Istovremeno suludo, iritantno, jezovito, zamorno, sublimno, anticefalno, hidroblasfemično, fetusno-avangardno, hrabro, opičeno, hera-klito-cistično, abortoseksualno, džezvično, improvizorno, malignomično, impozantno, mitopolitično, psihopatetično: državni terorizam u izvedbi skupine pacifističnih dupina.
I onda joj je učinio onu stvar s tavom...
Henry Cow were one of the most distinctive (okay difficult) of England’s 70s prog-rock groups. They are impossible to categorize and can definitely be said to be an “acquired taste.” They’re kind of the ultimate acquired taste, you really might say, but once you “get” their music, you come to see how Henry Cow fill in several boxes of the “what is everything that can possibly be done with the popular music artform?” grid all on their lonesome.
For about three years in the late 70s, I saw the same Henry Cow album, In Praise of Learning, sitting pricey and unsold in the “Imports” bin of a Musicland store in a St. Clairsville, Ohio shopping mall. Where X-Ray Spex, Renaissance, Suzi Quatro, New York Dolls, King Crimson, the Velvet Underground, Fairport Convention, The Damned, Tangerine Dream, Nektar, Klaus Schulze, John Cale, The Stooges, Gentle Giant, Magma, Gong, and The Sweet were all placed in the context of a catch-all “foreign music”/out of print in America/expensive category.
There was a quote on the back: “Art is not a mirror – it is a hammer” that really intrigued me (Scottish filmmaker John Grierson, the man who coined the term “documentary” said that). The lyrics seemed smart and mysterious and I wanted to understand them.
One of the clerks there told me “If you’re into groups like Genesis and Yes, Henry Cow is supposed to be like a weirder version of that.” I don’t think he’d ever heard them either—the record was still sealed—but that was sort of their reputation.
Despite the fact that I loathed both Yes and Genesis, it was that quote, “Art is not a mirror – it is a hammer” that eventually made me so curious about what was going on in the mysterious grooves of that record, that I finally succumbed and bought it. I think I paid $12 for it at a time when domestic LPs cost around $5.98 list.
I fucking hated it. The cool Marxist lyrics aside, it did nothing for me, but then again, I doubt that the band members of Henry Cow were sitting around in 1975 thinking “How do make our unorthodox, experimental music appeal to a teenage dickhead in rural West Virginia?”
It would take several years, in fact, before I ever listened to In Praise of Learning again, after those first few bewildered spins, and then I did start to appreciate the sheer bloody-mindedness of what these musicians were trying to do. Eventually I got really obsessed by it, especially the song performed in the clip below.
It’s not an album I pull out often, but I did like it enough to buy it on CD. Would I ever, say, decide to listen to In Praise of Learning in the car? Well, no. If you ask me, the way to appreciate Henry Cow, if you are approaching this work for the first time, is to look at them as a group of Marxist poets creating together. It’s certainly musical, but there is an “extra musical” component that I appreciate about In Praise of Learning, especially in the epic polemic, “Living in the Heart of the Beast,” with lyrics by Tim Hodgkinson:
Situation that rules your world (despite all you’ve said)Below, Henry Cow—Georgie Born – bass guitar, cello; Lindsay Cooper – bassoon, oboe, recorder, sopranino saxophone, piccolo, piano; Chris Cutler – drums;
I would strike against it but the rule displaces…
There I burn in my own lights fuelled with flags torn out
of books, and histories of marching together…
United with heroes, we were the rage, the fire.
But I was given a different destiny - knotted in closer despair.
Calling to heroes do you have to speak that way all the time ?
Tales told by idiots in paperbacks; a play of forms
to spite my fabulous need to fight and live.
We exchange words, coins, movements - paralysed in loops
of care that we hoped could knot a world still.
Sere words, toothless, ruined now, bulldozed into brimming pits
- who has used them how? Grammar book that lies wasted :
conflux of voices rising to meet, and fall,
empty, divided, other…
Clutching at sleeves the wordless man exposes his failure :
smiling, he hurls a wine glass, describing his sadness twisted
into mere form: shattered in a glass, he’s changed…
How dare he seize the life before him and discompound it in
sulphurous confusion and give it to the air?
He’s rushing to find where there’s a word of liquid syntax
- signs let slip in a flash: “clothes of chaos are my rage !”
he shrieks in tatters, hunting the eye of his own storm.
We were born to serve you all our bloody lives
labouring tongues we give rise to soft lies :
disguised metaphors that keep us in a vast inverted silliness
twice edged with fear.
Twilight signs decompose us
High in offices we stared into the turning wheel of cities
dense and ravelled close yet separate : planned to kill all encoutner.
Intricate we saw your state at work its shapes
abstracted from all human intent. With our history’s fire
we shall harrow your signs.
Now is the time to begin to go forward - advance from despair,
the darkness of solitary men - who are chained in a market they
cannot control - in the name of a freedom that hangs like a pall
on our cities. And their towers of silence we shall destroy.
Now is the time to begin to determine directions, refuse to admit
the existence of destiny’s rule. We shall seize from all heroes and
merchants our labour, our lives, and our practice of history : this,
our choice, defines the truth of all that we do.
Seize on the words that oppose us with alien force; they’re enslaved
by the power of capital’s kings who reduce them to coinage and
hollow exchange in the struggle to hold us, they’re bitterly
outlasting… Time to sweep them down from power
- deeds renew words.
Dare to take sides in the fight for freedom that is common cause
let us All be as strong and as resolute. We’re in the midst of
a universe turning in turmoil; of classes and armies of thought
making war - their contradictions clash and echo through time.
Fred Frith – guitar, violin, xylophone, piano, tubular bells; Tim Hodgkinson – organ, alto saxophone, clarinet; Dagmar Krause – voice—performing “Living in the Heart of the Beast"in Vevey, Switzerland for the Swiss TV program, Kaleidospop on August 25, 1976. The entire 75-minute concert can be found on Henry Cow 40th Anniversary Box Set.
Stay with it, at a certain point, some of you will probably not be able to take it, but if you can go with it, by the end it will make total sense. Fred Frith’s guitar solo in the latter half is fucking mind-blowing. - http://dangerousminds.net/
The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set
While modern recording technology and fast improving online distribution capability are making it easier to appreciate the full extent of today's artists' work, the same cannot be said about relatively short-lived groups from the 1970s. This is especially true of groups that, despite being in some cases remarkably influential, remain cult favorites with a relatively small but intensely dedicated fan base.
A case in point is Henry Cow, a British group that began life in 1968 but didn't release its first music until 1973. Cow created some highly innovative and joyous noise throughout its 10 year run. It was also responsible for the creation of Rock in Opposition (RIO)—a loose collective of progressive-thinking bands that initially included Italy's Stormy Six, Sweden's Samla Mammas Manna, Belgium's Univers Zero and France's Etron Fou Leloublan—which has remained in philosophical opposition to the inequities of the record industry.
Cow's relatively diminutive discography—Legend (Virgin, 1973), Unrest (Virgin, 1974), In Praise of Learning (Virgin, 1975), Concerts (Caroline, 1976) and Western Culture (Broadcast, 1979), along with the peripheral Desperate Straights (Virgin, 1975), a reciprocal collaboration with Slapp Happy in return for that group's participation on In Praise (a brief merger of the two groups, in fact)—provided plenty of fine evidence of an intrepid and experimental (albeit constantly shifting) group that emerged out of the nascent Canterbury scene which also included groups like Soft Machine and Egg.
But while Legend possesses some markers to link it to the Canterbury scene, the group's three constants—guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, percussionist Chris Cutler and keyboardist/saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson—quickly transcended even that broad musical categorization to become an entity that embraced, certainly more than most, author William S. Burroughs' iconic statement, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
The music ranged from detailed composition—approaching, at times, contemporary classical music in its rich layers and contrapuntal complexity—to flat-out free improvisation which utilized pre-recorded tapes and a wealth of instruments and sundry items that made the Henry Cow stage look more like a musical instrument yard sale.
Henry Cow 1973: Geoff Leigh, Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, John Greaves
As rich and varied as Cow's recorded music is, it can't possibly tell the whole story about the group, with no shortage of composed material and alternate arrangements either unrecorded or left on the cutting room floor. The studio was an early tool for experimentation, with a myriad of overdubbing and other techniques allowing the group to create soundscapes that, at the time, couldn't be recreated live. And Cow was, indeed, a band to be experienced live—a different beast entirely that, with the exception of Concerts, went woefully undocumented. The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set, promised by Cutler for well over a decade and now finally delivered, goes a long way towards filling in various gaps in the group's musical history and painting a more complete picture of Henry Cow by sourcing material from demos, rehearsal tapes and a variety of live performances. The quality varies, but Cutler and Bob Drake's editing and mastering work is superb, making even the poorest of sound sources—some coming from audience cassette recordings—surprisingly clear and full.
The box is divided into two five-disc sets, each available separately or together—if bought together, a bonus third box is provided to house the existing Cow studio discography. The first box covers the group's earliest recordings from 1971 through to the 1976 Hamburg, Germany radio recording that was bassist John Greaves' final performance with the group. It also includes the Trondheim, Norway performance from the tour that immediately followed Greaves' departure, with the group pared down by necessity to a quartet that also included bassoonist/oboist Lindsay Cooper, who had joined the group for Unrest, replacing founding member/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Geoff Leigh.
The second box contains four CDs that follow the group through to its end in 1978, also including what is, perhaps, the gem of the entire set—a DVD of a 1976 performance in Vevey, Switzerland. Featuring Krause and newcomer Georgie Born on bass and cello in addition to Frith, Hodgkinson, Cutler and Cooper, the sextet performs material from In Praise and more, including Hodgkinson's "Erk Gah"—also known as "Hold to the Zero Burn, Imagine," later released on Hodgkinson's Each In Our Own Thoughts (Megaphone, 1994). There are more surprises still, but the bottom line is: The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set offers, for the first time, a comprehensive account of Henry Cow's breadth and depth.
For those familiar with Cow's existing discography, hearing early versions of Frith's "Teenbeat" and Hodgkinson's "Amygdala" reveal just how far the group would evolve by the time it laid these tracks down for Legend. "Pre-Teenbeat I" and "Pre-Teenbeat II," which open up the first disc (Beginnings) contain many of the markers that would end up on the finished version, but here they're sparer, germinal ideas, as is the case with an extract from Hodgkinson's "Amygdala." The 10-minute version of Frith's "Teenbeat," on the other hand, expands upon the album version with a lengthy solo from Frith and entirely new sections that embed free improvisation and odd conversational snippets, courtesy of Egg's Dave Stewart and vocalists Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal—members of The Ottawa Music Company, a collective ("Rock Composer's Orchestra," according to Cutler) formed by Cutler and Stewart in 1970 that never recorded but performed with an ever-growing group of musicians from (or soon to be in) Henry Cow, Egg, Khan and Hatfield and the North. Frith's "With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star" was only represented by a three-and-a-half minute excerpt on Legend; here it's reproduced in its entirety, its nearly 12 minutes featuring a wild, overdriven organ solo by Hodgkinson redolent of Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge.
Beginnings also includes three previously unheard tracks—the brief but knottily arranged "Olwyn Grainger," the freely improvised "Betty McGowan" and Greaves' "Lottie Hare," a neo-classical miniature that's in sharp contrast to his more jazz-inflected "Half Asleep, Half Awake," that would appear on Unrest and also on disc two of the box (Early 2). Two unexpected vocal tracks from Frith reveal a nascent songwriter long before he began exploring shorter song-form with Art Bears and on solo albums including Gravity (Fred/ReR, 1980) and Cheap at Half the Price (Fred/ReR, 1983). Still, these were no straightforward three-chord tunes, with "Rapt in a Blanket" dabbling in irregular meters and "Came to See You" experimenting with episodic shifts in feel and complex arrangements. Both songs show the influence of Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt and, with another overdriven organ solo from Hodgkinson, Mike Ratledge.
Early 2 opens with a series of well-recorded tracks from an unknown source, largely culled from Unrest but demonstrating Cow's penchant for mixing things up in performance so that, while all the signposts of Frith's "Ruins" are there, the complexion is changed by inserting "Half Asleep" smack dab in the middle. Frith doesn't reproduce the razor's edge tone of his solo on the studio version of "Ruins," but his immense, soundscape-like replacement provides an alternate approach that's perhaps even more powerful, before dissolving into a free improv section where the guitarist's innovative approach to prepared guitar techniques are on full display—concepts that he'd mine and evolve further over the years, in ways that would position him alongside Derek Bailey for sheer audacity and textural unpredictability.
Cow's ability to combine complex composition with improvisation of reckless abandon can be heard on the 30-minute excerpt from a 1974 Halsteren, Holland show. Presaging the more concise, 13-minute vocal version of Hodgkinson's "Living in the Heart of the Beast" that immediately follows on the disc (from a 1975 performance in Paris, France that also features Krause's first appearance), in Halsteren the group—at this point a quartet, with Cutler, Frith, Greaves and Hodgkinson—intersperses individual and collective soloing with composed segments from Hodgkinson's epic piece.
The books that accompany each box represent some of the most thorough and complete start-to-finish documentation of a group ever presented in a collection of this nature. A combination of oral history, recollections (fond and otherwise) and musical references, it also provides a detailed and chronological list of gigs and recording sessions so extensive that they shine a bright light on the difference between groups today and those of decades past. Faced with the harsh reality that, today, an extensive tour is rarely more than a couple of weeks in length, modern groups often have to splinter so that individual musicians can work in enough contexts to make a living. Not that living was by any means easy (Cutler's documentation clearly lays out the expenses of running a band), but as was the case with groups like Egg (documented in Uriel and Egg: The Road to Hatfield and Beyond), for the majority of Henry Cow's existence, it was an all-consuming affair where its members focused on nothing else but the group.
The group makes wordplay out of a number of known compositions from its studio discography, nodding perhaps to the sometimes significant alterations that were made to them for a specific performance or tour. Frith's "Bittern Storm Over Ulm," from Unrest, becomes "Heron Shower Over Hamburg," while the Frith/Cutler collaboration, "Beautiful As the Moon—Terrible As an Army With Banners," from In Praise, becomes "Fair as the Moon," in the 1976 Hamburg, Germany performance that opens disc three (Hamburg). Mirroring the BBC session that opens Concerts, the tune segues into Frith's "Nirvana for Mice" (from Legend), this time "Nirvana for Rabbits," gradually descending into crazed freedom despite Cutler largely managing to keep time moving forward. A brief drum solo and bassoon intro from Cooper turn stark for "Ottawa Song" and "Gloria Gloom," the latter a song by Robert Wyatt and bassist Bill MacCormick from their Matching Mole album, Matching Mole's Little Red Record (Columbia, 1972).
Unlike Concerts, however, the group then veers off into nearly 25 minutes of largely dark-hued free improvisation that's closer to contemporary classicism than it is to free jazz. It's a lengthy ride of abstruse harmony and unpredictable textures running the gamut from no time/no changes to time and, if not exactly changes, harmonic shifts that at least provide a core, before finding their way back to the irregular-metered vamp of "Beautiful As the Moon" for an end to the 47-minute continuous set, followed by another lengthy free improvised piece, "A Heart." The disc closes with two tracks culled from 1975 audience recordings in Rome and Paris, both featuring guest Robert Wyatt singing his own "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road," from Rock Bottom (Virgin, 1974) and a surprising and wackily absurdist take of "We Did It Again," the iconic and repetitive Kevin Ayers song from Soft Machine's 1968 debut, Volume One (Probe).
The final two discs of the first box (Trondheim 1 and Trondheim 2) document a complete concert recorded in Trondheim, Norway on May 26, 1976. With Greaves' departure and Krause ill in Hamburg, the group had committed to a nine-city Norwegian tour. And so, rather than looking for replacements the group continued on as a four-piece—Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson and Cooper—putting on a series of entirely improvised concerts performed largely in the dark (lit only, if at all, by candlelight). The quartet had already been experimenting with taped sounds, and here it augments the landscape with various prepared materials on tape—one tape for each musician—that, while running continuously throughout the two-hour shows, were activated at will by each player with a foot pedal, creating unexpected interjections that could drive the group in entirely different directions.
Other than a few very sketchy markers and Frith's "The March"—a two-chord, 3/4 time vamp with a quirky yet still lyrical melody that gave each concert's end greater definition—this was about as unapproachable as Henry Cow ever got, and yet amongst the densities and at times harsh realms are moments of profound beauty. The 80-minute improvisation, spread over two discs, demonstrates the kind of intuitive push-and-pull that could only come from musicians not just spending a great deal of time playing together, but also living together, with a potent ability to sometimes shift ambience and color at the drop of a dime (even if, on a practical level, that dime was hard to come by).
There are those who question the purpose of extended forays into freely improvised territory, and Henry Cow's roughly equal allegiance to spontaneity and through-composition created an at times unfathomable blend of unheard beauty and catharsis. The sheer fearlessness with which Henry Cow approached its music—whether it was the extended liberation of unfettered improvisation or the seemingly impossible challenge of learning impenetrable material like "Erk Gah"—heard performed by the group for the first time on disc six (Stockholm & Goteborg)—made it a group that, four decades on, has never been even remotely imitated, even though there are many who cite Cow as a seminal influence. Cutler's notes on the subject of improvisation are a revelation—some of the best words ever written to try to explain the hows and whys of the process:
Improvisation is not a style; it's a way of being. And although it has to be learned—like speaking a language or driving a car—it can't help you with what to say or where to go: it's more a case of learning how, not learning what. I could describe my own state of mind when improvising as a kind of forgetful attentiveness. I'm certainly not listening minutely to what anyone else is doing; I don't routinely make decisions about my own interventions and I never express myself.In other circles, sensitivity in improvisers is praised and appreciated, but I suspect Henry Cow would—had we ever discussed the question—have dismissed that kind of sensitivity as a euphemism for Bourgeois good manners—or fear. Harmonious agreement was never our way. Where composition superimposes a past onto a present, improvisation—when it works—is pure, unencumbered, present—a vehicle for the transfiguration of time. We would leap from the struggle with our pasts into these pools of forgetting. By not looking where we were going—and not trying to go anywhere in particular—we collectively stumbled, throughout our career, into impossible, beautiful and unrepeatable music, unaccountably conjured out of the space between ourselves and our contingent public. And although we increasingly argued about our compositions and their direction of travel, our improvisations evolved wordlessly and without conflict—as if they belonged to another version of ourselves, more harmonious in spirit.
Taken from radio recordings in March, 1976 and May, 1977, Cutler and Drake fashion a "performance that could have been" on Stockholm & Goteborg, culled from a series of free improvisations, "Erk Gah," "Ottawa Song," "March," Hodgkinson's bleak and curious "A Bridge to Ruins" (a coda to "Erk Gah") and another surprise—Phil Ochs' "No More Songs." The Ochs tune is about as direct and traditional, in terms of song form, as Henry Cow ever got and was performed as a tribute to the legendary songwriter, who had died the previous year (1976). That the personnel vary throughout the disc—from the same quartet that recorded Trondheim on the Goteborg date to the sextet with Greaves on "Ottawa Song" and with newcomer Georgie Born at the Stockholm show—is irrelevant. The entire 63-minute disc feels of a oneness, as if it came from a single performance.
With the exception of "Ottawa Song," taken from the same March, 1976 show as Hamburg with John Greaves, the rest of Stockholm & Goteborg also features Georgie Born on bass and cello. While still capable of the kind of timekeeping necessary on tunes like "March" (here receiving a far clearer and definitive treatment than on Trondheim), Born's approach was often more orchestral—a contrapuntal partner to those around her in the same way that Cutler, an equally potent groove-meister (though, at times, almost impossibly so given the group's penchant for mind-boggling metric shifts), was an intrepid and imaginative colorist.
Cow continued to be extremely active following the release of 1975's In Praise of Learning, but as 1977 approached they'd not released or recorded an album of new material and, despite the evidence of evolution heard on these discs, there was considerable disagreement as to the direction in which the group was heading. There was no shortage of material—the group had yet to record "Erk Gah," and Cooper was also contributing more. However, when Cutler was asked to come up with new text for "Erk Gah" in the week before the first studio session for what would become Western Culture, it proved an impossible task and, instead, he wrote a series of shorter song texts, proposing the group record them instead. The ultimate disagreement about what Henry Cow should be resulted in those songs being collected, along with four more composed and performed solely by Frith, Cutler and Krause, as Art Bears' debut, Hopes and Fears (ReR, 1978). Meanwhile, Cooper and Hodgkinson wrote (separately and collaboratively) the material that would appear on Western Culture, with "Viva Pa Ubu" and "Slice" first appearing on the 1982 double LP, The Recommended Records Sampler, and later showing up as bonus tracks on East Side Digital's 2001 CD issue of Western Culture.
The group had, by this time, left Virgin Records, with Concerts being released by Caroline. Like Stockholm & Goteborg, disc seven (Later and Post-Virgin) again creates the semblance of what a 1977 performance might have sounded like. The inclusion of two tunes that would ultimately be associated with Art Bears—the plodding and melodically abstruse "Joan" and appropriately funereal "On Suicide," with words by Berthold Brecht put to music by Hans Eisler—show that, while Cow would ultimately dissolve over artistic differences, those differences weren't at all visible to the public. Like Soft Machine—whose best music was often driven to greater places by a tension resulting from four musicians with different musical goals—Henry Cow may well have been experiencing internal difficulties, but the music was still as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so.
The group returned to composed material from early albums, including a particularly vicious "Teenbeat 2," with some of Frith's most searing guitar playing of the box; an even more idiosyncratic "Brain Storm Over Barnsley"; and another kick at "Teenbeat 3," this time with Hodgkinson's saxophone at its most visceral. Greaves and Cutler's "Would You Prefer Us to Lie?" looks back to the group's Canterbury roots with a fuzz-drenched solo by Frith, while Cooper's episodic "Untitled Piece" challenges Hodgkinson and Frith in its complexity, foreshadowing some of the contemporary writing that would ultimately appear on her A View From The Bridge: Composed Works (Impetus, 1998). A defining characteristic of Henry Cow was its textural breadth, the result of most members being multi-instrumentalists. Frith, in addition to guitar, also played bass, violin, xylophone, piano and other percussion; Hodgkinson added clarinet and voice to his organ and alto saxophone; Cooper's jaw's harp, flute, piano and accordion augmented her more regular work on bassoon and oboe; and Cutler had already begun an early experimentation into electronics that would be more fully realized on later works including Solo: A Descent into the Maelstrom (ReR, 2001), in addition to considerable and distinctive piano work throughout the group's history.
With the group's use of tapes still a defining characteristic of its live improvisations, some of the free playing on Later and Post-Virgin is its most extreme. Repetition and the combination of piano and xylophone give a Steve Reich-like feel to the spontaneous "Chaumont 1," while Cooper and Hodgkinson join forces for "Chaumont 2," a duet that gradually finds its way to a piano-heavy take on Frith's "March" where Krause doubles the melody with Cooper's bassoon.
Disc eight (Bremen), another live performance, begins with a lengthy improvisation that, in ambience, references contemporary classical composers Krzysztof Penderecki and, at times, Gyorgy Ligeti. Henry Cow was often considered, by those trying desperately to find a label with which to pigeon-hole the group, more related to jazz because of its penchant for free improvisation. Electricity and Cutler's sometimes backbeat-driven playing also associated the group with rock—as was equally the case with fellow Rock in Opposition groups Univers Zero and Art Zoyd. But if anything, Henry Cow represented a new kind of classical chamber music; one where spontaneity was a partial component, and the instrumentation used created textures that defied those looking for tradition and convention.
While every Henry Cow studio release represented a clear evolution, Western Culture remains, in many ways, the polarizing album of the group's decade-long career. Unlike its predecessors—even In Praise, where the merger with Slapp Happy created a substantially different sound that remained recognizably Henry Cow—Western Culture's near-exclusive emphasis on composition ultimately dissolved the group. Still, while Frith would go on to pursue more song-based writing with Cutler and Krause, he was still (and remains) a distinctive writer of more complicated through-composition. He was also, despite his being categorized in the experimental and the avant-garde, a writer for whom the beauty of a strong melody was never lost—a penchant that can be heard on The Happy End Problem (Fred/ReR, 2006). As oblique as some of Bremen's "New Suite" is, with its inclusion of an extract from Hodgkinson's "Viva Pa Ubu," there's also some of Frith's most lyrical writing as well.
On the other hand, the group continued to explore the most extreme boundaries of improvisation, with the 35-minute "Die Kunste Der Orgel" as jagged as ever, and the group at this point no longer with a singer—Krause's ill health, exacerbated at times by the rancor within the group, had forced her to leave the group. Hodgkinson's description is, like Cutler's earlier writing on the nature of improvisation, eye- and ear-opening:
Henry Cow's improvisations seem to have not been about each player responding instantly to the others, but a more autonomous improvising mentality that owes something to free jazz, but transposed into an electro-acoustic sound world. Each player seems to develop their own statement in its own layer, allowing things to extend and grow alongside other things. Henry Cow improvisations are usually 'impure' in the sense that they draw on recognizable idioms; however, they often combine these in non-idiomatic and unpredictable ways. A slow melody from somewhere might be heard at the same time as a percussive line that sounds like African folk music, but there's also a piano from a contemporary chamber ensemble and some surrealist groaning filtered through a lot of distortion and reverb.Where it works best, I feel we are drawing on our studio work in the way that we build, combine and oppose sound layers. The material is not so much treated as thematic but as sonorous; its musical content is there as a manifestation or unveiling of a sound-shape. Composing on the basis of recorded improvisation in the studio taught us to place sound material into a space of frequencies and timbres—a space also suggested by indicators like reverbs and differences of level and definition. In other words there was a certain melting together of the notion of composing with the notion of mixing.
The final audio CD (Late) is collected from performances towards the very end of Henry Cow's existence (largely from June and July, 1978, with the exception of the freely improvised "RIO," recorded at the Rock in Opposition Festival in March, 1978), and demonstrate, perhaps, where the group might have gone had it continued along the same path. "Joy of Sax" is a saxophone trio—featuring Cooper on sopranino, Hodgkinson on alto and (probably, the liners say) David Chambers—that segues into another unexpected: a brief version of Thelonious Monk's "Jackie-ing," played with a martial rhythm from Cutler that segues into another brief untitled piece by Cooper. Newcomer/trombonist Annemarie Roelofs makes this the most horn-driven disc of the box, and of Henry Cow's career. Frith's "The Herring People" is a quirky instrumental that presages Frith's early solo discs including Gravity and Speechless (ReR, 1981).
But it's another lengthy improvisation, the four-part "RIO," that is the centerpiece and cornerstone of Late. Frith's guitar playing had never sounded this jagged; the presence of three horns and Cutler's percussive maelstrom creating a feeling of chaos and, at times, impending doom. But in keeping with the heavily composed approach of Western Culture, the inclusion of both the initially rhythm-heavy but ultimately sustained beauty of "Half the Sky" and angular "Viva Pa Ubu" are fitting closers to The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set's audio discs. Still, there's another surprise in the traditional "Virgins of Illinois," placed between "Half the Sky" and "Viva Pa Ubu"—a brief piece driven by Cutler and Born but equally hovering around anarchy with Cooper's recorder, Hodgkinson's clarinet and Roelofs' trombone.
With the advent of YouTube, there seems to be no end to footage available of legacy groups. And yet, curiously, there's literally nothing to be found of Henry Cow, which makes the tenth disc in The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set—an 80-minute, professionally shot DVD of Henry Cow from an August, 1976 performance in Vevey, Switzerland—all the more of a find, and the gem amongst gems in this box set. With a representative set list from the time—"Beautiful As the Moon—Terrible As an Army With Banner," divided by a free improv, "Living in the Heart of the Beast," "No More Songs," "March" and "Erk Gah," along with another lengthy improvisation—it's shot with the group live outdoors, literally playing on the grass, with so much instrumentation that even the camera's wide angle can't capture the entire group in one shot.
While the cameras do capture everyone in the group—Born, Cooper, Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson and Krause—Cutler's the one who commands the most attention, which will come as no surprise to anyone in attendance at his Art Bears Songbook performance with Frith, Carla Kihlstedt, Zeena Parkins, Jewlia Eisenberg and Kristin Slipp at the 2008 Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville. It's almost unbelievable to watch Cutler navigate the staggering complexities of "Living in the Heart of the Beast" and "Erk Gah" with such apparent ease. That there's no music onstage, that the players move around their respective instruments so seamlessly, and that they manage to improvise together with such abandon while, at the same time, hitting every single cue without a misstep, hammers home what the music can only but suggest when listening to it.
While Krause would go onto Art Bears with Cutler and Frith, as well as News from Babel with Lindsay Cooper, Chris Cutler and Zeena Parkins in the mid-1980s, her emergence with Henry Cow as a singer who could effortlessly sing the most oblique melodies (she first came to attention with Slapp Happy, but it was with Cow that she cemented her reputation) was of great significance. Krause's voice has always been something of an acquired taste—one which has rarely evoked ambivalence but, instead, is one that's either loved or hated. Watching her perform live, with no affectation or posing, it becomes easier to appreciate just how remarkable a singer she was with this group. These are melodies that are challenging enough to play on instruments; but the kinds of intervallic leaps and harmonic sophistication required of a singer make Krauss an undervalued and underrated singer in this history of modern music.