Born in 1951 in Hornsey, North London, Lindsay Cooper is one of the most distinctive voices in English music from the 70s to the mid-90s. Trained in piano since the age of 11, she was influenced by her teacher’s son – who played the bassoon in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – and switched to what would become her main instrument. After various years spent in the classical world, with studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music, she started along the progressive rock path in Comus (she plays on To Keep From Crying) while also appearing on Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Having also learnt oboe and flute – the soprano sax came later – she replaced Geoff Leigh in Henry Cow while she was still involved with Ritual Theatre and the rest, as they say, is history: Unrest, In Praise Of Learning and Western Culture (the entirety of whose second side was penned by Cooper) have been in Intelligent Rock Music’s Hall Of Fame since they were released. After Henry Cow disbanded, Cooper and Chris Cutler formed News From Babel – the name refers to George Steiner’s book After Babel – with Zeena Parkins and Dagmar Krause; their two albums Work Resumed On The Tower and Letters Home (the latter including Robert Wyatt, Sally Potter and Phil Minton) stand among the greatest releases in the post-Canterbury canon. Talking of which, Cooper is also present on Hatfield And The North’s The Rotters Club and Egg’s The Civil Surface, and briefly joined National Health before they went their separate ways. Together with Maggie Nicols, Sally Potter, Georgina Born and Irene Schweizer, she was also active in the Feminist Improvising Group, a very important collective that existed between 1977 and 1982 that was unfortunately never captured on record (except for a rare tape released in 1979). In the early 80s, besides releasing her solo albums, she also worked with Mike Westbrook – appearing on The Cortège – David Thomas’ Pedestrians and Maarten Altena, as well as performing with her own Film Music Orchestra. It’s no exaggeration then to state that Cooper has been one of the brightest lights in the whole progressive/improvisation panorama of the latest 35 years, and her role in widening the interest around these contexts absolutely fundamental. That “has been” is sad, but necessary: Lindsay Cooper is currently suffering from multiple sclerosis, which makes writing about the past even harder but all the more urgent to remind ourselves of her great talent.
Lindsay Cooper has always written music of considerable complexity, accompanied by a vivid socio-political fervour and lucid curiosity, for several important commissions in cinema, theatre and television. To this day, her solo albums maintain their charming aura of cultural inquisitiveness while sounding – for want of a better word – beautiful. Rags (Recommended) is rooted in the study of the inhuman working conditions during the English Industrial Revolution; the large part of it constitutes the soundtrack to The Song Of The Shirt, a movie about the hardship of seamstresses in London’s textile mills. Popular songs and challenging arrangements are entwined in a music that still carries a few residual echoes of Henry Cow (Fred Frith and Chris Cutler lend their services) but which is almost entirely based on the structures and forms of mid-19th century music. Sally Potter and Phil Minton sing, their presence a constant force driving Cooper’s music for many years, while the excellent Georgie Born contributes bass and cello. The Gold Diggers, maybe the best among the many projects Cooper has signed with Sally Potter, is a soundtrack to her film starring Julie Christie. Released by Sync Pulse and later reissued by Recommended on a single CD with Rags, it’s imbued with a touching sadness, a dramatic eloquence rarely heard in the music of that period; the score calls for almost theatrical powers of interpretation, but Cooper throws in melodic and contrapuntal subtleties by the dozen: the melody of “Iceland” sticks in the memory for a long time, as rage subsides when it encounters the composer’s elegant heart-warming calligraphy. This is just as much in evidence on another hard-to-find Sync Pulse release, Music For The Small Screen, but, above all, on Music For Other Occasions, first published by Sync Pulse and later reissued on CD by No Man’s Land with additional material. Each of its many short tracks is an absolute jewel that reveals Cooper’s remarkable sensitivity to her thematic material, encapsulated in her distinctive harmony with its neoclassical twist. Sally Potter is flanked by fellow vocalists Dagmar Krause, Kate Westbrook and Maggie Nicols, as well as Zeena Parkins and Georgie Born, whose guitar lines often recall the old comrade Frith. A must, like the first two albums.The last collaboration between Cooper and Potter to appear on disc was the song cycle Oh Moscow (Victo), which was presented all around the world and recorded at the 1989 Victoriaville Festival by a stellar band featuring Potter and Minton as well as Marilyn Mazur, Elvira Plenar, Hugh Hopper and the front line of Lindsay and Alfred Harth (on tenor sax and clarinet), whose playing is truly fabulous: pure lyrical desperation, goosebumps guaranteed. Curiously enough, these songs were influenced by the division of Europe due to the Cold War, yet the Berlin Wall came down 39 days after the work’s premiere – the music’s beauty was auspicious. We’d need another kind of song today. Instead, though, Schrödinger’s Cat (Femme/Line) is a collection of Cooper’s electronic-based dance pieces for the Maclennan Dance & Company’s EDGE which, while it has its moments, sounds, in its Mikel Rouse-like synthetic precision, curiously at odds with the fantastic humanity and the deep reflection of Cooper’s best moments. This and the forgettable Pia Mater (Voiceprint), a synth/reed duo with Charles Gray at times recalling Paul Winter’s New Ageish flights, are the only records by this fine artist you could do without.
At the beginning of the 90s, Cooper started working closely with Australian writer Robyn Archer, composing pieces for theatre and television, with some of the more recent ones, based on the bassoon’s timbral nuances, appearing on the CD An Angel On The Bridge (ABC Records). It’s a rather brief collection of “lighter” soundtracks whose alluring flavour bears no subversive or rebellious darts; just delicate pearls of soft-spoken propulsion, whose textural subtleties are enhanced by Louise Johnson’s harp, Cathy Marsh’s siren-like singing and Michael Askill’s percussion. This little gem has been reissued in the 2-CD set A View From The Bridge (Impetus), which also contains Cooper’s “Concerto For Sopranino Saxophone And Strings” and “Songs For Bassoon And Orchestra”, the most recent works she completed before health problems intervened. But the most satisfying result of the collaboration with Archer is Sahara Dust (Intakt), where, once again, the ever-changing voice of Phil Minton carries most of the expressive weight in a series of lyrics inspired by the events of the first Gulf War. Writes Archer: “The piece looks at a contracting and increasingly chaotic world, where people can wake up to find Sahara dust [..] on their doorstep and see distant conflicts on their television”. Cooper’s score steps decisively towards the use of electronics coupled with reeds; her group also features Paul Jayasinha, Elvira Plenar, Robyn Schulkowsky and Dean Brodrick. It’s another profound statement from a musician we should never forget.