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Monday, February 17, 2020

Benjamin Piekut – Henry Cow: The World is a Problem (Duke University Press, 2019) *****

By Phil Stringer

A problem that all writing about music presents is analogous to Alfred Korzybski’s dictum, ‘A map is not the territory’. Self-evidently, reading about music is not the same as listening to it. Some writers resolve this by a companion recording. Benjamin Piekut doesn’t do this but he presents a convincingly thorough account of the territory to which Henry Cow’s music was a response. And, at numerous points in my reading, I paused to marvel that the response to the tensions, conflict and chaos Piekut documents, was remarkable music.

Piekut, an Associate Professor of Music at Cornell University brings both integrity as an academic researcher and theoretician and also, a necessary outsider perspective. There are eight chapters following the chronology of Henry Cow, bookended by two chapters that are addressed primarily to the ‘scholarly reader’. The chapters about the band draw heavily on interviews with group members and contemporaneous music journalism, to produce what Piekut describes (p.xiii) as an ‘unusual hybrid form combining collective biography and argument-driven cultural history’. Rather than the slightly apologetic tone here, I think it a cause for celebration that form clearly and appropriately serves function. A major clue lies in the book’s subtitle, ‘The World is a Problem’. It is important not to underestimate Piekut’s task and his achievement in writing a fascinating and immensely readable account.

At the Café Oto, London, launch in October 2019, Piekut, with Henry Cow members, Georgie Born, Christ Cutler and Tim Hodgkinson, spoke about one of his aims. To use the band in effect as a case study (my interpretation) to investigate the wider socio-cultural context of a decade from 1968 to 1978. Arguably, in meeting his aim he has written about the problem of memory and the construction of a meta-narrative that attempts to balance multiple perspectives that, in themselves, will always be contested. This was quite apparent at the book launch with some tensions over memory unsurprisingly, unresolved. Inevitably, personal memories and perspectives are just that, personal.

As a case study, Henry Cow provides insights into the multiple interacting factors that affect a group of people as they endeavor to understand, respond to and manage a series of problems. The account of recording their first album, ‘Legend’ or in the book, ‘Leg End’, highlights and sets the tone for many of the problems the band were grappling with then and as the book elaborates, continued to. In the main, this was because they were problems that were difficult if not impossible to resolve due to inherent contradictions. If a group of people set out with an espoused theory demanding potentially exceptional moral and political commitment, then the practice of that theory will almost inevitably create a contradiction between the purity of the vison, the pragmatism required by everyday living, and the personal qualities of individual actors. So, the language of liberation (say in relation to gender politics and equalities) used by some may be experienced by others through everyday practices as the language of oppression. In Henry Cow, it appears that the women were generally marginalised and one of the ways in which this surfaced, for instance, occurred as the band toured more, and more frequently in Europe, where gender inequalities were exposed especially concerning childcare.

That first album though, highlighted the problems of finding an audience and recording. The group ended up signing to Virgin and were immediately thrown into the contradictions of capitalism’s demands for the commodification of their music, hardly compatible with socialist if not Marxist ideals. They were also confronted with trying to reconcile the noble aims of non-hierarchical music making and collective composition, with the engineering demands of recording music and human auditory perception. Additionally, they were working out what kind of music they were making and the tensions between free improvisation and tightly written frameworks. Increasingly, we read of the unresolved struggle to balance communal living, and the problem of the extent to which Henry Cow was a closed or open system and, therefore, the extent to which personal identity was subsumed by group identity. Oh, and somewhere in all of this, there was the matter of getting enough income to pay bills, fix the tour bus, pay rent, buy food.

In this world of problems, if there is a problem for a reader, certainly one is to hold in mind is that at the time, the individual group members were relatively young and like many twenty-year-olds then and now, grappling with figuring stuff out. Another is to reconcile all that Piekut reveals about the tensions and conflicts of human relationships with the music that emerges. My listening again, in light of reading, was enriched and I ended up thinking that in general their music stands the test of time and remains as relevant as it did in the 1970s, not least given the current social and political climate in the UK.

There are two additions that would help a reader. First, an appendix listing the chronology of the band and when members joined, left, rejoined, and who played what and, second a discography.

Why would this book appeal to anyone had never heard of Henry Cow? Well, I think that anyone that is interested in the development of British underground or counter-cultural music through the late sixties and seventies will find this book fascinating. As will anyone that is interested in the working out of a musical response to prevailing sociopolitical circumstances. And, as much as anything, it provides universal insights into a group of people and managing complex relationships where, at times, it seems that what would help most would be a psychological understanding of intergroup processes.

The great appeal of the book for me, though, is that Henry Cow is one of a number of groups and musicians holding a formative place in my listening through the late 60s and into the 70s. Henry Cow were making music that then, as now, was alive with possibilities for experimentation, blurred idioms, improvisation, and creative conflict. Ah, creative conflict. Quite easily, Benjamin Piekut has produced an account that conjures up Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and, “I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in yourselves.” The attempt at collective music making that was Henry Cow, gave birth to many dancing stars.