The other evening in the wee hours, I heard News From Babel’s “Letters Home” (1985) for the first time in a few years. This is music that continually surprises, with melody that takes sudden turns and twists, alternately giddy, melancholy, hysterical, and politically strident. It’s an album I’ve heard dozens of times, and there’s always more to hear. The style is difficult to describe to someone who’s new to this whole area of music. What area of music, you ask? Again, a difficult question.
This record is one remarkable artifact from a distinct group of like-minded musicians that has assembled and disbanded in various configurations for about 40 years now. Those various groups, like Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Art Bears, Cassiber, Skeleton Crew, Naked City and Massacre, are too diverse to categorize, ranging from giddy, wry pop tunes, to ear-splitting maelstrom, to complex, variously dissonant and delightful orchestrations, laced with some of the most sensitive, intricate group improvisation that has yet occurred on Earth. The threads that link them are the distinctive voices of each of the players, and what I hear on this disc is shaped by my own ear’s history with this circulating cast of characters.
There are several guests on Letters Home: Robert Wyatt’s voice always moves me, in practically any context. Dagmar Krause and Sally Potter’s voices are, as ever, agile, lovely, fierce. Yes, a fierce album, for all its humor and bounce. This isn’t the disc to put on for the hot tub or the massage table.
The core of this particular group consists of Cutler (percussion), Lindsay Cooper (bassoon, sopranino and alto saxophone, piano, other keyboards), and Zeena Parkins (harp, prepared and electric harps, accordion, E-Bowed
guitar). Other guest artists: Bill Gilonis on bass & guitar, and Phil Minton, singing. As I understand it, Lindsay Cooper composed the score to Cutler’s poetic text, and she makes this peculiar instrumentation sound inevitable and essential.
Chris Cutler’s lyrics are shrewd, heated, and often silly, with political roots on the anticapitalist Left. (“I nailed a banknote…to a tree. But it did not…nourish me.”) Playful, angry. It’s not that Cutler is in any way the center of this continually transient, ever-persistent musical community,though. (He does run Recommended Records, a crucial outlet.) He’s a brilliant musician, an articulate voice, and happens to be my starting point here, because I pulled his book, “File Under Popular” off the shelf for the first time in a while. More on that in a later post. Get a copy and read it to prepare for my upcoming lecture.
If one thing ties together the many groups I’m putting under my leaky umbrella, it’s a sense of close listening, criticism, collaboration, and the creative tension of sharp, agile minds, each with their own idea of where things should go. Argumentative, respectful, thoughtful community, with various ensembles splitting, merging, collaborating, and performing together over the last 4 decades throughout Europe, the US, Japan, and diverse elsewheres. Ego, critical community, sure, but on the whole, this is the sound of smart, skillful fun. Play on the the highest possible level. Wish I was on that stage, too, was my feeling at many shows. What joy, when it all works.
In the best examples of this vast body of work, audible tensions are sauteed into formally graceful wholes, and Chris Cutler and his various musical allies have made dozens of works that reward repeated listening. There’s nothing else quite like it, and this area of music never took categorization all that well. You could find it filed under jazz, rock, post-rock, progressive, avant-garde, pop, experimental, “downtown”… None of these really work, though. It’s music that deliberately invites in the whole history of innovative composition and improvisation, from Weill and Eisler to Berg, Varese, Gesualdo. Ligeti, Hendrix, Messaien, Nino Rota, Roland Kirk,, and, oh, I don’t know, really. Henry Cowell, one might suspect.
All of this is audible here and there, but their main influences are, in the moment of playing, each other. You can hear them hearing and responding. I’m at a loss to describe Cutler’s intricate, staggered layers of rhythm, the hilarious fervency of some of these songs, the penetrating ache of others. Lindsay Cooper’s carefully honed, odd-shaped melodies.
These (broadly speaking again) are musicians who know music and strive to steer it into unfamiliar territory whenever possible. For the most part, they’ve evolved their work onstage, in settings where you’re allowed to have a beverage and don’t need to dress up too much. I heard Fred Frith’s First String Quartet premiere at the old Knitting Factory (NY), and the ensemble had to wait for a few drunk persons to quiet down before they could begin.
I don’t know, but I’m thinking that the persistence of this community must have a lot to do with the ties and loyalties formed over years in diverse living rooms and kitchens by Henry Cow and transient affiliates as they relentlessly toured Europe. Most of the people I’d put under my umbrella collaborated or consorted with the Cow in one way or another, even if they never “joined.” People who’ve lived together for a long time under pressure have a bond, and in a tour van that rarely stops for long, people get to know each other better than they’d like, perhaps.
I love this record, and it was the one that started me writing, but I like their first, Sirens and Silences, just as well. Both are included on a Compilation (from Recommended Records), and since it costs about the same as Letters Home alone, you might as well get them both in one. The download version will cost you even less (a lot less), if you can cope without the supporting materials. I might actually start you off with Henry Cow, the mother of much of this, if I were to prescribe a programme.
If this is your first visit to this broad area of music, Slapp Happy is also a delightful way in, with sophisticated pop songs that get both funnier and funnier, and darker, as you gradually catch all the lyrics on repeated listening. Shimmering voices, cutting voices. Again, if you’re ok with just the music, download Slapp Happy’s Casablanca Moon / Desperate Straights right here (another “double album”). Have fun.