The World as a Problem Never Fully Solved

Los Angeles Review of Books

BENJAMIN PIEKUT’S BOOK Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem is a biography and study of Henry Cow, a British collective of musicians whose existence spanned roughly 10 years from incubation to dissolution (1968–’78). But its aim is grander than that. The book is also a meditation on a range of issues: what Piekut calls “the vernacular avant-garde” in music (but with implications for artistic practice in general); the racial and sexual politics of contemporary music; communal life as an art project; improvisation and uncertainty as a method for living in the world; and (as the book’s subtitle, borrowing a phrase from one of the band’s members, suggests) on the world not as a given reality but as problem to be confronted and resolved.

The book’s subject matter is profoundly dear to me. This is because Henry Cow, along with Sun Ra and Frank Zappa, have been profound artistic influences, affecting every aspect of my person: not only how I think and create, but how I live and feel, how I imagine and account for myself and others, for my life and for the world. Much of what I am today derives from the formative power of these three sources of musical creativity — all expressly collective, despite Frank’s and Sonny’s notorious individual signatures. They stand alone as sources of limitless inspiration right next to those grand historical figures who certainly changed the dimensions of my late-teen life: Marx and Freud, Brecht and Proust.

As a young college student in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, I lived a life made meaningful by a lovingly enveloping group of musician and artist friends, while I pursued a radical education, where left activism, writing poetry, and making improvisational noise with my friends’ instruments were completely interwoven. During a summer visit to London in 1978, I made my way to Henry Cow headquarters at 5 Silverthorne Road, in what would be the only pilgrimage of my entire life, to meet the band’s signature drummer, Chris Cutler, who promptly, within a minute of my arrival, proceeded to hand me a press release announcing the group’s dissolution.

The moment remains unforgettable. The devasting news did not quite register because of the exhilaration of having a long conversation that Cutler afforded this young fan with exceeding generosity, in spite of his rather deadpan, somewhat whispering, and overtly intellectual demeanor. I was not at all surprised by this intellectualism — on the contrary, I sought it out fiercely, because Henry Cow had taken over my psyche precisely because they epitomized the most Brechtian attitude toward art I had ever encountered, not only as a rock band but in terms of radical artistic practice on all fronts: sound, poetry, politics, living. Cutler and I spoke about a range of topics, from the technical aspects of music-making — this was the first time I heard the notion of “the studio as a compositional instrument” — to Marxist politics in relation to art, to kin experiments in this sort of music — he introduced me to The Residents, for which my friends and I will always be grateful — to the subject that ached me the most at that moment: the fate of Henry Cow. He assured me that, although the band had reached its end, the musicians would continue to work together in other ways, a fact that has since been borne out in one of the vastest and most inventive histories in contemporary music. I recall clearly a resolute sentence from that press release: “The group is disbanding in order that this work, what we have stood for, can continue.”

Cutler also introduced me to a new venture he was overseeing, which certainly changed my ways of music listening and my understanding of the politics of music production: the mail order distribution of independently produced music from around Europe, including Eastern Europe, a project he called Recommended Records. Two years later, after Cutler’s suggestion and with his contacts, I found myself with a dear friend amid a group of musicians of the Prague dissident underground, which led to our smuggling clandestine recordings to Ralph Records, the independent label of The Residents in San Francisco.

All this is a long way of saying that it’s rare for me to read a book whose subject I know not only intimately but existentially — so this is by no means an academic exercise. As indeed is the case with Piekut’s own book. Piekut presents a broad biography/history of Henry Cow as an artistic collective in eight chapters that cover, in roughly chronological order, the band’s formation, recordings, and live performances. Bracketing these chapters are two “theoretical” essays that lay out the broader stakes of the entire venture. Still, I don’t want to give the impression of some sharp division between history and theory, because Piekut engages in continuous reflection as he narrates. In this sense, the book is also a sort of ethnography, with Henry Cow as an object of study serving to elucidate a range of matters both historical (music and art as cultural practices) and theoretical (larger issues of politics, musicology, and sociality). The research is impeccably thorough — not just by measure of the requisite bibliography but also the extensive, rigorous interviews with the people involved in the Henry Cow project.

This original research on its own is a real treasure. One might say that beyond a professional responsibility to the object of study, it is something that emerges intrinsically from the object. This is because virtually everyone associated with Henry Cow was remarkably self-reflexive about the processes they were involved in, whether musically (how might composition, instrumentation, and arrangement be understood? what sort of space the recording studio constituted? what does performance mean, in terms of connection to the audience and spontaneous composition through improvisation?) or socially (what does it mean to be an artist in contemporary society? what is an artist’s relation to commerce, capitalist or otherwise? how are decisions to be made in a collective, both as art and as way of life, etc.?). Almost everyone associated with Henry Cow was remarkably thoughtful about such issues, and it is hardly an accident that their achievements in the intellectual domain are as groundbreaking as the music itself.

Indicatively, and unfairly briefly: Georgina Born went on to become one of the leading cultural anthropologists of music and sound studies in our time, currently a professor at Oxford; Tim Hodgkinson also studied anthropology and went on to write a remarkable book that reconceptualizes aesthetics as an ontological and epistemological dimension of human-being; Chris Cutler wrote essays that built a social theory of culture through a mosaic of inventive meditations on art, music, myth, and history; Fred Frith eventually became a professor at Mills College, a position foreshadowed in numerous printed reflections on improvisation and inimitable meditations (in Melody Maker) on the iconic uses of the electric guitar; Peter Blegvad generated an astonishing, playful mélange of poetry, graphic art, surrealist pamphlets, and comic strips; Lindsay Cooper produced feminist analyses of the gender politics of contemporary musical genres, providing a theoretical soundtrack, as it were, to her subsequent co-founding of the Feminist Improvising Group and her musical collaboration with filmmaker Sally Potter. To these accomplishments I would add singer Dagmar Krause’s profound understanding of the Brechtian tradition and especially the music of Hanns Eisler, which after Henry Cow she was able to realize in two astonishing recordings that place her in the pantheon of the great interpreters of this music-theater tradition, next to Ernst Busch and Helene Weigel, Lotte Lenya and Gisela May.

All in all, this was a remarkable group of men and women, whose overall achievements are far greater than Henry Cow — which, as a musical adventure, was for most of them a mere beginning. For this reason, too, a study of Henry Cow — a rather obscure group in the history of music, after all — is even more significant, for it is a tale of beginnings in more ways than one: the attitude of the people involved toward relentless artistic (re)invention in relation to individual and collective life opens a window onto history, including what preceded them and surely what has followed.

Piekut unfolds Henry Cow’s trajectory through an extensive and well-thought-out account of how this group of young people — the youth factor must not be underestimated in this story — refused to settle for the predictable paths of rock music in the late ’60s and ’70s. Henry Cow sought to make their own way, often at the cost of even basic survival, driven not so much by some inveterate narcissism — for they sought cooperative and collaborative structures, even if they may have had to create them — but by an uncanny thirst for discovery paired with a dogged insistence on questioning every act and decision, taking nothing for granted to an almost painful degree. “Contentment is hopeless, unrest is progress” goes one of Cutler’s later lyrics.

This thirst for discovery is traceable above all in the music itself — a continuous making and unmaking beyond the mere process of composition, right down to the nitty-gritty of bodies wrestling with instruments in real time, details of amplification and recording, and interactions with audiences during relentless road travel across Europe, entirely self-organized and self-financed, and conducted from within the confines of a small bus. The stories of how often Henry Cow undid themselves during this process are endless and sometimes brutal: how they undid patterns of writing; practices of recording and performance; visions, prospects, and modes of organization down to the group itself, whose membership changed several times and always with real struggle, for better or worse. Henry Cow’s story, in this respect, also involves the doing and undoing of modes of being, with music and performance as the operating principles. “Certainties tumble into uncertainties,” Krause notes.

Piekut does not compromise in telling this story. The book is no hagiography — the characters emerge in all their fallibility, with an honesty that is wonderfully augmented by a retrospection prompted by the author’s questions. Moreover, on top of its canvassing of the group’s history, the book also engages a range of concerns about art, life, and politics that remain as pressing today as they were 50 years ago, when Henry Cow began. I can only address two such issues in this brief review: improvisation as a way of life, which is predicated on embracing uncertainty, and autonomous collective decision, which pertains equally to artistic production in real time and creative vision against the grain of real time. These two issues are linked, of course.

When Piekut points out that “uncertainty is a persistent quality of the band’s affairs,” he is making an overall claim of great political value. Embracing worldliness in Edward Said’s sense of the term, where the world is a problem and not a given, requires overcoming the desire for certainty — for predictability, full explanation, and precise expectation. Musically speaking, this is a call for improvisation as the main platform of composition, even when written composition does take place. It is also a call for an autodidactic relation not just to music but to life. This approach seems to have been operative throughout Henry Cow’s trajectory. Frith’s observation about the early years — that “we formulated the approach whereby we started to write music that we couldn’t play and used it to teach us to play instruments” (which has real Sun Ra method overtones) — can be extended to encompass the way Henry Cow fought to disengage itself from being one of the privileged acts in Richard Branson’s newly formed Virgin Records, in order to forge a collective independent production network across Europe that initially bore the name Rock in Opposition. Similarly, when Cutler proposes that “we have to do pieces where we start from nothing, and which are not going anywhere and just stop when they’re done” (which reminds me of the method of Hanns Eisler’s songs), the road opens to allowing uncertainty to become a method, attuned to the minutest particulars of any situation that comes along — “forcing the environment to reveal itself,” as Piekut puts it.

In this formulation, improvisation is not merely spontaneous musical composition but pertains also to life itself — in this case, hardcore collective life: “living together is itself a kind of art.” This form of life emerges from specific materialities: in Frith’s words, “to survive we had to adopt a certain lifestyle, and we had to become very communal in order to keep going.” In other words, the collective life of Henry Cow was not initially an ideological program, even if it was eventually buttressed with ideological rationales (which were ultimately detrimental to all — “a kind of distributed autism,” Born says). The group’s notorious, sometimes brutal, hours-long discussions in the service of collective decision-making, opting not for the ease of majority opinion but for the troublesome road of consensus and unanimity, are given center stage in this book and rightly so. For a time, Henry Cow followed an avowed Maoist romance of self-criticism and decision-making, which was not unusual in European autonomist leftist circles at the time, with all the labyrinthine and ascetic self-righteousness this involved. In the midst of this, there was a profound struggle to engage the band’s internal gender politics, rare in its self-consciousness as rock bands go, even if it did not avert collective failure on this front.

Piekut’s extensive attention to Henry Cow’s often painful negotiations of the personal with the political in service of the collective project — “their inability to nurture each other inside the group” — aspires to a broader discussion that reaches beyond the group’s history. Reading these sections brought to mind the behavior of other leftist collectives, such as Socialisme ou Barbarie, where the difficulty of collective autonomy in practice far exceeded the capacity to theorize it. With Henry Cow, there was a similar self-demand for lucidity, pressing against a sort of Dadaist or Situationist attitude to performance, that the group never quite abandoned even in their most Marxist moments. The dialectical tension between the controlled (and controlling) framework of “group discussion and group decision” and the free rigor of collective improvisation — of hardcore listening to each other in real time with no precise plan and having to make an intent decision on the spot — is the crux of the whole Henry Cow world.

Here, I disagree with Piekut’s rather agonized attempts to justify collectivity as something that supersedes individuality and personality, the connection of musical agency to personhood. Disagreements aside, Piekut engages in a thought-provoking — debatable, in the most enabling sense of the word — discussion about the gray zone of instability that collective improvisation brings forth, juxtaposing reflections by the group’s members with the thinking of my Columbia colleague George Lewis, himself a renowned composer and improviser. The broader framework here, of course, is the significance of improvisation in jazz, which is understood to belong to a long history of, essentially, folk music — the enormous complex of musics created out of the experience of deracinated African peoples in the Americas.

Thinking along with Lewis (and similar arguments by Fred Moten — to my mind, both instances of Black humanist thinking), Piekut reiterates the tension between “Eurological” and “Afrological” attitudes in terms of how performing bodies channel sound-making and the dialectical sociality with audiences this process evokes. While an aesthetic always finds form in particular social imaginations (which may entail different parameters of personhood) and can never be generalized (except in the corporate commodification of music), these should not be reduced to stark divisions between, say, “cerebral white” and “swinging black” music (which are, after all, racist categories) or, in a more nuanced way, between collective creation and self-expression. Referring back to where I started, it would be absurd, on the basis of such divisions, to separate Sun Ra’s bluesiest piano back chords from his most outrageous Moog space-solos, just as it would be absurd to say that Zappa’s solos belong to the genre of rock guitar heroics separate from his spontaneous conducting of improvised sounds and body movements in the midst of complex written pieces.

This is an old debate, of course. Radical leftist collectivism in late-’60s to mid-’70s Europe was rife with virulent discourses attacking self-expression. But then, personal agency is not merely self-expression, and self-expression is not simply egocentric creativity. It is entirely possible for leftist autonomist thought and art to evade such interpretive traps: tendencies toward a machine-metaphysics of collectivity can be resisted without compromising collective improvisation as a self-altering experience, whether in music or in life. Likewise, openness to the other in listening and anticipating/responding “in the contact zone of spontaneity,” where we might go so far as to say that sound is delinked from individual personhood, does not efface the possibility of invention as personal decision — again, whether in music or in life. If the Henry Cow story is important beyond their own little history, as “an improvisational quest for uncertainty” in the politics of life, its importance lies in breaking through such stark either/ors.

I would say the same regarding Piekut’s insightful reflections on the vernacular avant-garde, which bring the book to a close. It’s interesting to note that Piekut never quite escapes an ambivalence about “the vernacular,” and that may be because he never quite lets go of the division between high and low culture. Henry Cow’s demise under the weight of its own contradictions — as Cutler says, “we couldn’t agree on who we were any more” — coincided with the emergence of punk and its immediate aftermath. This coincidence was a real intersection, not two ships passing in the night, and this nexus was not the aesthetics of sound but the attitude toward making music outside and against the music industry. The desire to control the means of production and distribution of their music is present in Henry Cow from the outset, even if at first only intuitively. Although facilitated by a certain Marxist politics, this desire for independent production was essentially driven by aesthetic concerns (and aesthetics and politics are, after all, entwined).

It’s significant, then, that Henry Cow found such a receptive ground away from England, where the industry reigned supreme, in Europe, from Italy to Scandinavia (the former particularly enabling because of the profound range of autonomous structures that uniquely developed there during the heyday of post-’68 leftist organization). That’s how Rock in Opposition was developed. But from my own late-’70s/early-’80s Los Angeles standpoint, there was a seamless connection between Henry Cow/RIO attitudes and practices and punk-derived cooperative/communal scenes (recall the glorious experiment of SST Records), where the means of music production was inseparable from musical idiosyncrasies and experiments. And this was also the case with Sun Ra, Zappa, and The Residents. Virtually every groundbreaking experiment in contemporary music has involved confronting the question of how to outmaneuver the voracious tentacles of the music industry, although I am not certain this history can be contained within Piekut’s concept of “the vernacular avant-garde,” as attractive as that concept may be.

Piekut’s Henry Cow story therefore prompts some real thinking, because it doesn’t just register a history, doesn’t simply study the past. It also conveys a story that remains fully relevant today, despite the fact that the world now presents new problems, because it is a history of how to enact a vision even if this attempt might end in failure. Henry Cow was a band with an enormous commitment to a vision, but this was not simply a goal, it was a trial. And trial always implies failure; indeed, it folds failure into its achievement. As Cutler quipped in a 1975 interview, “it’s too late for pessimism and despair, they’re too popular” — a memorable phrase that should go far toward disrupting the fashionable critiques of “cruel optimism” one sees everywhere among radical intellectuals today.