in an "innovative"
music - like in the '60s (Moon, Baker, Mitchell, Wyatt) and '70s (you,
Vander, Denis…). It's been a long time since I've seen a drummer
that I thought was "pretty good" - and I don't mean "technically
proficient". Am I missing something?
the musicians make the music or does the music make the musicians? You
could argue that Henry Cow made us all what we became. And of course
it was we who made Henry Cow what it was. The fact is that collective
enterprises like ours evolve through a dynamic and reciprocal process
in which individual identities are continually adjusting, with individual
skills developing in quite specific ways. One learns, one is inspired,
one puts in and takes out - the final result being in no one's hands.
The Magic Band was not simply One Genius and a bunch of sidemen - which
is why it was great whereas the Virgin era band was not; and why, I
would say equally, The early Mothers were great and Zappa's later bands,
when it was all him, were not. So, it seems to me the question is -
what kind of bands do we have today, and what kind of musicians are
they producing? Or alternatively - if you were an innovative musician
under present circumstances, is rock the field you would choose to enter?
the mid 60's to early 70's the general climate in Rock was one of experiment
and innovation - both in the mainstream and on the fringes. I mentioned
Beefheart and Zappa, I could add the (later) Beach Boys and Beatles,
Hendrix, the Barrett era Pink Floyd - all had hit singles, all were
pushing the limits of rock. Noel Redding was perfect with Hendrix and
Mitchell, but would he have been in another group? Would Hendrix have
been so great with another band? I doubt both scenarios. Rock was young
then, and finding its way. But those days are long passed. Punk ridiculed
technique and insisted on sound, repetition, attitude and the character
of the singer as the essential values, driving technique into that other
massive subculture, Heavy Metal, where it ossified and dug itself in
to a set of rules so oppressive it never escaped - supported, I have
to say, by a vast public that also didn't want it to change. Punk quickly
faded and the anodyne successors of the New Wave continued to heap the
emphasis on singers and production. Performance values were not demanded
and pop music quickly became MOR music, ceasing to be, so far as I could
see, a vital field of growth. Which is not say there weren't good songs
written and great records made, but they were no longer concerned with
instrumental skills. The next generation began experimenting again,
but not with the old instruments but samplers and sequencers and computers
and readymade machines, to which again, performance skills and expressive
technique were not significantly applicable.
remains the case today that innovation and experiment are little valued
and bands not much inspired to innovate and experiment. Innovators are
less likely to join, they look for other outlets at present. And DJ's
of course have to stay within the rules, because the music they make
is not (concert) music
for listening, but (functional) music for dancing. Nevertheless It has
to be said that, in the mass public arena, Dance music is where the
experiments and innovations are happening, though these innovations
have nothing to do with playing, as our generation understood it. Back
in Britpop-MOR world the individuality of musicians is not significant.
As with Rap, although personal technique and skill does often distinguish
hits from misses, this is only in respect of singers and producers.
Players are invisible. Young people in general don't go to see bands,
as we did in the 60's, because they have a great bass player, or a great
guitarist or a great drummer (which was a lot of the attraction of The
Yardbirds, The Who, Hendrix and so on). To see players now you go to
Jazz or improvising concerts, or to see country music or Heavy Metal.
the expanding days of rock, listeners recognised and valued technique,
style, innovation and touch. Today in pop, it is mainly machines that
make new sounds, keep time and provide the singer's carpet. The quality
we called "feel", so essential in Motown for instance, is
now largely irrelevant. For the moment production values have triumphed
in record making, and these are the values which the public now recognises.
Human beings may be good at "feel" but machines are more production
friendly: they are perfect, don't have opinions and don't make mistakes.
Moreover, they are character neutral - leaving that ground to be wholly
occupied by the singer and the record's producer. Something similar
is happening in the film industry. But I have to say that this is not
a situation I expect will last much longer. Nature abhors a vacuum,
and what is human will sooner or later reassert itself.
Beppe Colli 1999 - 2005
| July 28, 2005