INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS CUTLER
As a musician, you are mainly known as a drummer. Did you start by the drums?
Chris CUTLER : I started playing banjo, then guitar, then trumpet. After that, I took up drums. I didn't particularly want to play the drums, I just wanted to be in a band. At the school I was in, everybody played the guitar and nobody played the drums, so I decided I would. I have to say I had no particular feeling for the instrument and it wasn't until I'd been playing for a couple of years that I began think about its extended possibilities.
Did some rock/jazz drummers had an influence on you?
CC: No, at least not at first. There was nobody who made me want to be a drummer. But once I started playing there were certainly some I wanted to copy - Tony MEEHAN -THE SHADOWS first drummer - Kenny BUTTREY, Keith MOON, Mitch MITCHELL, John FRENCH, Robert WYATT... The last was probably Christian VANDER in the early 70's. I liked a lot of others, but these were the ones I think I most obviously drew from.
The first group you have played in, was it a rock or a jazz group?
CC: The first band I was in played guitar instrumentals and then whatever was in the hit-parade. After that I joined a soul band for awhile, took up R&B, and went from there. So, it was rock - though I did a couple of concerts with a free jazz group in the mid '60's.
When you joined HENRY COW, the group was already formed?
CC: Yes. Henry Cow was formed at Cambridge University in 1968 by Tim and Fred. I joined in 1970.
How have you encountered HENRY COW?
CC: Roundabout 1966, I was in a band that become so strange we stopped even trying to get concerts. No promoters thought anyone would want to listen to us. So we just rehearsed. There was a lot of improvising - noise not jazz - and a lot of experiments. We were like, well, it's hard to say - somewhere between SOFT MACHINE and (Syd Barrett's) PINK FLOYD, but of course we'd never heard of them and they hadn't become known then. Once these bands started to appear in London, we realised that they were doing the same sort of thing we were, so we started looking for work again. And found it. When that group finished I did all sorts of different things but didn't stay in any single group - though I started The Ottawa Music Company with Dave Stewart; but that was a special project, not a permanent band. I kept looking for something interesting and put advertisements in the music papers, and in the end, that was how I found HENRY COW: they were looking for a drummer and they saw my advertisement in the Melody Maker.
Did HENRY COW had a clear idea of what they wanted to do at that time or were they just " playing as they feel it "?
CC: Certainly HENRY COW had been influenced by Frank ZAPPA, John COLTRANE, SOFT MACHINE and so on by the time I came in, but it was a very open period. We talked a lot about music, and what we thought we should do. We knew we wanted to do composed music, complicated music; that we wanted to draw on techniques from contemporary music and that we also wanted to improvise - and we definitely wanted to be a rock group. Most importantly, I think, what we really wanted to do was to bring all these disparate elements together in an intelligent and intuitive way. An affective, not an academic way.
A rock group with no rock influences at all?
CC: Well, rock influences at the heart of course, but not so much on the surface. It meant we found ourselves pretty much alone. Today the public that has heard of us seems treat us as if we were part of the Canterbury Scene, but that's not really true. At least not obviously. And we certainly didn't have anything to do with YES, GENESIS, KING CRIMSON or any of those so-called 'progressive' bands.
Although KING CRIMSON did some improvised works.
CC: Yes, later. They came to that in the period with Jamie MUIR. I remember we all listened to " Lark's Tongues in Aspic " and found it OK - though we thought their claims about its originality were rather pathetic. As to the rest, I have to say I didn't like KING CRIMSON at all. I just didn't get it; I couldn't understand it. It all seemed very bombastic to me, very simple-minded. But that's just me. I don't expect anyone to agree.
I think it's true to say that Henry Cow was always out on some fringe and more or less alone. The people I personally felt close to then were groups like FAUST and MAGMA who were both doing something original - and very personal. MAGMA managed to bring something of STRAVINSKY, Carl ORFF, James BROWN and John COLTRANE together into a new form. Not to mix them up but to fuse them, together, a remarkable achievement. They remain a group that divides listeners utterly. And which provokes enormous moral argument. Faust invented a language that was between the best of Rock and the most interesting of electronics and studio experiment. HENRY COW had never toured with french groups like MAGMA?
CC: Yes, we did a number of concerts with MAGMA in the 70's. The people who organised the first concerts for HENRY COW in France were Giorgio GOMELSKY and Georges LETON, who were Magma's manager and tour agents.
So, HENRY COW toured more in Europe rather than in the UK?
CC: Absolutely. We hardly ever played in England. Firstly, there were no places to play and secondly, nobody was interested. We played mostly in Italy, France, Scandinavia. Which countries are open to new music and have the possibility to organise concerts seems to go in cycles: In the beginning of the 70's, it was Holland; in the middle of the 70's, France; in the late 70's - for us at least, though not really for anyone else, Italy, and in the last decade, Germany has been the easiest place to find a concert.
HENRY COW seemed to bring a new conception of the work in a band : compositions written by several musicians, not only by one...
CC: We worked in very different ways. Most things were through-composed by somebody: Fred Tim, Lindsay or John. However, once a composition had been given to the group it was effectively in the public domain; once we started to rehearse it, everybody had a say and could propose changes, criticise. It was a healthy process, I think. And we improvised a lot - so things discovered in improvisation found their way into compositions and things learned in the process of making compositions work found their way into improvisation.
It's a kind of paradox : you were thinking intensely about what you were doing, but you improvised a lot, spontaneously.
CC: We took improvisation very seriously. We did a whole tour in 1996 where we did nothing but improvise - which at that time was a highly unusual thing for a " rock " group to do. But then we were a pretty unusual group - organising our own concerts, running our own management, being completely self-sufficient - with 3 men and 3 women in the band and a mixed gender crew (drivers, mixing engineers, roadies).
It's very strange that a group could write complex compositions and also could do the weirdest improvisations.
CC: As I said, they fed and informed one another. We liked opposites.
Did all the other groups involved in the RIO structure do some improvising?
CC: Only SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA did that. But they did some of the best rock improvisations I've ever heard.
In which context did the "Rock in Opposition" structure grew up?
CC: The 70's was a period in which everything seemed to be falling apart. Major record companies no longer controlled the world of available music and independent productions were appearing everywhere. Any kind of mainstream had vanished and split into separate specialised factions. Punk set the fuse, and after the explosion the 'New-Wave' drifted down in fragments. Markets became more specialised - and more closed. Meanwhile, HENRY COW had got to know many interesting musicians in many other countries, mostly hardly known in their own countries and totally unknown outside. We thought it would be a good idea to bring some of them together - to show an interested public that there were still innovative, experimental, things happening in electric music. We had the power and the will to organise it, so we did.
What were the criteria for a group to integrate RIO?
CC: In the beginning, RIO was just those groups that Henry Cow invited to the festival - because we thought they were deserved a wider audience. There weren't any criteria then, because there was no " RIO . RIO was constituted as an organisation after the festival - to make things happen. Then there were discussions about how to determine who might and who might not be invited - or apply - to join. We decided Rock in Opposition, as such, lasted about a year as an 'official' organisation. There were 4 or 5 festivals, some tours, another policy meeting in Switzerland and then it was finished. But immediately reconstituted itself as a kind of public domain concept that anybody could use. And of course all the participants carried on co-operating with one another.
Did each band like the music of the other bands?
CC: Not necessarily, though I don't think anyone disliked anyone else's music. STORMY SIX and UNIVERS ZERO had very different perspectives, of course. But I think the diversity was good. All the bands were serious - thinking about what they were doing, working in a radical way. Co-operation was the important thing - and creativity, not conformity.
Some of these groups have reformed, like SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA, UNIVERS ZERO. Do you think these groups have the same spirit as before?
CC: Well, the times have changed. It's been more than twenty years. That's not a criticism. I loved the new Samlas record. But because it's great in its own time, not in the rosy light of the past. Heraclitus was right: you can't step into the same river twice.
Do you think they are right to reform?
CC: It's not for me to say. I think it's fine when people get together again to play - for their old public or a new public. I wouldn't want to do that myself, however. 'Henry Cow', for instance, would be too much of a burden, just the name has too much of the past in it. Of course, I still work with the people I worked with in that group and I would work on a project that all of those people were in - if it were a new project, and if it wasn't called Henry Cow,
Do you have the impression that what you do now have always something in common with rock music?
CC: Sure. That's where I came from - and I certainly don't feel as if I have left it behind. Even in the improvisation side of my work. There are many kinds of improvising language and I definitely refer to rock - in a way that, for instance, improvisers who come from the world of jazz do not. A lot of improvisers are still unhappy if you play a straight, simple, beat.
The fact that you often play with the same people like Fred FRITH means that you have always fresh ideas for improvising and experimentations.
CC: Yes. You know - people go away and do different things. Then they come back together changed and regenerated. It's productive.
So, improvised music can take new ways...
CC: Improvised music is a complicated and a dangerous form. It can be wonderful and it can be a disaster. In fact, if it can't be a disaster, it can't be a triumph either; that's my approach. One has to decide if one is going to play the safe way or the dangerous way. There are definitely two schools and I prefer to play with other dangerous players. It's more interesting and the rewards are greater.
Always in small units?
CC: Improvising in a duo is easier in a purely practical sense. Costs are lower and the same money is divided by two instead of, say, four. Sorry to be mercenary, but when it's the way you earn a living - it matters. If there were more money for this music there would be more interesting larger projects (it's why I did p53 - there was a budget for it). But money isn't the whole story - of course! Duos are especially stimulating and clear as a form. A duo is like a conversation. And, like a conversation, the greater the number of participants, the harder it is to retain coherence. With more than seven people around a table, sub groups appear and overall coherence disappears.
Is there an instrument you wouldn't like to play with? I mean, is there an instrument that doesn't fit with your drums?
CC: That's an interesting question. I don't know... Maybe. It's hard to make a rule because I might be able to play with one trombone player and not another. Nowadays, most people have electrified, their instruments. That makes them different instruments. It makes them all electric instruments, and that affects the question of what is compatible with what. Loud and quiet source sounds cease to matter when instruments are amplified, so almost anything is in theory compatible with almost anything else.
Do you use samplers with your drums?
CC: No, I don't like samples. They're too predictable. But I do use electronics to modulate acoustically originated sounds.
Let's talk about "Le signe de Trois", that you have made at the Festival Sons d'Hiver in January 2000. Is it a new creation?
CC: It's a premiere. It was written as a radio piece. Someone else had the idea to make it as theatre. What can I tell you about it? It's a detective story, a theological caprice and an argument with Jean BAUDRILLARD - all mixed together. At one level, it's a detective story: there is a murder, investigations, some clues and the obligatory denouement at the end. At another level, it is a light theological joke, which relates obliquely to Alfred JARRY's "The Passion considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race". Thirdly, there are comments on BAUDRILLARD's 'Simulations'.
Is it a kind of essay expressed in a theatrical form?
CC: No. Maybe a Theatre of Ideas. But it's nothing very serious in the end. It's an entertainment. A puzzle - I wrote it in a rather complicated way, where different texts cut into one another. It reads as a linear text and not as a compilation of cut-ups, but the linearity is a product of different lines interleaved. It makes sense, but it's very open to interpretation.
The "deal" that I make with the public, my promise to them, is that nothing is meaningless, nothing is just there "because". It's certainly more modern than postmodern in that there is a centre of semantic gravity around which the whole text moves. There is music and there are three actors who speak. Two actors have one character each: a narrator, that's Marie GOYETTE, who also plays piano, and the detective, Eric HOUZELOT All the other parts are played by Christian GERMAIN. The director is PHILIPPE THOMINE. I wrote the texts and Stevan TICKMAYER and I developed the music together.
Let's talk about the actors/musicians in "Le signe de Trois". It's not the first time you play with Marie GOYETTE or Stevan TICKMAYER?
CC: No, I've played with Marie since... 8 years. I first worked with her when she was in one of Jon ROSE's 'shopping' projects. Then I invited her to be part of 'p53', a group I organised for the Frankfurt Jazz Festival some years ago. Stevan, I've known for 20 years. We've worked together with choreographer Josef NADJ, in various improvising contexts and made several records, the latest being the SCIENCE GROUP's 'a mere coincidence'. Eric, I've never worked with, and I didn't know him.. Christian, I'd met but never worked with.
Did you write the texts especially for this play?
CC: I wrote the text in English. It was translated and made into a radio piece Italy (with music by Tiziano Popoli) and then in Germany (by composer Lutz GLANDIEN) where it was later re-mixed in Dolby 5.1 surround sound to demonstrate that technology. Stevan also had the English original and I think because Christian GERMAIN was interested in it, they proposed we use them as the basis of a music theatre piece.
Is it true that one of the texts is a sort of a refutation of Jean BAUDRILLARD?
CC: Well it's a bit more complicated than that. One of the three subtitles is "Forget BAUDRILLARD", which is a kind of tribute to BAUDRILLARD referring to "Forget FOUCAULT". It's not a serious title, but I drew on some of Baudrillard's ideas, in a loose way. Ideas, I have to say I'm not very satisfied with. I respect Baudrillard for putting certain questions clearly - well - actually putting certain questions very unclearly - "on the table", as we say in English. Certainly such extreme expositions as his do generate argument and discussion around important topics. I had them in mind when I was working on this text and a mild critique became a part of the story - but you can't take it all too seriously.
But it has been done very seriously !
CC: Everything should be done seriously. Especially comedy. Laurel & Hardy were very serious about their work. This doesn't mean it's not fun or that you can't understand it without reading forty pages of exposition in "Les Cahiers du Cinema". A film has a life of it's own. All artworks do. So throwing too much theory at an art work can't do it any harm. At worst it might obscure its best qualities temporarily, for certain viewers at least. At best it might illuminate it - give it other lives.....unless we speak of very modern art works which are made of theory and can therefore be destroyed by it....
Does it mean that the artistic creation suffers from too much theory?
CC: No, but I do think that, to some extent, a lot of contemporary art has been replaced by theory or has become theory, and not for the better. Marcel DUCHAMP's urinal ('Fountain' 1917) was - in a sense - a theoretical argument: you could certainly argue the case. Whatever else - it was a theoretical act, and an important one - raising essential and difficult questions. Nearly a hundred years later, some artists seem to think it might still be meaningful to raise the same questions, again and again, as if they hadn't been raised, more intelligently and more accurately - and more wittily - eighty years earlier. In fact they seem to have mistaken the question for an answer.
Do you think the situation is the same in music?
CC: Not really. It's also a question of money. A lot of modern art sells, but there isn't very much modern music with the same "cachet". Maybe some of the minimalists, like Philip GLASS are seriously bankable in that way, but there are very few of them. At first sight it's strange. After all, paintings exist in space, and they endure - you can go to see them anytime you want, they wait for you, but music exists in time and there is only one chance in one place to see it performed. After that it's gone forever. You'd think that would make music more precious, but it doesn't - you will see many people at an exhibition of new art but very few at a new music concert. But then, gallery art is big business and music is not. There's no equivalent in music to the massive art market. There is no object to buy and sell. Nothing to own, keep and re-sell later.
Especially improvised music, which happens at one place and one time...
CC: Exactly. Improvised music is produced against the solidification of music in objects. Any written piece can be said to have, in principal, a more or less ideal realisation - which given time and money can be frozen into a CD. This can make difficulties for the future of the work since there is always the danger that listeners will compare the work they hear performed with the CD version. It is automatic to think "Is it better or worse?" The CD somehow kills the work as a lived experience. And how will it find another life?
Improvised music is a way to avoid this problem. It's a way to deal with recording technology by making every piece of music different, every piece unique, so that there is nothing to compare it to. Improvised music doesn't have to struggle with acoustics, execution, comparison with an ideal - there is no ideal. In an improvised situation, most of the factors that affect performance can be simply accepted - they are given, they are an aspect of the material you use to make sound. If you're improvising, the acoustic in the performing space is just part of the material you can use; but a written piece may need less reverberation than the room has, or more; a score may call for frequencies and amplitudes that create bad reverberations or distortions in a particular space, while an improvisation simply doesn't have such problems. Once you know that certain notes and levels will produce reverberations and distortions, you can avoid them, or control them, or use them as wanted rather than unwanted material.
Don't you think there is a paradox in the fact that there are CDs relative to improvised music events, short-lived meetings, like this CD that contains excerpts of concerts you have made with Thomas DI MUZIO?
CC: Yes, it's a kind of paradox, but you will notice that although I have released 5 or 6 improvised CDs, they are all taken from concerts. None was made in a studio. There is a reason for that: I have trouble understanding the act of improvising in a studio. I don't know why I'm doing it or who I might doing it for. There's nobody there - just microphones. But I can understand improvising in public. You have one hour, you start now, you can't stop, you can't change anything, you're doing it for these people here, now: that makes sense to me.
In a studio then, I'm happy to improvise, but only if afterwards it is to be used as base material for further compositional work (the CD with Rene Lussier and Jean Derome was made like that), I think of a studio as a composing instrument and not a means of documentation, except at a very basic level. It's for composing - composing with performances. So, if I release improvisations, they are always taken from concerts, and they are chosen as recordings, not as documents. I mean that when you lose the information that comes from four of your senses - all of which are integral to the experience of a concert - you are left with only one: the sound. If you are going to release a concert recording on a CD, the main consideration has to be, not 'is a good record of the gig' but 'does it work as a piece of music coming out of loudspeakers'? Many improvisations that worked well in their concert setting sound bad on tape - where so much has been lost. And, on the contrary, improvisations that didn't work well in a concert may sound fantastic on a tape.
That said, many people want to have on CD a document of a concert.
CC: Yes and I have no objection to that. It's perfectly legitimate to use a medium in any way you want. I only explained why I personally do what I do. The urge to document is a different aesthetic activity from producing a work in itself. And to be honest, you can't document a concert in a meaningful way - when you have nothing but sound, 4/5 of the concert is lost. A concert is not a sonic event, it's total event.
It's the same with a picture of a painting in a book: it's not much like the painting; the size is different, the colours are different, it's 2 dimensional, you're not in a gallery, etc.
You have recently made a CD with Stevan TICKMAYER. It's called "A mere coincidence" by THE SCIENCE GROUP. It seems to be totally composed music. The booklet says that the lyrics were written over a long period. Is it a project you have thought of many years ago?
CC: I started writing texts about science subjects long ago, just putting ideas together slowly in order eventually to build up a body of texts substantial enough to use as the basis for a record. When there were enough, I offered them to Stevan Tickmayer. I work on various things all the time: slowly accumulating several projects at once.
You didn't write texts in thinking of a particular album to make?
CC: Sometimes, I did. For ART BEARS, I wrote all the texts directly for the records. I have just written a body of texts for Fred FRITH about Kosovo. Sometimes I write texts to order when asked. But, if I don't have a special project or a deadline, I just let it take as long as it takes. Give me a dead line, and I'll finish it, otherwise...
For "A mere coincidence", did you write the lyrics in knowing that Stevan would make the music?
CC: No, at the beginning, I had no idea who I would work with eventually.
How Stevan came to join the project?
CC: Well... you know, I've known him for 20 years. He's a trained composer, has a very a contemporary way of thinking, he's an accomplished improviser and has a good feeling for sampling and electronics. I wanted to see how a song record would work with him.
Bob DRAKE is also credited as a major member of the band?
CC: Yes. When we started to record, Bob, in his position as engineer, immediately took a major part in the production. He effectively produced the record and mixed it - as well of course as playing on it. It was a full time work and the result is as much his as it is Stevan's or mine. The others just came and did their parts (brilliantly!) in some days, Bob, Stevan and I were the permanent producers. So, for better or worse it was our joint project.
These 3 guests reminds me the "Domestic Stories" album you've made with Lutz GLANDIEN. There were also the same kind of guests : a female singer, a guitarist and a horn player. Is it just a "mere coincidence"?
CC: I asked Fred because I like to work with him. I've worked with Fred on a lot of records since the ART BEARS and he is always a good partner. As to the female singers, well I like to work with female voices and I don't know that many male singers I could imagine writing for. Christoph ANDERS was one - and I have thought of doing something with Peter Blegvad, but meanwhile I like women's voices. Horns, they have a special sonority, they are acoustic, vocal - I would be happy using brass too, and I probably will one of these days. Claudio is a classical player and Alfred HARTH is a jazz player, so they are not quite the same. But the instrumentation is fairly static, that's right. Maybe I'll change it for the next one...
When you write texts, you usually use them for albums with composed music, except when you have played with CASSIBER, where your texts were used for improvised pieces. It's not so common...
CC: For Christoph (ANDERS) it was a very good way to work. It was interesting to produce texts that had to be performed in that way.
Do you write differently when you know that your texts will be used for improvised pieces rather than for composed pieces?
CC: Yes. Wherever possible I write with my ear. I write for specific people's voices. I used to write for Dagmar's voice, knowing how she would sing, how she would pronounce words. Same with Christoph.
The structure of the songs and pieces on "A mere coincidence" reminds me ART BEARS and NEWS FROM BABEL, eventually HENRY COW, but in smaller format. They are very tight, short but also very dense, complicated. Should we say that the music on this album is close to the "progressive style"?
CC: Er... I'm not sure I like "progressive" very much anymore but... I know what you mean. It shares certain elements with what people think of as progressive music, but I don't hear it that way. This record could not conceivably have been made in the 1970's.
So, you haven't completely abandoned the "song" format?
CC: No, no. THE SCIENCE GROUP is for me a direct descendent of ART BEARS. And I still work regularly with Peter BLEGVAD and John GREAVES - these are more traditional, straightforward songs - and with David THOMAS. The (ec)NUDES was a band formed specifically to play songs too. And of course I have performed with HAIL, THE KALAHARI SURFERS, THE RESIDENTS, all song groups..
By the time of RIO, you have started running your own record company, Recommended Records. What was the idea behind it?
CC: Well, it was very much related to RIO. There was a lot of music around that nobody had heard about - the main distribution networks and big record companies weren't interested in it, the music press wouldn't write about it. Somebody had to do something, so I did. It's that simple, really.
You are the only one to choose the groups to produce?
CC: Oh yes. It's not at all democratic.
How many records do you put out per year?
CC: About 10/12 a year.
Does it still have the same spirit that at the beginning?
CC: Well... what was experimental in the 70's would most likely be rather boringly old fashioned now. And though I sometimes do release old material, it's mostly new things that I release on the label. Things which are experimental today, not that look back to yesterday.
Some years ago, you have published a book, "File under popular". What were the subjects of it? Was it just about music?
CC: Yes, it contains my ideas about music, as they were eighteen years ago. There are some fairly general articles about what 'popular music' is, there are my thoughts about recording technology and about the impact of media on cultural forms. And there are more specific articles about SUN RA and THE RESIDENTS, for instance, which I use as case-studies for a more general theory about the course music has taken in the C20.
Have you think about realising a new edition, by adding new articles?
CC: Another book, yes. I have a lot of unpublished material now. Nearly enough for another book. But I want to write some other articles before I do that. There are a couple of topics I'd like to include.
Does the "ReR Quarterly" magazine still exists?
CC: Yes, it exists...but comes out only every two or three years now. I have a lot of trouble collecting articles for it. Also, I don't have as much time as I used to, and I'm afraid it doesn't really pay for itself in sales, so... It's a problem. But I haven't abandoned it.
text and images chris cutler; site squidco 1537