Last night, after taking the stage with a large band at Brooklyn's Roulette, Fred Frith, about to play the entirety of his wonderful 1980 album Gravity, told the audience, "I know some of you have already heard that my dear friend and colleague Lindsay Cooper passed away yeaterday. This is for her." Frith's voice cracked as he made the announcement and it was clear his hear was broken. Mine broke a little bit too. The opening band last night was a horns-and-reeds-led combo led by Aaron Novik, who was also in Frith's band. They were pretty wonderful, but I also thought as I listened that they did their thing very well, and their thing was one of about ten things that Henry Cow did amazingly well. Which led me to think of Lindsay Cooper, the multi-instrumentalist (although she was most proficient on bassoon and oboe) and composer whose work I first heard in the context of that great British progressive (in every sense of the word) band. Cooper, I knew, had been ill with multiple sclerosis for several years, and was in an ever-increasingly debilitated state. She was being looked after by several friends, including the director Sally Potter, to whom I inquired about Cooper's condition when Potter visited the New York Film Festival last year. I sensed it was a painful conversation for Potter to have, but she also seemed glad someone asked after Cooper. When Novik's group was playing, I wondered how she was doing. Frith, sadly, answered my question. Here's a short news item from a music website.
I'd like to be able to put on my critic's hat and discuss how she redefined the place of the oboe in rock music (ar ar ar), or her significance as a feminist in the avant-garde (an area in which much of what's termed feminist criticism is loath to tread for reasons that continuously elude me) but... It's odd to live in a culture where the conditions are such that you kind of have to pre-explain why an artist who worked in the kind of relative obscurity in which Cooper did is/was great. If I feel a personal sense of loss at the passing of someone I only ever met once, and briefly (I believe it was at a show at Maxwell's where she performed with drummer Chris Cutler, backing David Thomas), it's because the music she made was/is such a strong part of my life and my sensibility.
Cooper's connection with Potter, incidentally, was very strong. Potter wrote lyrics and librettos for Cooper, and was a founding member with Cooper of the collective Feminist Improvising Group. Cooper in fact co-wrote the screenplay for Potter's still-provocative 1983 film The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, who also co-produced. I wrote about that film here.
UPDATE: Sarah Maude, who helped administrate Lindsay Cooper's care during her illness, e-mailed the musician's fans and friends this morning, September 23. Here is the text of the note:
Dear wonderful friends, admirers and fans of Lindsay,
I am sorry to have to let you know that Lindsay died on 18th September – it was as she wished, peacefully at home, surrounded by her special friends – her courageous battle against MS was helped by the wonderful support she was given by her care workers, medical professionals and her loving group of friends
Although many of you are not in the UK, we would like you to know that her funeral will be held in the West Chapel of Golders Green Crematorium at 5.00pm on Wednesday 25th September, so that you can offer up prayers, think loving thoughts, chant, hold her in the light or do whatever you would like to do in memory of her – Lindsay was a wonderfully talented person who will be remembered with affection and admiration – a Memorial Service is planned at some stage in the future: if you would like to be kept up to date on those plans, please go to email@example.com
I want to send a special thank you to you all, for your support of Lindsay over the years, your emails, your gifts, your thoughts – it was an enormous comfort to her to know that there were people in so many countries who admired her talent and appreciated her music – please know that you were an important part of her life.
With best wishes,
Here are some examples of Cooper's work, which deserve to be heard in better formats than YouTube. I encourage you to seek them out.
From the final Henry Cow recording, a section of a suite composed by Cooper. With Frith, Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson on alto sax/clarinet/organ, Anne-Marie Roelofs on violin/trombone, and Irene Schweizer on piano.
While the band Art Bears (the word "bears" in its name is a verb, apparently, which I admit I was rather disappointed to learn) was formed after a disagreement within Henry Cow as to whether it was meant to be a song-based band, the personnel on its amazing debut album Hopes and Fears is that of Cow minus John Greaves, who had decamped to National Health. This tune, which Frith played as part of his encore last night, doesn't feature Cooper and Hodgkinson until a couple of minutes in, but is a wonderfully characteristic one.
News From Babel was a group for which Cooper composed the music; Cutler wrote texts and drummed; Zeena Parkins played harp and accordian, and the great Dagmar Krause sang. The closing words to this song are: "I rage/I feel my love/Trapped/In a world/Of stillness/Like a wasting illness."