Henry Cow - Barbican Hall

21st November 2014 (with Jim Knipe)

Henry Cow - Barbican Hall

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died in 2013 from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. This performance at the Barbican on November 21st, part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival, 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. Without seeing a list of attendees and cross-referencing it with a list of the audience’s political affiliations I can’t verify The Guardian’s claim that Italian communists helped fill the hall, but the crowd was certainly international and I’d guess that a fair number were ‘ageing revolutionaries and prog-heads’, though perhaps only a small proportion of those going along just for Cooper’s progressive rock credentials were actually sympathetic with the bassoonist’s feminism and politics. I’d class myself as both ageing revolutionary and prog-head, but my primary reason for attending was 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 RIO stalwart 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, Half the Sky 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, Half the Sky being the first. Along with Cutler’s expansive drum technique and both Cutler and Frith playing barefoot, this lent the performance a ‘genially shambolic’ air. 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 wide range of instruments playing 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’d seen Dagmar Krause in 1984 at the Bloomsbury Theatre (along with David Thomas, Lindsay Cooper, Chris Cutler, Georgie Born, Sally Potter, Phil Minton and Jason Osborn) performing at the Actual Festival of Experimental Music, when I wasn’t too keen on her vocal delivery, but I found her much more melodic than I remembered; 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 Russia’s recent invasion and annexation of Crimea. Oh Moscow was a superb demonstration of Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.
I loved the performance, which was warm and celebratory and full of brilliant music.