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Saturday, December 5, 8:00 pm Littlefield Concert Hall
Mills Performing Group: Music By Lindsay Cooper
Celebrating the music of the late Lindsay Cooper–feminist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist–with a large ensemble directed by her former bandmates Fred Frith and Zeena Parkins.Performers
Fred Frith: guitar
Jordan Glenn: drums
Jason Hoopes: bass
Kate McCloughlin: bassoon
Andy Strain: trombone
Steve Adams: soprano sax
Zeena Parkins: harp and piano
Evelyn Davis: piano and keyboards
Rachel Austin: voice
Emily Packard: violin
Kasey Knudsen: alto saxophone
Beth Custer: clarinet
ROVA Saxophone Quartet
Lindsay Cooper Biography
Born in Hornsey on March 3, 1951, Lindsay Cooper grew up in a middle-class family in Middlesex. Her father worked as a publicist for the Royal Festival Hall, where he took Cooper to concerts and ballets from as early as she could remember. She began violin lessons at age nine, soon adding piano and, at thirteen or fourteen, fell in love with the bassoon despite the protests of her father. Passionate about the instrument, she had also developed a sharp ear and progressed rapidly through the grades.
At grammar school, Cooper devoted her life to music, performing with the National Youth Orchestra, composing occasionally, and learning about new traditions, chief among them African music. Her excellent performance on the final graded exam in bassoon performance won her a coveted scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, but, perhaps sensing that it would not make a pleasurable match, she deferred her admission for a year and instead matriculated at the Dartington College of Arts in Devon.
“I used my bassoon as a way to escape from home,” she later explained. Cooper strongly desired role models for the artistic life, and she found them at Dartington, a radical institution that—not unlike Mills—encouraged its students to learn about and engage in contemporary art and music practices. In the year she spent there, Cooper studied contemporary and early music, continued learning about Ghanaian music, and began improvising in collaboration with a dancer. These new interests seemed to militate against the buttoned-up world of the Royal Academy, but she went there anyway, drawn in 1969 by her “addiction to achievement” and the prestigious opportunity that the scholarship represented. As predicted, the experience turned out to be a “crushing disappointment of frustration.” Bucking against the parochial views of the institution, Cooper picked fights with her teacher over the boring and conservative repertoire she was required to play. The values inculcated by any conservatory—obedience, uniformity, hierarchy—seemed to contradict directly the ones that had proven so attractive at Dartington—autonomy, exploration, creativity, individuality. At the end of her first year, Cooper had had enough and dropped out.
Liberated, she hitchhiked across Europe that summer. Her commitment to the instrument and to music had not wavered, but she was searching for the right environment to cultivate her gifts. When she returned to London in 1971, she found that environment in rock and free improvisation, first joining the progressive folk band Comus, and then the extremely radical Ritual Theatre, in 1972. In early 1974, she became a member of the experimental rock group, Henry Cow, pulling their musical vocabulary away from jazz-rock and toward a more abstract, contemporary-music aesthetic with her distinctive, reedy voice. Recording and touring extensively with the band until their breakup in 1978, Cooper also began composing in earnest for them in 1977. (Henry Cow recorded “Slice” and the “Day by Day” suite—“Falling Away,” “Gretel’s Tale,” “Look Back,” and “Half the Sky”—in 1978.) As an improviser, she had added flute, oboe, and soprano and sopranino saxophones to her instrumental palette by the end of the decade.
The year 1977 also marked the founding of the Feminist Improvising Group, which Cooper co-established with vocalist Maggie Nicols. With a shifting membership that (like Cooper herself) drew from a variety of musical traditions, FIG performed at jazz and women’s music festivals throughout the UK and Europe until 1982. Her involvement in FIG coincided with her maturation as a composer, initially in collaboration with her colleagues and friends in London’s vibrant socialist-feminist film scene; Cooper provided the scores for The Song of the Shirt (1979, dir. Sue Clayton) and Gold Diggers (1983, dir. Sally Potter), both early classics of British feminist cinema. She continued to compose incidental music for film, television, dance, and theatre for the rest of her career.
Well into the 1980s, Cooper performed often with other free improvisers at the London Musicians Collective and with Mike Westbrook’s big band. In 1983, she formed the rock group News from Babel with several former members of Henry Cow (and Zeena Parkins, who was not a member of the Cow) and wrote the music for the band. She also performed and recorded frequently with David Thomas of Pere Ubu and the Pedestrians.
By the time she composed the chamber works Oh, Moscow (1987) and Sahara Dust (1990), Cooper had begun to suffer the effects of multiple sclerosis, which effects would eventually lead to her early retirement in the 1990s. She lived with the disease for a remarkable long time, and died on September 18, 2013, in the company of her loving friends.
As tonight’s program makes clear, Cooper’s capacious musical personality led her to work in many different styles. She had been trained at a conservatory, of course, but also grew into an inventive and original free improviser; she wrote lyrical and wry chamber music for films, and was equally comfortable in Westbrook’s jazz idiom. But rock was her first true habitat. “It was kind of a home for outsiders of all kinds, generally,” she told an interviewer many years later. “Although it’s certainly true to say that sexism was not absent, it felt like there was more room to maneuver, as a woman, and that there was more chance for one’s voice as a woman to be heard and listened to.”