Experimental band Henry Cow challenged itself, audiences

Cornell professor Benjamin Piekut’s latest book is an exhaustive study of an experimental British group that blurred the lines between genres as it created captivating music.

In “Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem,” Piekut achieves an intimate, and comprehensive, portrait of Henry Cow, the avant-garde rock band that found diverse audiences and sought autonomy from the music establishment, operating as a collective in pursuit of aesthetic and political goals and, ultimately, winning both critical acclaim and fringe success over a decade of making music.

Henry Cow’s membership included Fred Frith, Tim Hodgkinson, Lindsay Cooper, Chris Cutler, Dagmar Krause and John Greaves, and also counted Georgina Born, Anthony Moore and Peter Blegvad among its ever-changing cast of players.

Its members came from rock, free jazz and classical orchestra backgrounds, a diversity as varied as their individual politics, which ranged from communism and feminism to Maoism and Italian Marxism.

Founded at Cambridge University in May 1968 by multi-instrumentalists Frith and Hodgkinson, the band opened for Pink Floyd on campus a month later.

“The early members of Henry Cow mashed together their enthusiasms for free jazz, psychedelia, modernist composition and electronic music, not only in their own music, but also in their collaborations across London’s avant-garde scenes,” Piekut said.

After further exposure on John Peel’s BBC radio program, the band had achieved some notice as a genre-defying group by the time Richard Branson signed them to his nascent Virgin Records label in 1973. They began to tour Western Europe with greater frequency, finding a devoted following in France, Italy and Scandinavia. They were among the first popular music groups to embrace free improvisation on stage and in the recording studio, and they also regularly performed complex notated, atonal scores by Frith, Hodgkinson and Cooper, Piekut noted.

When they decided to disband in 1978, they continued to work on writing and recording new material, organized a London festival called Rock in Opposition (which led to a formal collective of bands countering the music industry) and mounted two final tours, to France and Italy. Several of the members would team with one another for other musical ventures into this decade, including reunions for projects featuring the music of bassoonist Lindsay Cooper following her death in 2013. (A digital repository of Cooper’s scores, correspondence, photos and other ephemera can be found in Cornell University Library’s Digital Collections.)

Piekut conducted 90 interviews, many of them with the musicians and crew; and drew from letters, notebooks, press clippings, unpublished interviews, scores and journals; as well as firsthand resources including Cooper’s band meeting notes and other archival material she had saved, and Hodgkinson’s diaries.

The book is the culmination of several years of research, and serves as more than a musical biography. Against the narrative of the band’s history, interpersonal relationships, creative ventures and activism, Piekut analyzes Henry Cow’s position in what he terms the vernacular avant-garde – “a critical position that emerges after World War II, when avant-garde discourses and practices circulate across fine art and nonaccredited spaces,” he said.

 Benjamin Piekut speaking to a roomful of people

Benjamin Piekut discusses "Henry Cow" with writer David Toop at Cafe Oto, London, on October 13, 2019. 

Making a case for Henry Cow as an example of a broadly conceived musical experimentalism that stretches across and rubs against existing genre boundaries, Piekut writes that the book is intended as “a small contribution to a large project … [documenting and analyzing] adventurous music and sound work in the twenty-first century, and how we got here over the last seventy years.”

Piekut is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences.

He is the author of “Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits” (2011), editor of “Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies” (2014) and co-editor (with George E. Lewis) of “The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies” (2016).

His research interests as a musicologist include music and sound art after 1950, improvisation and the history of music technologies.

This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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