Lindsay Cooper: Bassoonist with Henry Cow who who went on to write film music

Her Cold War song cycle ‘Oh Moscow’, written with Sally Potter, was performed round the world

In the belated rush to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Virgin Records there has been a tendency to forget the groundbreaking acts who were signed to Richard Branson’s label in the mid-1970s. The bassoonist and oboist Lindsay Cooper was a member of the British avant-rock group Henry Cow, whose unusual, experimental approach took them to the outer edges of progressive music and free-form improvisation and earned them a strong following on the Continent.

They toured with Virgin label mates Captain Beefheart, Gong and Robert Wyatt and recorded four studio albums with Cooper, including Unrest in 1974, and Desperate Straights and In Praise Of Learning, both in partnership with Slap Happy, the following year. Cooper also made memorable contributions to Hergest Ridge, Mike Oldfield’s 1974 follow-up to his Tubular Bells debut whose success established the Virgin brand, as well as two key 1975 Virgin releases, Fish Rising, the first solo album by the Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, and The Rotters’ Club, the second album by the Canterbury scene band Hatfield and the North which inspired the Jonathan Coe novel of the same name.

Henry Cow broke up after issuing the Henry Cow Concerts double set in 1976 and Western Culture, the 1978 instrumental album on which Cooper blossomed as a composer, coming up with half the material, notably “½ The Sky”, a nod to Chairman Mao’s dictum “Women hold up half the sky.”

Indeed, in 1978 she co-founded the Feminist Improvising Group with the singer Maggie Nicols. Its membership included the cellist Georgie Born, the Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer and the vocalist and film-maker Sally Potter. In 1983, Cooper, Potter and her assistant Rose English co-wrote the script for The Gold Diggers, Potter’s full-length directorial debut featuring Julie Christie. While Potter penned the Brechtian lyrics for the expository songs, Cooper composed and recorded the haunting score which mirrored the film’s Ingmar Bergman-like atmosphere and helped get its feminist message across.

The soundtrack made the most of her wide-ranging skills as an instrumentalist – she also played the piano and various saxophones – and as the leader of an all-female ensemble comprising Born, Marilyn Mazur (drums), Kate Westbrook (tenor horn), Eleanor Sloan (violin), Rosemary Nalden (viola) and Linda Houghton (double bass), in keeping with Potter’s premise for the film.

Born in Hornsey, north London, in 1951, Cooper began playing the piano in her teens but became fascinated by the bassoon. She studied at the Dartington College of Arts in Devon and at the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music in London and went on to play with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain for three years.

She seemed set for a classical career, but changed her approach to music-making while spending a year in New York. After her return to the UK she joined Comus, a progressive folk band loosely allied to the Canterbury scene, and added flute and oboe to help broaden their sound. She left in 1972, though she contributed to their second album, To Keep From Crying, in 1974. By then, while working on a theatre project, she had met Fred Frith (guitar, violin) and Tim Hodgkinson (organ, piano), who had started Henry Cow while at Cambridge and had been joined by Chris Cutler (drums), John Greaves (bass) and Geoff Leigh (woodwinds), whom she replaced after the group’s 1973 debut, Legend.

Using the facilities at The Manor, Virgin’s residential studio in Oxfordshire, Henry Cow relied on tape manipulation and improvisation to complete Unrest, on which Cooper shone despite having just had her wisdom teeth extracted. They teamed up with the more song-based Slapp Happy, comprising vocalist Dagmar Krause, guitarist and singer Peter Blegvad and pianist Anthony Moore, for the formidable Desperate Straights and the intense In Praise Of Learning, whose cover nailed their left-wing colours to the mast with a blood red variation on the paint sock design created by artist Ray Smith

The Hamburg-born Krause was the only one who elected to continue with Henry Cow, bringing 1930s cabaret into what was already a heady equation. Though they recorded several John Peel sessions and influenced bands like The Fall and Sonic Youth, Henry Cow were never big in Britain. Following their dissolution, Cooper collaborated with Cutler, Frith and Krause in Art Bears, and worked with National Health, the Mike Westbrook Orchestra and David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame.

Her 1980 solo album Rags evolved out of another film project, The Song of the Shirt, about the sweatshops of Victorian London, directed by Sue Clayton and Jonathan Curling. It combined traditional songs and new material and chimed with Cooper’s political beliefs. In the mid-’80s she also played on The Last Nightingale, a mini-album recorded by Henry Cow alumni to benefit the striking miners. Around the same time the News From Babel project reunited her with Cutler and Krause for two critically acclaimed albums.

Given her reputation outside the British Isles and her international outlook, it was fitting that she did some of her best work abroad. Her Cold War song-cycle Oh Moscow, written with Potter, premiered at the 1987 Zurich Jazz Festival and was performed around the world. While residing in Australia in the early 1990s she collaborated with the Australian singer, writer and director Robyn Archer on the Gulf War critique Sahara Dust. In 1992 she wrote and performed Songs For Bassoon and Orchestra with the Bologna Opera House Orchestra. The same year she composed Face In The Crowd and Can Of Worms for San Francisco’s Rova Saxophone Quartet.

Though Cooper was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 1970s, she didn’t reveal her condition as she thought it would affect the way her music was perceived. She was forced to retire in the late ’90s but her compositions are still performed today and used for dance, exhibitions and art installations. She will be remembered as an inspirational figure.

Lindsay Cooper, multi-instrumentalist and composer: born London 3 March 1951; died London 18 September 2013.

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